Cardinal Newman’s remarks about St. Cyril’s exegetical method, quoted in the previous post, made me reflect a little on the radically different (and sometimes terrible) conclusions different approaches to Scripture produce. How a person perceives the written Word determines to a remarkable degree his vision of the Church and his understanding of the role of Church Tradition in interpreting Scripture. Without wanting to overstate the matter, it seems fair to say that the greater willingness one has to perceive multiple layers of meaning in any one passage of Scripture (in particular, the greater one’s willingness to embrace allegorical exegesis), the greater one’s willingness to understand the Church in Her mystical and Eucharistic reality, as well as the greater the willingness to preserve the paradoxes about Christ without seeking to force a reconciliation that will, according to our limited understanding, diminish the glory and mystery of God Incarnate. The less one desires to perceive Scripture in a merely “carnal” manner, the more one can embrace the Church as Christ’s Body incorporating all living Christians, whether reposed or still on earth, as well as embracing what I might call ecclesial exegesis. This is nothing other than the perfectly traditional habit of interpreting Scripture in the light of the Church’s living reality and the continuing inspiration of the God-bearing Fathers in the Holy Spirit. We cannot judge Scripture “on our own” or even simply according to natural reason, because we do not exist or worship in this way.

If I were to approach Scripture carnally, I might have difficulty finding a ready warrant for, to take a typically Orthodox example, the veneration of icons (after all, where are the panel paintings mentioned in the New Testament?). But, if I were to approach Scripture ecclesially, I would be able to see that God already presents to us the most resplendent and glorious Icon in Christ, Who, as the Image of the Father (Heb. 1:1-3), is the Icon by nature on Whom all other icons are predicated and to Whom all icons ultimately refer. In this lies the truth of the Incarnation and its consequences for the redemption of all of creation, but it is not readily apparent to just anyone who happens to read the Bible, nor should we expect that it would be. It would be difficult for someone schooled in reading texts only for outer meaning or, at best, moral lessons to become accustomed to the constant typological and allegorical readings the Fathers provide for us. Yet being accustomed to these sorts of readings is essential to any basic understanding of Christian doctrine, because it was just in this manner that the Evangelists and Apostles wrote (and so it was in this manner that later Fathers read them), as anyone who even briefly acquaints himself with the Gospel of John or the Epistle to the Hebrews may be able to see.

The traditional fourfold interpretation of Scripture (literal, moral/tropological, typological, allegorical) familiar to early medieval Latin Fathers and their successors was the product of a catholic and ecclesial view of exegesis that sought to incorporate and encompass as many valid and mutually reinforcing meanings in Scripture as possible. The victories of the churches of Alexandria, Rome and Constantinople respectively at the Third, Fourth and Fifth Ecumenical Councils went a long way in keeping the most basic, often least instructive, literal, “carnal” sense of the Word represented stereotypically by the Antiochene tradition from impoverishing the religious imagination of the Church.