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Grant R.Osborne

The Many and the One: The Interface Between Orthodox and Evangelical Protestant Hermeneutics (1)

History and Theoria

Prokurat points out that the liturgical celebration in Orthodoxy "gives revelatory and historical, salvific events by God a mysteriological or 'poetic-mythic' expression.(52) This is because in the Orthodox service liturgy becomes a mystical participation in the saving events, themselves. This does not mean that the participants recreate or rewrite those biblical occurrences but rather that they participate in a salvation-historical sense. Prokurat calls this a "trans-historical" celebration that does not obviate the importance of the actual historical event but places as great an emphasis on the present worship of God in the event as on the event itself.(53)

The hermeneutical key for uniting the historical and transhistorical aspects of Scripture, according to Orthodox theologians John Breck and Bradley Nassif, is the Antiochene principle of theoria. The School of Antioch in the fourth century (Diodore of Tarsus Theodore of Mopsuestia John Chrysostom et al.) stood against the allegorical method of the School of Alexandria by stressing the literal and spiritual (or theoria) sense of the text. The literal sense did the sacred author intend the meaning, and the spiritual sense was the significance of the event for later interpreters (either NT interpreters of the OT or current interpreters). Breck links the hermeneutic with typology, that is, the view that the events behind the OT text are linked in a "promise-fulfilment" sense with later NT events, e.g., the Christ event, the early Church, or the final Advent of the Kingdom yet to come. It is the event behind the text that is the object of theoria, and the prior biblical event (the type) finds realization or fulfilment in the later event (the antitype). He also links this with sensus plenior, which discerns a "double" or "deeper meaning" behind the literal meaning of the author. This spiritual or deeper meaning is perceived by the later interpreter.(54)

Although Breck and Nassif have proposed theoria as hermeneutical link for both ancient and modern interpreters, they differ on its exact meaning. For Breck it is the "intuitive perception" by the sacred author and by the later interpreter that defines theoria. In this sense the literal and spiritual senses are linked; in fact, the latter is based upon the former, for it is God who is behind both. As stated above, this is the sense in which inspiration for the Orthodox scholar extends to the, modern interpreter. "From the point of view of theoria, exegesis does indeed investigate the facts of history.... But it does so with the express aim of uncovering and laying bare the meaning of those events for the spiritual life of the believing community.(55) In fact, Breck would argue that this current appropriation of meaning in the worshipping community is primary, while the intended meaning is secondary. Nassif, however, allows room for reversing the order in keeping with the diversity of the Antiochene Fathers. According to Breck_ the Holy Spirit is behind the original meaning of the OT text, its later typological meaning in the NT, and its further celebration in the Church today. Thus theoria represents two constitutive moments in the history of.salvation, a history in which we find ourselves directly and personally involved.... TO Orthodox Christianity.... this experience becomes actual within the liturgical life of the Church" (italics his).(56)

Breck and Nassif argue that theoria brings together meaning and significance, the literal and the contemplative aspects of interpretation. The literal and the spiritual dimensions of interpretation both stem from the activity of the Spirit and have as their goal the life of the people of God. Through spiritual contemplation the present Church enters into the original event of the biblical text and relives it. While Breck and Nassif concur that the literal and spiritual senses are linked in theoria,.Nassif differs in identifying not a single model but at least three distinguishable ways in which the Antiochene Fathers utilized theoria: at times it was "a literal method of messianic exegesis," at times "a typological or mystical type of textual meaning," and at times "a spiritual illumination in the mind of the biblical author, prophet, or later exegete" In fact, "in many cases the spiritual sense was the historical sense, but sometimes it was not."(57)

Building upon John Chrysostom, Nassif notes some Of the lasting values of theoria that are relevant today:

A conviction that history is the vehicle of divine revelation, belief in the theological unity between the OT and NT and their total (truthfulness in all that they record, fidelity to the literal meaning of the biblical text (including literary style and figures of speech, reverence for the Bible's divine plenary inspiration, a vital attempt to make the Word of God relevant to contemporary life, and a Spirit-filed heart that enables one to understand both the letter and Spirit of the Holy Scriptures.(58)

As in the other categories studied above, the differences between Orthodox and evangelical hermeneutics are not so much in the essence as in the emphasis of the approach. Evangelicals would agree that both intended meaning and current

appropriation is essential to true interpretation. If they follow Breck's line of reasoning, however, they would not receive equal weight. But if they follow Nassif and the Antiochene School of biblical exegesis, then there are grounds for a common conviction about the primacy of authorial intent in biblical exegesis. The divinely inspired (again, evangelicals would restrict the term to the sacred authors) message of the sacred text is the basis for all current application and worship. Theoria is a valid tool, but there are levels of authority, with the intended meaning

having the greatest authority, while both tradition and current interpretation are authoritative only (to the extent to which they are coherent with the original meaning of Scripture.

Moreover, evangelicals see a distinction between literal meaning, typology and sensus plenior. The literal meaning of an OT passage would be the sense it had for the original author Sensus plenior would see a double meaning in the passage, one the literal meaning and the other a "deeper" or divinely understood meaning that the author did not realize. Typology sees an analogous relationship between the original text/event (the type) and the later New Testament text/event (the antitype). With this approach there is no need to posit more than one meaning. for the relationship is recognized by the NT writer, not the OT one(59) There are evangelical scholars behind each of these positions regarding the NT use of the OT, and the issue occasions great debate. Yet for all three positions the controlling factor is the literal, intended meaning of both the OT and the NT texts. Furthermore, not all evangelicals would extend theoria or typology to current interpretation unless the former is used synonymously with "illumination" or the method of messianic exegesis some call "double fulfilment prophecy" (see fn. 53 above). These concepts would be restricted to the NT use of the OT. In such cases Orthodox and evangelical hermeneutics intersect since the differences are often terminological, and current research into biblical meaning would be labelled hermeneutics or exegesis. In other words, with many Antiochene Fathers evangelicals separate modern interpretation from what occurred within the inscripturation process.

The ultimate question that is implicit in this whole discussion, but thus far has not been asked, is, "Which of the many diverse exegetical traditions in the Orthodox Church are to be compared with evangelical hermeneutics?" Would it be Antiochene theoria with its three different possible usages, or Alexandrian allegory with its emphasis on multiple meanings in a single text, or both schools of exegesis including all the diversity of the various writers? The historically informed

answer is not likely to come from simply appealing to theoria as if it were the only representative hermeneutical principle of the Orthodox tradition. The history of exegesis in Byzantium will not permit this, since it is clear that there is no uniform pattern of hermeneutics that can lay claim to universality in Orthodoxy.(60) Theoria is no doubt one of the chief hermeneutical principles with which evangelicals must deal. But by no means can it authentically claim to represent an entire tradition of exegesis in either the patristic or modern periods unless theoria is seen to be synonymous with the concept of "Illumination," with the intended meaning of the text as the control. In that case evangelicals and Orthodox can agree. What remains of critical importance, however, is the need for a greater understanding of how each tradition envisions illumination as part of the work of the Spirit through the Church. An analysis that compares how the two communities conceive of the relationship between intended meaning, theoria, pneumatology, and ecclesiology appears to be a key issue needed to advance us to the next stage of the Orthodox/evangelical dialogue.(61)


1. This paper is an outgrowth of a presentation to the Society for the Study of Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelism at Wheaton College, September 25, 1993. I would like to thank Keith Wells, a member of the Society and reference librarian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, for his invaluable help in researching this paper.

52. Prokurat, “Orthodox Interpretation of Scripture,”61.

53. Prokurat, “Orthodox Interpretation of Scripture,” 61-62. It is critical to realize that this in no way denies the centrality of history. Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition, 24-25, adds, “Historic events are the course and the basis of all Christian faith and hope… Of course, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Ascension are historical facts not quite in the same sense… as the happenings of our own daily life. But they are no less historical for that, no less factual. On the contrary, they are more historical – they are ultimately eventful. They cannot obviously be fully ascertained except by faith,” (italics his)

54. Breck, The Power of the Word, 38-40, 75-77, 84-85. See Bradley Nassif, “ ‘The Spiritual Exegesis’ of Scripture: The School of Antioch Revisited,” Anglican Theological Review 75/4 (1993), 437-70 (esp. 459-65) for a survey of views on the differences between theoria and allegory, typology, and sensus plenior. Many evangelicals have followed the school of messianic exegesis exemplified by Walter Kaiser, who maintains that the “double fulfilment” principle “is very close to the concept of theoria posed by the Antiochene school of interpretation,” in The Uses of the Old Testament in the New (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985), 71, as quoted by Nassif, 451.

55. Breck, The Power of the Word, 99 (cf.95-99).

56. Breck, op.cit. 104.(cf. 102-105). Breck qualifies his use of inspiration by noting that the primary authority is that of the biblical author and that Tradition and the current interpreter have only a secondary or derived authority (cf. pp.105-106). See also his "Theoria and Orthodox Hermeneutics,” Power of the Word, 91-113 (reprinted from SVTQ 20 [1976], 195-219.

57. Nassif, "Spiritual Exegesis,468 (emphasis his).

58. Nassif, "Spiritual Exegesis,"467 (cf. pp. 465-68, where he expands this latter point), His attempt to appropriate the implication of theoria to structuralism, genre criticism, and canonical criticism can be seen in his unpublished dissertation, "Antiochene Theoria in John Chrysostom's Exegesis" (Fordham University, New York 1991), 301-306,315-319. See also Breck, Power of the Word, 110-113.

59. See Grant R. Osborne, "Type, Typology," in The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, ed. Geoffrey W.Bromiley (4 vols; Grand Rapids:Eerdmans,. 1979-1988), IV, 930-32; and Douglas J.Moo. "The Problem of Sensus Plenior," in Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon, eds.D.A. Carson and John D. Woodridge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 179-211.

60. Nor does any one system describe all evangelical hermeneutics. Although the majority today would utilize a meaning-significance type of format centring on the author's intended meaning, there are representatives within the evangelical camp of each Orthodox hermeneutic mentioned here.

61. I am indebted to a conversation with Bradley Nassif for many of the ideas in this paragraph.

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