There are texts in scripture that present moral problems and, throughout history, the Church has found it difficult to come to terms with many of the teachings and stories in scripture. Today, the Church employs various approaches to these difficult texts: the more conservative voices usually place the importance of maintaining the integrity of scripture foremost and, therefore, find philosophical justifications for God acting the way God did, while the more liberal voices place the importance on maintaining a moral integrity and thereby find ways to exclude these texts from their working canon of scripture.
There are merits to both these approaches, but ultimately I am unsatisfied by them. I want to continue to have a high view of all of scripture, but I also recognize that there are some parts with which I will have moral concerns, no matter how many philosophical back flips I do. Is there another way to deal with problematic texts?
St. Gregory of Nyssa faced a problematic text when God killed all the firstborn children of the Egyptians. In his work The Life of Moses he presents the reader with the full force of his issue with this text:
The Egyptian acts unjustly, and in his place is punished his newborn child, who in his infancy cannot discern what is good and what is not. His life has no experience of evil, for infancy is not capable of passion…. If such a one now pays the penalty of his father’s wickedness, where is justice? Where is piety? Where is holiness? Where is Ezekiel, who cries: The man who has sinned is the man who must die and a son is not to suffer for the sins of his father? How can the history so contradict reason?
St. Gregory refused to approach this text as a historic text. He could not believe God would act so unjustly, nor contradict other portions of scripture, but he also recognized that the text was part of scripture and therefore could not be easily tossed aside. Instead he looked for a different understanding of the text, what he called a spiritual meaning, and what we would called an allegorical interpretation.
St. Gregory considered the firstborn Egyptians to correspond to the beginnings of sin, and that they needed to be cut off before it grew worse. He linked up that idea with the gospel teachings that lust leads to adultery and anger to murder, so deal with lust and anger before they become full grown. Although this understanding of the text might seem far fetched to us, it establishes two important things. First, within the Church, there is a tradition of critically looking at scriptural texts to see if their plain meaning is morally acceptable, and second, if they are not deemed as such, searching for a deeper spiritual meaning beyond the literal.
Although often maligned by proponents of interpretative methods that put the grammar, historical context, or the origins of scriptural texts first, the allegorical method of interpretation has deep roots within Christian theology. One influential theologian from the early church who employed it, and wrote about how to use it, was Origen.
In his work On First Principles, written sometime before 231 AD, Origen argues that error has found a place in the Church because a strict reading of the letter of scripture leads to absurd beliefs, such as imputing evil to God, or belief in two gods. Everyone who reads the text of scripture will eventually run into “impossibilities and incongruities,” which, according to Origen, have actually been placed into the text through God’s wisdom to cause the reader to move away from the literal text and have them attempt a deeper spiritual understanding.
Origen believed that when we arrive at such passages, we should dig into other possible understandings that spiritualize the passage in question, following the pattern of what St. Paul did in 1 Corinthians 9:9-10 with Deuteronomy 25:4. Here Paul takes an Old Testament law regarding how to treat oxen and uses it as justification for how he should be treated in his own ministry. It is not that he applies a general principle to a specific circumstance, but that he claims this specific verse gives divine authority to his, on the surface, unrelated situation. However, it only makes sense for Paul to use the verse about oxen if we understand that it has a deeper spiritual meaning.
Origen did not stop with this approach only when referring to the Old Testament law. He maintains that as there is one God who gave scripture, and therefore scripture operates the same way in the Old and the New Testaments. Although occurring less frequently in the Gospels and epistles, there are places where the historical narrative should drive us to search out a spiritual meaning as the literal is impossible to maintain.
Even though Origen is a proponent of spiritual readings of scripture, he sees that there are limits to it. He recognizes that this kind of reading of scripture is difficult, that we can recognize the deeper spiritual meaning in a passage but be ignorant of what that meaning is even after meditation and study, and that mistakes can be made in spiritual interpretation. And, although he seeks to draw out spiritual meanings in scripture, he recognizes that, “the passages which are historically true are far more numerous than those which contain a purely spiritual meaning.” For Origen, the interpretation of scripture, like seeking out the will of God, is an ongoing struggle that often leaves us unsure of our conclusions.
Such uncertain readings of difficult portions of scripture may be what the Church of today needs. The problems we currently face may seem new, and in some specifics they may be, but the Church has always struggled with making sense of morally, historically, and philosophically troubling scriptural texts. A return to an allegorical reading of scripture, rooted in church tradition, may offer new possibilities for how the Church of today can work through troublesome texts.