Does Anyone Mean What They Think They Mean?

As is always the way, one thing leads to another. After publishing my notes from the first three chapters of Genesis, and being treated to Father Stephen Freeman’s latest take on allegory and literalism, I go to Mass and hear my pastor tell me (and the rest of the congregation) that the Gospel story we will soon hear, about Jesus walking on water, “is not to be taken literally, of course.”


I generally can’t even with that man, but not feeling confident enough to just declare that he has to be wrong, I turned back to Father Freeman and found an earlier post that I need to share here:

The Scriptures, particularly those of the Old Testament, are frequently misread (from a classical Christian point of view) in a literal manner, on the simple evidence that the New Testament does not read the Old Testament in such a manner. Rather, as is clearly taught by Christ Himself, the Old Testament is “re-read” from a Christological point-of-view. Thus Jonah-in-the-belly-of-the-whale is read by the Church as Christ in Hades. The first Adam in the Garden is but a shadow and antitype of the Second Adam – the One who truly fulfills existence in the “image and likeness” of God. The Passover and the deliverance from Egypt are read as icons of the true Passover, Christ’s Pascha and the deliverance of all creation from its bondage to death and decay. Such a list could be lengthened until the whole of the Old Testament is retold in meanings that reveal Christ, or rather are revealed by Christ in His coming.

Of course, this is a peculiar claim of Christianity – one which accepts the identity of Christ as the Only-Begotten Son of God, who, emptying Himself, becomes man and in this humility destroys death and Hades and unites man to God. Having accepted that Identity, the ability to read the Scriptures according to that Identity becomes possible.

A “literal” reading of the Old Testament would never yield such a treasure. Instead, it becomes flattened, and rewoven into an historical rendering of Christ’s story in which creative inventions such as “Dispensationalism” are required in order to make all the pieces fit into a single, literal narrative. Such a rendering has created as well a cardboard target for modern historical-critical studies, which delights itself only in poking holes in absurdities created by such a flattened reading. …

These renderings of Scripture and the Universe are literally wrong – at least from a classical Orthodox understanding of both.

Scripture is far more than literally true (though in the sense that many people use the word, it certainly teaches what is literally true of God and the universe.) …

The Incarnation of Christ, His ministry, His death and resurrection, provide the primary narration of God, by which we read and interpret everything else. Christ Himself is not interpreted – but is the One Who Interprets. He is God the Logos.

But Christ must not be isolated as an event among other historical events (as would be done in many literal accounts -even though these accounts would readily agree that He is the most important historical event). … The man, Christ Jesus, walks on water and raises the dead. He stills the storm and pays His taxes with a coin drawn from the mouth of a fish. He raises harlots to the place of sainthood and promises immediate entrance into paradise to a dying thief.

Such a One cannot be confined within the bounds of “literal” for the word is not meant to describe the indescribable. The very coming of Christ into the world declares the world to be a place far different than we might imagine. …

And not only we ourselves, but all of creation is made in such a way that it bears a relationship to the Logos. …

Thus neither we nor the world should be thought of as “literal,” if by that one means what the modern world thinks of the term.  … the universe itself is not the sort of thing that can be “contained” by the universe (in the literal sense) but has layers upon layers of meaning and possibility that are only revealed in the presence of Christ. …

We are meant for more than we can “literally” imagine.

It seems to me that Father Freeman is saying that yes, Jesus did walk on water. Why on earth would we believe that it didn’t actually happen? One of my greatest frustrations with my pastor and at least one other priest of my parish is that they make such statements, but don’t adequately explain what they mean. This is dangerous for your average, everyday Catholic, whose understanding of the faith likely comes from little more than faith formation in youth and weekly Mass attendance.

I found a little more from Father Freeman that I would like to share. It is a comment on the above post written in response to a reader asking for clarification:

I understand the point, and am sympathetic with your concern. It’s just that I think it is a concern created by the Protestant-historical model in which if any of the historical narrative is damaged everything falls apart and I do not think the Fathers, or at least not all of them, including some significant ones, saw the Scriptures in such a way. I trust St. Paul on Christ far more than I do on any question about Adam, because Paul saw the risen Lord and knew many others (cf. Corinthians 15) who had as well. Christ’s death and resurrection and the fullness of what He reveals to us is not dependent upon something else – everything else is dependent upon Him. That St. Paul makes use of the Genesis material is obvious. That he would have subscribed to a modern (post 16th century) theory of historical narrative, etc., I do not know, but highly doubt. I’m not certain he would understand some of the arguments that Protestants have today. The Scriptures are God’s Word to the Church and are useful for doctrine, instruction, etc. But we do the Church a disservice when we remove the Scriptures from the believing Church and make them subject to objectification by the outside world (which was part of the object of Protestant historicization). The Protestants argued for such an historical approach because it did away with the need for authoritative interpretation by the Church and Tradition, which they hated and wanted to destroy. The Fathers taught us that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” Interestingly, icons are almost never written in what one would call a “literal” manner. And yet they are quite useful for teaching, etc.

Christ says, “You search the Scriptures for in them you think you have eternal life, but these are they which testify of me.” And the opinion of the Fathers was not simply that occasional prophesies make reference to Christ, but that He is to be found in every word as the Scriptures open themselves to us – and it is Christ we are seeking – not an explanation of science, etc.

If you want to argue for a literal account of Adam in the garden, well and good, but the dogma of the Church does not rise or fall on such a question. It creates a false dilemma.

I know that what I am saying may sound wrong, or new. It’s not liberalism or any form of modernism, however. It is rooted in the Patristic reading of the Scriptures and a rejection of various modern (since the 1500’s) schemes created by Protestants and others that need have no particular place within the Orthodox faith. They have created battles that we don’t need to fight.

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