Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Basil of Caesarea: Some Wisdom on Interpreting the Bible

In the early centuries of the Christian church, a debate—a division really—arose between the theological center at Antioch in Syria and the theological center at Alexandria in northern Egypt. The Antiochene school taught that pastors, teachers, and Christians at-large should take a substantially literal approach to the interpretation of Scripture, for they argued that Bible mainly means what it seems to mean. They allowed for spiritual and metaphorical meanings, and they acknowledged that there are various genres within the Scripture, but they insisted that these meanings are rooted in, and constrained by, the literal meaning.

The Alexandrian school, following the Jewish Philosopher Philo, taught that there are four levels of meaning to Scripture: the literal meaning, the allegorical meaning, the tropological (ethical) meaning, and the anagogical or eschatological (end times) meaning. While some in the Alexandrian school were well intentioned and had a genuine love for Jesus, their method of interpretation often led them on such flights of fancy that it’s hard to understand precisely what they believed and who they loved. Were they pursuing the true Jesus, or were they using vain philosophies to construct an idol that they called Jesus? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

Basil of Caesarea (330-379) firmly aligned himself with Antioch. He argued that the desire to find fanciful meanings in the Scripture was the fruit of hearts that were not satisfied with its plain meaning, And this in turn was the fruit of a lifestyle that was not submitted to the Lord, or seeking him through prayer, worship, and humble study. The primary solution he offered, then, was for those being influenced by Alexandria to submit to, and seek, Jesus from the heart, remembering that his words are sacred, that they are inspired by the Holy Spirit himself, and that they are sufficient in their plain meaning to grant the knowledge of God, the knowledge of his will and ways, and the satisfaction of the soul.

To give a specific example, Basil once remarked that the word “darkness” in Genesis 1:2 most likely means “darkness”! Others had written entire treatises speculating about the philosophical and ontological meanings of this word in this context, but Basil and his kind stood up and said, enough is enough. Let the plain meaning of Scripture be the meaning of Scripture, and let us submit to the God who revealed his word to give us light and life in Christ. We need not give ourselves to the entertainment of fanciful interpretations, rather, we need to give ourselves to the worship of Christ – plain and simple.

Now, Basil and his contemporary Antiochenes argued that, while we can appeal to the broader teaching of the Bible in order to interpret a particular text, we have to exercise great caution in doing so. For instance, with regard to Genesis 1:2, both the Apostle John and the Apostle Paul refer to the specific language of this verse, and its surrounding verses, to teach that Jesus is the speech and light of God that breaks into the darkness of sinful hearts and effects salvation.

John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:1-5). And Paul writes, “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:5-6).

To appeal to John and Paul in the effort the interpret Genesis 1:2 well, is to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. It is to allow inspired writers to show us that the good news of Jesus Christ was being metaphorically proclaimed from the first words of creation. It is not to allow human philosophies or the unanchored wanderings of our minds to tell us what a particular passage means.

So again, Basil and his kind argued that we may appeal to Scripture in order to interpret a given text, but he warned that we should exercise caution in doing so. We should take care to submit to, and seek, the one who breathed out the words of the Bible. We should strive to understand each text on its own terms, and according to its plain meaning, appealing to other texts only when they clearly allude to or otherwise effect the meaning. We should seek to understand and obey the clear will and ways of our Father and refuse to press obscure and unfounded meanings into his words.

Amen. May the Lord “give [us] the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him (Ephesians 1:17), and a heart to show great care when interpreting his Word.  

(For more on Basil, see Christopher A. Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, Intervarsity: 1998, 81-93).

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