When I was in seminary, I focused for my STM on the study of the Old Testament (OT). My thesis was on understanding the census numbers in the book of Numbers, so that they could be read as Christian Scripture (and not mere ‘history’).
Passages such as those are often ignored in preaching and catechesis, as they seem like good history (maybe), but not much else. My answer, after surveying all the possible English (and some German and French) arguments, was that scholars didn’t have an answer. No extant theory can be plausibly sustained: some got close, but all left interpretive lacunae. Nothing answered all the problems. I knew, at the time, that some sort of hermeneutical ‘paradigm shift’ was necessary. But I didn’t have one.
Going to the New Testament, I saw that, strangely, St Paul ignores the OT in his evangelism in Acts 17. In front of diaspora Jews, sure, there’s lots of OT history and Psalms. On the Areopagus, none. To these Gentiles it would have been irrelevant. Just like the census lists (alas). So, if an understanding of the OT is not necessary for salvation, what good is it? What, for the Christian, is the utility of the Old Testament?
Here’s where the paradigm started to shift: the Old Testament is mystagogy.
The Lord Christ tells us, in Luke 24, that the whole of the OT (summarized as Law, Prophets, and Psalms) is about Him. How can that be so? If we read it straightforwardly as history, as I’d been taught in good Calvinist, redemptive-historical fashion, then it is hard to see this, except to say that the OT gives us the necessary historical conditions for the appearance of the Messiah. The prophecies point forward, some of the more cryptic Psalms do as well, but once the set has been set, it is hard to see how to apply the OT to the Christian life. (As a side-note, I think this is why Theonomy/Christian Reconstruction became so popular amongst many Reformed in the late 80s through the early 2000s: it made the OT real). But this, truly, isn’t satisfying: Marcion could probably jive with such a reading of the OT, as it sets the proper evolutionary tone for its own vestigial obsolescence.
So, what? How is the OT mystagogical? If the OT historical background was so necessary, the Apostle would have started with at least a brief introduction. But he didn’t: he started (and finished) with Christ. The Messiah is the framework and substance of our salvation, not the history of Israel. However, as we can see from his letters, mostly written to those who were former Gentiles, the OT has a role yet to play, one that goes beyond history, without ever forgetting its historical truth. It is the witness, on every page, to Christ and His work. However, until we have been brought to Christ, and died with Him in baptism, we cannot even begin to read it that way. It will be so much history, some of which is hard for us moderns to swallow (kill every living human in Canaan?!). If it is pointing to Christ, that means it is also pointing to His Body, which means Mary, the Eucharist, and the Church. In other words, what the Fathers call the allegorical or symbolic level of interpretation, leading to the anagogical (in which we, like St Palamas, behold the heavenly glory of the incarnate Christ and are transfigured by Him).
The allegorical, which some are generally allergic to because of perceived Medieval abuse thereof, is strictly bounded. The touchstone, as in all things, is Christ. Hence the early regula fidei, which remind us of the essentials of faith (the purpose of which, may we remind ourselves, goes to Christification or theosis), and therefore call us to greater intimacy and knowledge of our Creator and Redeemer. St Paul lays is out in 1 Corinthians 10, where the OT stories of the Exodus and Wanderings (including, then, the census lists!) are shown to be typos, examples, for us “upon whom the completion of the ages has come” (v. 11). This completion, often unhelpfully translated ‘ends,’ is shown to be Christ Himself, gathering up everything in heaven and on earth to Himself (Eph. 1:10, cp. Dt. 30:3-4), so that the Father might be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). The OT, more than just mere history, can become what it was always supposed to be: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17), so that we might be “wise unto salvation by faith” as was St Timothy.
(Reflecting on this, here is why Jews have the advantage in Romans: while both Jew and Gentile come to Christ on equal terms — faith in the faithfulness of Christ — the Jews had been entrusted with the “oracles of God” (3:1-2) and so could grasp the mystagogical meaning of their Scriptures much more easily, especially if they were faithful in practice of the Torah, which would render them purified and ready for deeper revelation. Sts Athanasius, Cassian, and Gregory of Nazianzus all speak in this way about the necessity of purification before Scriptural interpretation, so I will refer the curious reader to them.)
What does this look like in practice?
Let’s take the theme of the Tabernacle/Temple as our (necessarily cursory) example: all sorts of legislation and historical narrative surround the planning, building, operation, and maintenance of the Hebrew cultus. Since Christ, of course, it is passing away and has become obsolete (Heb. 8:13). So what good does it do us, apart from antiquarian interest to study the purity regulations? As St Paul might say, much in every way. For, “the Word dwelt (lit. tabernacles) among us and we beheld His glory” (Jn. 1:14, so much could be said here, as this passage is pointing us right back to Ex. 40). The Word of God came among us as in the tabernacle. What does this tell us? First, it means that wherever the Word dwelt, there must be holiness, for the true God called for this over and over again, in fact, once the Temple had been hideously defiled, the glory left it, as shown in Ezekiel 8-10. What does this, then tell us about the Virgin Mary? First, she truly is Theotokos, for she has given birth to the tabernacling Word. Second, it is theologically necessary that she be holy, free from sin and defilement (some might say, how could she do this? “Hail! Mary, full of grace…”). More, of course, could be said. I refer the curious reader to the Fathers for more.
What does our (brief) look into the OT tell us about Jesus? The Temple was the site of cleansing (Lk. 8:43-48), of the forgiveness of sins (Mt. 9:4-6), of the manifestation of God’s uncreated glory (Mk. 9:2-7). Jesus, as the incarnate God-man, is the fullness of what the Temple was. To understand Him, we must look back through Him to the OT Temple. At one point, He says that the Jews could destroy this Temple and in three days He would raise it up, referring, as John tells us, “of the Temple of His Body” (2:21). St Paul remind us that we are His Body, the Church (Eph. 1:22-23, etc.), so all the OT language about the purity of the Tabernacle/Temple (1 Cor. 6) and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2, cp. Ex. 40 and 1 Chron. 5) are for, and about, our ascetic lives “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3).
The OT has everlasting value, then, as it speaks in a fullness about Christ that can only be brought out and experienced by the Church, the “pillar and ground of the Truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
Part 1: OT and History
One of the great difficulties attendant upon interpretation of the Old Testament is its ostensible status as history. Quickly, though, we find many problems in this, not least that ‘history’ and ‘historiography’ mean something different post-Enlightenment. We read, fundamentally and almost by necessity, the OT differently than it was intended. Argument abound, then, as to how much of the OT passes our modern canons of history, with predictable “liberal” and “conservative” results — neither actually giving much knowledge (again, predictable). Each side goes back and forth about the historical utility of, say, archaeology in determining whether or not some biblical event or another really happened, as if our interpretation of long-past events, whether found in strata of tells or lines of text, will give us an objective peek into this reality.
Part of the problem, possibly, is that we have confused literal meaning with historical accuracy (whatever that, in itself, might mean). To read the Bible literally (in this framework) means to read it as a telling of history, of “what really happened” at certain points in time. No doubt, the Scriptures do present history, a “what happened,” but to claim that they are objective, post-Enlightenment historiography is to miss the point. At the same time, to claim that since they come out of a certain nation’s collective experience and confirm their deeply held beliefs that the Scriptures must therefore be either relativistic or propagandistic, separated from any historical mooring, is also to miss the point. Both rely on a sense of history that the Bible, or her authors, seem to not be interested in.
Literal meaning, in the original sense of the term, has to do with the literary meaning: that is, how the story or narrative works. But, to fully get to that meaning, another context needs to be taken into account. St John Cassian, in the Conferences, details what Dante will later call the “Allegory of the Theologians” or the fourfold method of Scriptural interpretation: literal, symbolic/allegory, moral, and anagogical. The impression built, not necessarily by Cassian or others, is that this interpretive scheme function as a ladder, each rung leading (hopefully) to the next until theosis or the beatific vision is achieved. However, this would be to ignore the more circular, or helical, nature of this schema. All of the senses rely on the Spirit of God, on union with Christ, therefore all of this senses are liturgical and ecclesial: the Scriptures cannot be understood without participation in the life of the Church and her sacraments. Evidence for this can be found all over the Patristic writings, from Cassian to Athanasius to Augustine and so on. The context for the literal sense is the anagogical sense, in other words; the same for the moral and symbolic senses as well. They depend on each other, and more importantly, they depend on the “pillar and ground of the Truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) that is the Church, who has received the “Deposit” of Faith from the Apostles (2 Tim. 1:4).
This turns our attention, interpretively speaking, to the telos of the Scriptures, specifically of the Old Testament. Why do we have these books? What is the point? It is only when we grasp the ecclesially anagogical underpinnings of the texts, that is, their intended to be used in the life of the Church to bring people to theosis or the beatific vision, that the literal meaning can become clear. When our Lord Jesus says in Luke 24 that “everything must be fulfilled that is written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms,” He is grounding all Christian interpretation of the OT in the reality of Himself, which includes the Church and the Theotokos. All the Scriptures, in some way, shape, and form, point beyond themselves — at the literary level and most importantly at the historical level — to the Christ, the Logos of God the Father, for the salvation of the hearer and the reader alike. In seeing the literal and the historical meaning as iconic, instead of as straight forward post-Enlightenment narrative or history, these senses become clearer. First, they were not intended to bear the weight, historically speaking, that we have placed on them: the texts themselves are theological interpretation of the events “as they really happened.” We cannot, due to how history works, access the past in any sort of certain way — historiography always involves a certain amount of educated guesswork and reconstruction. Any history is a more or less tendentious and partial interpretation of events that are themselves enmeshed in an infinite number of contexts, all of which are necessary to grasp and ascertain for their full sense to objectively emerge. If we clear away our expectation of objective history being conveyed by the texts, many (but by no means all) of the discrepancies between “liberal/critical” and “conservative/fundamentalist” interpretations disappear.
Second on the list of of iconic corrections, the texts can be freed from the suffocating restraints that some versions of “inspiration” put on the Scriptures. We would do well to remind ourselves of what St Paul actually says about inspiration in II Timothy: “All Scripture is inspired and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.” Notably absent is utility towards scientific endeavors and ancient historiography. Could it be possible that, without losing the utility of the Scriptures to do exactly what Paul said they could do, the stories of Creation might be written in forms conducive to, not only the time in which they were composed, but also in a form that remains conducive to our salvation today, without necessarily being a point-by-point breakdown of “what really happened”? One objection that is often raised about this is that if Genesis 1-3 were written in a mytho-poetic style, then why didn’t God just write (or have written) propositions which we are supposed to believe, i.e. what we should learn about God from this narrative, the moral of the story as it were? To do so, though, is to mistake a certain understanding of what truth is for truth itself. As Alasdair MacIntyre, among many others, asserts, we are storied creatures. We generally do not learn by propositions, unless those propositions are themselves couched in a larger, sometimes hidden or subconscious, narrative. To reduce the Creation stories, whether in explication or in preaching, to a series of talking points and “lessons,” is to rob them of their power. Salvation is not composed of aphorisms, although as Proverbs shows, aphorisms do have their place. Rather, it is the indwelling of the story, in the life and sacraments of the Church, that fully mature the believer towards salvation.
Part 2: Literary Patterns and OT Iconicity
In Genesis 1, many commentators (most famously Meredith Kline) have noticed a literary pattern of forming and filling:
|Day 1: Creation of Light||Day 4: Creation of Luminaries (Sun, Moon, Stars)|
|Day 2: Division of Waters (Upper/Lower and Sky)||Day 5: Creation of Birds and Sea Creatures|
|Day 3: Division of Waters and Land (Creation of Vegetation)||Day 6: Creation of Land Creatures and Humans|
Day 1 is the forming of the habitat and conditions necessary for the creatures of Day 4 to exist and flourish (in this case, flourishing means the luminaries’ ability to “divide the day from the night and [to be] for signs and seasons, for days and years, and [to be] lights in the division of the skies to give light on the earth”). The same holds with Day 2 and Day 5, Day 3 and Day 6, respectively. The first three days are collectively formation, with the subsequent days filling, finished off with the Sabbath day of rest. By the seventh day, the earth is habitable and furnished, as it were, ready for the divine dwelling.
This pattern of forming-filling-dwelling is all over the Old Testament: Exodus 25-31 describe how the Tabernacle is to be formed, while 35-40 detail how it is completed and furnished, ending with the dwelling of the Lord in its courts (v. 34ff.). Joshua 1-13 describe the Conquest of Canaan (making it inhabitable for the Israelites) with 14-24 detailing the filling of that land. There is no dwelling narrative here, as the Tabernacle is among them. The pattern appears elsewhere in the Old Testament, but this is sufficient for now.
As we come to the New Testament, we quickly run into the concept of the “fulfillment” of not only Old Testament prophecy, but also the recapitulation of its narratives: the Israelites go to the wilderness for a period of 40 after passing through waters, are tested by the enemy, and fail. Jesus goes into the wilderness after baptism for a period of 40, is tested by the enemy, and succeeds (using the book of Deuteronomy no less!). He reverses the failures and problems of Old Testament history, bringing them to completion and perfection in Himself, so that the oikonomia of God through Abraham’s seed might be fulfilled. St Paul discusses this principle in 1 Corinthians 10, using the Rock in the Wilderness as his guide: “Now all these things [the whole OT history and institutions] happened to them as types, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (v. 11).
One of the famous problems with this sort of interpretation is that it can seem to have no boundaries, the well-known example being St Augustine’s interpretation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It has also seemingly led some modern interpreters to say that there is no real historical content to the OT stories themselves: if Adam or Abraham or David were just types, why do they need to have actually existed? They can be understood as myths or founding legends. Both of these, though, are false trails: the former since there is a very clear boundary that guides all such interpretation — the regula fidei, the rule of faith, that is the Life of Jesus Christ as found in the Gospels and Tradition of the Church (the Creeds being understood as horos, guide rails, of the Faith). Within those boundaries, though, there is plenty of room to breathe and pastorally apply the Scriptures (remembering that the point of the Bible is not information, but formation into Christ by the skilled hands of the Church’s “apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor/teachers” (Eph. 4:11)). The second trail is harder to deal with, and is beside my present point: we have not yet come to an understanding of history in modern biblical studies that corresponds to how the ancients understood the stories of the passage of their times (neither ‘objective’ nor ‘fictional’ as we understand myth): history is apocalyptic, showing the truth of, behind, and shot through reality, rather than a bare description of events (more on this later).
When reading the OT Christologically (or Christotelically), the forming-filling-dwelling pattern becomes helpful, and a possible way to minimize the dangers of the first problem listed above. The OT histories, narratives, persons, and institutions are the formation of salvation within history so that the Son of God might fill the whole world with His Presence and come to dwell among it. If the OT is the forming, that means that the whole of it can be “profitable for doctrine [teaching], for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16): it has been “breathed by God” for such a purpose, much like the Spirit indwelt the builders of the Tabernacle or the Spirit hovered over the waters of the primordial “welter and waste” (Gen. 1:2). This means that the New Testament (at least) is the filling, or furnishing, of this reality for the dwelling of the King. Here we see the construction of the Temple of God (1 Cor. 6:19 individually; Eph. 4:15-16 corporately, among many others), patterned out by the OT, filled by the Pascha of Christ, lived by the people of God: this will be finished when the Body reaches its terminus or telos: perfect love (1 Cor. 13:8-13, understanding the “perfect” of be God’s Love, poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit). We live, in other words, in the filling time, recapitulating in our own existence the filling of Christ of the OT forms: His Cross and death become ours in baptism, renewed in repentance, and completed in Eucharist. As we move forward into history (the progression of time from one moment to the next), we see that the linear feel it has is more complicated: all events resolve in the Cross of Golgotha, awaiting their full share in the Resurrection, which we only take part in via first fruits now.
This is only an opening salvo into reading the Old Testament as an icon.
Her iconic and mystagogical character allows us to take her seriously as she is – this identity in no way being separated from the Spirit or the Christ.