Monday, January 09, 2006

The Ancient, Eastern Basis for the Four-Fold Interpretation of Scripture

Although evangelical converts to Orthodoxy often dismiss the four-fold interpretation of Scripture as a "medieval Roman Catholic idea," its pedigree actually goes back to the ancient, monastic heart of the East. St. John Cassian received this hermeneutical principle from Abba Nesteros, an anchorite living in coastal Thennesus, Egypt, with two others (Chaeremon and Joseph). The saint recorded these instructions in his famous book of Conferences, a detailed account of the spiritual wisdom he and a friend received from monks from Syria to Egypt. In Conference 14:8, he remembers the holy desert father's words:

[P]ractical knowledge is distributed among many subjects and interests, but theoretical is divided into two parts, i.e., the historical interpretation and the spiritual sense. Whence also Solomon when he had summed up the manifold grace of the Church, added: "for all who are with her are clothed with double garments."(Prov. 31:21, LXX) But of spiritual knowledge there are three kinds, tropological, allegorical, anagogical, of which we read as follows in Proverbs: "But do you describe these things to yourself in three ways according to the largeness of your heart"(Prov. 22:20, LXX). And so the history embraces the knowledge of things past and visible, as it is repeated in this way by the Apostle: "For it is written that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondwoman, the other by a free: but he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh, but he who was of the free was by promise." But to the allegory belongs what follows, for what actually happened is said to have prefigured the form of some mystery "For these," says he, "are the two covenants the one from Mount Sinai, which gendereth into bondage, which is Agar. For Sinai is a mountain in Arabia, which is compared to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children." But the anagogical sense rises from spiritual mysteries even to still more sublime and sacred secrets of heaven, and is subjoined by the Apostle in these words: "But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us. For it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not, break forth and cry, thou that travailest not, for many are the children of the desolate more than of her that hath an husband."(Gal. 4:22-27.) The tropological sense is the moral explanation which has to do with improvement of life and practical teaching, as if we were to understand by these two covenants practical and theoretical instruction, or at any rate as if we were to want to take Jerusalem or Sion as the soul of man, according to this: "Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem: praise thy God, O Sion"(Ps. 147:12). And so these four previously mentioned figures coalesce, if we desire, in one subject, so that one and the same Jerusalem can be taken in four senses: historically as the city of the Jews; allegorically as Church of Christ, anagogically as the heavenly city of God "which is the mother of us all," tropologically, as the soul of man, which is frequently subject to praise or blame from the Lord under this title.

Of these four kinds of interpretation the blessed Apostle speaks as follows: "But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking with tongues what shall I profit you unless I speak to you either by revelation or by knowledge or by prophecy or by doctrine?"(1 Cor. 14:6.) For "revelation" belongs to allegory whereby what is concealed under the historical narrative is revealed in its spiritual sense and interpretation, as for instance if we tried to expound how "all our fathers were under the cloud and were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea," and how they "all ate the same spiritual meat and drank the same spiritual drink from the rock that followed them. But the rock was Christ."(1 Cor. 10:1-4) And this explanation where there is a comparison of the figure of the body and blood of Christ which we receive daily, contains the allegorical sense. But the knowledge, which is in the same way mentioned by the Apostle, is tropological, as by it we can by a careful study see of all things that have to do with practical discernment whether they are useful and good, as in this case, when we are told to judge of our own selves "whether it is fitting for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered"(1 Cor. 11:13). And this system, as has been said, contains the moral meaning. So "prophecy" which the Apostle puts in the third place, alludes to the anagogical sense by which the words are applied to things future and invisible, as here: "But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those that sleep: that ye be not sorry as others also who have no hope. For if we believe that Christ died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him. For this we say to you by the word of God, that we which are alive at the coming of the Lord shall not prevent those that sleep in Christ, for the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first."(1 Thess. 4:12-15) In which kind of exhortation the figure of anagoge is brought forward. But "doctrine" unfolds the simple course of historical exposition, under which is contained no more secret sense, but what is declared by the very words: as in his passage: "For I delivered unto you first of all what I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again on the third day, and that he was seen of Cephas;"(1 Cor. 15:3-5) and: "God sent His Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law;" (Gal. 4:4, 5) or this: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord the God is one Lord." (Deut. 6:4).

St. Benedict listed both the Conferences and Institutes as recommended reading in his Holy Rule, and the Holy Rule exerted such influence over the history of Europe that this became its entrenched Biblical hermeneutic. In the East, though, "St. Cassian the Roman" received less attention, having only two small entries in the first volume of the Philokalia (both considerably shortened in translation), and Abba Nesteros' guidance became lost. Ironically, this demonstrates that the more hostile Orthodoxy becomes to the West, the more it loses touch with its own Eastern heritage.

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Blogger Eric John said...


9:49 AM  
Blogger Jean-Michel said...

in French :

11:50 AM  

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