by Frances Young.
The first time I met the man who has been my husband for over 50 years he and a friend were doing a Guardian cryptic crossword. I sat on the touchlines making somewhat caustic comments – to my linguistically-trained mind the tricks and conventions were just ridiculous! But then I had never been any good at puzzles, outshone by younger siblings, fearful of failure – though I suppose some would have thought I was doing puzzles all the time as I struggled to read and write Greek and Latin. No – I was never a puzzler! Yet late in life I’ve discovered Sudoku and Codewords and have to discipline myself not to get addicted and waste all day on them… They are definitely therapeutic, certainly a distraction from pressures and anxieties, a better accompaniment than reading to listening to music – you really can listen… And they say, there’re a possible antidote to dementia, a serious consideration in one’s 80s! Puzzles are to be celebrated.
But should we treat Scripture as puzzles deliberately set for us by the Holy Spirit? Believe it or not that is exactly what significant Christian theologians of the third and fourth centuries did think. I wonder if they might be onto something.
Augustine, the great theologian of the Western Church, whose life spanned the fall of the Roman Empire in the early fifth century, composed a treatise On Christian Teaching. It was essentially about interpreting and communicating scripture. He knew all about teaching classical literature – professionally he had been a rhetor, an educator, before his conversion. He had been one of those cultured despisers of the scriptures – they lacked style, being written in awful translationese, and were thoroughly alien and strange. But once a priest and bishop he devoted himself to making sense of them. He could then exemplify their natural eloquence and wisdom, while admitting that in places it was hard work to find it. Problems and ambiguities of many kinds were presented to the casual reader, “so thick is the fog created by some obscure phrases.”
I have no doubt that this is all divinely predetermined, so that pride may be subdued by hard work and intellects which tend to despise things that are easily discovered may be rescued from boredom and reinvigorated.
No one disputes that it is much more pleasant to learn lessons presented through imagery, and much more rewarding to discover meanings that are won only with difficulty… In both situations the danger is lethargy. It is a wonderful and beneficial thing that the Holy Spirit organised the holy scripture so as to satisfy hunger by means of its plainer passages and remove boredom by means of its obscure ones. Virtually nothing is unearthed from these obscurities which cannot be found quite plainly expressed somewhere else.
(De Doctrina Christiana II.6-7)
This kind of attitude did not come out of the blue. In the East the first great biblical scholar, Origen, had, more than a century earlier, suggested that the aim of the Spirit was to conceal the truth:
The word of God arranged for certain stumbling blocks, as it were, and hindrances and impossibilities to be inserted in the midst of the law and the history… for the sake of the more skilful and enquiring readers… By giving up themselves to the toil of examining what is written [they will discover] a meaning worthy of God.
(De Principiis IV.2.8)
He thought the prophecies “are filled with riddles” and the aporiai (puzzles) were intended to move readers into seeking deeper meanings.
All this may seem rather surprising, but in fact it helped to get a hearing in the culture of the time, and eased acceptance of this “barbarian” collection of books. How it helped is illuminated by the essays of Plutarch (a pagan thinker) discussing oracles: philosophers attributed such prophetic phenomena to the workings of providence, but also recognised they were often very enigmatic. Plutarch suggested that the god deliberately posed problems in the form of riddles or puzzles so as to create a craving for knowledge of the divine. The culture encouraged the idea of revelatory concealment, of hidden mysteries. No wonder then that the entire Old Testament was treated as a system of prophetic symbols and riddles pointing to Christ, if only you worked hard at teasing them out.
So to my questions for today: how do we find a way to encourage contemporary “cultured despisers” to try reading the Bible? And do puzzles have a theological purpose?