26 June 2012

Brief Hiatus & Monastery Books


I just returned from Holy Archangels Monastery in Texas yesterday evening, and will already be leaving again tomorrow for Nashville, TN, for a close friend's ordination in the Catholic Church. Along the way, of course, I will visit the usual folks in Memphis, TN, and hope to hook up with good old Maximus Daniel Greeson in Nashville itself.

While the return from our pilgrimage gave me a chance to post my big piece on St Cyril's definition of philosophy, today promises to be quite busy, and I won't be returning from the Nashville trip until Sunday. That means that there likely will not be another substantial post until next week. But assuming that our Internet connection holds good, I should be able to do something after the trip. 

In the meantime, I acquired two new books at Holy Archangels that I thought I'd mention. The first, a gift of the abbot, was my very own copy at long last of Elder Sophrony's St Silouan the Athonite, tr. Rosemary Edmonds (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1991). The book's a bit expensive (the bookstore price was $29), and I had put off buying it in part because I already had an old copy of The Monk of Mount Athos: Staretz Silouan 1866-1938, tr. Rosemary Edmonds (London: Mowbrays, 1973), and a newer one of Wisdom from Mount Athos: The Writings of Staretz Silouan 1866-1938, tr. Rosemary Edmonds (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1995). But someone informed me (I think it might have been Christopher Veniamin) some years ago that St Silouan was not merely a combination of the two smaller volumes but had been expanded and edited by the Elder himself and had substantially superseded the other two. It had been on my wishlist for some time, and only the price and the pressing needs for other volumes had delayed my purchasing it. 

At any rate, Elder Sophrony's biography of his own Elder, St Silouan, is perhaps one of my favourite works of hagiography. As much as I enjoy ancient hagiography, like St Anthony's Life or St Benedict's, there is something very appealing about Elder Sophrony's ability to address the mindset, concerns, and interests of that sort of modern reader who may perhaps be more intellectual than pious. For those who have not read it, I highly recommend that they do so. Here is a little sample passage: 

Beholding beauty, the Staretz would look at the clouds, the sea, the mountains and forests, meadows and a lone tree. He used to remark that the glory of the Creator shone with splendour even in this visible world but to behold the glory of the Lord Himself in the Holy Spirit was a vision infinitely transcending any human conception. Once, watching the movement of the clouds across the emerald Attic sky, he remarked, 
'How sublime our Lord is! What beauty He has created to His glory, for the good of His people, that men might joyously glorify their Creator...O Sovereign Lady, make all peoples to behold the glory of the Lord!' 

Thus having briefly contemplated the visible beauty before him and the Divine glory in it, he would return anew to pray for the people. [1] 

The other book with which I returned was Monk Basil's Reflections of a Humble Heart: A 15th-c. text on the spiritual life, tr. Mary Mansur (Richfield Springs, NY: Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society, 2007). I believe I came across this one a few years ago in the blogosphere or something, and had made a mental note to get hold of a copy. It's a slim little volume and was only $10, so I grabbed it. A little prefatory note explains: 

Among the Byzantine manuscripts in the Vatican library there is this portion of the notes of a certain monk Basil concerning his discussions with an elder whose name did not reach us. Either the monk Basil, who recorded the words of the elder of blessed memory, assumed that everyone knew about whom he was speaking, or the elder's name was mentioned in earlier notes that have been lost. It is supposed that the blessed elder was a renowned ascetic of one of the monasteries near Constantinople, and that he lived in the early fifteenth century. [2] 

Mansur has translated the text from the Russian translation by Archimandrite Ambrose (Pogodin) published at Jordanville in Pravoslavnaya Put' in 1999. 

Well, I look forward to a triumphant return to blogging sometime next week! 


[1] Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), St Silouan the Athonite, tr. Rosemary Edmonds (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1991), p. 97. 

[2] Monk Basil, Reflections of a Humble Heart: A 15th-c. text on the spiritual life, tr. Mary Mansur (Richfield Springs, NY: Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society, 2007), p. 6.

25 June 2012

St Cyril on Philosophy, Revisited

I actually wrote this post last week, but for some reason it seems our Internet connection woes have not entirely come to an end. Having spent the weekend in a long-needed pilgrimage to Holy Archangels Monastery in Texas, we returned today and my brilliant wife was able to get things working again. So, here you go.

In a post I wrote quite some time ago, I noted an interesting similarity between the definition of philosophy offered by St Cyril the Apostle-to-the-Slavs in his Vita, and two of the definitions of philosophy found in the ‘Philosophical Chapters’ of St John Damascene’s Fount of Knowledge. In connection with St Cyril’s definition, I mentioned that I hoped eventually to read an article devoted entirely to that subject by Ihor Ševčenko. Well, I did indeed finally read Ševčenko’s article, and it more than explains the similarity between St Cyril’s definition and those of St John. Both it seems were drawing on definitions given in various commentaries on Porphyry’s Isagoge, commentaries which served as the standard textbooks in Byzantine philosophical studies. Here is St Cyril’s definition, first in Ševčenko’s translation from the Old Church Slavonic, then the OCS text transliterated, then Ševčenko’s hypothetical Greek version:

Knowledge of things Divine and human, as much as man is able to approach God, for it teaches man by deeds to be in the image and after the likeness of the One who created him. 
I vъprosi ego jedinojǫ, glagolę: filosofe, xotelъ byxъ uvěděti, čьto jestь filosofija. On že skoromь umomь reče abije; božijamъ i člověčamъ věščьmъ razumъ, i jeliko možetъ člověkъ približiti sę boʒě, jako dětělijǫ učitъ člověka po obrazu i po podobiju byti sъtvorъšemu i. 
θείον καὶ ἀνθρωπίνων πραγμάτων γνῶσις, καθ’ὅσον δύναται ἄνθρωπος προσεγγίσαι (πλησιάσαι) θεῷ, ὅτι πράξει διδάσκει ἄνθρωπον κατ’ εἰκόνα καὶ καθ’ ὁμοίωσιν εἶναι τῷ ποιήσαντι (πλάσαντι, κτίσαντι) αὐτόν. [1] 

The first phrase, ‘Knowledge of things Divine and human’, originates with the Stoics, [2]. The second, ‘as much as man is able to approach God’, originates with Plato’s Theaetetus 176 AB. [3] These two phrases had been combined in a definition of philosophy by the 6th- or 7th-c. commentator David, who argued that it had the advantage of encompassing ‘both the subject matter and the purpose of the thing to be defined’. [4] The reference to ‘in the image and after the likeness’ is from the LXX text of Genesis 1:26, and had been combined with the Theaetetus passage by Clement of Alexandria and Origen. [5] With the exception of the Genesis quote, most of the definition St Cyril gives is found in Porphyry’s commentators. 

But one part of the definition that seems slightly less accounted for than the rest is the reference to man imitating God ‘by deeds’—dětělijǫ in the OCS. Ševčenko notes that the word—dětělь in the nominative form—usually represents either Gk praxis or energeia, arguing for praxis in this case because it is the term used in the philosophical manuals. But the use of praxis in the manuals as Ševčenko cites them is not really part of the previous formulae per se for defining ‘philosophy’. The closest they come is David’s comment that ‘the politic philosopher strives to immitate [sic] the Godhead in as much as it is possible for Man, both through knowledge and deeds (kata ten praxin)’, and Ammonius’s comment—‘as has been said, philosophy is the becoming like God according to man’s ability. The one who becomes like God strives to become like Him by use of Reason: he also wants his actions to be his adornment (praxesi kallopizesthai).’ [6] In neither case, however, is the reference to praxis part of the original formula, but rather an add-on or elabouration. 

I emphasise this point because apart from his very careful and—to my mind—irrefutable research on the origins and history of the various components of St Cyril’s definition, at the beginning and end of his article Ševčenko has used this philosophy textbook provenance of the Saint’s statement to make an argument about the historical context of the latter’s personality. I myself can’t help but think, however, that this word praxis might contribute something to our portrait of that personality that Ševčenko has either overlooked or deliberately suppressed. The opening paragraph of his article reads: 

To a cultivated Byzantine of the ninth century, philosophy could mean at least two different things: It could be defined as the ‘discipline of disciplines’ providing first principles for all the branches of knowledge, or it could be conceived as moral perfection based on the ‘true gnosis’ of Being, that is to say, on the tenets of Christianity. [7] In the first case, philosophy meant primarily a technical rational activity, and the philosopher was a learned intellectual, dealing with a precious part of antique heritage which he might use for a better understanding of Christian truths. In the second, philosophy was synonymous with an intense spiritual life: the best philosopher was the ascetic monk, and his ancestors, the first true philosophers, were the disciples of Christ. [8] 

Then, having demonstrated that St Cyril’s definition of philosophy falls into the first category, Ševčenko concludes: ‘From his university years on, St Constantine [Cyril] belonged to the “intellectual” strain in the Byzantine milieu of the ninth century. He was a Christian philosopher-scholar, not a “philosopher” of the monkish ascetic kind.’ [9] 

Ševčenko has the advantage over me of a good deal more learning and access to a good many more books, so I admit there will be an enormous gap between his article and what I am capable of proving in this post. But for a number of reasons, this placing of St Cyril in an intellectual, philosophical as opposed to a spiritual, ascetic tradition does not sit well with me. Of course, it is obvious that St Cyril was not a desert-dwelling hermit, taken up solely with ascesis and unceasing prayer. It is also obvious that he was an intellectual. But this distinction between monks and intellectuals seems a little too neat. Clearly, there were examples of both. The greatest theologian of the 7th century, St Maximus the Confessor, who had an enkyklios paideusis, was a simple monk. St John Damascene, a monk of St Sabas Monastery in the Holy Land, is clearly well acquainted with the philosophical literature of the ‘intellectual milieu’. Perhaps most importantly, St Cyril himself went to a monastery very shortly after completing his studies (more on this below), though he was not tonsured until the end of his life. 

Let us not forget, however, that there was an ancient tradition of association between ascesis and philosophical endeavour. It seems unlikely to me that most philosophers, from Pythagoras and Plato, to the Stoics, right up to Porphyry’s commentators, would have agreed that philosophy was primarily a ‘technical rational activity’. Even if it is pointed out that Porphyry’s Isagoge and its commentators—apparently the object of St Cyril’s studies with St Photius the Great [10]—represent that part of philosophical study that could most justly be characterised as ‘technical rational activity’, logic, Ševčenko himself observes that even for them logic was but a ‘tool’ of philosophy. [11] 

At any rate, according to Douglas Burton-Christie, ‘By the second century CE the philosophical schools were not thought of merely as intellectual schools of thought but as something broader—bioi or ways of life....Conversion to philosophy meant then, as it had for some time in the Greek world,...“a turning from luxury and self indulgence..., to a life of discipline and sometimes to a life of contemplation...”’. [12] This is so true of Porphyry himself, that the very first line of his Vita of his master, Plotinus, notes that the great Alexandrian philosopher ‘seemed ashamed of being in the body’. [13] To quote, once again, C.S. Lewis: 

A world-renouncing, ascetic, and mystical character then marked the most eminent Pagans no less than their Christian opponents. It was the spirit of the age. Everywhere, on both sides, men were turning away from the civic virtues and the sensual pleasures to seek an inner purgation and a supernatural goal. The modern who dislikes the Christian Fathers would have disliked the Pagan philosophers equally, and for similar reasons. [14] 

Note that Lewis links the Fathers and the philosophers together via this ‘world-renouncing, ascetic, and mystical character’. But while for the philosophers, asceticism was, perhaps, the activity of an intellectual elite, [15] for the Fathers it was more or less the way of life of all Christians, including the simple and unlearned. Commitment to Christian faith necessarily entailed some ascesis. One would think that St Cyril and all of his teachers, as members of an intellectual elite and as Christians, would have been doubly committed to the ascetic life. I admitted earlier that St Cyril was not a desert-dwelling hermit, engaged solely in ascesis and unceasing prayer. But that is not to say that he was not occupied at all with ascesis and unceasing prayer. 

Furthermore, recall St Cyril’s definition itself. Is it possible that he or any of the Byzantines, or any of the pagan philosophers for that matter, believed that becoming like God was a ‘technical rational activity’ that required no ascetic struggle? Indeed, to see that they did not I would like to discuss that word praxis that St Cyril incorporates from elabourations of the definitions of philosophy into his own definition proper. 

First, it could be argued that like Ševčenko’s account of ‘philosophy’ in his opening paragraph, the word praxis in the philosophical context, or at least its adjectival form, had at least two meanings. Fr Andrew Louth notes that for Aristotle it simply meant business or activity as opposed to philosophical contemplation, and that even St Gregory the Theologian uses it in that sense. But Evagrius Ponticus used the word to refer to ‘struggle with the demons, a struggle to overcome temptation and subdue the passions’, in other words, ascesis. [16] This is of course the normal meaning of the word in the spiritual writings of the Fathers. 

Now, according to Ševčenko’s distinction between intellectual and monastic ‘philosophy’, and his placing of St Cyril into the former category, Aristotle’s use of praxis would make more sense for a learned intellectual to employ. But even Aristotle would not agree that ‘business’ makes one more like God. If the aim of philosophy is to become like God, Evagrius’s use of praxis makes more sense. Read in the light of Evagrius and the Philokalic tradition, St Cyril seems to be saying, ‘Philosophy teaches man to be in the image and after the likeness of the One who created him by the practice of ascesis.’ 

This makes even more sense if we actually look at the example Ševčenko cites for the ‘monkish’ definition of ‘philosophy’—St Nilus the Ascetic (†430). St Nilus accuses some of ‘the Greeks’, by which he means the pagan philosophers, of imagining ‘themselves to be engaged in metaphysics [logiken philosophian]’ but ‘neglecting praxis entirely’. [17] On the next page, he writes: 

For philosophy is a state of moral integrity combined with a doctrine of true knowledge concerning reality. Both Jews and Greeks fell short of this, for they rejected Wisdom that is from heaven and tried to philosophize without Christ, who alone has revealed the true philosophy in both His life and His teaching. For by the purity of His life He was the first to establish the way of true philosophy....[T]he true philosopher must renounce all life’s pleasures, mastering pains and passions, and paying scant attention to the body... [18] 

The extraordinary thing about these passages from St Nilus is that they are in fact not altogether removed from the ‘intellectual’ conception of philosophy that Ševčenko contrasts so strongly with the ‘monkish’ one supposedly exemplified by St Nilus. Rather, it almost seems as if St Nilus is directly confronting and objecting to the notion of philosophy as primarily a ‘technical rational activity’ (note that he chastises the Greeks for studying logiken philosophian but neglecting praxis). 

Furthermore, I am not at all convinced that Porphyry’s commentators and St Nilus are employing the word ‘philosophy’ in two different, unrelated senses. St Nilus’s own definition of philosophy as ‘a state of moral integrity [ethon katastasis] combined with a doctrine of true knowledge concerning reality [meta doxes tes peri tou ontos gnoseos alethous]’, while it is worded very differently, is similar in import not only to Porphyry’s commentators but especially to St Cyril’s particular version of their definitions. Note that St Nilus, assuming of course the aim of becoming like God, has the statement of the content of philosophy—‘true knowledge concerning reality’, corresponding to ‘knowledge of things divine and human’. But, like St Cyril’s, his definition also tells us the means of becoming like God—‘moral integrity’, or as he called it a few paragraphs previously, praxis

Now, I don’t know whether St Cyril would have read Evagrius or St Nilus. But it is interesting to note the similarities between his definition of ‘philosophy’ and the latter’s, especially when Ševčenko himself has paused so over St Cyril’s inclusion of the reference to praxis. I am almost compelled to believe that St Cyril has added this reference perhaps even as a nod to St Nilus. 

My suspicions would seem to be further confirmed when we turn again to St Cyril’s life. Anthony-Emil Tachiaos tells us that immediately after the little viva voce examination in which the young man produced his famous definition of philosophy, he was given an important position in the capital as Director of the Patriarchal Secretariat. [19] Now, if St Cyril had been interested in praxis in the Aristotelian sense of the active life of business, such a position would have been the ideal path to a promising career. But Tachiaos writes that ‘he soon resigned and withdrew to a monastery on the Bosphorus, which was probably Kleidion monastery.’ [20] 

Here is a striking evidence ‘indeed’ that the praxis St Cyril had just been advocating is likely to have been Evagrian asceticism! In this light, the reference to praxis in his exam almost seems like a kind of foreshadowing. 

Readers of this blog realise, I think, that I’m generally confined to working with whatever resources I have at home or manage to find online. With the exception of Ševčenko’s fascinating article itself, obtained with the help of my good friend, Chris Rosser, theological librarian at Oklahoma Christian University, this post is no exception. To come up with a truly scholarly response to Ševčenko’s conclusions would require some serious research that is not only beyond my printed resources, however, but beyond my linguistic skills! Nevertheless, as a reasonably well-read layman, I can’t help but think that I’ve got something here that perhaps he missed over there at the Institute for Advanced Study all those years ago. [21] 


[1] Ihor Ševčenko, ‘The Definition of Philosophy in the Life of Saint Constantine’, For Roman Jakobson: Essays on the Occasion of his Sixtieth Birthday, 11 October 1956 (The Hague: 1966), p. 450. 

[2] Ibid., pp. 450-1. 

[3] Ibid., p. 451. 

[4] Ibid., p. 454. 

[5] Ibid., p. 456. 

[6] Ibid., p. 455. 

[7] For this, Ševčenko cites St Nilus the Ascetic in PG, LXXIX, 720A; 721D—723AB (Ševčenko, p. 449, n. 2), about whom more below. 

[8] Ibid., p. 449. 

[9] Ibid., p. 457. 

[10] Ibid., p. 453. 

[11] Ibid., p. 453. 

[12] Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert: Scripture & the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism (NY: Oxford, 1993), p. 49; quoting from A.D. Nock, Conversion (London: Oxford, 1933), p. 179. 

[13] Porphyry, ‘On the Life of Plotinus & the Arrangement of His Work’, The Enneads, by Plotinus, tr. Stephen MacKenna, abgd. John Dillon (London: Penguin, 1991), p. cii. I should perhaps add, however, for readers that may lack the background in ascetic theology, that Porphyry’s statement suggests a literal contempt for the material body per se that is absent in the Fathers, even in their most ascetic moments. Having excerpted a passage from Evagrius in such a moment, Fr Placide (Deseille) notes (Orthodox Spirituality & the Philokalia, tr. Anthony P. Gythiel [Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2008]): 

It would be a mistake to see in this bodily asceticism scorn for the body or a wish to ignore it. Quite the opposite, asceticism proceeds from a deep conviction about the unity of the human composite. For the Fathers, the link between body and soul is so intimate that all inner attitudes must “take shape” in an external behavior. (p. 119) 

Christian asceticism is based on the call to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Christ (Matt. 16:24), and St Paul’s example of bringing his body into subjection (I Cor. 9:27) and ‘bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body’ (II Cor. 4:10). 

[14] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval & Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Canto-Cambridge, 2002), p. 47. 

[15] They were also a socio-economic elite. Burton-Christie quotes Garth Fowden’s observation that most pagan ‘holy men do seem to have come from prosperous backgrounds’ (p. 50). 

[16] Fr Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford: Clarendon-Oxford, 1981), pp. 102-3. 

[17] St Nilus the Ascetic, ‘Ascetic Discourse’, The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 1, tr. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. (London: Faber, 1983), p. 200; Η Φιλοκαλία των Ιερών Νηπτικών, Τόμος A΄ (Athens: Astir, 1962), p. 190. The first phrase in quotes is taken from the Faber translation of the Philokalia, the second is my own translation from the Astir edition. 

[18] St Nilus, p. 201; GT, p. 191. 

[19] Anthony-Emil N. Tachiaos, Cyril & Methodius of Thessalonica: The Acculturation of the Slavs (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2001), p. 28. 

[20] Tachiaos, p. 29. 

[21] I take some comfort in the fact that it seems one F. Grivec, who published in the Orientalia Christiana Periodica, XVII (1951), seems to have agreed with me, though I don’t know whether he mentioned St Nilus at all. At any rate, Ševčenko mentions that ‘Fr Grivec arrives at an opposite conclusion [to me]. He sees in Constantine a philosopher after the fashion of the Fathers who identified asceticism, sanctity and philosophy, and writes quae philosophia Constantinum potius cum humilibus ascetis ac monachis quam cum superbis doctoribus sociabat’ (Ševčenko, p. 457, n. 61).

21 June 2012

Ascesis & the Exegete

In this post, I talked about David Steinmetz’s article, ‘Uncovering a Second Narrative’, showing how his use of the detective story illuminated what the Fathers were up to in their exegesis. But Steinmetz made another point, just in passing, that I want to consider in its own right. Having talked about a few elements presupposed by the Fathers in their approach to Scripture, Steinmetz adds:

I have pointed out elsewhere the importance of what the Jesuits call discernment, the kind of insight that comes from disciplined prayer and long formation int he practices and habits of thought important to Christianity. When Athanasius argued that anyone who wants to understand the minds of the saints must first imitate their lives, he was touching on a theme no less important to the early Christian understanding of the Bible than apostolic succession and what I have called the distinction of first from second narratives. [1]

Steinmetz is alluding here to the very end of St Athanasius’s famous treatise On the Incarnation—that is, at de Incarnatione 57. There, the great Patriarch of Alexandria writes:

But for the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and, for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life....Similarly, anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds. Thus united to them in the fellowship of life, he will both understand the things revealed to them by God and, thenceforth escaping the peril that threatens sinners in the judgment, will receive that which is laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven. [2] 

In other words, the reading of Scripture is not only itself an act of ascesis (as I discussed here), but presupposes the practice of other forms of ascesis. Unfortunately, in his much-needed call for evangelicals to listen to the exegesis of the Fathers, Christopher Hall has concluded rather weakly from  his quotation of this passage from St Athanasius that the Scriptures ‘are safely interpreted only by those whose character is continually being formed by prayer, worship, meditation, self-examination, confession and other means by which Christ’s grace is communicated to his body.’ [3] While this is of course true, I’m afraid it still might leave the evangelical reader saying, ‘Well, I do all of that stuff, so I’m okay, right?’ Fortunately, St Gregory of Sinai in the 14th century articulates an idea very close to St Athanasius’s in a very striking (not to say intimidating!) way that leaves any of us little room for comfort:

An interpreter of sacred texts [Grammateus] adept [matheteutheis] in the mysteries of the kingdom of God is everyone who after practising the ascetic life [dia praxeos] devotes himself to the contemplation of God and cleaves to stillness [hesychian]. Out of the treasury of his heart he brings forth things new and old (cf. Matt. 13:52), that is, things from the Gospel of Christ and the Prophets, or from the New and Old Testaments, or doctrinal teachings and rules of ascetic practice, or themes from the Apostles and from the Law. These are the mysteries new and old that the skilled interpreter [o praktikos grammateus] brings forth when he has been schooled in the life of holiness.
An interpreter is one proficient in the practice of the ascetic life and still actively engaged in scriptural exegesis.... [4]

Aside from the very strong statement of the importance of asceticism in holiness for the interpretation of Scripture, I note that St Gregory speaks of bringing forth not only ‘doctrinal teachings’ but ‘rules of ascetic practice’ (praktika) from Scripture. This is not surprising if we recall, in the words of Metropolitan Hierotheos:

We can say briefly that to practise asceticism is to apply God’s law, to keep His commandments. The effort which we make to subordinate the will of man to the will of God, and to be changed by this, is called ascesis. We are well aware from the teaching of our holy Fathers that the whole Gospel consists of ‘precepts of salvation’. What is contained in Scripture is God’s commandment, which must be kept by those who seek their salvation. This is seen clearly in the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12). [5]

Interestingly, the reference to the Beatitudes reminds me of a source apparently far removed from the Sinaite, but who nevertheless expressed an attitude that can be seen to be quite similar—Anglican divine, John Keble, quoted in Brian Daley’s article on patristic exegesis:

As we train ourselves, so also, according to our means, should we endeavour to prepare others, for the right study of the Bible. He who looks no deeper than the letter, may simply recommend candour, and patient investigation, and freedom from sensual and other disturbing thoughts: but he who knows beforehand, that the Personal Word is everywhere in the written Word, could we but discern Him, will feel it an awful thing to open his Bible; fasting, and prayer, and scrupulous self-denial, and all the ways by which the flesh is tamed to the Spirit, will seem to him no more than natural, when he is to sanctify himself, and draw near, with Moses, to the darkness where God is. And this so much the more, the more that darkness is mingled with evangelical light; for so much the more he may hope to see of God; and we know Who it is, that has inseparably connected seeing God with purity of heart. [6]

At any rate, I post all of this to stand as a stern warning to those of us who, while yet indulgers of our flesh who can’t watch with Him for one hour, think we can open the Scriptures from our comfy sofas and immediately perceive the deep wells of God’s mysteries within them. Obviously, I am speaking of myself here.


[1] David C. Steinmetz, ‘Uncovering a Second Narrative: Detective Fiction & the Construction of a Historical Method’, The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. Ellen F. Davis & Richard B. Hays (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), p. 58. 

[2] St Athanasius, On the Incarnation, tr. A Religious of CSMV (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1996), p. 96. Yes, I know, I need the new edition! 

[3] Christopher A. Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1998), p. 42. 

[4] St Gregory of Sinai, ‘On Commandments & Doctrines, Warnings & Promises; on Thoughts, Passions & Virtues, & also on Stillness & Prayer: One Hundred & Thirty-Seven Texts’, The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 4, tr. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. (London: Faber, 1995), pp. 246-7; Grk text in Η Φιλοκαλία των Ιερών Νηπτικών, Τόμος Δ΄ (Athens: Astir, 1961), p. 58. 

[5] Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos, Orthodox Psychotherapy: The science of the Fathers, tr. Esther Williams (Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1997), p. 47. 

[6] Qtd. in Brian E. Daley, SJ, ‘Is Patristic Exegesis Still Usable? Some Reflections on Early Christian Interpretation of the Psalms’, Davis & Hays, pp. 79-80; from Tracts for the Times, no. 89, ‘On the Mysticism Attributed to the Early Fathers of the Church’.

Credal Exegesis & Detective Stories


In my review of Peter Leithart’s generally quite welcome book, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, I quoted from Wesley Hill’s questioning of one of the central objects of critique in the book—the tendency to treat the Scriptural letter as a husk theoretically separable from the kernel of the Scriptural message:

In the eras of the church’s defining Christological debates, it was not enough for the orthodox merely to attend to the Bible’s words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs, since the meaning of those biblical forms was precisely what was up for grabs. Simplifying the matter drastically, we might say that two opposing kernels (Nicene orthodoxy and Arian Christology) were claiming identical husks (the shared language of Scripture). Arguably, the triumph of orthodoxy depended on being able to grasp the right kernel (the Bible’s message about the identity of Jesus) and fit it within a new, extra-biblical husk (the language of ousia). Ironically, given Leithart’s argument, it was the biblical kernel itself that pressured its defenders to set aside the biblical husk for a moment and cast about for a new one.

I was thinking about this criticism today as I read what Leithart calls a ‘witty and wise, and wittily wise’ article [1] by David Steinmetz, ‘Uncovering a Second Narrative: Detective Fiction & the Construction of Historical Method’. [2] While I at first felt no stake in defending this particular aspect of Leithart’s thesis, and as I said in my review, would still enjoy hearing the author’s response over a stout, Steinmetz had me working on a possible response of my own.

Steinmetz’s thesis is that traditional Christian exegesis can be compared to the detective in a mystery story. The story proper consists of a series of puzzling and often apparently random events and characters. Then at the end, the detective calls everyone into the room and offers a second narrative, one which ‘is identical in substance to the first and therefore replaces it, not as an extraneous addition superimposed on the story or read back into it, but as a compelling and persuasive disclosure of what the story was about all along.’ [3]

Steinmetz is quite modest and cautious about overstating the analogy. Right at the outset, he calls it only ‘a useful analogy’, [4] and once he has finished the description of the generic use of ‘second narratives’ in mystery stories, he writes, ‘Traditional Christian exegesis reads the Bible very much in this way—not exactly in this way, of course, but close enough to provide useful points of comparison.’ [5] Perhaps most touchingly, Steinmetz admits, ‘No analogy is perfect, and I can well understand if some objections to the analogy I have used in this essay have already occurred in the minds of readers otherwise sympathetic to my line of argument.’ [6] (He then does us the favour of suggesting a few such objections!) Finally, he notes, ‘The comparison is bound to break down once the reader moves past the limited point the analogy seeks to make. Analogy depends for its force on difference as well as similarity.’ [7] Still, Steinmetz’s analogy really is quite striking.

First of all, I would question whether the Fathers’ use of Scripture can really fairly be characterised as predicated on a husk/kernel dichotomy like the one Leithart is critiquing. Is the language of Scripture truly a ‘husk’ that can be set aside for the Fathers so that the Bible’s ‘message’ can be fit within a new one?

I doubt it. I strongly suspect that the Fathers would deny the appropriateness of such an analogy. They would likely prefer Origen’s comparison of the language of Scripture with the flesh of the passover lamb, which must be cooked in the fire of the Spirit ‘in order to have converse’ with Christ, not eaten raw and thus meriting ‘death and not life’. [8] But another way of looking at precisely the problem Hill raises is by means of Steinmetz’s analogy (which of course the Fathers did not have available). According to the Fathers, Steinmetz writes—

Heretics, lost in the sprawling narrative of the Bible and ignorant of the second narrative that ties it together, have constructed a second narrative of their own. The words are from the Bible, but the argument is not biblical. [9]...The second narrative that the early Fathers had in mind was the expanded baptismal confession [i.e., the regula fidei, which later developed into the Creed]. [10]

So, rather than see the Fathers as treating biblical language as a husk and the identity of Christ as a kernel expressible in another husk, I think we do better to see them treating biblical language as part of the first narrative of the detective story, and the regula fidei as the second narrative. The regula fidei is a way of ‘saving the appearances’ of the biblical language, of accounting for the evidence. Naturally, it will make use of biblical language itself (consider, for instance, how much of the Nicene Creed really is biblical language), but in order to explain, and not merely restate the words of Scripture, other words had indeed to be brought in. Note that the passage from Hill’s review equates the ‘new, extra-biblical husk’ with ‘the language of ousia’—on the husk/kernel analogy, to introduce a non-biblical word does indeed appear to be an example of this dichotomy at work. In fact, one suspects that the prior unconscious embrace of such a dichotomy is behind the readiness of some Sola Scriptura-types (I’m thinking of certain Baptists, rather than confessional Lutherans and Reformed) nevertheless to accept the Fathers’ credal response to the heretical Christologies.

But there is no dichotomy between the detective story’s first and second narratives. Just like the detective’s reiteration of the events of the story, but with missing details supplied, the Fathers’ second narrative was ‘identical in substance [now note the irony of this expression!] to the first and therefore replaced it, not as an extraneous addition superimposed on the story or read back into it, but as a compelling and persuasive disclosure of what the story was about all along.’ [11] In Brian Daley’s words, it ‘serves as the chief guide...to discovering the possible meaning of individual passages’. [12] To borrow Fr John Behr’s comments on the regula in general, even the word ousia itself, as part of the regula fidei elabourated by the Councils, ‘does not simply give fixed and abstract statements of Christian doctrine to be used as building blocks, as it were, for metaphysical systems, but expresses the correct hypothesis of scripture itself, the presupposition by which one can see in scripture the picture of a king, Christ, rather than a dog or fox.’ [13] Fr John writes:

The canon of truth [regula fidei] is thus inextricably connected...with ‘the order and the connection of the scriptures’, for it presents the one Father who has made himself known through the one Son by the Holy Spirit speaking through the prophets, that is, through the scriptures—the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets. [14]

According to Fr Georges Florovsky, even for the most celebrated champion of the homoousion, St Athanasius, ‘the “scope” of the faith, or of the Scripture, is precisely their credal core, which is condensed in the rule of faith’. His use of this ‘scope’ in argument, however—

was still strictly scriptural, and, in principle, St Athanasius admitted the sufficiency of the Scripture, sacred and inspired, for the defense of truth (c. Gentes, I). Only Scripture had to be interpreted in the context of the living credal tradition, under the guidance of control of the ‘rule of faith’. This ‘rule’, however, was in no sense an ‘extraneous’ authority which could be ‘imposed’ on the Holy Writ. It was the same ‘Apostolic preaching’, which was written down in the books of the New Testament, but it was, as it were, this preaching in epitome. [15]

Such a view is, I think, far better expressed by Steinmetz’s analogy of the first and second narratives of detective stories than in terms of a ‘husk/kernel’ dichotomy like that which Peter Leithart has criticised. But perhaps I have missed something...



[1] Peter Leithart, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture (Waco, TX: Baylor, 2009), p. 158.

[2] David C. Steinmetz, ‘Uncovering a Second Narrative: Detective Fiction & the Construction of a Historical Method’, The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. Ellen F. Davis & Richard B. Hays (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 54-65.

[3] Ibid., p. 55.

[4] Ibid., p. 54.

[5] Ibid., p. 56.

[6] Ibid., pp. 63-4.

[7] Ibid., p. 64.

[8] Qtd. in John O’Keefe & R.R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 2005), pp. 53, 52.

[9] Alluding to St Irenaeus’s famous accusations against the Gnostics in Book I of Against Heresies.

[10] Steinmetz, p. 57.

[11] Ibid., p. 57.

[12] Brian E. Daley, SJ, ‘Is Patristic Exegesis Still Usable? Some Reflections on Early Christian Interpretation of the Psalms’, Davis & Hays, p. 76.

[13] Another allusion to St Irenaeus, Against Heresies I.8.1.

[14] Fr John Behr, The Mystery of  Christ: Life in Death (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2006), p. 61.

[15] Fr Georges Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, Vol. 1 in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, (Vaduz: Buchervertriebsanstalt, 1987), pp. 82-3.

19 June 2012

The Ascesis of Scripture


With my friend Maximus Greeson I like to be sure I at least read the introduction to a book, so while I will likely not finish the entire volume, the other day I was reading the intro to The Art of Reading Scripture, edited by Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays. There I was struck by the observation—a corollary to the editors’ and contributors’ conviction that Scripture reading is indeed an art—that ‘like every other true art form, reading Scripture is a difficult thing to do well.’ [1] The editors elabourate:

Strangely, we do not often mention this difficulty in church, in sermons or in teaching. Our attitude seems to be that the interpretation of Scripture is a cut-and-dried kind of thing. In most liberal churches, it hardly seems worth discussing. But even in more Bible-oriented churches, there is little acknowledgment of the fact that making good sense of the Bible and applying that sense wisely to our lives is a hard thing to do. The disciplines of attentiveness to the word do not come easily to us, accustomed as we are to user-friendly interfaces and instant gratification. [2]

Of course, it seems so obvious that reading and understanding Scripture is difficult, but I think Davis and Hays are right, it’s not often mentioned, even when one is not among those with a serious dogmatic commitment to the doctrine of Scriptural perspicuity. When it is mentioned, moreover, there’s a kind of sense that things shouldn’t be this way. Why would God make the Bible so difficult to read?

I believe I first saw the beginnings of a potential answer to such an unspoken question at the blog of Esteban Vazquez (I know, I’ll stop mentioning him again soon). In this post, Esteban wrote, ‘As is true of other disciplines of the Christian life, the systematic reading [of] the Scriptures is an ascetical endeavor...’ (It seems like he said something else about this at some point too, but I’m not finding it just now.) It seems ridiculously obvious, of course, but again, there is that prejudice that Scripture-reading is supposed to be easy. At any rate, I’d certainly never simply equated reading the Bible with ascesis. Of course, I think Esteban was primarily speaking of the discipline of regular reading of Scripture—in other words, simply to pick up the Bible and read a chapter a day is itself an ascetic act, however modest it may seem. But the understanding of what we read can also be seen in ascetic terms, that is, the difficulty of interpreting Scripture constitutes a further arena of ascetic activity.

I first found this spelled out in much more detail in John O’Keefe’s and R.R. Reno’s excellent Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible. Because the notion really is elabourated rather painstakingly there, it is difficult to find a neat summary passage. Suffice to say, the authors point out that for Origen—who was, for all his problems, the pioneer of patristic biblical studies and an enormous influence, whether direct or indirect, on the most important later Fathers—‘God so orders and arranges the created world that our bodily suffering has the capacity to encourage us to direct our attention toward God’, [3] that is, the world itself has an ‘ascetic economy’. Similarly, ‘Divine wisdom, he argues, has made the scriptures difficult to interpret for the same reason that the world is set up according to an ascetic logic—so that the project of interpretation might be a properly disciplining exercise of every fiber of the reader’s being.’ [4]

Now, for whatever reasons, I’ve read a lot of patristic material, but probably no more than a paragraph or two of Origen in my entire life. This connection between the ascetic logic of the world and that of biblical study, however, was enough to convince me. Fortunately, the very ideas to which O’Keefe and Reno are referring are found in the passages from On First Principles that have been published in the extremely accessible anthology of Origen’s writings in the Classics of Western Spirituality series. At 2.7, we read:

They [the writers of Scripture] portrayed those mysteries, known and revealed to them by the Spirit, by narrating them as human deeds or by handing down in a type certain legal observances and rules. They did this so that not anyone who wanted would have these mysteries laid bare and ready, so to speak, to be trodden underfoot, but so that the person who devoted himself to studies of this sort with all purity and continence and careful watching might be able in this way to inquire into the profoundly hidden meaning of God’s Spirit that had been woven together with an ordinary narrative looking in another direction....And this is because no soul can arrive at the perfection of knowledge in any other way than by becoming inspired by the truth of divine wisdom. [5]

Then, in 2.9, Origen writes:

But if in all the parts of this garment, that is, the narrative, the logical coherence of the Law had been kept and its order preserved, because we should have a continuous way of understanding, we should not believe that there was anything shut up within the sacred Scriptures in addition to what is disclosed on the first appearance. For this reason the divine wisdom has arranged for there to be certain stumbling blocks or interruptions of the narrative meaning, by inserting in its midst certain impossibilities and contradictions, so that the very interruption of the narrative might oppose the reader, as it were, with certain obstacles thrown in the way. By them wisdom denies a way and an access to the common understanding; and when we are shut out and hurled back, it calls us back to the beginning of another way, so that by gaining a higher and loftier road through entering a narrow footpath it may open for us the immense breadth of divine knowledge. [6]

Of course, this is Origen, and he can be a difficult pill to swallow. Lest we forget everything we have learned about allegory and fall back on the knee-jerk modern reaction, ‘To make Scripture difficult, to make the gospel a mystery, a puzzle—is not this the way of the gnostics?’, let us recall what Fr Andrew Louth says to this:

It is not a way of obfuscation, as it would be if allegory were a device for solving ‘contingent’ difficulties: rather allegory is a way of holding us before the mystery which is the ultimate ‘difficulty’ of the Scriptures—a difficulty, a mystery, which challenges us to revise our understanding of what might be meant by meaning; a difficulty, a mystery, which calls on us for a response of metanoia, change of mental perspective, repentance. [7]

Of course, I do not broach the topic of allegorical interpretation in order to gainsay one of the central points of Esteban’s post:

We should not be looking for moments of blazing insight (though such moments might come as we progress in our discipline); neither should we expect to settle, in the course of a single reading, the exegetical and theological issues on which the best minds of the ages have expended their magnificent intellectual powers. Our purpose should be much more modest: namely, to acquaint ourselves with the subject matter of Scripture.

For those of us accustomed to reading fluff, or perhaps worse yet, not reading at all but passing our days in front of the television, such a purpose is, naturally, ascetic enough already. St Tikhon of Zadonsk instructs us that just as we would read the letter of an earthly king to us with love and joy, ‘How much more must we read the letter of the Heavenly King with love and joy’, but at the same time, he writes, ‘Keep yourself, then, from prying into things which are above you. Believe in all things as the Holy Scriptures teach, and as the Holy Church believes and establishes in accordance with it.’ [8] Thus, when we do need to understand something in Scripture, we should be ready and willing to turn to the interpretive Tradition of the Church and to pray that we too might become ‘inspired by the truth of divine wisdom’.


[1] Ellen F. Davis & Richard B. Hays, ‘Introduction’, The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. Ellen F. Davis & Richard B. Hays (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), p. xv.

[2] Ibid., p. xv.

[3] John O’Keefe & R.R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 2005), p. 134.

[4] Ibid., p. 137.

[5] Origen, An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer & Selected Works, tr. Rowan A. Greer (NY: Paulist, 1979), p. 186.

[6] Ibid., pp. 187-8.

[7] Fr Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Oxford: Clarendon-Oxford, 1983; Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2007), pp. 110, 111.

[8] St Tikhon of Zadonsk, Journey to Heaven: Counsels on the Particular Duties of Every Christian, tr. Fr George D. Lardas (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1991), pp. 18, 19.

18 June 2012

Deep Exegesis Reviewed


I’ve been kind of interested in Peter Leithart for a couple of years now. Although the whole milieu and ethos of the ultra-confessional Reformed is of course not my thing, Leithart’s ideas and especially his interests are rather consistently appealing to me. I greatly enjoyed his book on St Constantine last year, and also read bits and pieces of Against Christianity. [1] But what I really wanted to read was Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, recommended to me by the great Esteban Vazquez, who used to blog at Voice of Stefan. In the course of working on the Lewis paper  mentioned here, I finally borrowed a copy from the OCU library, and finished reading it on Saturday.

Essentially what Leithart is up to is arguing for something very like the mediaeval quadriga. While there are a few references to the Fathers, however, he doesn’t really mention this until the epilogue, where he writes, ‘First, the hermeneutical method offered here is very similar to the fourfold method developed by medieval Bible teachers.’ [2] In other words, Leithart is not explicitly advocating a return to Patristic or mediaeval exegesis. This has the virtue of perhaps appealing to those who would be immediately inimical to such a project and hopefully persuading them. But unfortunately, it also gives the book the feel of an effort to reinvent the wheel at times.

What we are told up front—in the ‘Preface’—is that Leithart has two aims: ‘to show that a hermeneutics of the letter [which he advocates] ought not to be a rigidly literalist hermeneutics’, and ‘to learn to read from Jesus and Paul’. [3] As humdrum as these may sound though, they are also ways of restating the strengths of Patristic exegesis. With regard to the first point, John J. O’Keefe and R.R. Reno (apologies to those who do not care for the latter, but it’s such a good book!) demonstrate unambiguously, ‘For the church fathers, a faith that Jesus Christ fulfills the scriptures [the warrant for typological reading] did not supersede or make unnecessary the difficult task of struggling with the literal details of the Bible.’ [4] With regard to the second point, learning to ‘read from Jesus and Paul’ is of course precisely what the Fathers did. As an illustration of the kind of problematic assumptions he is opposing, Leithart quotes Richard Longenecker’s ‘widely quoted passage’ claiming that modern readers must not attempt to ‘reproduce the exegesis of the New Testament’. [5] O’Keefe and Reno, however, read Patristic exegesis merely as an extension, a ‘reproduction’ to use Longenecker’s term, of NT exegesis. [6] Learning to ‘read from Jesus and Paul’ can and should mean learning to read from the Fathers. Otherwise, we’re pursuing the hermeneutical equivalent of the Protestant attempts to rebuilt the NT Church from scratch.

Moving along then, Leithart’s preface points out two further things about the book: he believes, and hopes to demonstrate, that NT exegesis is not merely ‘some bizarre form of sacred hermeneutics’, but a legitimate way of approaching the reading of any text, sacred or ‘secular’. Finally, he notes that he will refer to John 9 (the healing of the man born blind) throughout as a supreme example of what he’s talking about, since it ‘superbly embodies many of the points I want to make about texts and reading’. [7]

Unfortunately, Chapter 1 gets off to a slow start. It is Leithart’s attempt to explain historically what has gone wrong with modern exegesis, whether liberal and academic or evangelical and popular. What has gone wrong is that the text has become a ‘husk’ which we can and should separate from the ‘kernel’ of its meaning. Leithart traces this notion from Lodewijk Meyer’s 17th-c. application of Cartesianism to the Scriptures—since for Meyer biblical truth ‘is found in the rationally justifiable message and not in the rustic letter’ [8]—all the way up to Richard Longenecker, for whom the ‘kernel of doctrine is detached from the husk of Paul’s puzzling and odd, if entertaining, rhetoric and dialectic’. [9] It is certainly one way to explain and understand the modern impasse, but I found the chapter a bit tedious. More importantly, one wonders whether some of the blame at least ought not to be placed on the Reformers’ ‘abandonment of medieval modes of reading’—Leithart leaves the impression that this had no effect on Protestant hermeneutics until Descartes and Meyer came along. [10] Certainly, I wonder whether Descartes, Spinoza, and Kant—all of whom come up for blame—aren’t something more like the symptom than the disease. As Leithart notes in his comments on Meyer, the latter was attempting to ‘address the lamentable diversity of Protestant interpretation’. This diversity, according to Meyer (and Leithart?), arose from the false or at least exaggerated doctrines of Scipture’s perspicuity or clarity of meaning, and of its self-interpreting ability. [11] Of course, although Leithart does not dwell on the point, both of these ideas were attempts to develop a hermeneutics that could dispense with Tradition. Perhaps I have missed something, but is not clear to me whether our author shares Meyer’s skepticism concerning the Reformers’ doctrines, even if not his Cartesian alternative to them.

Chapter 2, ‘Texts Are Events: Typology’, is more exciting. Leithart takes stock of other attempts to justify the NT exegesis of the OT (whether they advocate ‘reproducing’ it or not), and concludes that they all end with a ‘sacred hermeneutics, applicable to the single double-authored, inspired text of the Bible but inapplicable to every other text’. But Leithart, naturally enough I think, finds this unsatisfactory. He thinks it is ‘possible to justify apostolic reading—which I will call typological—with an argument that applies to texts as such, or at least to all texts of major importance’. [12] This argument is based on those, first, of Arthur C. Danto that the significance and description of past events necessarily grows richer as their consequences develop and they enter into complex relationships with other events, and second, of David Weberman (named in the footnotes) that particular, supposedly finished ‘Events themselves change over time, taking on new properties because of later events.’ [13] To illustrate and explain this potentially counter-intuitive claim, Leithart borrows Weberman’s example of a shooting that takes place at 10 am, the victim of which doesn’t die until 1 pm. The ‘historical’ description of the event at 10, if isolated from later developments, is going to be terribly unsatisfying—it is only a shooting. But when the victim dies, the shooting actually becomes a murder.

Leithart initially compares this with the effect of Christ’s death and resurrection on the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac: ‘It becomes a promise of Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, a type and foreshadowing of the great deliverance on Golgotha, the final sacrifice.’ [14] But of course, he is arguing that all texts are events, not just biblical ones. Thus, about five pages use Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men to show that Danto’s and Weberman’s insights apply to novels every bit as much as to the Bible. [15] He draws on David Steinmetz’s comparison of NT exegesis to the generic mystery-story device of the detective explaining earlier, puzzling events in the story by means of a ‘second narrative’ that unlocks their meaning. [16] But Leithart also turns twice to John 9 to demonstrate the application of his arguments to Scripture as the text par excellence.

Chapter 3 is entitled ‘Words Are Players: Semantics’—emphasising the claim that words ‘do the unexpected, or do the expected in unexpected ways’, [17] contra those who take their semantic cues primarily from the lexicographer’s project of narrowing and isolating synchronic meanings [18] rather than the poet’s of reveling in multivalence and diachronic resonance. Leithart writes:

Words are round characters. Many words have a variety of meanings, and even those that have only a single lexical meaning have a variety of associations and connotations. These dimensions might not be connected to one another in any obvious way....When we read a text, especially one with a high level of craftsmanship, we should be alert to the possibility that a covert sense is lurking just under the surface of the overt. [19]

As evidence, Leithart draws on Dylan Thomas’s ‘Fern Hill’ and Seamus Heaney’s ‘Anahorish’, also referring to King Lear a number of times throughout the chapter. He also draws examples from ancient, non-biblical literature—such as Homer [20]—to counter the claim that ‘Appeal to etymology, and to word formation, is...always dangerous.’ [21] Leithart even does ‘the unexpected’ himself when he quotes the words ‘tit’ and ‘c-nt’ in a reference to Philip Roth’s shocking Sabbath’s Theater. [22] And finally, of course, he turns to John 9 once again, where examples of all of the things he’s talking about abound.

Although—judging by the title—one feels that Chapter 3 could have devolved into mere siliness, this is perhaps even more true of Chapter 4, ‘The Text Is a Joke: Intertextuality’. But what he means is ‘every text depends for its meaning on information lying outside the text...and a good interpreter is...one with a broad knowledge and the wit to know what bits of knowledge are relevant. All interpretation is a matter of getting it. All texts mean the way jokes mean.’ [23] This of course in response to the obsessive concern in historical-critical exegesis with avoiding eisegesis, and the concomitant charge that ‘pre-critical’, and one fears, perhaps even any kind of faith-based reading are often guilty of eisegetical readings. After the initial, obviously ‘joke’ examples, and brief considerations of a few biblical passages, Leithart looks at the use of the Bible itself in The Merchant of Venice, and of Dante in Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, and how Shakespeare and Eliot depend for their meaning on the two earlier works. [24] In John 9, he begins with intertextual references to earlier portions of St John’s Gospel itself, before expanding the analysis with Genesis, Isaiah, and Psalm 40.

Here, Leithart interrupts himself briefly to consider the eisegetical problem from another point of view: the supposed contrast between the ‘subjective’ methods of literary interpretation and those of the ‘harder’ disciplines. Drawing on N.T. Wright, he notes that ‘there is always an imaginative leap involved in forming a hypothesis that puts facts into a coherent narrative’, whether the ‘facts’ are literary or scientific. [25] The test is still the ability of the reading to explain the pattern of the data. Furthermore, if such leaps were never taken in any discipline, the result would extremely unsatisfying. Nevertheless, the leaps depend on attention to the ‘facts’, in the present case, the texts, from which the leap is made, and Leithart acknowledges that historical context and conventions provide restraints on reading. [26]

Chapter 5, ‘Texts Are Music—Structure’, was perhaps next to Chapter 1 my least favourite. Leithart compares texts to music in the sense that both exhibit complex structures made up of layers of meaning—a good interpreter ‘must develop an ear for the multiple melodies, not to mention the complex rhythms, of texts’. [27] It is an excellent analogy, and the result—applied to the Odyssey on pp. 152-3, Joyce’s Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on pp. 159-61, and John 9 on 161-71—is fairly impressive. The problem is that Leithart’s exploration of the musical analogy takes so long! He begins on p. 144 by answering Victor Zuckerkandl’s overstatement of the uniqueness of repetition in music as an art form, and proceeds through an overly long analysis of Bach’s ‘Minuet in G’, occupying pp. 146-9. The point is made, but at the expense of my desire to keep paying attention.

The final chapter, ‘Texts Are about Christ: Application’, argues not only the obvious—‘Scripture is about Christ’—but the less obvious as well: Scripture is about totus Christus, which means it’s about the Church as Christ’s Body; and other texts (like Oedipus Rex), and indeed, all of history, are about Christ too. The ecclesiastical emphasis of this totus Christus exegesis prompts perhaps Leithart’s longest quotations from the Fathers—St Augustine’s On Christian Teaching on p. 173 and St Ambrose’s Letter 67 on p. 179. It also suggests a much earlier analysis of John 9 than other chapters, focusing on the blind man as a type of the Church and the washing as a type of Baptism. I have already quoted from the section ‘Jesus and Oedipus’ (here, in the post on St Eustathius), but the reading of Oedipus really is quite striking, being tied into John 9 by the theme of blindness. [28]

But at this point, Leithart begins a section entitled ‘Enlightenment Ocularcentrism’. Starting with a solid quotation from Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, and moving through the always culpable Descartes, Frances Yates on the ‘spatialized view of knowledge’ resulting from the ars memoriae, Walter Ong on Peter Ramus’s pedagogy, and a nod toward postmodern echoes of Nietzsche’s critique of the Enlightenment, I believe that Leithart is setting up a demonstration that in John 9 we see the totus Christus as the answer to mistaken notions of light, vision, and understanding in the West. The whole passage is, I’m afraid, a little ambiguous though. Leithart acknowledges that St John too displays an ocularcentrism, though one focused on Christ the Logos rather than Enlightenment rationality, [29] but still it is hard to determine precisely where he may or may not disagree with the essentially Nietzschean and postmodernist critiques he has offered in the preceding pages. In the next section, ‘Politics of Sight’ [30], we are on firmer ground as Leithart extends the discovery of totus Christus and the reading of John 9 to a consideration of the overturning of worldly power and political structures. Leithart concludes the chapter with the following comments:

John 9, in short, opens up an angle for literary analysis, a critique of Enlightenment rationality, and some features of Christian politics. It is about Jesus; it is about the Jesus who is the head of the body, and so is about the whole Christ. It is about the Jesus who is head over all things for his church, the one in whom everything holds together. John 9 is a text about everything, just like every other biblical text. [31]

The epilogue consists of three areas of brief musings that fell outside the scope of the book: the connection between Leithart’s own exegesis and that of the mediaevals (already quoted); the communal dimension of reading—essentially a nod toward Tradition and the Church—that according to Leithart might have been a chapter entitled ‘Texts Are Community Property’; and the observation that literary ‘interpretation is ultimately a performance’, like that of a musician interpreting a composer’s work. [32] He notes that much more could be said about these things, but that all books must come to an end.

I have minor complaints, of course. As may be guessed from my comments on Chapter 5, I had a low tolerance for Leithart’s long illustrations taken from outside the discipline of hermeneutics. I also found the incessant references to ‘Yahweh’ in the discussions of the OT and Israel annoying. I realise that this has become a standard convention in ‘Hebrew Bible’ studies, but I think it strikes the wrong note for a book advocating a ‘faithful’ and Christian reading of the OT. ‘Yahweh’ is not traditional Christian language for the God of the OT—it is not found, for instance, in the traditional liturgies and prayers, East or West, nor, more importantly, is it found in the NT—and it is bound to seem artificial to the layman. Whether out of some fidelity to the ancient Hebrew piety surrounding God’s name or not, is it an accident that Christians have used ‘the Lord’ ever since the first century? I cannot think so.

But more importantly I would insist that musings 1 and 2 from the epilogue really ought to have played some role in the text itself. They are almost like an elephant in the room throughout the entire book, and they are an emphasis with which modern Western Christianity (and sometimes, Eastern Christianity too!) could really stand to be confronted a good deal more than it is. It is interesting that the back cover of Leithart’s book contains blurbs from two authors who have not failed to bring that emphasis to the fore: Reno, whose Sanctified Vision I’ve already mentioned, and Fr Andrew Louth, whose brilliant Discerning the Mystery makes many of the same points that Leithart does, but places them firmly in the context of Tradition. [33] While I’m on the subject, it’s also interesting that I do not recall Deep Exegesis insisting on the strict distinction between typology and allegory found in Against Christianity, [34] a distinction considerably looser in O’Keefe and Reno [35] and not present at all, if I remember correctly, in Fr Louth. One wonders if Leithart has modified earlier views, or simply decided not to make an issue of them.

Also, concerning Leithart’s central thesis about the husk/kernel dichotomy, I must acknowledge some justice in an objection raised by Wesley Hill in a review for Books & Culture (here):

In the eras of the church's defining Christological debates, it was not enough for the orthodox merely to attend to the Bible's words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs, since the meaning of those biblical forms was precisely what was up for grabs. Simplifying the matter drastically, we might say that two opposing kernels (Nicene orthodoxy and Arian Christology) were claiming identical husks (the shared language of Scripture). Arguably, the triumph of orthodoxy depended on being able to grasp the right kernel (the Bible's message about the identity of Jesus) and fit it within a new, extra-biblical husk (the language of ousia). Ironically, given Leithart's argument, it was the biblical kernel itself that pressured its defenders to set aside the biblical husk for a moment and cast about for a new one.

Hill calls it ‘a measure of the importance of Leithart’s study that it raises questions like these’, but one really would like to have Leithart in the room, perhaps over a pint of stout, to answer such questions immediately upon completion.

That said, this really is a much-needed book, I think. Leithart’s attempts to critique Orthodoxy have been rightly and well-criticised by other Orthodox, but in most respects I can’t help but think of him as an ally.


[1] Peter Leithart, Against Christianity (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2003). The pro-Constantinian theme and polemic with John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas is present already in the latter book. Particularly precious is Leithart’s parable about Hauerwas on the whole issue of Constantinianism:

Once there was a prophet named Stanley. The prophet Stanley was a bold and faithful man who stood with granite face against the powers of the age. 

‘you cannot do that s---t,’ he would say, as he stood before the king. ‘You are going to end up in ‘f-----g h---l, and your people are going to hate you.’

One day the king began to listen and to see the wisdom of Stanley’s words. When Stanley told him that the weak must be protected from the vicious strong, the king took steps to protect the weak. When Stanley told him that Jesus was Lord, the king bowed the knee. When Stanley told him that religious freedom is a subtle temptation, the king took heed.

And the king made a proclamation, that all in his kingdom should wear sackcloth and ashes and repent of their sins, even to the least beast of burden. 

And Stanley went out from the city and made a shelter and sat under it and refused to speak again to the king.

And Stanley said, ‘Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life. I am a d---n prophet, not a f-----g chaplain.’ 

And the Lord said, ‘Do you have good reason to be angry?’ 

As for the king, he was greatly confounded and confused, and knew not what to do; for he had done all that Stanley had asked. 

This parable ends with questions, not a moral: Will the king always refuse to listen? Says who? And, when the king begins to listen, must the Church fall silent, so as to avoid becoming a chaplain? To keep her integrity, must the Church refuse to succeed? (p. 148)

[2] Peter Leithart, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture (Waco, TX: Baylor, 2009), p. 207.

[3] Ibid., p. vii.

[4] John J. O’Keefe & R.R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 2005), p. 45.

[5] Leithart, Exegesis, pp. 32-3.

[6] See for example, O’Keefe & Reno, p. 74.

[7] Leithart, Exegesis, p. viii.

[8] Ibid., p. 10.

[9] Ibid., p. 34.

[10] Ibid., p. 2.

[11] Ibid., p. 8.

[12] Ibid., p. 39.

[13] Ibid., p. 41.

[14] Ibid., p. 44.

[15] Ibid., pp. 55-60.

[16] Ibid., pp. 66-7. I am in the process of reading Steinmetz’s paper, ‘Uncovering a Second Narrative: Detective Fiction & the Construction of Historical Method’, and hope to read a few others from this volume before returning it to the library, particularly Brian Daley’s ‘Is Patristic Exegesis Still Usable? Some Reflections on Early Christian Interpretation of the Psalms’—Ellen F. Davis & Richard B. Hays, eds., The Art of Reading Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 54-65, and 69-88.

[17] Leithart, Exegesis, p. 82.

[18] Unfortunately, this includes the supposedly infallible Moises Silva!

[19] Ibid., p. 86.

[20] Ibid., p. 96.

[21] Ibid., p. 76, quoting Peter Cotterell and Max Turner.

[22] Ibid., p. 81. Leithart even leaves in the ‘u’ of the second word. Sorry folks, I just couldn’t bring myself to do that on a blog that just anyone could read! I am a little ashamed that Leithart has outcussed me.

[23] Ibid., p. 113.

[24] Ibid., pp. 119-24.

[25] Ibid., p. 133.

[26] Ibid., pp. 136-7.

[27] Ibid., p. 144.

[28] Ibid., pp. 181-8.

[29] Ibid., p. 193.

[30] Ibid., pp. 195-206.

[31] Ibid., p. 206.

[32] Ibid., p. 208. Leithart notes that he has reflected on this more in ‘Authors, Authority, & the Humble Reader’, The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature & Writing, rev. & expanded ed., ed. Leland Ryken (Colorado Springs, CO: Shaw, 2005), pp. 209-24, which I read just today in a copy of the book graciously lent to me by John Granger.

[33] See my review here.

[34] See Leithart, Christianity, p. 62, where he claims, ‘At its best, then, typological interpretation is quite different from allegory.’

[35] See O’Keefe & Reno, p. 90, where ‘Allegory and typology are part of the same family of reading strategies’ whose ‘difference lies in the amount of work the reader must put into the interpretation’.