I have been doing a lot of reading recently from the ancient fathers and mothers of the faith. My new favorite commentary series is a set of volumes (I only have Matt., Mark, Luke, John, Acts, and Isaiah if anyone is looking for gift ideas!) titled, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.
When I read these giants of the faith who were so much closer to the time Jesus, and were in great part, founders and formers of the early church and much of what we believe today, I am struck by two things:
1 - They tend to interpret scripture very literally;
2 - They tend to interpret scripture very figuratively.
Initially, these may seem in conflict with one another. It's not possible to view the scriptures from both a literal and a figurative point of view. But the Ancients seem to move back and forth between the two concepts with great ease - at times finding great imagery and allegory in the passages of the Word, and at other times, taking things very literally. Two examples will suffice.
Tomorrow is Palm Sunday. I am, as a preacher of the Word, teaching from the Triumphal Entry. As I read the words of the Ancients this week in preparation for teaching, I was struck at how much imagery they place on every component of this story. The cloaks represent this...the palms represent that...the donkey represents this.... Every layer of the story is unpacked and given at least one, if not more, layers of meaning!
I also recently read this quote from Gregory of Nazianzus in a book I am reading for Lent. "To say something greater still, let us sacrifice ourselves to God; further let us go on every day offering ourselves and all our activities. Let us accept everything literally, let us imitate the passion by our sufferings, let us reverence the blood by our blood, let us be eager to climb the cross." Powerful, literal words in light of the advent of Holy Week.
This morning one of the texts I read was from Romans 12:1-8. As I read it, mostly due to the fast God has called me and what he has been teaching me about what I put into my body, I saw this text in a very new light. What if God is asking us to offer our bodies, literally and figuratively? What if one of the ways I am called to live this out is to literally pay attention to what I am putting into my body - because it really does matter?! And what if I am also called to offer my body figuratively, as a symbol of my devotion to Christ - because it really does matter?!
I think our tendency (or at least the tendency of a large portion of American Christianity) is to think there is one specific way to interpret the Scriptures. There is one exact meaning for every passage and if you believe anything other than that one meaning, your wrong! Perhaps we could take some cues from those giants of the faith who have gone ahead of us. Perhaps we could follow their lead and determine that we are going to use the Scriptures to form and shape us in whatever way the Holy Spirit desires. Certainly I am not advocating for interpreting Scripture in whatever way it suits our fancy, or helps us find a way to support our position! But what if we believed, like the Ancients did, that the Scriptures, under the leadership and direction of the Holy Spirit, have way more power to form and shape us than we often give them credit?
What if the answer to the question, literally or figuratively, is YES?!