January 25, 2021

Fr. Stephen Freeman: An Important Conversation – How Should We Think About the Bible as History?

Gethsemani Wall Art

An Important Conversation – How Should We Think About the Bible as History?
by Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Freeman blogs at Glory to God for All Things

• • •

A recent conversation on the blog seemed worth a full article. The question centered around the problem of the historical character of the Biblical record. I’ll let the question speak for itself:

I have a question to ask about the historicity of the New Testament, one that’s been gnawing at me for quite some time. Paul was wiling to interpret Scripture allegorically, as his treatment of Galatians makes clear. How, then, do we treat 1 Corinthians 10:1-11? As far as I can see, Paul considers the events of the Exodus as literal history, especially in verse 11: “Now these things [the events of the Exodus] happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (NASV). Isn’t Paul implying there was a literal Israel, who literally left Egypt through a parted sea? And what if there was no Exodus, as some scholars maintain? Or even a period of bondage in Egypt? How would this affect the Christian faith?

This isn’t my field of expertise, but most scholars agree that Jewish writers constructed a ‘mythistory’ around the 6th century BC. Events were reconstructed or even invented to help the Jews understand their current plight. For instance, Shlomo Sand contends the united kingdom of David never existed, that it was a later invention by Jewish writers. Such a theory is is not a problem for me per se; Jewish writers in the 6th century were not doing Oxford history 101! However, Paul seems to believe they did. Do you see the bind I’m in?

Any advice would be appreciated.

St. Paul would have had no reason to question the historical character of an Old Testament story. Those who use such a fact to establish that he “thought” it was historical – and therefore it is historical – are making a primary mistake in logic. What counts as “historical” in the mind of the first century and what counts as “historical” in the mind of the 20th or 21st, are very different things. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the first century mind was not capable of conceiving what we think of as “historical.” And this is a extremely essential part of understanding the Scriptures, as well as acquiring an Orthodox mind.

I’ll expand on that.

We are secularists. We think things are just things and are nothing other than things. We conceive of the world as existing apart from God, even as self-existing. We thing that if things “mean” anything, it’s only because we “think” of them in a certain way, but that “truth” is only a flat, secular, historical thing. It’s “what happened” and nothing more. Protestant (and later modern) thought changes the nature of truth into this secularized notion. It is an objectification of reality, so that it would be independently and scientifically verifiable as true. Thus, when a modern says that something is “historical” he means what “objectively happened” in such a way that it could be proven were there enough evidence. It is true apart from God and is therefore just a “fact.” The truth is thus just a collection of facts. “History” is the collection of the “facts” of the past.

This notion of truth is no older than about the 17th century. It’s a modern version of truth. What this version of truth cannot understand is allegory. And allegory is essential to both the Scriptures (particularly the New Testament) as well as the Christian faith when it is rightly taught. St. Paul writes in Galatians:

But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are an allegory. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar– for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children–but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. (Gal 4:23-26)

Modern readers do not grasp what St. Paul is actually saying. All we can hear in the assertion of allegory is that one thing “mentally symbolizes” something else. Because it is a mental symbol (and nothing more), it only exists in the mind of the reader. However, St. Paul actually means quite the opposite. He means that the truth and reality of Hagar is Mt. Sinai, etc. And he means this in a way that staggers the modern mind.

St. Paul (and all of the New Testament writers) does not think of any “historical” event as “historical” (in our modern way of thinking). Rather, he thinks everything actually is allegorical. And he thinks that this is the real truth of things. There is a sense in which the truth is dwelling within, beneath, and in history and that events, when they are properly discerned, reveal this greater, deeper truth. Again, this is no mere mental exercise. We might say that the allegorical view of reality is a sacramental view of reality.

Modern secular thought (and therefore modern Christian thought) is anxious to know about the “historical” character of a Biblical event, but only in the modern meaning of “historical.” It wants to know this because it thinks that’s how truth is known. Any assertion of something less than this secular, objectivity “facticity” creates doubts about the “truth” of the thing. But this is not how truth is known and never has been. If someone knows the “facticity” of something, they still do not know its truth.

P1010338The gospels, for example, make it clear that the disciples do not understand the ministry of Jesus, nor His resurrection (even though they are seeing it with their eyes) until the eyes of their understanding were opened. St. Paul is clear about this:

But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1Co 2:14)

Secular versions of knowledge hold that “objective” things are where truth resides and that they are “objectively” known, meaning anybody who looks at something in a disinterested manner can see its truth. But this is not the Scriptural witness.

What we have in the Scriptures, is a “Scriptural” account, rather than a “historical” account. Sometimes “Scriptural” and “historical” coincide, but not always. Frequently, the story has a theological shape in order to reveal its inner meaning (its <em>allegory</em>). The Exodus, as it is written, reveals Pascha (or Christ’s Pascha reveals the true meaning of the Scriptural Exodus). In point of fact, we cannot get behind the Scriptural account of the Exodus to know “exactly” that the modern “historical” events might have been. What we have is an account given us that we might know the truth.

This kind of thinking makes many people nervous. And that is because they have a modern consciousness. I get attacked, occasionally, by some well-meaning Orthodox who are, in fact, modernists, but don’t know it. They have a modern theory of meaning that they read back into Scripture and into the Fathers, but in doing so they make the Fathers say things they did not mean, nor could not have meant. The Fathers were not modernists and did not hold to a modern theory of meaning.

The word “literal” is an interesting example. We think “literal” is the same thing as “historical.” But, properly, “literal” means “according to the letter,” that is, “What does the text actually say.” A text, that is fully allegorical, always has a “literal” meaning as well. If the text says a “lampstand,” it means “lampstand,” even though the truth of the lampstand might very well be the Mother of God (for example). The relationship between the “letter” of a text and what a modern means by “historical” is often very questionable. Often, the only answer (that is honest) is “we don’t know.”

A primary case of correlation between allegorical, literal, and historical (in every sense), is the resurrection of Christ. St. Paul, in 1Cor. 15, recites a very “historical” account of the resurrection to which the gospels bear some resemblance. It is clearly a very primitive, creed-like recitation of the historical facts of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. The gospels, on the other hand, have a clear literary form with regard to these facts, and those literary forms have their given shape in order to reveal the truth of the resurrection. St. John says, “These things are written so that you might believe,” and he means something far greater than merely believing the “facts.”

God is a poet. The world is His poem. It often needs to be read poetically in order to be understood. Protestants and modernists want the world (and God) to be prose. It is not.

The life of an Orthodox believer includes struggling to acquire the mind of the fathers, which includes losing the mind of modernity. In that mind, I would generally say, the “historical” character of the Exodus (or other stories), in a precise, objective form just doesn’t matter, inasmuch as it’s the wrong question asked by a wrongly shaped mentality. That doesn’t mean nothing happened. The assertion that the Exodus is nothing more than pure fiction is both wrong and implausible.

We “believe” the account in Exodus as Scripture – it is the account as we need to know it, so that in the light of Pascha, we might know the truth. Everything(!) is about Christ’s Pascha. Everything is relative to Pascha. The whole universe, rightly understood, is “read” in the light of Christ’s Pascha. It is only in that manner that we know the truth of anything.


  1. This is something that I have been wrestling with for quite some time.Thanks for the input.

  2. flatrocker says

    In reading the comments from yesterday’s Mondays with Michael post, Adam Tauno Williams wrote:
    “I cannot ever recall God ‘speaking’ to an accountant; he apparently talks to performance/artist types constantly. It makes it very difficult to take the continuous din of ‘god speaking’ seriously.”

    I found that comment very interesting and thought provoking.

    Then today Fr. Stephen writes:
    “God is a poet. The world is His poem. It often needs to be read poetically in order to be understood. Protestants and modernists want the world (and God) to be prose. It is not.”

    I think I may have found a response to Adam’s concern.

    • Clay Crouch says

      Some have proposed that Gods speaks in the sublime language of mathematics.

      • Clay Crouch says

        A language, by the way, that I speak with the eloquence of a two year old.

      • I’m not much good at math either, but I object to the idea that math does not express its own kind of poetry, or that God speaks to the poet in the language of poetry, but not the mathematician in the language of mathematics. I think this is to project divisions between different kinds of language, and limitations on God, where there are none.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      No, not in the least. First, this explanation maintains the condescension common of ‘the creatives’; as if the accountant – or whomever else – cannot understand the poem [and is assumed not him or herself to be one]. The accountant is also a son/daugher, a friend, possibly a spouse and/or lover, possibly parent; in whole, a human being. It also asserts, without much merit, that our creatives are clear headed about the reading of Scripture and not captured by modernity – but there is no shortage whatsoever of thoroughly modern poetry and music within Christianity. Second, it neglects my other concomitant gripe: the scandalously narrow topics to which our God so often speaks. As if he is a cowardly politician who will dare to only make the most effortless requests of his constituents. The God in Scripture, regardless of one’s mode of reading is a bold fellow; not much of the trembling flower.

      I mean my response with respect, but I do not accept this addresses the concern. It is still a far clearer solution to doubt the veracity of the vast majority of this speaking and those claiming to have received it.

      • …as if there is no poetry in accounting…

        When you chop wood, just chop wood.
        When you carry water, just carry water.

        Zen saying

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      This sounds like Rob Bell’s distinction between “Poem Truth” and “Math Truth”.

      • ok…so how do you distinguish between “Poem Truth” and “Math Truth”?

        Is it simply that “poem truth’ is the part that used to be “math truth’ until science showed it was in error but we still want to hang on to it?

        Paul clearly thought Adam was a real human being. If he wasn’t his whole argument breaks down. Paul said that if the resurrection didn’t really happen the whole thing was a waste of time. Is the resurrection “poem truth” or “math truth”?

        Where do you draw the line?

        • I was going to say where my personal line of demarcation falls, but somehow this all started to sound like angels and pinheads the more I tried…

          Here goes anyway… The only thing I say MUST have “math truth” (which distinction sounds pretentious to me) is the events surrounding the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, but that’s not to say that there’s no “poem truth” (see previous) in that either, nor does it say that nothing else has “math truth.” If Adam never drew a breath, the story would still be worthy of repetition and inclusion because he points forward to Christ, his antitype. It doesn’t much matter to me whether Adam was real, because Jesus is.

          I hope that that slurry of mangled sentences made some sense… what do you think of it?

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            > angels and pinheads

            I have been accused on being a pinhead! But never of being an angel. 🙂

            > slurry of mangled sentences made some sense

            Sure. And we all – as in everybody – **uses** the concept of truth categories every single day day; regardless of if we acknowledge that or not.

            Either some sections of the Bible **describe** **something** that happened, or they do not – in which case they fall out of all categories of truth. If they describe a non-something then there is no tent; if they do describe something then we can all be under a big tent and argue about the reading of the descriptions; under an even bigger tent are those who argue about what the *something* is.

          • Touche, Finn. I should have been more gracious in accepting that Bell is likely coining terms because existing ones (history, allegory, narrative, myth, literal, tropological, typological, anagogical…) are unknown or loaded with extra baggage in the minds of some of his readers, which would obscure his point.

  3. We conceive of the world as existing apart from God, even as self-existing.

    But the world *does* exist apart from God, in the sense that it is not God, and God has appointed it to run, by and large, via natural laws. The “self-existence” of nature apart from God, on the other hand, is right out.

    If modern Christianity has run too far towards “flat secularism” and Enlightenment thought, Orthodoxy is too much still a captive of classical Greek dualism, it seems to me.

    My bottom line – we live in a historical, material world. If Christ was not born, and did not live, die, and rise from the dead in the same “flat, materialistic” world I live in… I am lost.

    • Yes. If God did not give the world its life, its own existence apart from God’s, then God did not create a world different from himself, and pantheism is true. And if God in Jesus did not come into, and does not now live with us in, the mundane life and world in which we exist, then he is not Emmanuel, he is not God with us, and we are alone.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > But the world *does* exist apart from God,

      Does the post argue that we must believe the contrary? Or that we have to read the Scripture in emulation – as much as possible – of the mind of the author? Emulation does not necessarily require acceptance. The lack of disambiguation in ancient writing between myth and History [as we define it] is almost self-evident. Even if some disambiguation did exist at the time the author was not necessarily educated or even aware of it – his audience almost certainly would not be. Paul seems especially good, as I understand it, of tailoring his texts to his audience.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      If modern Christianity has run too far towards “flat secularism” and Enlightenment thought, Orthodoxy is too much still a captive of classical Greek dualism, it seems to me.

      According to JMJ over at Christian Monist, classical Greek dualism (“Spiritual Good! Physical Baaaaaad!”) infects ALL branches of Christianity, including Evangelicalism. “We go to Heaven (fluffy clouds and harps)” instead of God coming down to dwell among us.

    • Always good to come back to the bottom line. It’s really the only way to make sense of things sometimes, and to persevere when things don’t make sense. Which is why I fret less and less about the sort of questions we are discussing now; at the end of the day, whether or not scripture is this or that, I have no plans to stop doing what I’m doing (namely, seeking God). I’ve developed a sort of spiritual stubbornness from all of my years of doubting and worrying.

  4. I love this — Fr. Stephen’s blog is one of my favorites. Long before reading him or Schmemann or others who explicate this understanding of God’s world, I absorbed it from C.S. Lewis’ fiction.

  5. I think the distinction that Fr. Freeman makes between the way modernists and pre-moderns think is too absolute. People have always looked both ways before crossing a busy intersection, in the East and in the West, in ancient and modern times. Fr. Freeman’s criticism of moderns and Protestants as too prosaic is dismissive, and insulting. It is truer to say that moderns, and some Protestants, look for the poetic in the prosaic, that the language of science and this-worldliness make it possible to find and explore the holy in the mundane. Attempts to establish non-overlapping and separate language-systems that refer to different and discrete ways of knowing the world are often a disguised way of making religious claims unfalsifiable; they also bifurcate reality in a way that is unwarranted by experience.

    • Yes.

    • Klasie Kraalogies says

      Agreed.His antipathy to what he calls “secular” or even “protestant” would be almost comical, if it wasn’t so sad. Everything has to be rewritten in order to make Orthodoxy the only good. It is fundamentalist in character, and smells a lot like the sort of rhetoric one can get at any IFB church, with a thin veneer of mystic, historical intellectualism thrown over.

      • Robert and Klasie – yes. This kind of mischaracterization and prejudice bugs me no end, but i don’t see it changing anytime soon.

      • When this sort of patronizing language is used, when other kinds of Christians are spoken down to as if they are children trying to muscle their way to the grown-ups table, it tries my patience. Fr. Freeman seems not to believe that there can be a respectful dialogue of equals with any Christian who isn’t interested in “acquiring an Orthodox mind.”

        • The truth is one, not many. All languages, to the degree that they refer to and describe truth, overlap. It doesn’t matter if they’re poetic or scientific, fictional or technical: if they don’t refer to and describe the same truth, they cannot be heard or responded to by each other, because they have no common ground to meet on. True propositional statements and true poetry must be contiguous with each other, and necessarily overlap; if they don’t, then they’re not true, but meaningless babble.

          • I met an RO priest back in the 90s who is both an expert on icons and is very comfortable with dialogue – but i am beginning to think he is a rarity. Otoh, he is the son of Russian immigrants who – very sadly – ened up burning their Russian-language Bibles, prayerbooks etc. at the height of McCarthyism. At any rate, he seemed to be comfortable in his traditios, but by no means though that the rest of us were less enlightened. (Quite the contrary.)

      • I wasn’t going to comment on this post, but since you said it first, I’ll just add – amen! Of course there is the ‘inconvenient truth’ that Freeman also seems to be ignoring- the “secular” understanding of the cosmos does a hell of a good job describing the universe. The best job, many would say. Freeman can talk about the pasca, but that doesn’t help a wee bit with mapping the solar system or finding a vaccine for cervical cancer.

  6. It is nice to think that we could ever know the truth. We could say these are cold hard facts reviewed and all by many a scholar. Reminds me so much of how the research says something different too many times for me. Now I’m saying for me. God Speaks to everyone in some way or another. The question has always been are we willing to listen.

    The little precious book I have such a problem reading from front to back seems to be a history of men not willing to listen and some that are. I have found lately asking myself am I really wanting to listen. Don’t I often say to myself I’m going this way. Oh boy. To truly have the faith that would let them make a torch out of me to light the way for others. Mostly I find myself saying I’m not sure we are even worth it. Despair and lack of hope have been an enemy for awhile now. Well mostly ever since I can remember.

    To be sure I see it in God wanting to start all over and Jesus on the mount looking at Jerusalem and saying how long I have wanted to gather you like chicks to a hen. I think they know my despair. Much greater is this love and it is not logical in many ways but in one way it is the only thing to make any sense. So for some it will take the whole of a lifetime here and maybe that not be enough. It seems to be taking me forever. I can see it. It becomes my hope. His hope actually vice versa.

    Hope I can follow when asked after all He is only the best friend I have ever had. His breath fills the dust. His light lights the eyes. Boy I could use an old time family picnic, just not enough family left anymore. Anyone looking for a brother?

  7. Senecagriggs yahoo says

    Solomon paraphrased; “There is nothing new under the sun and that includes man’s desire to dilute Scripture. Satan was the first but surely not the last. [ Hath God truly said…..? ]

    As long as mankind resides on planet Earth, God will maintain a remnant who believe words have meaning and God was/is QUITE CAPABLE of conveying, over the centuries, historical truth.

    But it will always be a small remnant who hold to those truths.

    I stand with the remnant.

    • The issue isn’t whether God is “quite capable” of doing something. Are there limits to God’s “capabilities” in this regard?

      The issue is the nature of the Biblical texts themselves and our own preconceptions – not whether God could do this or that but what God did or didn’t do, what the Bible is and isn’t.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > remnant who believe words have meaning

      Nobody is proposing that words do not having meaning. The evil of Relativism is a straw man.

      The post deals with HOW words have meaning, the concept of meaninglessness is actually antithetical.

    • Go ahead and pretend this article says whatever you need it to say so you can make a condescending comment about how much more you trust in God that the average person. Don’t you feel special now?

      • Klasie Kraalogies says

        Well said. It always amazes me how people can make themselves feel better by grandstanding, even if they have to close their eys and vaguely wave their arms about.

    • Whatever Fr. Freeman is doing here, it bears no relation to “diluting Scripture.”

    • God will maintain a remnant

      Said the priestly caste in Babylon rewriting history to put themselves into the best light. Everyone else did it wrong, but we’re doing it right. See, we told you so.


      half apologies for the snark, last few days have been tough

    • But it will always be a small remnant who hold to those truths.

      I stand with the remnant.

      How the f#ck do you know? You just pop in and make these assertions and…expect thinking people to take you seriously? If I didn’t know your history I would swear to Shiva that you were a troll college student trying to parody fundamentalists.

  8. Eckhart Trolle says

    So what distinguishes the “truth” of the Bible from that of Aesop’s Fables, or the 1001 Nights?

    • Fr. Freeman makes it clear that he does not believe Scripture’s accounts of historical happenings are “pure fiction,” for one thing. It’s a matter of genre.

      I think we all need to do more work trying to understand how “myth,” “story,” and “poetry” convey “truth” and nourish our faith and understanding of God and the message of Scripture.

  9. “Most scholars believe” That is a phrase that I don’t care for. It seems anytime someone wants to give credence to what they are saying that can just throw out a “most scholars believe”. It is almost like saying, “Look this matter is settled and there is no use in thinking or investigating anything else? Who are these scholars? How do we know they are actually the “most”? What of the many scholars who would disagree that the Jews just created a myth that has no basis in history? Do their opinions just not count? I know this was a rant, but that phrase is used is getting old.

    • Yes to this. I have seen other scholars, such as Scot McKnight, express frustration with the phrase as well.

    • Can I add “both/and” and “either/or” to that list, too?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      However, the notion of scholastic consensus is very real. Finding dissenters does not void majority.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > What of the many scholars who would disagree that the Jews
      > just created a myth that has no basis in history?

      (1) nobody used the work “just” as in “just created a myth”, which in this case reads as “merely”, as in “they merely created a myth”. Also nobody said “no basis in history”.
      (2) This statement – minus your extreme over-casting – is certainly, with no doubt, the consensus view of scholars and archeologists. The early history of the Jewish people, and their telling of their genesis as a nation resulting from the Exodus, is mythological, not historical. Scholars arguing the historicity of Exodus are far from the majority view.

      • their telling of their genesis as a nation resulting from the Exodus
        I see what you did there.

      • It is not necessarily an either/or though. Some hold to a kernel of truth in the story (something happened, some group of people, albeit small, was involved, etc…), from which (accepted genre) legendary story-telling was added on for theological purposes.

      • Adam,

        1. This statement “Events were reconstructed or even invented to help the Jews understand their current plight. For instance, Shlomo Sand contends the united kingdom of David never existed, that it was a later invention by Jewish writers” implies at least some of the accounts having no basis in history, meaning, nothing of the sort ever happened.
        2. Basically all you have done in your second point is say “most scholars believe” with a lot more words. My criticism of this phrase goes beyond the particular issue in this post. Who are these scholars? Do professors from conservative schools get included in this list, or are they excluded because of their “biases”? Even if there is a consensus, does that mean it can’t be wrong? Has the consensus of scholars ever been proven wrong before? It is just a phrase that can be overused and misused, and it has been.

        • I think you’re correct. Give us names and references rather than invoking the authority of an anonymous and nebulous crowd of academics.

  10. Eeyore, Robert

    Shat I think Fr Freeman is trying to say is that we don’t live in a “flat, materialistic” world, and the epistemological tools we have developed to manipulate the world as if it were are very efficient for some things, like lifting and moving things, as well as blowing them up, but not so efficient for others.

    As far as the falsification of religious claims, that has been an ongoing goal of the ‘modern’ project as long as I have been alive, and according to my grandparents, as long as they had been alive as well. It has been almost entirely successful. Europe appears to be as free from religious faith as a recently fumigated house is free of vermin. The benefits to human beings have not been delivered as promised.

    Fr Freeman is entirely right about one thing though. It is tough to be modern and Orthodox at the same time. It’s possible but everything in Orthodoxy militates against it. A lot of what goes on in Orthodoxy gets labelled as ‘superstition’, an interesting word that has fallen out of favor recently, but I don’t know if that is because people have gotten more superstitious or less.

    Anyway, one of my favorite epistemological portions of Scripture is from the Gospel of St John, chapter 12, verses 28 and 29. What actually happened here? If you had to establish this in a court of law, which opinion would have prevailed? Positivism, whether scientific or historical, has an element of coercion to it. It establishes kind of a least common denominator of truth that even the biggest, most self-interested, most litigious rat bastard in the room has to acquiesce to. The passage from the Gospel indicates that there are certain things you can’t know if you aren’t ready to know them, and that is scary. Kind of an epistemological Calvinism as it were, although I kind of believe all Calvinism is epistemological at its root.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > Gospel of St John, chapter 12, verses 28 and 29

      🙂 And yet another example of Jesus not answering the question that was asked.

    • It is tough to be modern and Orthodox at the same time.

      No disrespect to Father Freeman, but it’s not easy to be modern and Christian *anything of substance* at the same time. 😉

      And yes, Calvinism does have a distinctive epistemology. As does Eastern Orthodoxy. So it all comes down to epistemology either way. 😛

  11. There is a sense in which the resurrected Christ is the Logos, the beginning and the end of everything – Christ as “hermeneutical key”. So the NT writers look for Christ in their own and in other people’s stories. Whatever the nature of the Biblical text, it’s that “key” that I’m most interested in.

    But does that mean that, in a sense, ALL stories can be allegorized in a way that points to Christ? Is Christ truly hidden within all those stories, or do we instead see NT examples of people redefining and subverting their own story in terms and images that they’re familiar with? Perhaps there’s no real distinction between the two…

    • But does that mean that, in a sense, ALL stories can be allegorized in a way that points to Christ?

      Michael Spencer said that the books of the Bible were chosen by the Church as the stories through which they saw Christ the clearest, so why not?

  12. Fr Freeman has had me thinking hard with his recent posts. Ultimately, though, I see a few problems with the “allegorical” approach that’s being argued for in the original post that I’d like to see addressed, or at least there are things that are lost when “modernism” and “Protestantism” are mischaracterized as being about nothing more than “facts” or “inerrant history”.

    1 – It doesn’t just make a genre based argument that “objective history” isn’t the intent and so let’s relax on demanding too much of the details. It seems to eliminates or downplay the narrative nature of the OT (historical accuracy or not) all together. There’s no story, no people on a journey, no change in what people believed about God. Just a set of infallible truths that “allegorically” all say the same thing when read correctly. The idea that the NT subverts or takes a wrecking ball to anything in the OT (which is undeniable IMO, and a very interesting thing to see modeled) is an illusion, because there’s nothing to subvert. Jesus saying “You have heard it said….but I say to you” (and the things that he’s referencing DO have an OT basis as opposed to being made up “words of men”) makes no sense because everything is all the same allegorically.

    2 – It whitewashes the violence and other moral issues. No need to talk about divinely commanded genocide when dead Canaanite babies are really just “conquered vices” or “Christ’s conquest of the soul”. Historical-critical inerrancy justifies the violence via any number of arguments. “Allegorical inerrancy” argues that it’s not there at all – there’s nothing to wrestle with that can’t be harmonized away allegorically, no seeds of divine violence within the Bible, no reason at all that the Messiah was expected to be a violent conqueror. None of these problems existed before “modern men” made them up I guess.

    • Richard Swinburne (also Orthodox), arguing for a metaphorical reading:

      Of course if we are misguided enough to interpret the Bible in terms of the ‘original meaning’ of the text, that original meaning is often false; there is scientific, historical, moral, and theological falsity in the Bible, if it is so interpreted.

      Of course some will vehemently disagree with this assertion. I do think that there are “deeper truths” to be found (even within falsity), but allegorical approaches seem to be, at times, a “hermeneutic of convenience” to me. Allegory is the hermeneutical tool to respond to that “falsity” – it isn’t all “let’s go find Jesus in that text”.

      Anyway, I’m definitely not defending the Chicago statement. I just don’t want to throw out every hermeneutical approach that reeks of being “modern”. I’m still thinking through this whole thing and am fine being challenged on any of it. Just the way that I see it right now.

    • Miguel,

      Since you are actually asking reasonable questions, I will try to respond.

      To your point 1, the Orthodox point of view is that “subversion” with regard to the OT isn’t what the NT is really about. (The Law being bad is not a feature of Orthodox thought; the Law was simply the Law, and Christ fulfilled it; and besides that, he himself gave us commandments.) There’s really not a denial of the narrative nature of the OT – but that narrative nature is seen more as a spiral than a straight line, with the “overlapping parts” being understood in the light of the Cross and Resurrection. The narrative is there, and that’s okay, but when looking from the NT back to the OT, what is understood is **fulfillment**, and that’s the whole point of the narrative.

      To your second point, I can’t find any place in the writings of the Eastern Fathers that “whitewashes” the violence – they never say “it didn’t happen” or that it was some kind of mistake that those things were recorded. They were more concerned with **why** such things were in the text to begin with, what meaning we should take from what is recorded, as seen backward from the Cross and Resurrection. Their concern was not with what we would call historicity, so “whether it really happened” was not really a problem for them, not like it is for us today. You may not agree with their view, but that was their view. They weren’t justifying the violence – in fact, they believed those instances were not “worthy of God” and that’s what set them on the search for the typological meaning. See Gregory of Nyssa, “Life of Moses” 91.

      In the words of the great Noel Paul Stookey, “If you get the message, you might refuse it – but if you get the meaning, hey, don’t ever lose it – if you get the meaning, oh, of it all…”


      • Sorry, I meant Mike. Getting over a cold – brain is fuzzy.


      • Dana,

        Just saw this response.

        To me, that the NT is subverting parts of the OT (as opposed to confirming it all) is indisputable.

        And yes, I do recognize the usage of “not worthy of God”. We can agree that genocide isn’t worthy of God. But a search for a allegorical loophole just presumes that the text must be protected – some sort of infallible proposition must emerge, so the hermeneutical toolbox is expanded to make it happen. I’d simply rather acknowledge a violent religious past, call it for what it is, and move on.

        I appreciate Eric Jobe’s thoughts here:


        I am also fine working backwards, I just don’t need allegorical interpretations stretched to the breaking point to do so. I simply don’t agree with the outright dismissals of modernism or Protestantism, nor with allegory as a “hermeneutic of convenience”.

  13. Perhaps a way out of the dead end of “allegory” is to use a similar but distinctive methodology – *typology*. In this view, the OT spends much of its time setting the symbology and parameters of the work of God (“mountaintop”, “temple”, “priesthood”, “sacrifice”, “chosen people”, ad infinitum), and the NT applies these symbols to Christ.

    • This is how 20th century literary critic Northrop Frye approached the biblical texts in his book The Great Code: The Bible and Literature: typology.

  14. Read this post over at his blog when it was linked in the side bar. Going to agree with one of the first commenters over there that this seems to be arguing semantics. Wanting to have the cake and eat it too.

    Nothing more to add.

  15. I think this post, at The Fire and the Rose, though it was framed in response to a different issue, contains a sound theological answer to Fr. Freeman’s criticisms of both modernity and Protestantism.


    …modernity is actually more faithful to the gospel than not…

  16. On what basis does Fr. Freeman claim to know how St. Paul thinks? What he has to say on this subject is highly speculative, and there is no way to test its validity. It seems Fr. Freeman expects us to just take his word for it, and to accept his authority without asking how he came by this special knowledge. I think he expects too much.

    • Klasie Kraalogies says

      Special knowledge. Otherwise known as gnosticism. The East is steeped in the stuff.

      What also got me is the underlying, oversimplstic view that your iptuons are secularism (whatever that is, it is used as a dogwhistle to generate the Pavlovian response from his faithful audience), fundy literal Protestantism, or Big “O” Orthodoxy. When it comes to Scriptural understanding especially. Has he ever heard of say Peter Enns?

      These people are very insular.

      • I’ve found Pete Enns work to be very convincing.

        And (for me at least), after pulling the rug out from under me, it’s been very edifying to my faith.

  17. The main point of the post, that thinking people 2000 years ago did not think in the same way as most thinking people today, seems self evident to me now, but it isn’t, and it does need to be pointed out. Many of the comments today are excellent illustrations for the point that Modernism and Protestantism are limited views of total reality, but both seem incapable of this self-realization. In my view both Modernism and Protestantism arrived at the same time and while neither one is going away any time soon, both are at the tail end of their 500 year ascendancy. Both are quite Western in their concepts and this is what makes them limited.

    In my view, Origen had the finest mind and the best grasp of Christian Truth of anyone between Paul and us today. The church was not able to tolerate his insight and toppled him when he could no longer defend himself, installed Augustine in his place, and we have been living with that disaster ever since. The Western mind is made highly nervous by the concept of allegory unless it can be pinned to a display board like a butterfly.

    Again in my view, Eastern Orthodoxy is by far the best depository of the Truth that Jesus spent three and a half years trying to get across to people in words, words that had to be allegorical because it could not be described in words except in a round about fashion. The post does not seem to recognize that many today are operating in a postmodern mindset. I don’t know if Orthodoxy can make that jump from premodernism, but it holds many truths that are vital to those seeking Truth today if the Truthseekers can get beyond the funny hats and secret handshakes.

    • The hats and handshakes are a breeze, but that acquiring an Orthodox mind is another thing altogether.

      • Not a breeze for me. You have no problem addressing your fellow man as Father but it sticks in my craw, as apparently it did for Jesus as well. Would you be any more comfortable with acquiring an Orthodox mind if it was called the mind of Christ? I think much of the antipathy is human fear of different strokes, tribal thinking writ large.

        • I don’t believe that in order to follow and believe in Jesus Christ I must recreate the consciousness of a first century Christian. Nor do I believe that we possess anything like sufficient psycho-historical knowledge of how the contents of first century Christians minds were different from, or alike to, our own, even if we had techniques for transforming our own minds into something completely different from what they are. Here I prefer to take a page from my Zen teachers, by paraphrasing them to say: Your ordinary mind is the mind of Christ. Don’t need to go back 2000 years to get the mind of Christ, don’t need to go forward to the next Ticklian 500 year so-called religious rummage sale: the mind of Christ is your ordinary mind, and your ordinary world. No sacred technology necessary.

          • My ordinary mind is my ego and it took me 70 years to get that figured out. I’m doing my best to shift my identity to the mind of Christ as a child of God in whatever time I have left. No one, including Freeman, is saying we should revert to first century thinking. But they understood things that have gotten lost as humanity advanced in growth as a whole, especially in the West, perhaps in the way that children understand things that get lost or stepped on with adulthood. Jesus did say that we had to approach the Kingdom as children. Children seem to understand stories better than we experts in literary analysis.

            In my view the Eastern Church has retained a lot of that understanding, but they aren’t very good at communicating with outsiders. In fairness, Freeman’s post was more to the flock than to us. I subscribed to his postings for awhile but had to cancel because I too often found his words arrogant and superior and exclusive. My sense is that he is a decent man and intends only to serve God as best able.

          • I don’t believe the EO Church has retained any special knowledge that has been lost to the West. So here we differ, Charles, and that’s fine. These differences worry me less and less. They most likely hardly matter at all.

        • Frankly, I think it’s hubris to believe we can know how people thought two thousand years ago; we don’t even know how the guy in the car next to us on the freeway thinks.

          • >>we don’t even know how the guy in the car next to us on the freeway thinks.

            Well, if he gives you the finger, that might be a clue.

          • Thanks Robert F for the link to the Fire and Rose article on Barth. I have been acquiring the EO mind for the last few months by reading and thinking about Fr. Freeman’s blog and going to EO liturgies and reading EO books. Doesn’t Barth’s knowledge of God come from Scripture and didn’t the Church write and cobbled together Scripture…so is then the Church above Scripture in authority? I do think that EO reads back into Scripture…too much for my taste. So I remain a modern Protestant.

          • Bob: No question that the Church predates the Christian scriptures, in terms of causation and chronology. But I would say that in canonizing the books of the New Testament, the Church made itself responsible to the Christian scriptures, and recognized that they have real authority over the Church itself.

            And we have to ask who and what and where is the Church, now in the present, and through the ages in the past. When any particular body claims that they in the present are somehow uniquely the same Church that existed from the beginning, they have a tremendous burden of proof to meet; the claim is not self-authenticating. Barth starts from the premise that the Christian community, and the Christian theologian, is responsible to the scriptures first, and that the scriptures are the primary form of Christian tradition. He accepts them as authoritative witnesses to the reality that stands behind, under, above and around the Church: Jesus Christ.

  18. There was a time in my life when I though that “those Orthodox” were so arrogant.


    If you have read widely and deeply of the Eastern Fathers, you know that, although they borrowed some terminology from Classical Greek Platonic thought, they actually fought against Platonic dualism on one hand and Gnostic Paganism on the other. What they were talking about bore no relationship to either one of those ways of thinking. The best that Origen had to offer was retained in the Cappadocians, and they acknowledged their debt to him. The Cappadocians understood 1800 years ago the same things Enns talks about now.

    Fr Stephen is discussing what the truth of Scripture is and how we know it. I do wish the conversation kept along that tack. He is not denying that God is separate from creation. He is not saying that the ability to deal with scientific facts or historical timelines is rubbish. He’s saying that we cannot apply those same scientific facts and historical timelines to scripture and expect to know the full truth of it, just like you can’t know the full truth of anyone you love simply from the scientific facts about them and data from their historical timeline.

    I probably won’t comment any more on this thread.


  19. I think Fr Freeman summarises the main point here; ” There is a sense in which the truth is dwelling within, beneath, and in history and that events, when they are properly discerned, reveal this greater, deeper truth. Again, this is no mere mental exercise. We might say that the allegorical view of reality is asacramental view of reality.”

    So truth resides in objectifiable history & allegory. Whatever stretching of historical events occurred in the OT, it is to convey the Word. Rather it conveys the Word through the lense of His incarnation, looking back into the OT.

    I think Fr Freeman should have clarified his comments on Protestants, as not all are fundamentalists, liberals or progressives.

Speak Your Mind