Category Archives: Scripture

Latest PC section up on Patreon

The latest section of Psalming Christ is up over on Patreon. I’m demonstrating what a close reading of the text looks like, informed by the methods assumed by Benedict and taught by Cassiodorus. It starts like this…

 

Cassiodorus, Benedict, and the anonymous Master are introducing their monks to a kind of reflective, ruminative reading of a text that occurs at the speed of memorization. That is, it is extremely slow and focuses on details of the text. Reading at this speed and level of attention is not something that modern people are used to—especially not those of us who have to take in large amounts of information every day. As a result, we have to relearn the skill of close reading: reading that pays attention to the grammatical and rhetorical features of a text and that pauses at points to ask questions and double-check our assumptions.

Let’s try a close reading of a psalm—one we know well—and start asking it some questions. Here is the beginning of Psalm 23, perhaps the best-known and best loved of them all:

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me. (Ps 23:1-4, NRSV)

Let’s notice a few things up front: first, this translation (like most of them) breaks the psalm into poetic lines. As we discussed before, lines are important sense-units in the psalms specifically because of parallelism; where the line begins and ends is an important part of the thought-structure because it helps us see which words and phrases and ideas are being put into parallel with one another. In the oldest surviving Hebrew manuscript of the psalms, the Great Psalms Scroll from Qumran, each verse is written out on its own line. While the scribe could have fit more words on each page if the words had been written continuously, the line breaks are deliberately retained precisely because they have meaning.

Second, this translation includes a gap between verses 3 and 4. Recognize this for what it is—an interpretive editorial insertion meant to tell us something about the text. That is, this silent decision on the part of the editors suggests that verses 1-3 and verse 4 belong together in a way that verses 3 and 4 don’t. An interpretive recommendation is being suggested by means of the white space. Is worth noting at this point how much leeway editors have in arranging a text. Most of the punctuation that we see in the Psalms is an editorial decision—it’s not in the original Hebrew.

Right up front, the first verse raises two basic questions. . . .

Read the whole post on Patreon.

New Liturgical Look Forward

This is the “Look, ma, no head!” version…

The technical tweak to this video is that I have not included any talking head shots. It occurred to me that it didn’t make sense to do a lot of editing work to overlay pictures of a presentation over top of talking head pictures—why not just record the presentation itself? So, that’s what I tried this week. Too, my digital strategist said that the video was “less cringey” this way.

Thus, without further ado, The Liturgical Look Forward for Proper 2:

PC: Biblical Scholarship, Patristic Reading, Scriptural Imagining

This is the second part of the discussion raised in the previous post


Here’s the problem: because there is a disconnect in the questions being asked, there’s going to be a disconnect in the answers that will be received. Modern communities of faith and people of faith are asking something like this: “How does this text reveal God to me?” or “What does God want me to do as a result of my reading of this text?” or “What is God’s claim on my life—beliefs, actions, thoughts and feelings—because of what I read in this verse or passage or book?”

Those are not the questions that modern biblical scholarship are asking. Rather, modern biblical scholarship asks something more like: “what did the authors and editors of this book or passage or verse think about God (or humanity or their environment, cultural or otherwise) and how did they communicate these thoughts through their writing and editing?”

I fully believe that the scientific study of the Scriptures can and should inform our understanding of the faith and how we practice it. We must listen to scholarship, even when it challenges treasured beliefs. But—we must use what scholarship tells us sensibly; we have to recognize that many of the questions we are asking as faithful believers are not going to be answered—at least not directly—in the discussions occurring within the guild of biblical scholarship. If we want to get the most out of it, we must ask modern scholarship the kinds of questions that it is designed to answer.

Cassiodorus, Benedict, and the Church Fathers are, in many ways, on our wavelength because they are asking the same kinds of questions that we are. They want to know what God is saying to them through this text.

Luke Timothy Johnson, a Roman Catholic biblical scholar, has compared the interpretive techniques and experiences of  patristic readers and modern biblical scholars as the difference between people who exist with in a lively city and archaeologists who excavate a dead one.

The problem with the patristic authors is that, while fully immersed in the lived experience, they failed to notice that changes caused by the shifts in time, culture, and accidents of translation had altered how the texts were read and understood. Elements from the readers’ everyday experience were too easily read back into the text: it’s not uncommon to see medieval depictions of the Last Supper as the First Eucharist where Jesus is wearing contemporary mass vestments, elevating a host over a chalice, or communing kneeling disciples just like a medieval parish priest.[1] A need to see all four gospels as non-contradictory narratives lead to some fancy contortions of the timeline for the sake of harmonization, requiring Jesus to cleanse the Temple twice—once at the beginning of his ministry (John 2:13-17) and at the end (Matthew 21:12-13|Mark 11:15-17|Luke 19:45-46). Equally problematic are the attempts to reconcile the two different genealogies of Jesus given in Matthew (1:1-17) and Luke (3:23-28).[2] Too, literary conventions and genre markers were lost in translation and over time; Jonah, a folktale-style short story with a theological point, and Daniel, an apocalyptic work of encouragement, were shelved as straight-forward prophetic history. In short, these readers lost the sense that there was a cultural and temporal gap between themselves and the text.

The problem with modern biblical scholars is that the engagement with the text because an investigation in an overly distant and dispassionate past. The gulf between the scholarly present and the biblical past becomes so great that only rigorous historical methodology can certify the accuracy of anything—and only things capable of historical certification are worth knowing. The search for seams in the text, layers of literary production, and establishing direct source materials can lead to the dissection of a text that, once opened and disembowled, has a difficult time functioning again as a living being.

What to do, then? What is the best direction in which to proceed?

Johnson recommends not the stark “either/or” that accepts patristic readings and rejects modern scholarly ones nor vice-versa. Instead, he recommends a “both/and” that functions by starting with a base question that both patristic piety and academic curiosity are eager to answer: “What is the world that Scripture imagines?” If the Scriptures are the written body of God’s self-revelation, what is the kind of world that Scriptures present before us—and invite us into?

Academic scholarship can help answer this question by filling in the ideas and intentions of the ancient authors. That is, scholarship can help us better understand the world that the biblical authors thought that they were communicating. With a better understanding of the religious traditions of the neighboring cultures and ancient literary conceits and signals, details that we either overlook or would normally misinterpret can pop into sudden focus and help us understanding how the biblical authors were trying to envision God, humanity, the world, and the relationship between them all.

Patristic readers can help us delve into the possibilities and potentials within the text when it is read in relation to the full arc of the Christian story. Too, they alert us to the ways that Christian habits, practices, and rituals have been seen within and influenced by readers of the biblical texts. The patristic authors—and especially the monastic authors—are focused not only on describing the world that Scripture imagines, but explaining how we can put it into action and participate within that world. Because that’s their true goal: not just imagining or comprehending a world that God desires, but inhabiting that world—acting and living and behaving within that world. This, after all, is the concept at the heart of the the fourth chapter of Benedict’s rule: The “tools of the spiritual craft” (RB 4.75) are a compilation of 74 injunctions, most taken directly from Scripture, about habits of body and mind that Benedict’s monks are expected to use “without ceasing day and night” as they toil in the workshop that is the monastery (RB 4.76,78). The goal is not just imagining what God hopes and dreams, but putting it into practice in order to draw our world closer to God’s fullest loving intentions for it.

 

[1] The 12th century French manuscript New York, Morgan Library
MS M 44, fol. 6v, the 15th century Chantilly, Musee Conde
MS DB 65, fol. 189v, and Fra Anglica’s “Instituion of the Eucharist” all depict these elements. For a more detailed study of these and more images see Margaret Duffy, “Corpus Christi—Last Supper vs. Institution of the Eucharist” online: http://imaginemdei.blogspot.com/2011/06/corpus-christi-last-supper-vs.html.

[2] Augustine’s Harmony of the Gospels is one of the most comprehensive and influential attempts to explain the many differences between the four gospels without overt contradiction.

For Fear of Fundamentalists

There is a piece from Newsweek on the accuracy of Scripture that is making the rounds. I’ll not link to it here because it needs a bit of prefacing.

It’s quite inaccurate. As I commented on a Facebook link to it, “I find this a very biased article full of mischaracterizations and rhetorically augmented half-truths. And as a biblical scholar who’s focused on interpretation in Late Antiquity and the Early Medieval period, I do know what I’m talking about.”

But here’s the problem—there are a lot of people in our churches who don’t have the benefit of the background, education, and research that I do. Furthermore, the article positions itself within an increasingly common and dangerous rhetorical dichotomy. That is, it starts off by portraying a stereotype of malicious and fraudulent Conservative Evangelicals (who are also political opponents) as people who take Scripture literally. What follows, then, is a take-down of Scripture performed as a strategy to undercut these political enemies.  The problem is that Christians who see themselves as neither Conservatives nor Evangelicals find themselves in the position of agreeing with the article because they know they are not the sort of Christians who do what those other people do.

It’s a totally false dichotomy: don’t fall for it.

I’m not a Conservative Evangelical, myself. My primary issue with them is not the base text they use (the Scriptures) but rather bad interpretive choices that are internally inconsistent and unmoored from the historical bases of the Scriptural text and the community norms by which the Church has read and wrestled with the text through the centuries. That’s what deserves a take-down, not the Scriptures.

In the author’s opposition to Conservative Evangelicals, however, a series of half-truths and falsehoods are liberally sprinkled about in such away that non-Conservative Evangelicals who have not been taught Church History can easily be swayed by them.

I do not have to time to conduct a point-by-point refutation—which I realize is kind of a shame because it desperately needs one. What I can do, though, is offer is a few basic guiding points that must be remembered when people spout off about Church History and the Scriptures:

  • The Church is an organic body that connects from the first followers of Jesus—the disciples and apostles—to the present day. Yes, there has been some drift across the centuries, but the organic continuity here of the Church catholic and orthodox is an important touchstone through time.
  • The Church existed before “the Bible” did. It was a community formed around the experience of God-in-our-midst: the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the empowering of the community by the Spirit. Yes, they relied on the Bible—the Hebrew Scriptures typically encountered through the Greek Septuagint—but understood certain parts of that message to be superseded or clarified by what they had and were experiencing.
  • The Church produced the New Testament. Not the other way around.
  • Our methods for dating the books of the New Testament suck. Hard. There is little internal or external evidence to go on meaning that many of the dates you commonly see are well-established supposition.
    • There is external evidence putting Paul’s writings in the neighborhood of 51 AD. The slight differences between the Little Apocalypses in the Synoptic Gospels are used for dating them based on the assumption that they are not recording the actual words of Jesus but, instead, are narrating how the Roman advance on the Temple in 70 AD is going. Hence, Mark (the demonstrably earliest of the canonical Synoptics) is usually pegged at 70 (before the actual fall) and Matthew/Luke are after 70 (after the destruction).
  • However, Paul’s letters argue very strongly against the philosophical construct that anything with a High Christology (i.e., John, Hebrews) must be late and written at some point in the second century.
  • Quotations from the Apostolic Fathers—some of whom we can date internally and externally—make it far more likely that all of the books of the New Testament were written within the first century.
  •  By the year 200, there was general consensus across the Mediterranean Christian world that the Church recognized the four canonical gospels (and only these), the letters of Paul, and most of the General Epistles. Some books like Hebrews, James, Revelation, and 2-3 John would continue to be argued over into the fourth century.
  • Irenaeus, writing in the 160-70 range, who tells us that he saw Polycarp (not clear if Irenaeus learned from Polycarp or not…) whose teacher was John (i.e., Irenaeus was just one step away from the apostles) clarifies that the faith of the Church is built on three things: the canon (reading the books in church that the Church agrees on), the creed (the basic rule of faith by which and in accordance with the canon is read), and the apostolic succession (the organic continuity of teachers who know what the hell they’re talking about because they heard it from people who went back to the apostles).
    • canon: “Now, that the preaching of the apostles, the authoritative teaching of the Lord, the announcements of the prophets, the dictated utterances of the apostles, and the ministration of the law— all of which praise one and the same Being, the God and Father of all, and not many diverse beings, nor one deriving his substance from different gods or powers, but [declare] that all things [were formed] by one and the same Father (who nevertheless adapts [His works] to the natures and tendencies of the materials dealt with), things visible and invisible, and, in short, all things that have been made [were created] neither by angels, nor by any other power, but by God alone, the Father— are all in harmony with our statements, has, I think, been sufficiently proved, while by these weighty arguments it has been shown that there is but one God, the Maker of all things.” Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. II.35.4. (He was arguing against folks who thought there were multiple gods; chiefly that the OT god was an evil demiurge…)
    • creed: “The Church, though dispersed through out the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father to gather all things in one, [Ephesians 1:10] and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess [Philippians 2:10-11] to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send spiritual wickednesses, [Ephesians 6:12] and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.” Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. I.10.1.
    • apostolic succession: “The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome dispatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles, proclaiming the one God, omnipotent, the Maker of heaven and earth, the Creator of man, who brought on the deluge, and called Abraham, who led the people from the land of Egypt, spoke with Moses, set forth the law, sent the prophets, and who has prepared fire for the devil and his angels. From this document, whosoever chooses to do so, may learn that He, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, was preached by the Churches, and may also understand the tradition of the Church, since this Epistle is of older date than these men who are now propagating falsehood, and who conjure into existence another god beyond the Creator and the Maker of all existing things. To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Soter having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.” Irenaeus, Adv. Haer III.3.3.
  • If you bothered to read that middle one it’ll be painfully clear that the notion that Constantine “created” the idea of Jesus as God is total BS as Irenaeus was writing this 150 or so years before the first Ecumenical Council.
  • Ditto on the notion that Constantine “created” the New Testament canon. Constantine did order 50 nice copies of the Scriptures to be made, but this neither created nor closed discussion on the content and order of the New Testament canon.
  • On the “errors” in the transmission of Scripture, yes, there are lots and lots of scribal errors. But most of them are errors like substituting “me” where it ought to be “I”—i.e., minor grammatical errors. Substantive content errors, not so much. We know this, because dozens of German scholars dedicated their scholarly lives to matching up thousands of fragments and manuscripts in order to see where the differences between them all were and it is from these that we get a critical eclectic text from which our modern Bibles are translated. So, yes, many scribes messed up, but since they all don’t mess up in the same way, we can compare the hundreds of ancient witnesses and figure out what the text ought to have been.
  • Similarly while some gleefully point out that the Trinitarian addition in 1 John is a  late addition to the text and extrapolate that to say that all such Trinitarian additions must be equally late totally gloss the fact that Matthew’s ending (Matthew 28:19: “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”) is thoroughly Trinitarian and is lacking in no textual witnesses.

In short, a living organic body—the Church—produced the New Testament, established agreements on how it ought to be read, and passed that knowledge along through teachers. Once the relatively disconnected Christian communities could openly talk together and gather after Constantine’s legalization of the faith, they did get together and Constantine had a vested interest in unity. However, that does not mean that he created or thought up the unity. The idea of the Trinity is found in the Scriptures; and early Christians talked about Jesus as God a long time before Constantine. Yes, the Bible was hand-copied, but that does not mean that its text—especially as reconstructed by scholars working with massive amounts of evidence—is corrupt and unreliable for the teaching and purposes of the Church.

Please—learn your Christian history and biblical basics from somewhere other than Newsweek!!

(And if you absolutely must, here’s the offending article…)

 

Tu Es Petrus

With yesterday’s feast of the Confession of St. Peter and the Gospel reading appointed for it (Matthew 16:13-19), I’m reminded of one of my pet peeves on the interpretation of said passage. Correcting this interpretation seems particularly appropriate at the given moment.

Here’s what Jesus says in part: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

The issue is with the last part.

The way I see this passage typically read is through the lens of a fortress mentality. That is, we have to hold the line with the church, we have to crouch behind some kind of doctrinal bulwark in order to not be overcome by the devil and his minions. Usually some kind of infallibility is invoked here—whether papal or biblical—to assert that only within this circumscribed space can we be spiritually safe.

This is a complete failure to correctly interpret the metaphor.

Yes, Simon Bar Jonah receives the name Kephas (in Aramaic), Petros (in Greek), or Rocky (in English.) And he is a central foundation upon which the Church is built. However, even though a rock is an excellent place to build a fortress, a defensive structure, that’s not the point. Jesus does not inform Peter and us that the gates of the Church will thereby be safe—because they’ve got a great defensive setup. Rather he informs them that the gates of Hades will not prevail against them.

The Church here is not defensive; it is offensive. This isn’t about sheltering within the Church to stay safe. It’s about having a firm foundation from which to sally forth and conquer Hell.

We as the Church are called to be on the offense against “all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God . . . the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God . . . the sinful desires that draw us from the love of God.” This is the calling of Baptism. To be sure, this is an offensive characterized by the virtues of Christ—humility, love, and compassion—but holding firm to truth and justice and conviction nonetheless.

The calling of the Church is to conquer, not to cower.

On Going Forward

I’m going to briefly interrupt the Tour de Cassiodorus to share some thoughts that have been rattling around in my head since the election.

I start with words from quite possibly my favorite (brown-skinned, Jewish) woman leader of all time:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.

This is not a call to meekness nor acceptance. This is a call to join a revolutionary movement. The revolutionary leader is God.

Perhaps the most important sermon of Jesus recorded in the Gospels is that called the Beatitudes. We have two versions of it, one in Matthew, one in Luke. If you compare the two, you’ll quickly notice that there are some slight but important differences between the two. Furthermore, you’ll notice that there are profound, striking, and important relationships between the version of Jesus’ words found in Luke and these words from his mother from the first chapter. The thoughts and concepts expressed here by Mary are deeply interrelated with who God reveals himself to be in Jesus and his vision for our world.

Liturgically, these words are part of a canticle that the Church has historically sung every single night in the Office of Vespers. I try to sing it most nights too. We don’t repeat it because we don’t have any other words to say—we say it because it is important. It reminds us in a few words of what God’s vision for the world is.

Reconciliation is a very important word to us Episcopalians. We use it a lot. One of the reasons is because it is a scriptural word that relates deeply to what we are called to do: 2 Corinthians 5:18 informs us that we have been given “the ministry of reconciliation.”

In recent days I have seen many Christians—many Episcopalians, including some bishops I know—who have called us to be ministers of reconciliation in a deeply divided nation. We must heal and reconcile.

But what is it that we are being called to reconcile? What is the ground of our reconciliation? 2 Corinthians 5:16-20 is continuing a thought that begins with Baptism. The reconciliation talk comes in at that point: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:18-20).

In this ministry of reconciliation we are not being called to be nice or pleasant or to smooth things over with those who disagree with us. We are called to work on the reconciliation of humanity with God, and God’s vision of the world that he created: A vision of the world laid out by Mary in her Song and ratified by Christ Jesus in his sermon.

This is a vision that puts the poor, the people at the margins, the “alien in your midst,” the ones who have lost their political protection as the central figures for our care and concern. It is not interested in catering to the rich, the proud, the haughty. If we are exhorting the Christian faithful to be healers and reconcilers, than we need to be clear that we need healing from a host of sins and to be working to reconcile the people and society around us to the vision of the world that God intends. This is the call of the Gospel on us.

If we can bring together people who disagree and be nice to them, sure—that’s great too. But that’s not the ministry of reconciliation to which Scripture or Mary call us.

On John Cassian’s Method of Reading Scripture

I’m jumping around quite a bit in the Cassiodorus books as I write them… This is a section of what I believe is going to be Chapter 3. Basically, in Chapter 3, I’m going to be diving directly into Cassiodorus’s great Psalm commentary and discussing what he thought a commentary was for, our stereotypical view of allegorical interpretation  (based largely in the High Medieval period with extra fuel on the fire a la De Lubac), and then an investigation of how Cassiodorus actually read, focusing on methods from Classical Antiquity, Augustine, and John Cassian. Here’s the Cassian bit… So, yes, it starts in the middle of a larger argument that isn;t conclude here either, but I think is sufficiently robust to stand on its own as well.


John Cassian’s Conferences are a strange and wonderful collection of conversations. The story goes that John Cassian and his friend Germanus, after spending some time in a monastery in Bethlehem, took the theological equivalent of a Gap Year trek and set off to see the sites—in the Egyptian deserts. They hiked around the wastelands of Northern Egypt, meeting and interviewing the famous hermits of the desert and gaining wisdom from them about the spiritual life. Many years later—probably in the opening decades of the fifth century—after founding two monasteries around modern day Marseilles, Cassian wrote down the conversation as the Conferences and, in so doing, created the first great work on the nuts and bolts of Christian spirituality in the West.

Translating and transmitting a spirituality born of experience in the desert, rooted in the teachings of Origen, Cassian’s writings were invaluable to the emerging monastic movement in the West. Benedict praises him, and advises his monks to read Cassian (RB 73.5). As monastic reformations periodically swept through the Church in the course of the Middle Ages, John Cassian’s books in general and the Conferences in particular are cited again and again with approval.

John Cassian’s fourteenth conference portrays a conversation between Cassian, Germanus, and an old man known as Abba Nesteros which is focused on the topic of spiritual knowledge. As they delve into the topic, Abba Nesteros begins talking about the ways to interpret and understand the Scriptures. First, he separates spirituality in general into two parts. The words that he uses are the “practical” and the “theoretical,” but it’s better to say that one part is the active external part while the other is the internal meditative part. That is, the central task of the active/practical part is the control of the body and mind—built on a foundation of fasting and self-mortification—whereby one focuses on sinning less. Once that has task has been fully engaged and some progress has been made will the turn to the interior life bear fruit. This is where he gets to the Scriptures.

Abba Nesteros explains that the study of Scripture is divided into two main parts: “historical interpretation and spiritual understanding.” In making this division, he lays down the two major modes of interpreting that writers of the early medieval period will prefer. He splits the spiritual interpretations into three subcategories: tropology, allegory, and anagogy. After identifying these, he explains them a bit. The historical sense is not just about the past but includes what we would consider the literal meaning of the text. In particular, the Abba says that history pertains both to things that happened in the past and to visible things. Hence, an interpretation relating to natural science would be an historical reading in the sense of the phrase “natural history.” Allegory is the mystery that is prefigured by the historical/literal events. Said another way, allegory is the means “by which the things that the historical interpretation conceals are laid bare by a spiritual understanding and explanation.” Anagogy “mounts from spiritual mysteries to certain more sublime and sacred heavenly secrets.” This is restated a little better to clarify that it is the means “by which words are directed to the invisible and what lies in the future.” Tropology, at least, is more clear: “moral explanation pertaining to correction of life and to practical instruction.” More helpful than his definitions, though is his example where he demonstrates what these four look like in practice:

The four figures that have been mentioned converge in such a way that, if we want, one and the same Jerusalem can be understood in a fourfold manner. According to history it is the city of the Jews. According to allegory it is the church of Christ. According to anagogy it is that heavenly city of God ‘which is the mother of us all.’ According to tropology it is the soul of the human being, which under this name is frequently reproached or praised by the Lord.

While a theoretical distinction is made between these four senses, as far as early medieval writers are concerned, there are two broad sense: the historical and the spiritual. Only rarely will an early medieval author specify what kind of spiritual interpretation they are using and, in practice, the categories are very fluid. Indeed the fact that only three kinds of spiritual understanding are described seems to have more to do with scriptural prooftexts than actual practice. Abba Nesteros cites two different biblical texts, one which refers to three things, Proverbs 22:20 (”…have I not written for you [three] sayings of admonition and knowledge…”), and one that refers to four, 1 Corinthians 14:6 (”…if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I speak to you in some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching…”). In each case, you get the sense that the numbers recorded in Scripture are driving the enumeration of elements rather than the methods themselves. In practice, there are many more modes of spiritual interpretation than three, and not all of them are clearly defined or delineated. We will come back to this point a little later as we discuss how we actually see spiritual interpretation happening in Cassiodorus and other authors.

Modern readers—and especially biblical scholars looking for the history of the discipline—tend to focus in on this section of this conference. However, this is just one part of a larger argument, and it deserves to be put into the proper context. Again, this whole conference begins with the idea that first step of proper interpretatin is the purification of the body, mind, and spirit. The undisciplined who persists in their sin simply cannot read the Scriptures rightly—they don’t yet have the right frame of mind to read what is found there. As a result, after talking interpretive method, Abba Nesteros returns to hammer this point again:

Maintaining the diligence in reading that I think you have, then, make every effort to get a complete grasp of practical—that is, ethical—discipline as soon as possible. For without this the theoretical purity that we have spoken of cannot be acquired. The only people who attain to it, possessing it as a reward after the expenditure of much toil and labor, are those who have found perfection not in the words of other teachers but in the virtuousness of their own acts.

This is a key point and leads to an emphasis on doing rather than teaching. Scripture must be put into practice; any one who wishes to teach it must first demonstrate with their actions their deep grasp of its teachings. Knowing with the mind is not enough; no one should presume to teach Scripture until its truths have been—literally—embodied in their habits and actions. Abba Nesteros explains that this is essential for two reasons. First, because you cannot presume to teach what you do not know and knowledge only comes by putting it in action. Second, because putting the teaching of Scripture into action is itself a sign of the converting presence of the Holy Spirit—the true guide to right reading and interpretation: “For it is one thing to speak with ease and beauty and another to enter deeply into heavenly sayings and to contemplate profound and hidden mysteries with the most pure eye of the heart, because certainly neither human teaching nor worldly learning but only purity of mind will possess this, through the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.”

Humility and the other virtues, then, are the central prerequisites to reading Scripture well. From that point, Abba Nesteros describes the proper practice of engaging Scripture. While he had talked about technical matters of interpretation in the earlier part of the dialogue, he now turns to what this looks like in day-to-day experience:

Then, once all worldly cares and preoccupations have been cast out, you must strive in every respect to give yourself assiduously and even constantly to sacred reading. Do this until continual meditation fills your mind and as it were forms it in its likeness, making it a kind of ark of the covenant . . . All of these are guarded by two cherubim—that is, by the fullness of historical and spiritual knowledge, for the cherubim are interpreted as the breadth of knowledge. . . . Hence the successive books of Holy Scripture must be diligently committed to memory and ceaselessly reviewed. This continual meditation will bestow on us double fruit. First, inasmuch as the mind’s attention in occupied with reading and with preparing to read, it cannot be taken captive in the entrapments of harmful thoughts. Then, the things that we have not been able to understand because our mind was busy at the time, things that we have gone through repeatedly and are laboring to memorize, we shall see more clearly afterward when we are free from every seductive deed and sight, and especially when we are silently meditating at night. Thus, while we are at rest and as it were immersed in the stupor of sleep, there will be revealed an understanding of hidden meanings that we did not grasp even slightly when we were awake. But as our mind is increasingly renewed by this study, the face of Scripture will also begin to be renewed, and the beauty of a more sacred understanding will somehow grow with the person who is making progress.

In this set of statements, Abba Nesteros speaking to us through John Cassian reveals the incredible profoundity that we encounter again and again in the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers: they have a remarkable grasp of the habits of the mind, displayed here in the discussion of the processing power of the subconscious mind, that seems amazingly modern—yet is centuries old. In the spiritual laboratory of the desert, these hermits and anchorites observed and taught about the power of habit and the functions of the conscious and subconscious mind in ways that would not be replicated again until the rise of psychology in the twentieth century.

The pattern, then, is clear: memorize and rehearse. Soak the soul in Scripture, and Scripture itself would transform the soul to be more like Scripture. In so doing, the soul’s perception of Scripture will be transformed and freed to perceive more and deeper meanings within Scripture.

 

Lectionary commentary podcasts?

For whatever reason, my wife and I were discussing lectionary-based podcasts over the weekend. Naturally, my St Bede Psalmcast is a podcast connected to the Revised Common Lectionary, but clearly isn’t an exposition of the readings in any sort of depth; I touch on the “main” readings only so far as I need to to talk about the psalm.

Here’s the question that came up when we were talking, though: what sort of podcast resources are out there for Episcopal preachers?

The only one that she listens to is the Working Preacher podcast. It has a Lutheran perspective and comes from Luther Seminary. We have a soft-spot for this one because one of the hosts, Dr. Karoline Lewis, was one of my colleagues in my PhD program (and was one of the TAs in my first New Testament course in seminary!)

What else is out there? What do you listen to—or would you listen to if it existed?