Principles of Psychological Exegesis of the Bible

sacred reading

For a few years I’ve been working on a psychologically-based approach to biblical interpretation. It has both traditional and new elements. It draws heavily on the philosophical-allegorical method of biblical interpretation developed by the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BC–c. 50 AD), and subsequently refined by later Christian writers like Origen, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory of Nyssa, whence it became a staple (if little-known today) of Christian exegesis. It adds features drawn from modern personality theory and depth psychology. Readers leery of modern ‘psychologizing’ of religion may be relieved to know that it is orthodox in all respects.

I almost feel I should apologize for summarizing the method so briefly below – as though nothing useful could be so easily described. However inasmuch as I am a mathematician as well as a psychologist it is natural for me to try to reduce a theory to essential elements. In other words, please do not misjudge the usefulness of the approach from its condensed explanation. In the final analysis, the method is only as valuable as you yourself find it to be. The less I say, in fact, the better, so that you have greater opportunity to explore it for yourself.

The method can be understood as involving five principles, explained below.

1. Psychological salvation

The aim of the Bible is to promote our salvation, understood in an all-embracing sense that includes both spiritual and psychological aspects. These two aspects are inseparable, one necessary for the other. Our direct interest here, however, is psychological salvation. This is understood as an overall transformation that affects moral life, intellect, will, desire, emotion, social life, and orientation to the physical environment. It is epitomized by the statement, “Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2) The result of this transformation is attainment of a new psychological condition referred to in the Gospels as the Kingdom of Heaven.

(a) This condition is characterized by many features which the psychologist Abraham Maslow associated with Being perception and Being cognition and plateau experience. Sensory perceptions are clearer, more vivid, more beautiful, unified, sacred. The world may be experienced as transfigured. Experience and activity are ends in themselves, not means to ends (Being rather than Becoming);

(b) Inwardly the state is characterized by greater mental clarity (insight, serenity, recollection, peace, joy, happiness, creativity, inspiration) and by absence of negative emotions and thoughts (anxiety, cynicism, pessimism, anger, depression, etc.);

(c) In this condition a person may experience a union of the individual will and God’s will; egoism and those characteristic problems that attend it are reduced. One experiences a sense of flow, spontaneity, effortlessness, enjoyment, and delight.

(d) It corresponds to what various writers have termed unitive, transcendental, and integrated mental states. At a physiological level, it is potentially associated with better-than-usual integration of left- and right-brain activity.

(e) One does not so much attain this as an immediate and permanent psychological condition, as experience it temporarily with greater frequency and duration.

(f) This form of psychological salvation does not replace the concept of spiritual salvation, understood as attainment of eternal life in the traditional religious sense; but the former promotes and is possibly a stage in the attainment of the latter.

2. Scriptural consistency

All parts of the Bible aim to promote spiritual and psychological salvation. Each passage should be understood in relation to this greater purpose; one should not interpret a verse or passage out of context or without reference to this overarching meaning.

3. Psychological correspondence.

This is the key interpretative principle: that every character, situation, and event portrayed in Scripture has a counterpart in the psychic life of the individual.

(a) This principle dovetails with the large (but largely unappreciated) psychological literature concerning ego plurality (Rowan, 1993). This body of work sees human personality in terms of not a single ego, but many (dozens, perhaps hundreds) of part-egos or sub-personalities, each associated with a different interest, appetite, and social role.

(b) The principle of psychological correspondence is a routine feature in the modern interpretation of dreams (i.e. each character in a dream reflects some aspect of the dreamer’s personality or psyche).

(c) This principle is also found in modern psychological interpretation of myths and literature (e.g., the Odyssey).

(d) It is also the basis of Philo’s system of biblical interpretation (i.e., each character in the Bible corresponds to some mental ‘disposition’).

(e) This does not preclude there also being other levels of meaning in a verse or passage of Scripture, i.e., literal, historical, moral, etc.

4. Agreement with doctrine and tradition

The Christian Church was founded by Jesus Christ with the aim of promoting human salvation, and the Holy Spirit has guided the Church throughout its history. Psychological meanings ‘discovered’ in the Bible must be tested against sound Christian doctrine and tradition; what is at variance with these is likely an idiosyncratic interpretation, untrue.

5. Grace

To adequately understand the psychological meaning of Scripture requires inspiration and grace, and in order that these may be obtained, prayer.


Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being. 2nd ed. Van Nostrand, 1968. (1st ed., Van Nostrand, 1962; 3rd ed., Foreword and Preface by Richard Lowry, Wiley, 1999).

Maslow, Abraham H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 1971 (republished: Arkana, 1993).

Rowan, John. Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us. Routledge, 1990.

Rowan, John. Discover Your Subpersonalities: Our Inner World and the People in It. Routledge, 2013.

Uebersax, John S. On the Psychological Meaning of Psalm 1. 2008.

Uebersax, John S. The ‘Strange Woman’ of Proverbs. 2009.

Uebersax, John S. Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible. El Camino Real. 2012.

Uebersax, John S. Why do the Heathen Rage?: A Psychological Investigation of Psalm 2.’ (article in preparation).

First version: March 2014

Cannabis and Christianity

sistine cannabis

 “Everyone should eat hashish, but only once.” ~ Salvador Dali

Within the last week there appeared, following a NY Times op-ed by David Brooks, a flurry of activity in conservative and Catholic e-zines concerning whether marijuana should be illegal.

Some of this activity sought to relate the doctrinal views of St. Thomas Aquinas to the topic.  Most of this discussion began with the automatic assumption that marijuana is a vice and/or a sin.  One writer went further to suggest that cannabis is especially vicious, because it “hits at the very foundation of human life, our rationality.”

While as a psychologist I am naturally concerned about the very real and substantial problem of marijuana abuse, I am also concerned that we approach this whole subject in as objective and fully-informed a way as possible.

What the above-mentioned discussions seemed to lack was any recognition of the frequent reports that marijuana, under some conditions — i.e., in limited amounts, for the certain people, and with the right ‘set and setting’ — may potentially produce certain positive mental or emotional effects.

Here, then, is what I would offer as a more balanced and objective analysis of the subject:

1. Human beings generally are chronically afflicted with anxious, worried thoughts. Jesus makes a definitive statement about this in Matt. 6:25–34 (“Take no thought for the morrow…”).  Anxious and fearful thoughts crowd out the basic joy of living and prevent experiencing the world and life fully. This problem is arguably worse for modern people.

2. While rationality is part of our distinctive human nature and ‘telos’, anxious thoughts could be understood as a misuse of our rational abilities.

3. Although consuming MJ in excess may produce a dull and dopey state of mind, using a smaller quantity reportedly reduces anxious and worried thoughts – producing a state that is pleasantly relaxed, rather than ‘stoned’.  In this more relaxed state, people often report enhanced creativity, aesthetic perception, conviviality, joie de vivre, rediscovery of  the wonders of nature, etc.

There is an obvious analogy with alcohol.  One can drink five martinis and pass out, or a small glass of wine and become relaxed; and the  same is potentially true with cannabis.

If so, we cannot assert that MJ use is *intrinsically* disordered; more likely it falls into that large category of things which have some correct use, but which man often manages to abuse.  In any case we shouldn’t approach this subject with black-or-white thinking.

Incidentally, there is a reasonable line of speculation which holds that the ancient Egyptians included cannabis in the mix of substances they burned as sacred incense.  Moreover, certain references in the Old Testament may indicate that the Israelites who fled Egypt borrowed this practice.  So, who knows — maybe the correct use of cannabis is as a light, mind-cleansing incense, not something smoked by the pipeful.

Can we prove at this point that MJ, say in lower quantities, has positive cognitive effects?  Not conclusively.  But there is anecdotal evidence.  (We might have more and better empirical evidence if laws were relaxed to permit adequate research.)

Further, we do have some fairly good plausibility arguments that suggest how MJ might produce positive mental effects.  One comes from the work of British psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist.  In his book, The Master and His Emissary, McGilchrist reviews a great deal of research that establishes (1) our left and right brain hemispheres have different functions; (2) the left brain hemisphere (for a right-handed person) is more associated with linear, discursive thinking, and the right brain hemisphere (again, for a right-hander) is associated with  more intuitive, instinctive, and holistic cognitive functions; and (3) there has been a clear trend over the last few millennia for the left-hemisphere functions to excessively dominate over the right-hemisphere functions – that is, our logical nature has hypertrophied, stifling other modes of cognitive experience and producing mental imbalance.

It has been suggested that one effect of cannabis may be to suppress excessive left hemisphere brain activity, thereby promoting a greater balance between brain hemispheres, and, as a result, improved mental and behavioral function.  As far as I know, this is only a hypothesis, with little, if any, solid empirical support.  (It does seem reliably established that MJ can increase enjoyment of food – and this might be considered supportive evidence; i.e., MJ may suppress anxious and worried thinking and enable a person to focus more on the actual sensations of eating and tasting food – and if that is true, potentially the effect applies in other sense modalities, like appreciating art or music.)  In any case this  seems like a reasonable hypothesis, and probably ought to be tested experimentally.

McGilchrist’s views dovetail with the theories of the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow (1968, 1971).  Maslow is known for describing a range of states of consciousness called peak experiences, plateau experiences, and Being-cognition.  These are transcendent states of cognitive function, of varying strength and duration, which happen to virtually all people at one time or another.  A Christian might perhaps understand these states of  heightened intellectual, emotional, aesthetic, and perhaps spiritual mental function”man fully alive” (which, as St. Irenaeus tells us, is God’s greatest glory).   While Maslow by no means emphasized the point, he did accept the possibility at least that some mind-altering substances might, under the right conditions, facilitate such cognitive states.  More importantly for the present discussion, Maslow postulated that it might be possible to train people to enter these states more-or-less at will.

This brings us to the quote attributed to Salvador Dali:  “Everyone should eat hashish, but only once.”  In theory, it may be possible, under optimal conditions, for someone to use cannabis to enter these Maslowean states of superior cognitive function, and then, having experienced such states, acquire the ability to produce them *without* drugs.

I should mention that active efforts are underway to understand and differentiate the numerous active ingredients of cannabis.  Many researchers believe it may be possible to isolate ingredients in cannabis (or breed special strains of the hemp plant), that produce positive mental effects without the ‘dopiness’.

But in any case, I would like to suggest that, at the present limited state of our scientific knowledge, we cannot simply dismiss cannabis use as only or necessarily a vice or sin.  We need to take a more nuanced  and unprejudiced approach in our thinking and discussion on the topic.

Further, even if MJ use is a vice, it is by no means obvious that our response to it should be prohibition.  Prohibition is a symptom of the nanny state which seeks to remove moral choice from the individual, under the assumption that a person is morally incapable of moderating his or her own behavior.

Recall the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32).  After living a life of profligacy, and prompted by nothing other than his own Conscience and God’s grace, the son eventually “came to himself’” and humbly returned home.  In the end all was well.  What would have happened had the state simply prohibited the son from taking his journey to the foreign land, and learning from direct experience the uselessness of “riotous living”?

Jung and Christianity


The relationship of Jungian psychology to Christianity is rather curious.  On the one hand much of Jung’s work could be understood as implying the validity of Christian tradition and practices as singularly helpful means of promoting psychological integration and self-actualization.  Yet, on the other, Jung himself, while remaining to some extent rather ambiguous on the subject, seemed nonetheless to lean in the direction of dismissing Christianity.  (Reading his works, one gets the impression that he considered himself superior to it.)  But in any case, certainly a large number of later writers who identify themselves as ‘Jungians’ denigrate Christianity.  Some (Edward Edinger, for example), make rather plain their belief that Jungianism constitutes a new form of spirituality which is destined to replace Christianity and other ‘antiquated’ traditional religions.

I wish to make clear that I do not have an axe to grind against Jung.  It bothers me when Christian writers take a figure like Jung and, rather than engage with the issues in a fair-minded and intelligent way, engage in character assassination and specious arguments.  That, to my mind, illustrates the very lack of intellectual charity that Christian writers so frequently accuse others of.  So I can say that I have found much of interest in Jung’s work.  Jung himself is also somewhat of an attractive, or at least interesting figure, precisely because he is a free-thinker.  The problem isn’t so much with Jung himself perhaps, but with Jungians who have, as noted, tried to turn his theories into a religion and elevate him to the status of prophet.  (Jung himself once said words to the effect of , “fortunately I am only Jung and not a Jungian.”)

This much said, what I would like to do here is two things:  (1) to point out how Jung’s theories, taken to their logical conclusions, imply the validity of Christian practice; and (2) to show how Jung himself had to take extreme theoretical measures to avoid coming to this conclusion himself.

To keep this post brief, we can make roughly outline first point as follows:

  1. Jung believed that there is something called a Christian mythos.  This mythos includes all the traditions and writings of the events of Jesus Christ; all Christian art; all liturgies, prayers, practices; all Christian traditions of any kind.
  2. This mythos is an expression of a collective unconscious, which is vitally concerned, among other things, with promoting the psychological health and self-actualization of individuals.
  3. This mythos is also a group effort; that is, the collective unconscious manifests itself in the collective, accumulated effort of individual human beings over many centuries or millennia; for that reason it is extremely rich and effective.
  4. The result is that, at the level of mythos (as opposed to literal historicity of the biblical narrative and to legalistic doctrines) Christianity is extraordinarily effective as a way of promoting psychological health, individuation, and self-actualization.
  5. Thus, just as human culture, broadly, has evolved as a positive force to promote the welfare and development of human beings in various indispensable way, so too does religious culture; and in the West, by ‘religious culture’ we effectively mean (at least judged in a statistically normative sense) Christianity.

It would be logical from all this for Jung to infer that one of the best things a modern person could do to promote psychological well being and self-actualization is to deeply involve oneself in this Christian tradition; in that way one would benefit from all the ways in which collective intuition of the race – something deeper and wiser than personal rational abstraction and modern science – promotes well-being.  He might qualify this by suggesting that this does not mean that all rationalistic doctrines of Christianity should be accepted (as these were developed by different processes and do not necessarily reflect of the collective wisdom of the species); but, rather, that Christianity would be something one accepts at a intuitive, perhaps something like an aesthetic, level.

This would be the logical conclusion based on Jung’s theories.  Indeed, once in a while one finds a Jungian writer who does draw this conclusion.  Nevertheless, Jung did not do so, nor do most Jungians.

This brings us to the second point.  How did Jung avoid reaching this conclusion himself?  The answer is found in one of his major works on religion, Aion (subtitled Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, Collected Works, Vol. 9, Part 2).  There he raises two extremely dubious arguments to show that, even though the figure of Jesus Christ is an extremely deep and powerful symbol (or, more accurately, a reflection of a Archetype) corresponding to self-actualization, this symbol is no longer appropriate to humanity’s current stage of development.

One of these arguments relates to Jung’s ongoing diatribe against what he takes as the Christian doctrinal belief that evil is not ‘real.’ This issue is too complex to pursue here; perhaps I’ll discuss it another time.  It will suffice at present to say that Jung’s argument is pretty weak when scrutinized carefully; it shows his characteristic lack of disciplined analysis (after all is said and done, Jung is a German Romantic, much influenced by Nietzsche) and his basic unfamiliarity with classical philosophy (despite the fact that he loves to impress readers with a superficial display of classical sources, often presenting extended quotes in Greek – but taken completely out of context and without any genuine grasp of the author’s meaning or purpose).

Jung’s second argument, however, is much stranger.  He attempts to show, based on astrology, that the mythic figure of Jesus Christ is no longer, to paraphrase his words, “a suitable vehicle for representing the Archetype of self-actualization.”

What is the evidence?  It’s that, by the astronomical principle known as precession of the equinoxes, we are, in modern times, moving from the previous 2000-year old Age (Aion) of Pisces, to the new Age of Aquarius.  The Age of Pisces, Jung ‘reasons’ (and expects his readers to believe), obviously corresponded with Christianity, since the early Christians symbolized their religion with a fish, and because fishes swim through the ocean (which is obviously a symbol of consciousness swimming in a sea of unconsciousness).  But now we’re in the Age of Aquarius, so clearly we’ll need some new religion that conforms better to this astrological symbol.

It’s simply hard to take this argument seriously. It certainly cannot be considered a scientific argument (despite the fact that  Jung so often takes pains to present himself as a scientist).

Now I am not personally in a position to say uncategorically that astrology is untrue.  I take the attitude of a pure skeptic on the matter:  I see no evidence either way to prove or disprove its validity.  But in his argument here Jung accepts astrology unquestioningly.  The odd thing is that many modern Jungians – here I mean not only writers, but those psychologists and readers who orient their thinking along Jungian lines – take as a given that Jung somehow demonstrated beyond any doubt that Christianity is obsolete, and that we need a new spirituality based on Jungian theory.  This view is taken as a received opinion only; those who hold it have not actually examined Jung’s argument.  Were they to do so, they might be more circumspect in accepting his conclusions.


What is the Platonic Form of ‘Jesus Christ’?


Here is a thought experiment, one with the potential to be a contemplative or devotional exercise.

We know that in Platonism, God can be thought of as the Form of the Good – that is, as the ultimate Form, Ideal, Essence, or Archetype of which all good things partake, and also the Form which is hierarchically higher than the other high-level Forms of Beauty, Truth, Virtue and Excellence. (This does not suppose that God is *only* the Form of the Good.  God may be more, something beyond all categories, even beyond Being itself –an unknowable ‘One’, as in Neoplatonism, but this is a different issue.)

Recall also that for Plato (as in Diotima’s speech of Symposium 210a–212c), one may, by an ascending contemplation of Forms, arrive at a vision of the highest Form, the Form of the Good (beatific vision).

This suggests: (1) our concept of ‘Jesus Christ’ is also associated with a Form of an extremely high order; and (2) we may achieve a vision of this Form by a similar kind of ascending contemplation, from lower and higher Forms. (We place ‘Jesus Christ’ in quotes because, among other things, Jesus Christ may *be* this Form, and it would be redundant to speak of a Form of Itself.)

In keeping with the provisional nature of this exercise, I will here only suggest some of the Forms that may be relevant to consider.  That is, our concept of ‘Jesus Christ’ is associated, for example, with all of the following Forms; that is, the epitome of all these:

  • Mediator, Advocate
  • Savior, Deliverer
  • Christ, Anointed, Messiah
  • Prince of Peace
  • Son of God
  • Son of Man
  • Bread of Life
  • Agriculturist
  • Shepherd
  • True Friend
  • Physician
  • Counselor
  • Educator
  • Captain
  • King
  • High Priest
  • Pantacrator (Almighty Ruler)
  • Gate, Way, Truth
  • Light
  • Life
  • Love
  • Morning Star
  • Source of Living Waters
  • Word of God
  • Cornerstone
  • Power of God
  • Wisdom of God
  • Elder Brother
  • Emmanuel (‘God is with us’)
  • Conqueror, Victor

Contemplating the meaning of each of these individually, one may potentialy discover related groupings and higher-order Forms.  And higher than all these individual and higher-order Forms, would be a highest Form.  So potentially, by following Plato’s method one could glimpose this highest order Form of ‘Jesus Christ’.

Jesus Christ as the Principle of Self-Actualization

One initial observation might be that several of the attributes or titles above (Physician, Agriculturist, Savior, etc.) constellate around a higher-order Form or principle that involves guiding, developing, nurturing, and bringing to fruition the human soul and all of Creation.  In this sense, Jesus Christ would be, among other things, the Archetype of self-actualization — the essential principle by which all things progress and achieve their intended end or telos.  Thus, just as an acorn is brought by Nature to its telos of being an oak tree, so too the human soul achieves its telos through the wisdom, guidance,  and power of Jesus Christ.  Human self-actualization in this sense does not mean something a person does personally; the self does not actualize itself, as in the theories of certain humanistic psychologists, but, rather, the self is actualized through by agency of Jesus Christ.

Forms here may also help us to understand the relationship of Jesus Christ to the individual soul, that is, how Christ can be both something within the soul, part of it and part of ourselves, and yet different and distinct from ourselves.  Jesus would be the universal Form/Archetype of self-actualization, and our souls would individually instantiate the Archetype (according to whatever the mechanism is by which Forms instantiate — say as an emanation, image, reflection, etc.)  By such a view, salvation would in part consist of our ego conforming itself to the self-actualizing or Christ principle, which is perhaps already within the soul (i.e., part of the Image of God which each soul contains).  In its salvation, the ego, instead of devoting itself to seeking transient pleasures or following its own schemes, would itself become an anti-type (i.e., an ‘image’, loosely speaking) of Jesus Christ in his role as the self-actualizing principle.

Note that this is positing three levels:  (1) Jesus Christ as the Archetype of self-actualization; (2) a self-actualization principle within the soul, which is an image of the Archetype; and (3) the ego being gradually re-organized around the self-actualizing principle, itself then also becoming an image of the Archetype.  The ego, that is, both is the recipient of self-actualization, and, eventually, also becomes itself an agent of it.

This much speculation may perhaps promote personal contemplation of  the meaning of ‘Jesus Christ’, but more I fear would be idle abstraction.

Philo – Moses Defends Jethro’s Daughters at the Well


Exodus 2:16–21 (KJV)

[16] Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters: and they came and drew water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock.
[17] And the shepherds came and drove them away: but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock.
[18] And when they came to Reuel their father, he said, How is it that ye are come so soon to day?
[19] And they said, An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds, and also drew water enough for us, and watered the flock.
[20] And he said unto his daughters, And where is he? why is it that ye have left the man? call him, that he may eat bread.
[21] And Moses was content to dwell with the man: and he gave Moses Zipporah his daughter.

Philo’s interpretation, below, is quite good and bears close reading.  However, in addition to his explanation, perhaps something can be made of the fact that these events occur at a well, a symbol often associated with inspiration.  Thus, the daughters of Jethro’s seven daughters may symbolize spiritual senses or the like, seeking to draw from the well of inspiration; but which are waylaid by robbers who seek to distract them with worldly thoughts, or to give false, self-interested meanings to the what the well of spiritual inspiration supplies.  Moses, then, would be a disposition of the mind which seeks to push aside the robbers and enable the pure thoughts to enter awareness and take root.

Philo, On the Change of Names (De mutatione nominum) 19.110–20.120

19. (110) This now is one of the things which are shown by the name of Midian; another is that more excellent and judicial species which by the affinity of marriage is connected with the prophetic race. The scripture then says, “The priest of judgment and justice” (that is to say, of Midian) “has seven daughters;” [Ex 2:16]

(111) by which seven daughters are frequently intimated the powers of the irrational part of the soul, the power of generation and the voice, and the five outward senses, tending the flocks of their father; for by means of these seven powers it is that all the progresses and increases of their father, the mind, exist in the perceptions which are produced from him. These, then, coming each to its appropriate object, the power of sight to colours and shapes, the sense of hearing to sounds, the faculty of smelling to scents, taste to flavours, and all the other faculties to those objects which are adapted for their exercise do in a manner imbibe some of the external objects of the outward senses, until they have filled all the channels of the soul, and from these channels they give drink to the sheep of their father; I mean by these sheep that most pure flock of the reason which bears safety and ornament at the same time.

(112) But the companions of envy and jealousy, the leaders of the wicked herd coming up, drive them away from that use of their powers which is in accordance with nature, for some conduct these things which are without, inwards to the mind as to a judge and a king, in order that they may do well from having the most excellent of governors;

(113) but others take the opposite side, pursuing and proclaiming the exact contrary, while it is possible for the mind to be drawn towards them, and to give up the flock which was entrusted to it to Feed.

[The meaning here is obscure, perhaps due to a manuscript problem.  Colson remarks: "the thought may be that while the mind holds its proper seat, it makes the right use of αισθητά, but if it is enticed out into the body-loving region, αίσθητά are used by it as slaves or prisoners."]

Until the good disposition, devoted to virtue and inspired by God, which for awhile has appeared to be resting in inactivity, by name Moses, holds his shield over them and defends them from those who would attack them, nourishing the flock of his father on wholesome words,

(114) and they having escaped the attack of the enemies of intellect who admire only the external appendages, like people in tragedies, go no longer to Jother but to Raguel, for they have abandoned all connections with pride, and having connected themselves with lawful persuasion, choosing to become a portion of the sacred flock, of which the divine word is the leader, as his name shows, for it signifies the pastoral care of God.

20. (115) But while he is taking care of his own flock, all kinds of good things are given all at once to those of the sheep who are obedient, and who do not resist his will; and in the Psalms we find a song in these words, “The Lord is my shepherd, therefore shall I lack nothing;”[Psalm 23:1]

(116) therefore the mind which has had the royal shepherd, the divine word, for its instructor, will very naturally ask of his seven daughters, “Why is it that you have contended with such great haste to come hither this day?“[Ex 2:18] for formerly, when you met with the objects of the outward sense, remaining a long time outside, you were a long time in returning again by reason of the manner in which you were allured by them, but now I do not know what it is that has happened to you, but you are speedy in your return, contrary to your usual custom.

(117) Therefore they will say that there were not the same causes why they should run back with such exceeding speed, making the double course from the objects of the outward sense and to the objects of the outward sense, without stopping to take breath, and with excessive impetuosity; but that the cause was rather the man who delivered them from the shepherds of the wild flock. And they call Moses an Egyptian, a man who was not only a Hebrew, but even a Hebrew of the very purest race, of the only tribe which is consecrated, because they are unable to rise above their own nature;

(118) for the outward senses, being on the confines between the objects of the intellect and those of the outward senses, we must be content if they aim at both of them, and are not allured by the objects of the outward sense alone. And to think that they are inclined only to attend to the things which are purely objects of the intellect is great folly; on which account they give him both these names, since when they call him a man, they indicate the things which are within the province of reason alone to contemplate, and when they call him an Egyptian, they indicate the objects of the external senses.

(119) When they had heard this, he will again inquire, “Where is the man?” In what part of you is the reasonable species dwelling? Why have you left it so easily, and have not rather after having once met with it, preserved that which was the most beautiful of possessions, and the most advantageous for yourselves?

(120) But even if you have not done so before, at least call it to you now, that it may eat of and be supported by your improvement and your close connection with him; for perhaps he will even dwell with you, and will bring with him the winged, and divinely inspired, and prophetical race by name Zipporah.

Source: Yonge, Charles Duke.  The Works of Philo. Complete and Unabridged, New Updated Edition. David M. Scholer, editor. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993. ISBN 0943575931.

Plato’s Proof of God’s Existence

St Anselm-CanterburyVit
Most anyone who has taken a course in the philosophy of religion or the history of Western philosophy has likely run across the famous ‘ontological argument‘ for the proof of God’s existence associated with St. Anselm of Canterbury. Actually several versions of the ontological argument have appeared over the centuries, the simplest one being:

  1. By definition, God is a being which has every perfection.
  2. Existence is a perfection.
  3. Hence God exists.

One of the most interesting things about these arguments is that they have attracted so much attention despite the fact that they are basically unconvincing.

Please don’t mistake my intentions when I say this.  I of course believe in God; I only mean that these arguments, analyzed the logical level, aren’t very good, and  everyone knows that.  The strange thing is that, despite this, the ontological argument with been ceremoniously taught to philosophy students for nearly 1000 years.  It’s as though as to say, “We don’t really have a logical proof for God’s existence; but trying to formulate one is a good idea – so let’s look at this unconvincing argument – pretty much our best shot –  and gloss over it’s glaring deficiencies.”  In other words, lacking a first-rate argument, let’s content ourselves with a second-rate one.

Curiously, all this overlooks the fact that we do, I believe, have a much better philosophical proof of God’s existence.  Admittedly, to call it a proof might be technically incorrect – it’s really more of a demonstration, or perhaps only what we might call a strong plausibility argument.  Nevertheless, regardless of how we classify it,  its evidential value for supporting a belief in God is, I believe, substantially stronger than that of the ontological argument.  This argument comes from Plato’s dialogues, most notably, the Republic and the Symposium.  It can be illustrated as follows:

  1. Consider some beautiful thing – say an incredibly beautiful sunset, the kind that totally absorbs you in a profound sense of beauty, awe, and wonder..
  2. Now, instead of pausing in that experience alone – which is our usual tendency – elevate your thoughts still higher and consider that this is not the only beautiful thing.  There are many other experiences equally or more beautiful as this one.
  3. Then consider that there must be something in common amongst all these experiences – in exactly the same way that there is something in common with all triangles, or all horses, or all trees.  That is, each of these things has some defining principle or principles, some essence.
  4. Consider further that a defining essence has, at least in theory, some existence outside of its instantiation in actual examples.  Hence we may conceive of the abstract “Form” of a triangle, which would exist even if somehow we were able to remove all physical triangles from the world.  Therefore we may also suppose that there is some Form of Beauty, which is the principle that all beautiful things have in common.
  5. Moreover, Beauty is not the only good.  There are also things such as Truth, or Virtue, or Excellence, or Justice – things which we unhesitatingly consider good, which delight or assure us, and can bring us very deep levels of satisfaction.
  6. And, just as with Beauty, we may suppose that there is some Form for each of these other things: a Form of Truth, a Form of Virtue, of Excellence, of Justice.
  7. And finally, we may contemplate the possibility of some principle or essence which all these different Forms of good things have in common.  This, too, would be a Form – the Form of Goodness.
  8. God is defined as that being than which nothing can be more Good.  Therefore God is the Form of Goodness.

For me, this comes very close to being a fully logically persuasive argument for God’s existence. Yet, besides this, it can also be approached as a contemplative or spiritual exercise.  That is, as Plato himself presents this line of thought, one is not so much trying to logically convince oneself, as to elicit, by focusing on these principles, an awakening or remembrance (anamnesis) of an innate, intuitive understanding of God.

It will of course be up to you to investigate this line of reasoning individually  and to determine how well in your view it works – but I will add one more thing.

Not only does this demonstration supply evidence of God’s existence, but it may also promote the development of a sincere gratitude for and love of God.  As one contemplates the nature of Goodness, that is, as one begins to become more conscious of the principle that, if there are good things, there must be a Form of Goodness, one also becomes amazed at the very idea that there is such a thing as Goodness.  And also that we, as human beings, seem particularly attuned to crave, seek, and experience Goodness.  It is quite remarkable that we have this word and this concept, ‘good’, such that we may apply it a huge variety of things and experiences.

The counter-argument of the reductionist will not do here:  he or she might say, “What we consider good merely derives from sensory, practical, and survival considerations; it is all explained by Darwinism – we desire and prefer certain things because they are advantageous.”  But that does not explain, among other things, why some of the things we consider most good – say a heroic sacrifice of some noble person – is not materially advantageous.

If, then, we accept that there is something deep and fundamental in our nature such that we seek goodness (which is to say, in effect, that we are moral beings) and also that there is some Author and Source of Goodness, and, further, that it is our destiny as immortal souls to enjoy an eternity of ever greater Beauty and Goodness, then naturally our gratitude to this Supreme Being is spontaneously aroused.

Therefore Plato’s ‘proof’ of God’s existence as the Form of the Good is not only logically appealing, but effective at the level of emotion and devotion as well.

Or we could approach the ‘proof’ in still another way, i.e., at a psychological level.  What we consider good is, almost as a matter of definition, what we authentically crave and desire as human beings.  The Form of Goodness would constitute the absolute epitome of all that we seek or want, the summum bonum.  If nothing else, then, contemplating the meaning of the Form of the Good would be a way we could know ourselves, inasmuch as understanding what we most want is clearly a way to more deeply understand what we most are.

But even if Plato’s analysis here is something short of completely persuasive at the logical level, it nevertheless seems better overall than the ontological argument.  And on that basis it seems peculiar that the latter argument is taught far more than Plato’s.

Noetic, Sapiential, and Spiritual Exegesis


I’ve recently written about an approach to biblical interpretation that is, on the one hand, scientific and psychological, and, on the other, non-reductionistic and faithful to Christian teaching (e.g., here, here, and here). It takes as its basic principles: (1) that a central concern in every Christian life is the injunction of St. Paul, Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12:2); (2) that this transformation must include a psychological metamorphosis that encompasses both the modern meaning of psyche as mind and its classical meaning as soul and, and includes the moral, intellectual, volitional, and desiring aspects of human nature; (3) that the Bible supplies a detailed plan for effecting this psychological transformation; and (4) much of this plan is ‘encoded’ in figurative language and requires careful attention and a contemplative frame of mind to recognize and understand.  The approach I’ve suggested could be described as a more modern version of the allegorical methods used by Philo of Alexandria (Philo Judeaus) and by many Church Fathers, including Origen, St. Augustine, and St. Gregory of Nyssa.  The question considered here is what to call this method.

Below are some alternative terms and various pros and cons of each.  The terms are grouped into three categories.  In the first are several terms that seem basically correct, but perhaps too general.  The second includes those terms which I consider the best of those currently in use.  The third lists several modern terms that are questionable, but which are included for completeness.

I also thought it might be helpful generally to list all the various terms in use today to denote this sort of allegorical exegesis in one place.  The short bibliography at the end contains some references that appear especially pertinent, but is by no means comprehensive.  I hope to add information to this post as I run across new terms or references of interest.  The present, then, could be considered just a down payment or first installment.

General Terms

allegorical exegesis.  This is perhaps the most widely used term today, but it has two drawbacks:  (1) it is nonspecific, as there are a variety of different ways to allegorically interpret Scripture (psychologically, morally, prophetically etc.); and (2) over the centuries, ‘allegory’ has come to mean a figurative story that is not actually true (as in a fable).  Thus, ‘allegorical exegesis’ might imply to some people that what is being interpreted (the Old Testament or the New Testament) is not historically true. This connotation of non-historicity is not implied by the etymology of the word itself, which comes from alla (different) and agora (assembly) – thus allegory literally suggests  ‘that which one would not say in the crowd’ or basically a hidden meaning as opposed to a more obvious one.  Nevertheless, even in ancient times the word allegory tended to imply that something had only figurative meaning.

parabolic interpretation. From the Greek word parabole.  Because of its connection to the word parable, this term may again tend to suggest that the material being interpreted is not literally true.

figurative interpretation.  The principal disadvantage with this term that it is very nonspecific.  It gives no clue at all as to the kind of truths that are being figuratively represented, or the principles by which they are decoded.

nonliteral interpretation.  Even less specific than figurative; too generic to be of much use.

mystical exegesis.  This could, following ancient Greek usage, imply a secret meaning.  That is problematic in itself, because nonliteral meanings, while they may be subtle or hard to see, are not necessarily secret in the sense of being reserved for a few initiates.  Further the term might be understood as denoting a connection with religious mysticism (e.g., withdrawal from the world, pursuit of ‘mystical experiences’ etc.), which is not necessarily or even usually the case with the form of exegesis being considered here.

hyponoia.  Another word used by the ancients, meaning basically ‘knowledge beneath the surface.’  Like the other terms above, this doesn’t indicate the nature of deeper knowledge being sought, or how it is obtained.

Preferred Terms

noetic exegesis.  This term was apparently first used (at least, in connection with Biblical interpretation) by Eric Osborn (1995, 2005), and later by Blossom Stefaniw (2010). ‘Noetic’ here has two relevant aspects.  First it implies a search to uncover meanings in Scripture that help to improve or transform the nous (i.e., the ancient Greek word for what we might call the Intellect or higher Reason, and which in Greek patristic literature is sometimes considered to be the immortal human soul itself).  Second, the method itself can be properly called noetic insofar as it seeks to go beyond literal meanings of words (understood by discursive thought, or dianoia) to the deeper intelligible truths discernible only to the apprehending, nondiscursive part of the mind (nous).

One possible limitation of this term is that the form of exegesis we are considering involves more than just the apprehending, noetic intellect.  Discursive thinking is also involved in relating intuited principles to one another other or to facts and memories, to envision applications in ones life, and so on. For example, reading the story of Cain and Abel, it might strike one as a noetic inspiration that the two figures symbolize competing negative and positive elements of ones mind or psyche.  But then one might go on to compare these two figures with other, similar pairs – Jacob and Esau, Moses and Pharaoh, etc.  To elaborate the noetic insight would involve use of other mental powers.

The term gnostic exegesis, more or less a cognate, has some ancient precedent, but would likely invite unwanted associations to Gnosticism if used today.

sapiential exegesis.  This could serve about equally well as noetic exegesis as a terminological convention.  It implies both that the object of exegesis is to gain wisdom, and that wisdom is needed to apply the method.

anagogical exegesis.  This is a very interesting term, used by some Church Fathers and also in the Middle Ages.  Originally it meant ‘going or being led higher’, which could be understood in this context to mean any or all of the following: seeking a higher meaning in Scripture; using exegesis to attain a higher level of mental/spiritual development; elevating one’s mind by interpreting Scripture; or contributing generally to an uplifting movement or current of thought (Laird, 2007).  In the Middle Ages, “anagogical” exegesis often became focused on finding allusions to the afterlife of the soul in Scripture, a different usage which might conflict with the more sapiential meaning of the term.  Also, even in the older and original sense (i.e., of the Church Fathers), anagogical exegesis spans two somewhat distinct levels of meaning of Scripture:  those corresponding to what Origen called the psychic (soul) versus pneumatic (spiritual) levels. Relative to Origen’s distinction, our principle interest here is psychic level – i.e., the level of psyche: mind, intellect, rationality, will, desire, and emotion.  The other, higher Origenistic sense of anagogy, which suggests a connection to higher mystical states, including an apophatic union with God free from all concepts or thoughts, is not our immediate concern here.

spiritual or pneumatic exegesis.  As suggested above, it could be argued that these terms should be reserved for a level of exegesis that relates to the highest levels of spiritual development and union with God, e.g., apophatic experience.

theoria or theoreia.  This term, often used by St. Gregory of Nyssa in connection with exegesis, has two relevant meanings for us.  First it can mean contemplation in a sense that is basically the same as noesis:  an understanding of the intelligible meaning of Scripture, as opposed to its historical and literal meanings. Second, it can imply what we today might call a theoretical or scientific understanding, i.e., of the rules and principles of our moral purification and spiritual advancement as  figuratively presented in Scripture.

Psychological Terms 

Finally to be considered are four modern psychological terms.

psychological exegesis.  This term is appropriate, provided we understand psyche in the traditional sense that includes both mind and soul.  However, left unqualified or taken out of context, the term might be misunderstood to imply a connection with modern, reductionistic psychological theories. An alternative term, following Origen, might be psychic exegesis.

depth-psychological exegesis.  This term has been used in recent decades mainly  by certain German scholars.  However ‘depth psychology’ can have several different meanings.  Most who have used the term have meant it in a fairly restrictive sense as implying a basis in psychoanalytic or Jungian theory;  Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict (2008) made some harsh criticisms of depth psychological exegesis, but he was referring to this more restrictive meaning of the term.

My own view is that the kind of exegesis we are considering here is accurately termed ‘depth psychological’ in the sense that it includes in its scope certain processes in the depths (or heights) of the human psyche, but not in the sense of corresponding to Freudian or Jungian theory.

psychodynamic exegesis.  Most of the problems with the preceding term would apply here as well.

existential exegesis.  A good term in that it implies existential relevance to the individual, but it potentially inherits all the ambiguity associated with the nebulous word ‘existentialism’.


Overall, of all the terms considered here, perhaps the best are sapiential exegesis, noetic exegesis, and anagogic exegesis.

In the end, we might consider that this form of exegesis may be such that it is inherently impossible to define a single term.  Why?  Because perhaps the very mental processes were are investigating here – noesis, intellection, discernment, etc. – are the very ones by which we know intelligible principles and assign or interpret names.  In other words, it may be something of an ‘error of logical typing’  to try to name the very processes by which we name things. I wouldn’t insist on this view, but it does seem like a possibility.  However to the extent it might be true, we may need to content ourselves with a more ‘poetic’ or intuitive approach to naming this style of exegesis:  to have, for example, multiple names, each one highlighting a different aspect, and to use these different names in a fluid and flexible way.

The passage below shows that even as inspired an exegete as  St. Gregory of Nyssa recognized the difficulty of finding a single term for this form of exegesis.  In the passage below, from the Prologue to his Homilies on the Song of Songs, he uses a wide range terms.

In the end, we should not forget that this form of interpretation is not a name or concept, but an experience.

By an appropriate contemplation [θεωρίας] of the text, the philosophy [φιλοσοφίαν] hidden in its words becomes manifest once the literal meaning has been purified by a correct understanding [έννοίαις]. …

I hope that my commentary will be a guide for the more fleshly-minded, since the wisdom hidden (in the Song of Songs) leads to a spiritual condition of the soul [πνευματικήν τε και αϋλον τής ψυχής κατάστασιν]. …

Because some members of the Church always think it right to follow the letter of holy scripture and do not take into account the enigmatic [αινιγμάτων] and deeper meanings [υπονοιών], we must answer those who accuse us of doing so. … If anything in the hidden, deeper [έπικρύψεως έν ύπονοίαις], enigmatic [αινίγμασιν] sense cannot be cannot be understood literally, we will, as the Word [Logos] teaches and as Proverbs says [Pro 1.6], understand [νοήσαι] the passage either as a parable [παραβολην], a ‘dark’ saying [σκοτεινόν λόγον], sage words [ρήσιν σοφων], or as a riddle [αινιγμάτων].

With regards to anagogy [άναγωγής θεωρίαν], it makes no difference what we call it – tropology [τροπολογίαν] or allegory [άλληγορίαν] – as long as we grasp the meaning [νόημα] of (Scripture’s) words. …

They instruct not only through precepts but through the historical narratives: both lead to knowledge of the mysteries [γνωσιν των μυστηρίων] and to a pure way of life [καθαράν πολιτείαν] for those who have diligent minds.

St. Paul also uses exegesis [έξηγήσει] looking to what is most useful, and he is not concerned about what to name the form of his exegesis [έξηγήσεως]. … And there is a passage where he calls the more obscure comprehension and partial knowledge [γνωσιν] a mirror and a riddle [αΐνιγμα ](1 Cor 13, 12).  And again he says the change from literal[σωματικων] meanings to noetic [νοητά] is a turning [έπιστροφην] to the Lord and a removal of the veil (2 Cor 3, 16).  But in all these different figures and names for noetic interpretation [νουν θεωρίας] he is describing one form of teaching to us,  but we must [sometimes] pass over to the immaterial  [αϋλόν] and noetic interpretation [νοητην θεωρίαν] so that more corporeal thoughts are changed into something perceived by the intellect and rational mind [νουν και διάνοιαν], the more fleshly meaning of what is said having been shaken off like dust (Mt 10, 14).

And he says, “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3, 6), because in many passages the historical account does not provide examples of a good life if indeed we stop at the bare facts.

All these and similar examples should serve to remind us of the necessity of searching the divine words, of reading [προσέχειν τη άναγνώσει] them and of tracing in every way possible how something more sublime [ύψηλότερος] might be found which leads us to that which is divine and incorporeal [θειότερά τε και άσώματα] instead of the literal sense [διάνοιαν].

Unless a person contemplates the truth through philosophy [φιλοσοφίας ένθεωρήσειε την άλήθειαν], what the text says here will be either inconsistent or a fable [μυθωδες].

~ St. Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Song of Songs, 5.10-7.5; based on (with a few word changes) McCambley (1987) and Heine (2012), pp.362–363; MPG  44 775ff.; italics mine.


Beier, Matthias.  ‘Embodying Hermeneutics: Eugen Drewermann’s Depth Psychological Interpretation of Religious Symbols‘. Paper presented at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, New Brunswick, NJ, March 1998.

Heine, Ronald E. ‘Gregory of Nyssa’s Apology for Allegory.’ Vigiliae Christianae, 38(4), 1984), pp. 360–370.

Laird, Martin. Gregory of Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Lauro, Elizabeth Ann Dively. The Soul and Spirit of Scripture within Origen’s Exegesis. Leiden: Brill, 2005.

Martens, Peter. Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life. Oxford University Press, 2012.

McCambly, Richard Casimir. ‘Notations on the Commentary on the Song of Songs by Gregory of Nyssa.’  < >  Accessed 23 Nov. 2013.

McCambly, Richard Casimir. Saint Gregory of Nyssa: Commentary on the Song of Songs. Hellenic College Press, 1987.  ISBN 0917653181

Norris, Jr., Richard A. Gregory of Nyssa: Homilies on the Song of Songs. Society of Biblical Literature, 2012. (Introduction)

Osborn, Eric Francis. ‘Philo and Clement: Quiet Conversion and Noetic Exegesis.’ Studia Philonica Annual, 10, 1998, 108–124.

Osborn, Eric Francis. Clement of Alexandria. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. ‘Biblical Interpretation in Conflict.’ In: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (author), José Granados (editor), Carlos Granados (ed.), Luis Sánchez Navarro (ed.), Opening Up the Scriptures: Joseph Ratzinger and the Foundations of Biblical Interpretation, Eerdmans, 2008.

Stefaniw, Blossom. Mind, Text, and Commentary: Noetic Exegesis in Origen of Alexandria, Didymus the Blind, and Evagrius Ponticus. Peter Lang, 2010.


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