At the Feet of Saint Ambrose; Reappropriating Symbolic Interpretation of the Old Testament

Texts are ubiquitous in our lives. We almost constantly receive written communication from our friends, family, coworkers, and even various unknown sources. With the advent of e-books, it is easier than ever for individuals to build a massive personal library. Yet, one observes that in many ways illiteracy is on the rise. The profusion of texts in our era, from instant messages to romance novels, has caused an eclipse of great works amid the crowd. The Bible in particular has been left dusty on many bookshelves in favor of more bite-sized reads.1

Within the Bible, the Old Testament especially has seen decline in readership, even among Christians, and perhaps it’s easy to see why.2 These biblical books contain stories that are strange at best to many modern readers. The flood, the plagues, the conquest, and many other narratives can be disconcerting. Anyone who has spent time in online atheist circles knows that these texts are often fodder for assorted anti-theist arguments. However, the scandalous nature of these writings is nothing new.

The early heretic Marcion of Sinope (85-160) seized on troubling passages of the Old Testament to insist that the God found there was not the Father of the New Testament.3 Marcion’s attempt to dismiss the Old Testament God as an evil creator was refuted by writers like St. Justin Martyr (100-165), St. Irenaeus (130-202), and many others. Generations later the first statement of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381) would reflect this conflict: “We believe in one God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” The affirmations that Christ was crucified “according to the Scriptures” and the Holy Spirit “spoke by the prophets” also show that the Creed unambiguously affirms the value of the Old Testament.

It was not only heretics, though, who were perplexed by these Scriptures. St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) admitted that he once held the belief that “the law and the prophets could not be defended against the mockery of hostile critics.”4 Augustine was at this time part of the dualistic Manichean sect. It was only the preaching and mentorship of the great St. Ambrose of Milan (339-397) that showed Augustine another way of reading the Scriptures. What was Ambrose’s method? Augustine relates that in Ambrose’s preaching he “heard many difficult passages in the Old Testament Scriptures figuratively interpreted,” while he had been accustomed to taking them only by the letter.5 Augustine does not here mean to deny or denigrate the literal, or what one might call historical, meaning of the texts. Instead, he is expressing that the plain sense of the text, separated from this ‘figurative’ sense, has no life.

We contemporary readers of the Old Testament often share the gut reactions of Marcion and Augustine. One might say that Christianity in America is in danger of a new Marcionism.6 The reason, it seems to me, is that we are making the same mistake Augustine himself made. We tend to read the Scriptures only according to the letter, neglecting the spirit (2 Cor. 3:6). When one reads Joshua, for example, he or she tends to think that the main purpose of the text is to record the conquest of Canaan, or to present a certain picture of Israel to an ancient audience. These meanings are certainly part of the text, but the reading Ambrose exemplified recognized these as secondary.

What, then, is the nature of this ‘figurative’ reading that Augustine learned from Ambrose? Augustine summarizes it quite beautifully in his magnum opus, The City of God. After summarizing the content of the Old Testament he states, “all signified and foretold the things that we believe have already been fulfilled, or that we see are now being fulfilled, or that we are confident will be fulfilled for the sake of the eternal life of the faithful in Christ.”7 There are two major components to this view of the Old Testament. First, the Old Testament applies first and foremost to Christ. The Old Testament finds its fulfillment in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. Second, since Christians are ‘in Christ’, indeed are Christ’s body, it also applies primarily to them. The things that are and will be fulfilled are, for Augustine, happening within the Church. The reading Augustine learned is thus highly Christological and ecclesiological. We as contemporary readers confront many of the same issues Augustine himself faced in approaching the Old Testament. We may require a solution similar to his. How can we, steeped as we are in a modern scientific understanding of history, learn this way of reading? A fitting place to start would be at the feet of Ambrose, where Augustine first had his mind opened to the Scriptures.

One of the best English resources on Ambrose’s Old Testament interpretation is the Seven Exegetical Works. This work contains Ambrose’s reflections on scriptural figures from Isaac to king David. I will give a brief overview of how he interprets the patriarch Isaac in order to illustrate his method. For those who worry that symbolic interpretation entails the rejection of the historical sense of the text, it will be encouraging that Ambrose begins his discussion with this meaning. He states of Isaac’s origin that “he was born as a reward to Abraham, his incomparably great father.”8 As the treatise continues Ambrose regularly starts from the plain meaning of the text, and continues from there to other senses. I will refer to this type of meaning as the ‘historical’ or ‘literal’ sense of the text. Sometimes this meaning will be unclear due to ambiguities in a given book, but it is usually the most straightforward.

Ambrose almost never allows the historical sense of the text to stand alone. For example, directly after mentioning Isaac’s birth he intimates that Sarah’s conception while she was barren anticipates Christ’s birth from the Virgin Mary. He says of Isaac’s relationship to Christ that “the one is named and the other denoted, the one portrayed and the other foretold.”9 That is, according to the historical sense the text is referring to Isaac, but in a deeper fashion it points to Christ. This sort of move is radically different from most contemporary readings of the Old Testament. While we might say that the text is really about Isaac, or an ancient Israelite context for whom Isaac’s story was formative, Ambrose assumes that what is central is how Christ is revealed in the text. This second mode of reading I call ‘spiritual’, or ‘symbolic’, interpretation.

Spiritual interpretation is often both Christological and ecclesiological, which is natural given the Church’s status as Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:27). For example, Ambrose takes Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, as a type of the Church. Rebekah’s family blesses her when she leaves to join Abraham’s household by saying “May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes” (Gen. 24:60). Ambrose sees this blessing as fulfilled in the Church. He explains that “therefore the Church is beautiful, for she has acquired sons from hostile nations.”10 In other words, the Church fulfills this blessing by making thousands of sons of those who were once her enemies. It is worth stressing that Ambrose’s interpretation does not rely on a denial of the blessing’s historical meaning. Rebekah’s children did become the nation of Israel, and they did defeat their foes in the conquest of the land. However, all these historical events point beyond themselves to Christ who is their true purpose and fulfillment.

There is one final sense in which Ambrose reads the Old Testament, and remaining with Rebekah’s blessing for a moment will be an illustrative example. In addition to the promise of a physical nation, and the spiritual referent of the Church, Ambrose also finds a concrete ethical application of the blessing. He relates that “this passage can be interpreted in reference to the soul, which subdues the bodily passions, turns them to the service of the virtues, and makes resistant feelings subject to itself.”11 As the Church defeats enemies by making them children, so too the soul turns the bodily passions toward good ends. Anger at evil, for instance, can be redirected toward justice, or overly intense love of a created thing turned toward God. This sort of ethical interpretation of the text, which does not explicitly have a Christological or ecclesial direction, I will refer to as the ‘moral’ sense of a passage. One notes that Ambrose holds these various senses together. He does not regard the different senses of the blessing to be contradictory. Instead, each compliments the other and gives greater richness to the text in its incorporation into the Christian life.

These three senses then, namely the historical, spiritual, and moral, form the basis of Ambrose’s Old Testament expositions. I prefer to call this three-fold hermeneutic ‘symbolic interpretation’. However, this method was not an innovation on his part. The Lord himself summarized the Old Testament this way: “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Lk. 24:46-47). Notice that it does not say, ‘Thus, these are the select verses which refer to the Messiah.’ Christ’s summary reveals that all the Scriptures primarily point to him and his Church. Saint Paul likewise affirmed that the crucifixion and resurrection happened “in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Thus, Ambrose, and the other Fathers as well, interpreted the Old Testament as the Apostles themselves had been taught.

It was such readings of the Scriptures, exemplified in Ambrose’s sermons, that led Augustine to see the beauty of the Old Testament. Like him, many of us today are inclined to treat these Scriptures as if they “contain perverse teaching.”12 Augustine’s cure is one that is, I think, suitable for us as well. We too must learn to read the Scriptures “spiritually, removing the mystical veil.”13 This learning occurs most properly within the Church. The Church’s hymnography, the lives of the saints, and the Old Testament readings in preparation for great feasts all point to symbolic interpretation.14 However, as clergy like Father Lawrence Farley have pointed out, many people have not received this deep formation due to various constraints.15

Nothing can replace the formative power of having the Scriptures opened in the midst of Christ’s body. My goal here has been to gesture toward one part of the healing process for all of us who have been malformed or malnourished in our understanding of the Old Testament. Retrieving an Ambrosian symbolic interpretation would go a long way in kindling a deeper love for the Scriptures. This is sure to be both a communal process, and one performed in individual devotional reading. My hope, God willing, is to contribute a small offering to this renewal. In subsequent articles I will apply this framework of symbolic interpretation to specific Old Testament narratives, rituals, and characters. If God will help me, my next article will discuss the so-called ‘Scapegoat Ritual’ of Leviticus 16 in conversation with the insights of the Church Fathers. I pray that I and those who join me in this process will be able to say with the Psalmist “I meditate on Your commandments, which I love exceedingly” (Psalm 118:47 LXX).

  1. While the American Bible Society reports more people reading the Bible in 2021, it is not clear that this implies deep engagement or a comprehensive understanding of the Scriptures.[]
  2. See Brent Strawn. The Old Testament is Dying, Baker Academic, 2017.[]
  3. St. Justin Martyr. The First Apology, at 26. Nabu Press, 2010.[]
  4. St. Augustine of Hippo. Confessions, at V.xiv. Oxford University Press, 2008.[]
  5. Ibid[]
  6. See William J. Tighe. “Modern Day Marcionism,” First Things, April 2012.[]
  7. St. Augustine of Hippo. City of God, at VII.32. New City Press, 2012.[]
  8. St. Ambrose of Milan. Seven Exegetical Works, at 10. Catholic University Press, 2003.[]
  9. Ibid []
  10. St. Ambrose. Seven Exegetical Works, at 15.[]
  11. Ibid.[]
  12. St. Augustine. Confessions, at VI.iv.[]
  13. Ibid. []
  14. See Father Lawrence Farley. “Reading the Old Testament.” OCA, November, 2019.[]
  15. Ibid. []

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