The Meaning of Meaning

Yesterday I posted on the “meaning of Scripture.” I want to go a further step today and write on the “meaning of meaning.” For it is all too possible to understand “meaning” as less than it should be. In a culture in which the dominant form of Scriptural interpretation is based on some form or structure of “reason,” meaning quickly becomes nothing more than “intellectual understanding.” This itself is a distortion of the inherited Truth as found in Holy Orthodoxy.

In a post a few months back, I wrote about the Church as the “Orthodox hermeneutic,” meaning that the very existence and life of the Church is itself the interpretation of Scripture. The interpretation of Scripture cannot only be ideas or words about words, but must become flesh, just as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In that earlier post I wrote:

Is or can there be such a thing as an Orthodox hermeneutic (method of interpretation) of Scripture?  I asserted in a recent post that there was such a thing and that the Orthodox would do well to work towards its recovery rather than using the hermeneutics of others who do not hold the Orthodox faith. I will make a small suggestion for how this may be understood.

St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, asserts:

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).

Thus it is that the Church itself is the proper hermeneutic of Scripture – having been written by Christ, ministered by the apostles, not with ink, “but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.” Thus, to a certain extent, to say that the Scriptures are the Church’s book is a tautology. Either the Church is that epistle, written in the fleshy tables of the heart, or it is not the Church at all. It is partly for this reason that Orthodoxy sees the interpretation of Scripture as something that does not take place apart from the Church nor without the Church, but in the midst of the Church, which is herself the very interpretation, constantly echoing the Word of God in her services, sacraments, and all of her very life.

It is, of course, the case that there are things to be found within the Church that are not “of” the Church, but are things to be purged, to be removed, to be met with repentance. Indeed the life of the Orthodox Church is only rightly lived as a life of constant repentance. “A broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 50 (51):17.

But these are the sins of the old man, buried with Christ in Baptism, whose actions are to be put to death in this life (Romans 8:13).

If the Scriptures are themselves not interpreted in this manner, then every other interpretation is only words about God, and not the word of God. In many cases, Christians have left off living the word of God and have become experts at its discussion. Such exercises may be less than useless: they may prove to be harmful, for we will be judged by every idle word we speak. To take up Scripture and yet not embody it is to be a “hearer of the word and not a doer” as St. John warned in his small epistle.

I have cited the statement of the 7th ecumenical council that “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” It must also be the case that the Church is an icon of Christ, or more than that, the very body of Christ. If the Church is not itself the proper interpretation of Scripture then no interpretation is to be found. If there is a modern “famine” in the hearing of the word of God it would be in the failure of Orthodox Christians to live as fully Orthodox and to keep the commandments of God.

There have been times that unbelievers could look at Christians and say, “See how they love one another.” Could there be a more eloquent interpretation of Scripture?

For this reason there can only be the one interpretation (though a passage may have many layers of meaning) just as there can only be the one Church. For the Scriptures are one even though they may consist of many books – for the meaning of every word, every book, is Christ. And the life of the Church can only be the Life of Christ for there is no other life to be found.

I give thanks to God that in my life I have had occasion to “read” this book in the fleshy tables of the heart. I have also seen many occasions in which those of the Church failed to fulfill the vocation we have been given. But even in the midst of our falling short, I have seen the bright light of Christ, the True Life, and tasted of the heavenly banquet. I have heard the voice of angels singing in choir the one song of the ages:

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

3 Responses to “The Meaning of Meaning”

  1. Lucias Says:

    This is a hard thing to grasp until you realize the church preexisted with tradition prior to the NT scripture. Every single Pauline epistle assumes an already preexistant church keeping the traditions, or the faith, or the deposit, or similar phrases.

    NT Scripture did not establish the Church.

    I’m only starting to grasp it.

  2. Robert Says:

    Lucias,

    So true, profound and good!

  3. Ioannis Freeman Says:

    “For it is all too possible to understand “meaning” as less than it should be. In a culture in which the dominant form of Scriptural interpretation is based on some form or structure of “reason,” meaning quickly becomes nothing more than “intellectual understanding.” This itself is a distortion of the inherited Truth as found in Holy Orthodoxy.”

    Before posing a final question, I want to acknowledge the similarity between Father’s treatment of meaning, as further discussion of an Orthodox hermeneutic, and St. Maximos the Confessor (“Chapters on Knowledge” # 33), “The one who engages in a pursuit of wisdom out of devotion and stands prepared against the invisible forces should pray that both the natural discernment (with its proportionate light) and the illuminating grace of the Spirit remain with him. The former trains the flesh in the acquisition of virtue through asceticism while the latter illuminates the mind to select the companionship of wisdom before all others, according to the Scripture, ‘He works the destruction of the strongholds of evil and of every pretension which raises itself up against the knowledge of God’ (2 Cor 10.5). Joshua the son of Nun clearly shows this by asking in prayer, ‘Stand still, O sun, at Gibeon’ (Josh 10.12), that is, that the light of the knowledge of God be kept secure for him in the mountain of spiritual contemplation, ‘and the moon in the valley,’ that is, that the natural discernment which lies in the frailty of the flesh remain steadfast through virtue.” [end of quote]

    There are points of congruence between “nous” and “reason” –the latter, which Father +Stephen employs, which require further explication to better understand an Orthodox hermeneutic of all holy texts–read, heard, and digested across time and within a living community of Communion. Ideas expressed in my comments about the “reason” lead me to pose the question of how reason might serve prayer, which, is grounded on one line from St. Maximos (as quoted) in reference to Joshua commanding the sun to stand still: “the light of the knowledge of God be kept secure for him in the mountain of spiritual contemplation.”

    How does one continue the process of submitting the reason to prayer (and liturgical celebrations) in community with fellow Orthodox Christians?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: