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Craig D. Allert
 on January 15, 2015

What is a Literal Reading?: Lessons from Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine

A very helpful way of avoiding a myopic understanding of our own theories and conclusions is to examine how our forebears in the faith understood things.


About 70 years ago C.S. Lewis urged us to read old books.1 “Every age,” states Lewis, “has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”2 He knows that there is nothing magical about the past—“People were no cleverer than than they are now; they make as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.”3 The advice Lewis offers here is worth noting. A very important way of avoiding a myopic understanding of our own theories and conclusions is to examine how our forebears in the faith understood things. The recognition that we are not the first to struggle in reading Scripture can open up a whole new arena of guidance. It may allow many to see themselves as part of an ongoing tradition extending right down to the present.4

It is in this spirit that more and more Evangelicals are starting to recognize the Church Fathers as resources in spiritual engagement with Holy Scripture. Amongst these, the 4th century Father Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses is often identified as the classic expression of how the Fathers approached the Bible and theology—as a journey upwards in union with God.5 Gregory is well-known for his contribution to the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, but in his Life of Moses he directs his attention to the journey of Moses. The book is composed in two parts: the historia, which is a paraphrase of the Exodus account, and the theoria, which moves on to the deeper, “spiritual” meaning. In the historia (the “literal” meaning) Gregory combines material from the Pentateuch and produces a narrative of Moses’ life which is cogent on its own terms.6Many Christians today are concerned that science is forcing us to accommodate our understanding of Scripture to its findings. The literal or historical reading, so it is thought, is the only proper way to read Scripture, including Genesis 1-3. But Gregory’s historia suggests the possibility that our contemporary understanding of a literal reading should not be our focus when we read the Bible.What Gregory means by historia can be seen in comparing Moses’ encounter with Pharaoh in Exodus 7:8-12 with Gregory’s account in Life of Moses 1.24. It is noteworthy that Gregory calls this historia even though he takes certain liberties with the text and handles it differently than we would expect one concerned with history to do. He does not attempt to look behind the texts in order to reconstruct the “true” historical nature of Moses’ encounter with Pharaoh. It is not the events behind the text that are the subject of his “history,” it is the words of Scripture itself. Gregory simply did not ask what Moses’ life was really like. Historia was not a reconstructed life of Moses conceived as truth alongside and in competition with the text. It was a retelling of the scriptural narrative, designed to make the episodes depicted in Scripture more accessible to the reader as s/he journeyed upwards to God.In the story of the risen Christ joining two men on the walk to Emmaus, we are told that they were already discussing the Resurrection. Jesus, “beginning with Moses and with all the prophets…explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Lk 24: 27). This is an entry point into patristic biblical interpretation because Christ identifies himself as central in it. The key to the meaning of Scripture, for the Church Fathers, is not the external history of Israel. Rather, it is Christ, and since Scripture points to Christ, this is a literal reading.The Old Testament narrates the history of God’s action, and because of Christ it can no longer be viewed as history apart from him. Rather, it comes to be seen for what it really is—a “shadow” waiting for fulfillment in Christ.This challenges the importance given to history in contemporary biblical interpretation when considering the “literal” meaning of Scripture. According to Henri de Lubac, the assumption that biblical, salvation history is accessible only through ordinary historical methods is actually to functionally deny the (historical) reality of the incarnation.9 The history of Israel narrated in the OT does not stand on its own. The Fathers read it as being illumined by Christ; the key to a literal reading. This, in turn, allowed them to see the reading of Scripture as part of a larger process of spiritual transformation in Christ.For many Christians today, history is the controlling element in biblical interpretation. The text is seen as referring to an accessible external history and this becomes the focus.10 This emphasis on the history of the text “negates 1,600 years of Christian exegetical history, and, more important…sets aside as irrelevant the work of the earliest interpreters of the Christian Bible.”11 But Gregory of Nyssa and the Church Fathers encourage us to shift our focus.

One difference between our approach and the Fathers’ approach to interpretation is that the contemporary interpreter’s goal is to get behind the text, while the ancient interpreter seeks meaning in the text. Irenaeus sums up a conviction widely held by the Church Fathers: “the scriptures are indeed perfect, since they were spoken by the Word of God and his Spirit.”12 Irenaeus was not pointing to the Scriptures as a perfect historical record, but rather, as “the orienting, luminous center of a highly varied and complex reality, shaped by divine providence.”13 Truth did not depend on accurately representing history behind the text. Truth resided in Scripture’s power to illuminate and reveal the order and pattern of God’s economy. In this way of understanding, the Bible confers meaning because it is divine revelation, not necessarily because it accurately represents external history.

This can help us understand what is going on in Augustine’s The Literal Meaning of Genesis. This work leaves the modern reader somewhat confused over how Augustine can call it literal. He ponders many difficulties in a literal (to our understanding) reading of the text and shows concern that certain readings of the text may cause ridicule on Christianity by those who have scientific knowledge.14

Augustine suggests several things that spark our interest in light of his literal reading: “light” in Genesis 1:3 is not the visible light of this world but the illumination of angels; morning refers to the angels’ knowledge of creatures which they enjoy in the vision of God; evening refers to the angels’ knowledge of creatures as they exist in their own created natures.15 How can these be called literal?

So what does a “literal” reading mean for Augustine? He does state that the literal meaning of a text should be “expounded and defended…as a faithful record of what happened.”16 But he follows this statement by claiming no Christian should ever say that the biblical narrative “must not be taken in the figurative sense.” His warrant for this is the Apostle Paul’s reference of events happening to Israel in the OT as “symbolic.”17 Then Augustine links Genesis 2:2418 “as a great mystery in reference to Christ and to the Church [Eph 5:32].”19

The linking here of the OT, through Paul, to Christ and the Church is deliberate and far-reaching for biblical interpretation. It helps explain why Augustine and other Church Fathers approached the OT in a fashion they would call literal. Genesis, says Augustine, appears to be historical. But it is unique in that it describes events that happened for the first time—they are unparalleled.20 So, to explain how he deals with the literal interpretation of Genesis Augustine states,

One may expect me to defend the literal meaning of the narrative as it is set forth by the author. But if in the Words of God, or in the words of someone called to play the role of a prophet, something is said which cannot be understood literally, there is no doubt that it must be taken as spoken figuratively in order to point to something else.21

For Augustine, Scripture was intended to point to something, and sometimes in Genesis things were written “obscurely for the purpose of stimulating our thought,”22 so that we might look for the deeper meaning.

Consider Augustine’s handling of the first words of Genesis, “In the beginning…”. He explains that one may inquire whether this phrase should be taken in an historical or have some figurative sense.23 With respect to the historical sense, the question is whether the verse means in the beginning of time, or “in the very Wisdom of God, because the Son of God actually called himself the beginning when he was asked, ‘Who are you then?’ and he said, ‘The beginning, as which I am speaking to you’ [John 8:25].” For Augustine an investigation of the historical sense includes asking what in the beginning means—and this includes his explanation that only the Father is the beginning without beginning and that the Son is the beginning in such a way that he is from the Father.

But questions about the beginning can also include the question of time. Augustine insists that creation is not in time.24 His explanation for this is summarized in The City of God.25 Time is distinguished from eternity by movement and change—there is no change in the eternal. Thus, if creation is from nothing and only God is eternal, there was no time until God created. In other words, “the world was made not in time but together with time.” So, creation is not in time in the sense of temporal duration because time began with creation. Augustine comes to this conclusion based upon his understanding of God, “in whose eternality there is absolutely no change.” He is the creator and ruler of time and since the world was created from nothing, to say that time existed before creation is tantamount to claiming that something else coexisted with God in eternity.

Augustine continues in The City of God (as well as other writings on Genesis) to explain how this time/eternity distinction then impacts how we should understand the days of Genesis 1 as non-temporal (not describing actual periods of time). But this should at least whet our appetite to think about the possibility of orthodox interpretations of Scripture that are not held captive to a particular understanding of the literal/historical.

The Church Fathers encourage us to think seriously about the purpose of Bible reading for Christians. Because the incarnation of Jesus Christ changed history, it also affected what the Fathers would call an historical/literal reading of Scripture. All of Scripture (God’s written revelation) was read as pointing to this center of history, Jesus Christ (God’s ultimate revelation). Thus, an historical reading is one that accounts for the center of history and sees Christ throughout Scripture. Just as Christ transforms our lives as Christians, he transformed the reading of Scripture.

About the author

Craig Allert Headshot

Craig D. Allert

Craig Allert is Professor of Religious Studies and Coordinator of the Christianity & Culture program at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. His PhD in Historical Theology is from the University of Nottingham. He is very passionate about connecting contemporary Evangelical Christianity to its roots in the patristic age. Dr. Allert lives in Abbotsford, B.C with his wife of 23 years and their two sons, ages 15 and 12.

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