What not to say about interpreting the Bible literally – Gregory of Nyssa

The following is taken and modified from a outline on Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses I will be presenting for a class.

In this work, Gregory of Nyssa presents a spiritual-moral-contemplative-allegorical interpretation of Moses’ life with the theme of virtue as its driving paradigm for his interpretive ‘insights.’ To say the least, most of his interpretations are rather outlandish. His goal is that “by transferring to your own life what is contemplated through spiritual interpretation of things spoken literally” (II.320) “those who have been striving toward virtue may find aid in living the virtuous life” (II.49, 148).

Below I’ll present something like a critique of his interpretive method that I’ll offer in my class presentation. My critique is stated as such: “Inappropriate use of allegorical interpretation.”

  • Allegorical interpretation of literature is legitimate if the literature is meant to be interpreted allegorically (e.g., Pilgrim’s Progress). The Pentateuch is not such literature.
  • This intense draw towards allegorical interpretation seems to be rooted in the idea that a more obvious and natural understanding of scripture is not fitting or sufficient for the presentation of divine truths and realities.

For example, see the following quotations:

“If the events require a dropping from the literal account anything written which is foreign to the sequence of elevated understanding, we pass over this on the grounds that it is useless and unprofitable to our purpose, so as not to interrupt the guidance to virtue at such points” (II.50).

“The loftier meaning is therefore more fitting than the obvious one” (II.81).

“How would a concept worthy of God be preserved in the description of what happened if one looked only to the history?” (II.91).

“How can the history so contradict [moral] reason?” (II.91).

“Moses’ holding his hands aloft signifies the contemplation of the Law with lofty insights; his letting them hang to the earth signifies the mean and lowly literal exposition and observance of the Law” (II.149).

“If these things are looked at literally, not only will the understanding of those who seek God be dim, but their concept of him will also be inappropriate” (II.112).

This is what not to say about interpreting the Bible literally.

  • This assumption neglects and undermines the doctrine of scripture’s accommodation–that God enters, acts, and reveals Himself in human history and adapts His self-revelation to humanity’s capacity for understanding. Thus, we don’t need to go “beyond the text.” The text is how and the world of the text is where God has chosen to reveal Himself to us.

The reason I share this critique of Gregory of Nyssa is because I suspect similar, although admittedly less blatant, sentiments regarding interpretation of scripture may exist today.