by George Repper
The question of God’s providence and evil is one that tends to crop up every now and again. For me at least, the question over whether God’s providence is the direct cause of evil or not is one that must be answered with the ‘not’. God’s providence is not a cause in a way that collapses primary and secondary causality. This is a very simplistic way of putting it. However, my question of concern is the relationship between God and apparent evil in Scripture. That is, given that God is good and is not a cause of evil, what are we to do when we are confronted with cases in Scripture where God does explicitly condone and order apparently evil actions? What value, if any, are we to glean from these passages?
In his On First Principles Origen of Alexandria alludes to two common yet opposing approaches to certain controversial texts of the Old Testament:
Then, again, the heretics, reading what is written in the Law, ‘A fire has been kindled from my anger’, and, ‘I am a jealous God, repaying the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation’, and, ‘I regret that I anointed Saul to be king’, and, ‘I am God, who makes peace and creates evil’, and again, ‘There is no evil in the city which the Lord has not done’, and, ‘Evils came down from the Lord upon the gates of Jerusalem’, and, ‘An evil spirit from God throttled Saul’, and reading many other passages of Scripture similar to these they did not dare to say that these are not Scriptures of God, but they supposed them, however, to be of that creator God whom the Jews worshipped and whom they esteemed should be believed to be merely just and not also good; but that when the Saviour had come, he proclaimed to us a more perfect God, whom they say is not the creator of the world … Yet also not a few of the more simple of those who appear to be enclosed within the faith of the Church esteem that there is no greater than the creator God, holding in this a correct and sound belief, but believe such things about him and would not be believed even of the most unjust and savage of human beings.1 [Emphasis mine]
Two ways of interpretation are given here. The first is to draw a distinction between the god of the Old Testament and the God of Jesus Christ and the New Testament. His exact target is not important for our purposes here. The position is that there is a perceived problem with the implications that certain texts of the Old Testament have concerning God’s character in relation to the depiction of God in the New Testament. As such, the solution to this difficulty is to divide the old from the new, to say that the god of the Old Testament is a different being to the God of the New, and that the former is not a good god. Whilst Origen seems to have a specific group in mind, his point can be generally made concerning most of the so-called Gnostic groups2, who vary on whether the old god is incompetent or malicious in his creative and revelatory acts. The point remains the same: one way to tackle problematic texts in Scripture is to deny that they are in keeping with the full revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and are therefore less than Scripture.
The second mode of interpretation is to hold to the harmony of the two Testaments, and to take these difficult Old Testament texts literally. Origen’s presentation of this point is telling, because he effectively concedes to the first group. That is, he finds that there is something morally repugnant in accepting that these texts are to be taken literally, and in this way he agrees with the Gnostics in their affirmation that the Old Testament contains passages that, when taken literally, do not reveal a good God. Nonetheless, Origen affirms the harmony of the Old and New Testaments, and that they do in fact reveal one and the same true God. This is where allegory comes in, and for this exposition I will turn to St. Gregory of Nyssa.
Gregory of Nyssa gives a systematic apology for the use of allegory in the preface to his Homily on the Song of Songs. He utilises six of the eight texts that Origen uses from Paul to justify his use of allegory.3 He then guides the reader in when to deploy the use of allegorical interpretation for a text, giving four indicators: theological impropriety, physical or logical impossibility, uselessness, and immorality.4 The point that concerns us most here is the fourth one in this list, which is an echo of Origen. For St. Gregory, if a passage in Scripture does not befit God in a moral sense, then its literal reading must be rejected. He states in the preface to his Song of Songs commentary:
[O]ne ought not in every instance to remain with the letter (since the obvious sense of the words often does us harm when it comes to the virtuous life), but one ought to shift to an understanding that concerns the immaterial and intelligible, so that corporeal ideas may be transposed into intellect and thought when the fleshly sense of the words has been shaken off like dust.5
The bracketed statement is crucial here as it demonstrates his point that the literal reading of Scripture can be spiritually harmful in certain cases. And not only this, but like Origen he goes so far as to propose that certain historical narratives in Scripture did not occur for this reason. His approach, I feel, is best exemplified by his interpretation of the story of the plagues of Egypt, specifically the tenth plague, in his work The Life of Moses.
The Life of Moses is divided into two parts. The first is simply a literal retelling of Moses’ life from Exodus through to Deuteronomy. The second and much longer part is his interpretation of the story that he has just recounted. The story of the death of the firstborn as found in Exodus 12 is a fairly distressing one for Gregory, and he feels the need to stress this point in all of its moral and theological horror:
How would a concept worthy of God be preserved in the description of what happened if one looked only to the history? The Egyptian acts unjustly, and in his place is punished his newborn child, who in his infancy cannot discern what is good and what is not. His life has no experience of evil, for infancy is not capable of passion. He does not know to distinguish between his right hand and his left. The infant lifts his eyes only to his mother’s nipple, and tears are the sole perceptible sign of his sadness. And if he obtains anything which his nature desires, he signifies his pleasure by smiling. If such a one now pays the penalty for his father’s wickedness, where is justice? Where is piety? Where is holiness? Where is Ezekiel, who cries: The man who has sinned is the man who must die and a son is not to suffer for the sins of his father? How can history so contradict reason?6
For Gregory the issue is that the literal text presents God as unjust for punishing people, infants no less, for the sins of their fathers. He then presents an explanation of the text in its spiritual sense. Gregory states that the death of the firstborn is an allegory of the Christian’s battle with sin, and that the Christian, in order to fight sin, must slay it within themselves before it has had a chance to mature and lead to other, more damaging, sins. In his interpretation, the Egyptian people represent sin, whereas the Israelites represent virtue.
Significantly, he suggests that it can be expected that the historical events did not occur, and that if this were the case the allegorical interpretation would still hold true. In other words, Gregory seems to be addressing what was, and to an extent still is, an oft-quoted criticism of allegory, which is that allegory destroys the literal sense of the text, and thereby undermines its own foundation. Here, the saint is asserting that the interpretation is to be maintained even in the event that the literal interpretation proves false:
Do not be surprised at all if both things – the death of the firstborn and the pouring out of the blood – did not happen to the Israelites and on that account reject the contemplation which we have proposed concerning the destruction of evil as if it were a fabrication without any truth.7
Later on in the commentary one finds other examples of this kind of reasoning. Only a few paragraphs on from the interpretation of the tenth plague Gregory attempts to explain the meaning of Exodus 12:35-36, where Moses commands the Israelites to take jewellery from the Egyptians. After writing that the command amounts to theft and is therefore contradictory to later divine commandments given by Moses, he says:
The loftier meaning is therefore more fitting than the obvious one. It commands those participating through virtue in the free life also to equip themselves with the wealth of pagan learning by which foreigners to the faith beautify themselves. Our guide in virtue commands someone who ‘borrows’ from wealthy Egyptians to receive such things as moral and natural philosophy, geometry, astronomy, dialectic, and whatever else is sought by those outside the Church, since these things will be useful when in time the divine sanctuary of mystery must be beautified with the riches of reason.8
Here, again, the lack of a valuable literal sense and presumable denial of the historicity of the literal sense does not negate the allegorical meaning.
So what is the significance of this? Firstly, Gregory is maintaining that our idea that God is good should guide our interpretation of Scripture. This is not to say that we can conjure up ideas about God and then impose them on revelation, but rather that the process of interpretation is complex and is not simply a case of following the ‘plain meaning’ of the text. This would lead to contradiction in Gregory’s view, and likewise would lead to a spiritually harmful view of Scripture, along with a distorted perception of God. Therefore, we approach difficult passages in Scripture with this in mind: that God is good and that the God revealed in Jesus Christ and in the Old Testament is one and the same. However, this might appear to raise some problems of its own. For example, with reference to the above-stated conditions for allegorical interpretation, one might notice that the conditions appear to be rather subjective. Who is to say that a passage of Scripture is theologically improper, or useless, or immoral, and who can then say what the passage really means? Gregory, as well as Origen in a similar sense, uses 1 Corinthians 2:10.9 The answer lies with the one who is inspired by the Spirit of God, as it is the Holy Spirit that can enable one to enter into the depths of God and search the true meaning of Scripture. This is not to say that all Scriptural interpretation requires one to be a spiritual sage, but for Gregory there is a sense in which reason and hermeneutical guidelines fall short of true spiritual interpretation.10 I think it is important here to highlight that allegory is not a reaction to difficult passages in Scripture, but stems from a broader understanding that Scripture is spiritually inspired for the purposes of salvation, and that therefore all of it must cohere for this purpose.11
Secondly, Gregory’s approach necessitates that not all of Scripture has a literal meaning, but all of it does have a spiritual meaning. This was also a view shared by Origen, who stated that there were passages in Scripture that had been deliberately inserted by the Holy Spirit as stumbling blocks in order to trip up the one who is reading and force them to contemplate the text on a higher, spiritual level.12 We find a similar idea in St. Gregory, although in a more optimistic form. For example, in his Homily on the Song of Songs, Gregory is confronted with the question as to why a text that is the epitome of spiritual literature uses such erotic and material imagery to describe immaterial things. Why not simply use straightforward language? The Song of Songs, as its name suggests, is the greatest of spiritual songs in Scripture according to St. Gregory, and speaks about things that the mind cannot grasp. The intense metaphor of desire for beauty in erotic love is intended to mirror the love that the soul should have for the divine beauty; the indescribability of the erotic is analogous to the experience of the divine. It is in this way that the most ‘fleshly’ metaphor can become the most spiritual.13
As such, there is no scandal for Gregory to say that a certain vicious historical narrative in Scripture did not occur, because from his perspective to maintain that it did would completely miss the point of why the passage is there in the first place. Concerning the example of the deaths of the firstborn, the violent imagery can be regarded as an emphasis on the spiritual violence required in the struggle to slay the passions, which is what the text is truly about. To hold this as historical would, in a certain sense, betray a non-contemplative approach to reading Scripture, and a moral failing on the part of the reader. In other words, in trying to stay faithful to the literal reading of the text in these types of passages, one would end up holding views about God that ‘would not be believed even of the most unjust and savage of human beings.’ In other words, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s interpretation of the killing of the firstborn forces us to confront the passage and others like it in their literal moral and theological implications, and then to truly contemplate them.
As such, when one approaches the issue of apparent evil in the Old Testament, the answer of St. Gregory of Nyssa is that there are legitimately problematic passages in Scripture that should not be taken in a literal sense. However, on the other hand this does not mean that these passages are to be thrown out or ignored, but rather they should be embraced as an opportunity to search for the higher meaning of the text. As mentioned earlier concerning Origen, Gregory effectively agrees with the Gnostics that parts of the Old Testament do not convey a message in keeping with the goodness of God. On the other hand, his response is to therefore find the true meaning of these texts, the meaning that encourages the virtuous life and that points to the revelation of Jesus Christ.￼
 Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles, trans. John Behr, (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2017), 4.2.1
 I am aware that the term ‘Gnostic’ is a broad and inaccurate term to describe groups that formally had little to nothing connecting them. Nevertheless, I use it here as a shorthand to describe those groups that drew a distinction between the god of the Old Testament and the God of the New.
 Ronald E. Heine, “Gregory of Nyssa’s Apology for Allegory,” in ‘Vigiliae Christianae’, Vol. 38, No. 4, 1984, pp.360-370, p.362
￼ Ibid., p.360
￼ St. Gregory of Nyssa, Homily on the Song of Songs, translation by Richard A. Norris Jr., (Society of Biblical Literature : Atlanta, 2012), p.5
￼ St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, translation by Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson, (Paulist Press : New York, 1978), §91
￼ Ibid. §100
￼ Ibid. §115
￼ Heine, p.363
￼ Ibid. p.364
￼ For a lengthier explanation of the concept of the Σκοπος of Scripture and its relation to allegorical interpretation, see Richard A. Norris Jr’s introduction to his translation (referenced above), pp.xxix-xxxviii
￼ On First Principles 4.2.9
￼ Song of Songs, p.29
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George Repper is a graduate with a Master’s Degree in Theology from Durham University, with an emphasis on Patristics.