Athanasius on Interpreting Scripture

Athanasius ends his commentary “On The Incarnation” by saying,

“But for the searching of the Scriptures and true knowledge of them, an honorable life is needed, and a pure virtue, and that virtue which is according to Christ; so that the intellect guiding its path by it, may be able to attain what it desires, and to comprehend it, in so far as it is accessible to human nature to learn concerning the Word of God. For without a pure mind and a modelling of the life after the saints, a man could not possibly comprehend the words of the saints. For just as, if a man wished to see the light of the sun, he would at any rate wipe and brighten his eye, purifying himself in some sort like what he desires, so that the eye, thus becoming light, may see the light of the sun; or as, if a man would see a city or country, he at any rate comes to the place to see it—thus he that would comprehend the mind of those who speak of God must needs begin by washing and cleansing his soul, by his manner of living, and approach the saints themselves by imitating their works; so that, associated with them in the conduct of a common life, he may understand also what has been revealed to them by God, and thenceforth, as closely knit to them, may escape the peril of the sinners and their fire at the day of judgment, and receive what is laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven.”

I would argue that Augustine is making the same point, albeit implicitly, in the Confessions.  Many readers wonder why the Confessions, which in many ways was the first autobiography and the first novel with a character, ends with an extended sermon on Genesis 1.  For many readers it just feels tacked on.  But I think the whole point of Confessions is that you have to examine yourself the way Augustine does before you can begin to interpret the scriptures.  It is precisely as Athanasius says.

In one sense, this is comfortable terrain for Evangelicals, who are likely to believe and teach that the Bible is not primarily a book full of information, but a book about total life transformation, and that a person reading it strictly to gain information will necessarily miss something.

But in another sense, Athanasius moves in a direction deeply uncomfortable to most Evangelicals: “approach the saints themselves by imitating their works; so that, associated with them in the conduct of a common life, he may understand also what has been revealed to them by God.”  Now, Athanasius doesn’t necessarily mean canonized saints, but those examples who show us by their example what a community capable of reading scripture rightly looks like.  As Stanley Hauerwas is so fond of saying, only a pacifist church can accurately understand the sermon on the mount.

What do you think?  Is there an objective way for all people to read scripture in common, or do our communities, traditions and lifestyles necessarily impact how we read what we read?

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