Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Literal vs. spiritual
My thanks, first of all, to Chris Orr and his links over at Orrologion for giving me some food for thought on this topic.
All too often, as Christians, when we are responding to what goes on in this world, evil and not so evil, we wonder how our viewpoint, our belief, could possibly be opposed by fellow Christians. We see this in any number of hot button issues in today's secular and religious world such as abortion, gay marriage, ordination of women to the clergy, euthanasia, are heaven and hell literal, etc.. How can there be disagreement especially when it seems that Scripture seems to hold that we should unequivocally say "no" to the aforementioned issues? Usually, that's when the dictum of St. Paul is thrown out by the "yay-sayers" that "The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life." In other words, we have to look behind the actual words of Scripture and find the spiritual meaning which is not binding, but fluid and to be applied liberally without any kind of standards. Now, I seriously doubt St. Paul was a post-modernist, but in the eyes of some Christians, you'd think that St. Paul was its originator!
Such a train of thought is inherently a new hermeneutic for examining Scripture. Of course, proponents will insist that just because it is new, does not mean that it should be discarded. I will concede that there are definitely some new modes of interpretation which have been used that shed light on Scripture, both New and Old Testaments. But the problem lies with the fact that the spiritual method of examinig Scripture--or allegorical--is not the way of the Church Fathers. Now, in the eyes of Protestants, especially Lutherans and Anglicans, this should not be a problem, although they will continue to insist that their churches are the churches of the Holy Fathers, but they are only invoked when their interpretation of Scripture happens to agree with their own. But that is besides the point for now. However, if such churches claim to be the churches of the fathers, then they must know this: The spiritual meaning IS the literal meaning.
It's very easy to read the OT or the NT in an allegorical manner. For instance, we see the 3 angels given hospitality by Abraham and the transfiguration and baptism of Christ where Christ, a voice from heaven and a dove, to be allegorical representations of the Holy Trinity which we confess as the cornerstone of our understanding of God. But allegory only can go so far. Augustine and the other church fathers regard the use of allegory for understanding Scripture of the beliefs of the Church to be representative of a simple faith. And there is nothing wrong with simple faith. Children have that and Christ did say that no one should hinder the faith of a child and that they should come to him. But for those of us who deal with "extreme" theology, we cannot use allegory as a means to justify what Scripture clearly does not teach now nor ever! The literal message is the spiritual message! If the literal were thrown out for whatever reason, then John 3: 16 would cease to have meaning. Life in Christ, everlasting life, simply becomes a pipe dream then for simple (i.e. uneducated) people.
Biblical scholars, especially the ones you see on the Discover Channel or History Channel, love to tell about Biblical codes and secret messages which they alone can decipher. Gnosticism (the belief of hidden knowledge of God which is clear to some and hidden in others), apparently, is anything but dead in the Christian world (I suppose Dan Brown might claim he had something to do with that). Now, for those honest people who sincerely believe that certain social and religious hot-button issues should be given a pass, I don't believe that they are gnostics per se, but they have been duped to believe that the Scriptures do not actually say anything literal. St. Paul's dictum has been trumpeted and trumpeted again. The fact that the Holy Fathers, even Origen who was a huge proponent of allegorically reading the OT, regarded the spiritual meaning to be empty without its literal meaning.