The Limits of the Written Word

The Limits of the Written Word

There’s a great scene in an episode of The Office where Michael Scott (played by Steve Carell) tells his CFO David Wallace to email him an important document. David had said he would fax it to him, to which Michael replies, “Fax? Why don’t you just send it over on a dinosaur.” David retorts, “Michael, this is important.” Michael’s witty response: “Well, then send it in an email.”

According to the ancients, the written word was the dinosaur of communication. While the Enlightenment and the advent of the printing press has led us to believe that the written word is the best and most reliable method of communication (Who else played the fallacious “telephone” game as a child?), our fathers in both faith and the humanities knew better. For them, nothing was superior to oral tradition and direct, personal dialogue.

In a letter to Hypatius, St. Ephraim the Syrian begins with an extensive lament that he was unable to communicate with him in person.

Behold, I am writing willingly something that I did not wish to write. For I did not wish that a letter should pass between us, since it cannot ask or be asked questions; but I had wished that there might pass between us a discourse from mouth to ear, asking and being asked questions. The written document is the image of the composite body, just as also the free tongue is the likeness of the free mind. For the body cannot add or subtract anything from the measure of its stature, nor can a document add to or subtract from the measure of its writing. But a word-of-mouth discourse can be within the measure or without the measure.

Note how St. Ephraim detests the written word, since a letter “cannot ask or be asked questions.”

As Christians, we are no longer slaves to the “old written code,” as the apostle Paul puts it (Rom. 7:6); we are alive to the Spirit. When trying to interpret a letter or written document, we have no guarantees that our understanding is correct. Our interpretations may be misled by a number of factors. As a result, there are whole disciplines related to the right understanding of written words, termed hermeneutics. But even with hermeneutics, there is no guarantee that our methods and rationalizations are correct (2 Pet. 3:16).

This is partly why the Church has always relied upon tradition—both oral and written (2 Thess. 2:15). The faith is made up of people just as much as it is a set of letters and prophecies. Without the people, there can be no proper relation of the faith from one generation to the next (1 Cor. 11:2).

St. Ephraim continues:

And a letter cannot speak. A letter, therefore, cannot demonstrate every matter about which a man is seeking to ask questions, because the tongue of the letter is far away from it—its tongue is the pen of the writer of it. Moreover, when the letter speaks anything written in it, it takes to itself another tongue that the letter may speak with it, (the letter) which silently speaks with two mute tongues, one being the ink-pen, the other, the sight of the (reader’s) eye. But if we thus rejoice over a letter poor in treasures, how much more shall we rejoice over a tongue which is near us, the lord and treasurer of the treasures within!

Ultimately, the right understanding of Scripture corresponds to a person’s union with the all-holy Trinity.

If the Scriptures are breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:16)—that is, “inspired” by the Holy Spirit—then one’s “acquisition of the Holy Spirit” (theosis), as St. Seraphim of Sarov puts it, has a direct correlation to one’s ability to rightly understand them. The mind of the Church is the same mind found in the Scriptures—and that “mind” is the Spirit of God, the third person of the Holy Trinity.

There is something distinctly un-Christian about an assumption that the right understanding of the Scriptures can come from anything other than one’s own unity with God. Hermeneutics, a knowledge of ancient languages and culture, Ancient Near Eastern historical studies, and other such disciplines can only get one so far. Otherwise, the letter remains lifeless before us and without breath; without the Spirit.

The interpretation of Scripture is not (merely) a matter of science or other “objective” methods, but is of the true Spirit and our true and ancient faith. Ultimately, it is a matter of prayer and salvation, being experienced and lived out in the Spirit-filled community of God.

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