A Bishop on a Saint on Scripture

When reading, one must “look at oneself and reflect on one’s soul as in a mirror”. Here Symeon follows the teaching of Mark the Monk about “attributing everything written in Scripture to oneself”. The Bible is a message addressed to the reader personally; it is not just a book which someone reads to demonstrate his erudition to others.

This is why Symeon would reject what we now call the historical critical handling of Scripture. He regards the Bible not as an object of critical analysis but as prophetic inspiration leading to ever more profound faith:

Let us now lay aside all vain and useless research . . . Let us obey the Master who says: “Search the Scriptures”. Search them but do not discuss them too much. Search the Scriptures but to not organize arguments concerning their external meaning. Search the Scriptures in order to learn about faith and hope and love.

Secular scholars who dare to interpret Scripture without having received the grace of God are very often an object of Symeon’s sharp criticism:

When without having received grace from the Spirit consciously and knowingly, I run to interpret Scripture without any shame and give myself the rank of teacher with no other claim to it than this falsely-called knowledge [ψευδωνυμω γνωσει], will God leave such conduct unjudged and demand no account of me? Certainly not.

. . . How can one achieve a true understanding of Scripture? Symeon compares Scripture with a house built “in the midst of secular and Hellenistic knowledge”, and a true understanding of Scripture with a closed chest, which is impossible to open using only human sagacity. There are two keys to open it: the fulfilment of God’s commandments and the grace of God. The first depends on man, the second on God: there is a συνεργεια (co-operation) of man and God in opening the hidden meaning of Scripture. When the chest is unlocked, one gains access to true “knowledge” (γνωσις), and “the revelation of mysteries that are hidden and veiled in the letter” of Scripture.

Therefore the mystery of Scripture is opened only to those who try to embody what is read by practicing it and who receive a revelation from God. In fact, Symeon incorporates here the notion of the true gnostic who possesses knowledge hidden from the majority. He quotes a maxim, in which God is the speaker: “My mystery [belongs] to Me and to My own.” There are God’s “own” people, to whom the meaning of Scriptures is opened, and “others”, from whom it is concealed:

For the divine things . . . are recorded in writing and are read by everybody, but they are disclosed only to those who have warmly repented, and who through sincere repentance have been well purified . . . For them the depths of the Spirit are revealed, and from them flows forth the word of God’s wisdom and knowledge . . . But for others it is unknown and concealed, and in no way is unlocked by Him Who opens the mind of the faithful to understand the Scriptures.

. . . Thus the reading of Scripture becomes a source of mystical inspiration. We can distinguish several steps by which, according to Symeon, one can ascend to such a level of understanding of Scripture. On the first step a man reads the Bible, paying attention to the “words and their combinations”, that is, trying to understand the literal meaning of the book. On the next step he starts to attribute scriptural texts to himself and to fulfil the commandments as if they were given to him personally. The more carefully he follows the Gospel in his life, the deeper his knowledge of the “hidden” meaning of Scripture becomes. Then God Himself appears to the man, and, by the grace of the Holy Spirit and through communion with the divine light the man becomes γνωστικος, that is, acquires perfect knowledge of the mystical meaning of Scripture.

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev. St Symeon the New Theologian and Orthodox Tradition. Oxford Early Christian Studies, 2000. Selections from pages 49-50, 51, 52.

5 Replies to “A Bishop on a Saint on Scripture”

  1. “Search the Scripture”? Where is this command? It seems to me (judging by the number of conflicts over precision of language of theology and interpretation) that we are prone to idolize the Scripture (and our own opinions of it) and that we fail to search – even if that were the command. As recorded by John, Jesus is said to have critiqued the Jews for searching the Scripture and failing to see that it pointed to him. The point was not the exaltation of Scripture. (John 5:39)

  2. Well, I suppose I’m just more lenient with the writings of Saints. So sue me!

    Anyhow, I read this “search the Scriptures” as something echoing (if not precisely quoting) Matthew 22.29 (and parallels) but especially Acts 17.11. I didn’t think the actual excerpt from St Symeon was really meant to indicate it as a quotation in any case, despite the quotation marks. It’s certainly a general rule gathered especially from the Psalms.

  3. This is precisely something I’ve said to a friend of mine, about the different ways people interpret the Bible. I said I was interested in all the historical and theological stuff, but that most of my training in how to read the Bible was more concerned about God telling me through it just what I should and shouldn’t be doing. A sort of sharp divine elbow in the ribs, as it were.

    Now I’ll just say my family’s Biblical interpretation tradition tends to follow Mark the Monk and St. Symeon. Much more dignified. 🙂

  4. Much more esoteric, too! Whoever hears that will think, “Who?” and then not quiz you any more about it, lest you start speaking Greek at them!

    I like that: The Bible as The Sharp Divine Elbow in the Ribs.

    You crack me up!

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