Monday, April 21, 2008

The Fathers on Reading Scripture XVI (b)

Continued from part one.

St Gregory of Nyssa, in the preface to his homilies on the Song of Songs, writes:
We know, moreover, tht the divine Word Himself, Who is worshiped above all creation (see Ps 19: 1-7, Deut 32:43, Heb 1:6), when in the likeness of man and in the form of flesh (see Phil 2:7), transmitted divine mysteries, so revealing to us the concepts of the law – that the two men whose testimony is true are actually Himself and the Father (see Jn 8:17-18 and Deut 19:15), and the brazen serpent that was lifted up, which served the people as a remedy for death-dealing bites, is to be understood as the dispensation that has come about for us through the Cross (see Jn 3:14 and Num 21:8). And training the shrewdness of His holy disciples themselves through revealed and hidden words, in parables, in similitudes, in dark sayings, and in apothegms that are brought forward through riddles, concerning which, taking them aside, He provided the interpretations, resolving the obscurity for them (see Mt 13:34-36). There were occasions when, if those who were speaking did not comprehend the meaning, He reproached their slowness and lack of wit. When He told them to avoid the leaven of the Pharisees, they abjectly looked in their pouches, in which they had not provided for themselves rations of bread; He then corrected those who did not understand, explaining that the teaching was what was intended by the leaven (see Mt 16:6-12). Again, when the disciples were preparing a mean for Him, He answered them with the words "I have food to eat of which you do not know," while they understood Him to be referring to corporeal food that had somehow been brought to Him in another way, but He interpreted His own words, that the appropriate food for Him was to fulfill the Savior's will (see Jn 4:31-34).

In this manner, we can gather together many such instances from phrases in the Gospels in which one thing is understood in the immediate sense of the words, but the meaning of the words has another purpose. Examples are the water promised to those who thirst, which wells up in streams for those who believe (see Jn 7:37-38 and 4:13-14); the bread that came down from heaven (see Jn 6:53); the temple destroyed and raised up in three days (Jn 2:19); the way (Jn 14:5); the door (Jn 10:9); the stone rejected by the builders, which had become the head of the corner (see Ps [117] 118:12 and Lk 17:34); the two lying in one bed, the mill, the woman grinding, the one taken, and the one left (Mt 21:41); the body and the eagles (Mt 24:28); and the fig tree that had become tender and put forth shoots (Mt 24:32). In all these cases and others like them, it is incumbent on us to search the Scriptures (see Jn 5:39) and to pay careful attention to the reading and to track it down in every way, if we can somehow find a meaning more lofty than the immediate sense of the words guiding our thoughts to things more divine and incorporeal.

For this reason, the fruit from the tree that is forbidden to eat we do not believe to ahve been a fig, as some have held, or any other product of a fruit-bearing tree (see Gen 2:16-17). If the fig were to cause death, not every food would now be permitted, but we have learned this is so from the voice of the Lord, Who made this pronouncement: "there is nothing outside a man that by going into him can defile him" (Mk 7:15), but in this law we must seek a different meaning, worthy of the majesty of the Lawgiver. And if we hear that Paradise was the work of God's planting (see Gen 2:8-9), and if the tree of life was planted in the midst of Paradise, we should seek from that which is revealed to learn the hidden mysteries concerning those things of the Father in the farmer and the gardener and how it is possible that there are two trees in the midst of Paradise, one of salvation and one of destruction. That which is exactly in the middle, as within the circumference of a circle, can only be at one point. If, however, there should be another center set in another place alongside the center, it is necessary that the whole circle be moved with the center. Since there was one Paradise, why does the word say in a peculiar way that another of the trees could be seen and that both the one and the other were in the midst? Does not the Bible contradict the notion that one of the trees was death bearing when it says that all God's works were very good (see Gen 1:31)? In these things, if someone does not have some insight into the truth through philosophy, what is said will seem to be inconsistent or mythical to those who are inattentive.
Taken from this edition.

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