At the very end of his book, On the Incarnation, Athanasius makes a very interesting comment that has always stuck out to me.
But for the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life. Anyone who wants to look at sunlight naturally wipes his eye clear first, in order to make, at any rate, some approximation to the purity of that on which he looks; and a person wishing to see a city or country goes to the place in order to do so. Similarly, anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds. Thus united to them in the fellowship of life, he will both understand the things revealed to them by God….
~ Athanasius, On the Incarnation, chapter 9, section 57.
Grant Osborne has popularized an idea known as the ‘hermeneutical spiral’ according to which various elements like exegesis of the text, biblical theology, systematic theology, historic theology, etc. create a ‘hermeneutical spiral’ something like the following admittedly simplistic explanation:
- We come to the text with a certain set of ideas that influence our interpretation of the text.
- Our interpretation of the text influences our set of ideas.
- We come to the text with an influenced set of ideas.
- … And the cycle continues.
I think what Athanasius’ is doing in the citation above is telling us to add another influencing element, the element of character, to Grant Osborne’s ‘hermeneutical spiral.’
- We come to the text with certain character, which then shapes our understanding of the text.
- Our encounter with the text ought to shape our character.
- We come to the text with further matured character.
- … And the cycle continues.
The Bible is not presenting its content merely as “out there,” as distant from the life, actions, and response of the contemporary reader/ interpreter. The Bible is not a textbook to be merely understood intellectually (although that is important), but contains truths that ought to have implications for how we live. Its content, by design, is meant to provoke a response to God and often addresses that response directly.
As such, our character, which we might describe in terms of our deepest traits of response to God, forms an interpretive lens through which we understand the text. As we approach the text with godly character, we better understand what the text means–not merely “means” in terms of a mere intellectual comprehension (although that is certainly indispensable), but what the text means in terms of the impact it ought to have on us, the response it demands from us, e.g., various beliefs, actions, emotions, choices, etc., the character it should nurture in us. Because of our own experience with the response the text calls for, with living out the text’s truths, with embodying the character the text nurtures, we are better able to truly understand what the text means in this fuller sense.
And because, as stated above, the Bible’s content by design is meant to provoke a response to God, we shouldn’t think of this ‘form’ of understanding the text as some optional form of understanding the text to be added in addition to a mere intellectual comprehension of the text. No, this is fundamental to a true understanding of the text since it corresponds to the very design of the text–to provoke proper response to God. Without this form of understanding the text, we do not yet understand the text as it is meant to be understood in its fullest sense.
As some have said, you do not fully understand the text until you know how to apply it. We might go even further: you do not fully understand the text until you have applied it and until you have made the text part of your character.
Admittedly, this is always a work in progress, a ‘hermeneutical spiral.’