Monday, June 21, 2010

Scripture, Incarnation and Knowing God

I found the following when doing extra reading re St Ephrem on and following June 9. The implications for sola Scriptura and a literal (historical/critical) hermeneutic are, I think, devastating. The appeal of a truly incarnational theology (and practice!) is overwhelming.

From –– St Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns on Paradise, Introduction and translation by Sebastian Brock, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press (Crestwood, NY), 1990

Since the human mind is part of creation, it is unable of its own accord to leap across this gap between created and Creator and to provide any description at all of the hidden Godhead. No theology, talking about God, would in fact be possible at all but for God’s own initiative and condescension: stirred by love for humanity, the culmination of His creative activity, He Himself has crossed this gap and allowed Himself to be described in human language and in human terms in the Scriptures as part of the process of His self-revelation. God thus “put on names” –– the metaphors used of him in the Bible –– and in this way the human intellect is provided with a whole variety of pointers upward, hinting at various aspects of the hiddenness of God, whose true nature, however, cannot possibly be described by, or contained in, human language.

This “incarnation” of God into human language is perhaps most fully described by St Ephrem in the thirty-first hymn in the collection On Faith....

[After giving the opening five stanzas, the translator/commentator parenthetically notes] (St Ephrem humorously goes on to compare God’s action in teaching humanity about Himself to that of someone who tries to teach a parrot to talk, with the help of a mirror.)

St Ephrem stresses that we, on our part, must not abuse God’s condescension by taking these metaphors literally –– that would be to misunderstand Biblical language totally. Any purely literal interpretation of Scripture is therefore to be rejected, and this is a point to which Ephrem returns on a number of occasions....

There exists, in Ephrem’s thought, an important parallelism between God’s two “incarnations,” his “putting on metaphors” and his “putting on the body”: in both cases it is essential to penetrate beyond what is seen outwardly –– the literal meaning of the Biblical text and the humanity of Christ –– in order to reach any proper understanding of the significance of these two “incarnations.” Just as, by concentrating solely on the humanity of Christ, one would fail to perceive anything of His divinity, so too, by fixing one’s sole attention on the literal meaning of the Biblical text, one will remain blind to its inner, spiritual, meaning.* Conversely, a total disregard for the literal meaning of the text would itself also lead one to an unbalanced view of Scripture, just as any failure to take account of the humanity of Christ would result in a completely misguided view of Christology. Any true understanding of Scripture accordingly needs to preserve a proper balance: the literal meaning of the Biblical text has its own validity, but at the same time the text has an inner meaning (the “hidden power” in Ephrem’s terminology) which belongs to a different mode of reality.

*This analogy between the two “incarnations” incidentally helps to explain why the Fathers frequently speak of a purely literal understanding of Scripture as a Jewish characteristic.

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