Understanding the Scriptures: Advice from St. Athanasius

Today, while re-reading St. Athanasius of Alexandria’s On the Incarnation, I came across some profound advice on how to understand the Bible. Having concluded his defense of the reality of the Incarnation of Christ, Athanasius adds a brief word advising his reader to move forward by consulting the Scriptures: “Here, then, Macarius, is our offering to you who love Christ, a brief statement of the faith of Christ and of the manifestation of His Godhead to us. This will give you a beginning, and you must go on to prove its truth by the study of the Scriptures” (St. Athanasius On the Incarnation [Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1996] p. 95 section 56). Note the order here: right doctrine about Christ is presented (and presented at length) before the urging to read the Scriptures. We’ll come back to that. Then Athanasius continues:

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 and, thenceforth escaping the peril that threatens sinners in the judgment, will receive that which is laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven. (p. 96 section 57.)

According to Athanasius, we need to have a “good life and a pure mind” in order to understand the Bible. The most obvious meaning of a “pure mind” is a mind free of sinful thoughts while reading Scripture. But for Athanasius it means more than that.  Remember where Athanasius placed this in On the Incarnation? It’s at the end of the book in which he’s explained the reality of the incarnation of Christ. Part of that purity of mind is about doctrinal purity. His thinking, along with the thinking of the rest of the early Church, was that the Bible could not be understood apart from right faith. We read the Bible through the lens of our theology, and if our theology is unorthodox, the Bible is hard to understand.  A broken lens makes things look strange. But when our theology is correct, the Scriptures are easier to understand and the meaning becomes increasingly clear.

But what Athanasius says here isn’t just abstract theology.  It’s also about relationship. “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.” In other words, if you want to know what Paul meant when he was writing his letters to the Corinthians, then you should start acting like Paul. The more your heart breaks for those who don’t know Jesus, the more you endure hardship for the sake of the Gospel, the more you find the pattern of Jesus’ life becoming the pattern of your own, the more insight you will have into Paul’s letters. For Athanasius, the Scriptures were not just an instruction book. They were a gateway into direct relationship with Jesus and also with Jesus’ servants who knew Him intimately. As we study the Scriptures, we grow in fellowship with the Apostles and Prophets whose testimonies about Christ are shared in the Scriptures. That growth in relationship takes time and practice, but it yields deeper and deeper understanding of God’s Word.

So what should we do if we want to understand the Scriptures? Repent. Pursue right faith. Seek holiness. Seek relationship with the Apostles and Prophets. And patiently wait to see what the Lord reveals.

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