Today, Paul tells us that the gospel he is preaching is not man’s gospel (Gal 1:11). It is not a gospel according to man. He tells us that he did not receive it from human beings, but that it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ (1:12). It comes to us, through Paul and others, from God.
We must always bear this in mind as we sit at the feet of the apostles and listen to the gospel. Paul says the only gospel – for there is no other gospel (1:7) – is not a gospel according to man. Yet, at every Sunday and feast day Matins and at every Divine Liturgy we read the Gospel according to Matthew, or according to Mark, or according to Luke, or according to John. Those are four men, but the gospel is not according to man, says Paul. Paul is also a man.
Still, when we listen to the gospel, we are not merely listening to human beings, if we have ears to hear, but are listening to the Lord himself. At the same time, it is clear the Lord has chosen to speak to us through human beings.
This necessarily informs how we are to understand the holy scripture. The scripture is inspired. It is Spirit-breathed. It comes, as Paul says, by “revelation.” It is a means by which God reveals himself to us – to its authors, readers, and hearers.
The nature of these inspired words is not as simple as it at first appears. God speaks through people, but the words they use are always subject to interpretation. Scripture is authored simultaneously by both God and human beings. Consequently, the words of divinely inspired scripture sometimes have divinely intended meanings that their human authors did not intend.
Later in his epistle to the Galatians, Paul will interpret the story about Hagar and Sarah from Genesis as an allegory about the old covenant and the new covenant we have in Christ. I can tell you: the human author of Genesis surely did not foresee this meaning in that story. But God did, and that’s the point. It’s God’s meaning that we seek above all.
God’s intentions are simply greater than any human author could have possibly foreseen. This is common with messianic prophecies in the Old Testament. That is say, the Jesus Christ we received is certainly the same one that was prophesied throughout the Old Testament, but he is certainly not like what the humans who wrote it were expecting. God obliterates our expectations and fulfills them beyond our imagining.
Therefore, if we are to hear God’s voice through the scripture, we must be to open to the awareness that not even our impossible task of discovering exactly what the historical human authors of the text intended – not even that is adequate. It is also necessary – indeed more necessary – for us to seek out the fuller sense of scripture intended by the Holy Spirit who inspired the human author.
The divinely inspired meanings of scripture – meanings that God intends for us his people to understand – at times vary from and occasionally even contradict the human authors’ original, historical, intended meanings.
Scripture is multivalent. It has many meanings at the same time. One text, for example, has the meanings that its author intended as well as those that its original readers and hearers understood, as well as meanings found later by various types of reinterpretation, including allegory and typology.
It is clear that God does intend some meaning or meanings of every inspired text. That is what it means for the text to be inspired. The difficult task we have is to discern with faith and prayer which of these meanings God intends for his people to understand, and which he does not.
If we readers of scripture (and I hope all of us who can read are readers of scripture – I put the daily readings in the bulletin so that we will read them) if we are convinced that God’s intended meanings may be greater that humanly intended meanings, it can give the text the breath to speak to us in this age as meaningfully as it did thousands of years ago. Think on this: at the very moment that ink was put to papyrus by an inspired human hand, God, who is outside of time, intended a meaning by the selfsame written words for you and me to understand. He was speaking even then to us.
We want to know what God is saying to us, don’t we? Then read the scripture! He is speaking to us in the scripture.
But if there is a distinction between human intention and prophetic or divinely inspired meaning – as well as the possibility of contradiction between the two – how do we figure out what God is really saying to us?
Not by any tool of science or history alone is it possible to discern whether an interpretation of an inspired text is a meaning that God intends. Rather, the tools of faith, prayer, and inspiration must guide the interpretation of inspired texts, because, as St. Gregory Thaumaturgas writes, “No one can understand the prophets if the prophetic Spirit does not give them the ability to receive their meaning.” Inspiration must be in both the writing and the reading of the inspired text. If God’s meaning is to be revealed to you, he must inspire you!
The only way to know God’s intended meaning of scripture (or anything else, for that matter) is by faith, for “faith is a true knowledge,” as St. Maximus the Confessor writes. Faith and faithful interpretation of history – and not history alone – will reveal God’s intended meanings of scriptures. Faith, of course, acts in and on history. History and faith are not mutually exclusive. Salvation by faith is a historical accomplishment.
But those of us who seek what God is saying to us in scripture must not only be historians but also, and more importantly, theologians. That’s right, you must be a theologian. Evagrios of Pontus points out, “If you are a theologian, you truly pray. If you truly pray, you are a theologian.”
Prayer is an essential component to the interpretation of scripture and to the seeking of God’s meaning of scripture. Prayer is not a historical critical tool, but it is the supreme theological tool. Without it, no interpreter can find God’s meaning in holy scripture.
When we realize that God is speaking to us through people, as he does in scripture, even at times without their knowledge and apart from their intention, we may realize also that he could speak and is speaking through us and through others to the world here and now today. The Word of God is not only the words of the Bible. Paul was preaching the gospel, and not only writing it for us to read.
And even more importantly, but, as Origen writes, “The Word of God is in your heart. The Word digs in this soil so that the spring may gush out.”
“The reading of the Bible,” is a means by which “the Word digs into us and saves us,” as Fr. Thomas Spidlik writes. The inspired scriptures have value primarily because of their power to inspire believers – to inspire you – in the true sense – that is, to fill you with the Word by the power of the Spirit. The Word is not just written. It is also read and heard and interpreted. It is also preached. It is also lived, and “the finest exposition of the Bible is the life of the believer.”
If we believers open to the reality that God, and not only this or that historical human, is speaking to us personally through scripture, then what St. Jerome says comes true for those of us who read it: it unites them to the bridegroom Christ. It aids our divinization (our θέωσης). For us believers, “the reading of the Bible is not only an intellectual activity; it is going to school with the Spirit,” as Spidlik writes. If we seek God’s meaning in the scriptures, we will behold in scripture the glory of the Lord, and will be “changed into his likeness” (2 Cor 3:18).