Orthodox America

  How to Read the Holy Scriptures

From a lecture delivered by Hieromonk Seraphim Rose  at the 1979 St. Herman Pilgrimage, Platina, CA; 
concluded from
[issue 86]

 Literal vs. Non-literal  

            Once we were visited by some Protestants who told us that they interpreted the Bible absolutely literally.  I asked them about the passage, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you (John 6:53).  And the first thing they said was, “Well, that is not literal.”  Immediately they contradicted themselves.  They think that they accept everything literally, but they make excuses for not accepting literally those passages which do not agree with their beliefs.

            Many passages in Scripture can only by understood in the context of dogmatic teaching – which a person receives either from other scriptures or from some other source, either from the authority of the Church or the private opinions of some particular teacher.  Some Seventh-Day Adventists, commenting on the Lord’s promise to the wise thief, Verily I say unto thee, today thou shalt be with Me in Paradise (Luke 23:43), claim that it is mispunctuated, that it should read:  Verily, I say unto thee today, thou shalt…, because they believe that when a person dies his soul goes to sleep, and therefore the thief could not be with Christ in Paradise today.  Here is an example of changing the meaning of Scripture to conform with one’s beliefs.  And because their dogmatic teaching is wrong on this subject, their interpretation of Scripture is also wrong.

            There are many such seeming problems which can be seen if one looks at separate verses of Scripture.  Some Protestants argue for hours, even years, over such questions.  It is important for us not to get bogged down in such problems.  We must understand the principles of correctly interpreting Scripture.  About this St. John Chrysostom writes in his homily in Philippians:

            “One must not simply seize the words of Scripture and tear them out of their connection and context.  One must not take bare words, depriving them of support from what precedes and what follows in order then simply to ridicule and make clever tricks.  For if in criminal trials, where we examine worldly matters, we set forth everything which serves for justification – the place and time, the causes, the persons and much else – would it not be absurd when we have before us the struggle for eternal life to quote the words of Scripture simply, just as they occur.”

            This is precisely what many Protestants do; not having the whole context, not having the whole, reasoned theological dogma, they quote the Scriptures just as they occur:  “It’s obvious that’s what it means.”  But Scripture must be placed in context, in the complete picture both of the book in which they occur, in the rest of Holy Scripture, and in the whole teaching of Christ as handed down in His Church.

 A difficult question concerns what in Holy Scripture is to be interpreted literally and what is not to be interpreted literally.  We cannot answer this question by “common sense” because this only causes new sects to arise.  St. Simeon the New Theologian, the great Orthodox Father of the 11th century, explains this in concise form:

“Christ the Master of all daily teaches us through the Holy Gospel, where some things He speaks in a hidden way so that not many might understand, when He speaks in parables.  And some of these things He later explains alone to his disciples, saying:  Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, but to the rest in parables (Luke 8:10).  But other things He speaks plainly, clearly to everyone, as the Apostle said to him, Lo, now speakest Thou plainly and speakest no parable (John 16:29)… Therefore it is our duty to investigate and find out in which words the Lord taught plainly and clearly, and in which He taught in a hidden manner and in parables.”

St. Simeon gives examples of when our Lord speaks plainly.  For instance, Love your enemies (Matt. 5:44).  We are to understand that literally.  Or again, in the Beatitudes:  Blessed are they that weep for they shall laugh, etc.  We must understand this as it is written; now is a time for weeping.  And again, Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand (Matt. 3:2); or He that loveth his own soul will lose it (John 3:25); or If any would follow Me, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow Me (Matt. 16:24).

Some of these things are very hard to do.  And some are even quite difficult for our worldly minds to grasp.  But, with knowledge of the Kingdom of Heaven and the spiritual life, they become clear and they are interpreted literally, even though sometimes also by the use of metaphors.

As examples of parables, St. Simeon speaks of faith being like a mustard seed (Luke 13), or of the Kingdom of Heaven being like the pearl of great price (Matt. 13:45) or leaven (Matt. 13:33).  St. Simeon continues:

“Therefore, reflect, I beg you, on how great is God’s wisdom, that by means of such sensuous examples, which seem to us to be lowly, He depicts for us and like an artist sketches out in our mind that which is unthinkable and unapproachable.  He does this so that unbelievers might remain blind, deprived of knowledge of those good things of heaven, since they have become unworthy of this by reason of unbelief.  But believers, on the other hand, hearing and receiving with faith the word of the parable, might see the truth and clearly know the reality in the things which are shown by the parables, for parables are the images of spiritual things.”  (Homily 53)

St. Simeon teaches that the epistles of the apostles also contain many hidden things, in addition to the things which are said plainly.


Closely related to the literal vs. the mystical meaning of texts are cases in which a particular text has many meanings, where material objects are spoken of in order to raise our minds to spiritual realities.  This is not to say that we should deliberately search the Scriptures for symbols, as if whatever is said means something else; rather, it is a matter of raising ourselves to a spiritual level where we can begin to understand the spiritual reality about which the inspired writers often speak.  Thus, when David says, Thou has broken my bonds asunder (Ps. 115), he is not merely speaking of physical bonds and using this as a symbol of deliverance from corruption and death.  This is the mystical meaning.  But he is not using this worldly image of “bonds” in order only to express the mystical meaning, the lack of corruption or immortality; he is also speaking at the same time on a second level of meaning, using the physical image as an opportunity to express the spiritual truth of deliverance from corruption.  If we already know the Christian teaching of Adam’s fall, the corruption of the world, and our redemption by Jesus Christ, and if we are struggling to raise ourselves to this spiritual level, we do not need a commentary to explain the words; that is, the Holy Fathers will help us, but we don’t need a commentary to tell us that “x=y.”  The words themselves express the spiritual meaning.  Anyone who reads and prays with the psalms has experienced this.  Especially in times of sorrow, the words of psalms acquire a new and deeper meaning; we find that physical things refer to our own sorrows and dejection and our need to receive deliverance from Christ.

The Orthodox services are full of this same kind of language, which we call sacred poetry.  The key to understanding this poetry is the leading of a spiritual life, which is what Scripture speaks about.

In a word, the understanding of Scripture requires God’s grace.  St. Simeon the New Theologian gives an excellent image of this:

“Spiritual knowledge is like a house built in the midst of Greek and worldly wisdom, in which house, like a tightly locked trunk, there is the knowledge of the divine Scriptures, and the unutterable treasure hidden in this knowledge of the Scriptures, that is, Divine grace.  Those who enter this house cannot see this treasure if the trunk is not opened for them, but this trunk cannot be opened by any human wisdom.  This is why people who think in a worldly way do not know the spiritual treasure which lies in the trunk of spiritual knowledge, And just as someone who lifts this trunk on his shoulders cannot by this alone see the treasure which is inside, so also even if someone were to read and learn by heart the divine Scriptures, and could read them all like a single psalm, he cannot by this alone acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit, which is hidden in them.  For just as what is hidden in the trunk cannot be revealed by the trunk itself, so also what is concealed in the divine Scriptures cannot be revealed by the Scriptures themselves.” (Homily 39)

This is a very interesting passage; is shows that the Protestants are clearly wrong – for Scripture itself does not reveal the meaning of Scripture.  Rather, it is revealed by God’s grace.  St. Simeon continues:

“When God comes to dwell in us and reveals Himself to us consciously, then we awaken to knowledge, i.e., we understand in reality those mysteries which are concealed in the divine Scriptures.  But it is impossible to attain this in any other way.  Those who do not know what I have spoken about and have not experienced it in reality have not yet tasted of the sweetness of the immortal life which the divine words have, and they boast only of their knowledge; they place the hope for their salvation on the knowledge of the divine Scripture alone and in the fact that they know it by heart.  Such ones, after death, will be judged more than those who have not heard the Scripture at all.  Especially do those who have gone astray in ignorance corrupt the meaning of divine Scripture and interpret it according to their lusts.  For them the power of divine Scripture is inaccessible…One who has the whole of Divine Scripture on his lips cannot understand and attain to the mystical divine glory and power concealed in it if he will not fulfill the commandments of God and be vouchsafed to receive the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who might open to him the words of Divine Scripture as a book, and show him the mystical glory which is within them and might at the same time show the power and glory of God; which good things are concealed in them, together with eternal life overflowing with those good things.  But these things are concealed and unknown to all those who are careless disdainers of God’s commandments.”


Thus, in order to read and understand the Scriptures we must be leading a life according to the commandments, receiving the grace of the Holy Spirit, even as the authors of the sacred books were doing.  And we must be eager and zealous in our reading.  St. John Damascene, the great Orthodox Father of the 8th century, who summed up the teaching of the earlier Fathers in his book, On the Orthodox Faith, says, “Let us not knock casually, but with eagerness and persistence, and let us not lose heart while knocking, for so it will be opened to us.  If we should read once and then a second time and still not understand what we are reading, let us not be discouraged.  Rather, let us persist, let us reflect and inquire, for it is written:  Ask thy father and he will declare it to thee, thy elders and they will tell it thee (Deut. 32:7).  For not all have knowledge.  From the fountain of paradise let us draw ever flowing and most pure waters springing up into life everlasting; let us revel in them; let us revel greedily in them to satiety, for they contain the grace which cannot be exhausted.”

Another important point in approaching Scriptures is that we should approach them with humility, i.e., we should not expect to read just once and immediately “understand”; we should not expect to read and use our common sense and think that we really understand; but we should have a very humble idea that there is probably a great deal that we missed, even in the most seemingly “obvious” passages.  We must have this basic humility because the underlying cause of all these Protestant sects, which are based on different interpretations of Scriptures, is precisely pride.  They read and they think, “I understand what it says.”  And that is wrong.  When we read the Scriptures we must think to ourselves:  “I understand a little, my fathers have taught me, I’ve read commentaries and heard sermons in church, and my understanding is in accordance with what I’ve been taught by Church Tradition; but still, I don’t trust entirely that I know what I means.”  We cannot simply take the first idea that comes into our minds – or even the second or third idea; we must go deeper and see what the Fathers teach us, what the Church teaches us, how this fits in with other books of the Bible, always thinking that our knowledge of Scripture – no matter how much we know – is always deficient; we never know enough; we must always be willing to learn more.


Blessed to me is the law of thy mouth

                                                (Ps. 118:72)

There is sweetness in the Holy Writ.  It is like a letter from a king, it is a consolation, a thing to be admired, reread, discussed:  it is like the joy of a son away from his father – and even more than that – for in the word of God we find God as our Father… --St. Tikhon of Zadonsk