A new holiday tradition has taken root in the Orthodox world in recent years (who said we Orthodox never change?). Every year, on December 6 (and 19) there emerge countless memes of St. Nicholas punching the heretic Arius. For some, this is just a bit of mirth. For others, it is evidence that truth trumps civility—even becoming a justification for the use of violence against the purveyors of falsehood. There are numerous objections that could be raised in response to these memes. First, they miss the point of the story: yes, St. Nicholas slapped a man; but he also violated a canon that prohibits a cleric from accosting anyone, and lost his episcopal rank, only to have it restored after his fellow hierarchs experienced a dream in which St Nick is forgiven for being a bit over-zealous. Second, they shift attention away from the many acts of mercy that characterize the life of this saint: his care for the poor; his halting of an execution; his staving off a famine, etc. And third, they mistake a miscellaneous anecdote for the core of Orthodoxy, thus ignoring the countless biblical, patrological, and canonical proscriptions of violence.
There is one more reason these memes are problematic: the story is most likely ahistorical. As has been pointed out by other scholars, there is no evidence that the confrontation between St. Nicholas and Arius ever took place. In fact, there is little evidence that the saint was at the Council of Nicaea in the first place. This story, and the iconographical depictions of it, enter into our tradition rather late (even if in the “before time,” i.e., before the fall of the Great City). And yet it was gradually woven into our hagiographical tradition as if it were always there. The problem, then, is not in the fact that this story persists, or even whether it is historically factual or not; the problem is in our reading of it.
Commenting on the problems facing Orthodox Christians in the 21st century, Fr. John Behr stated, “The Orthodox Church never went through modernity—but we did.” Perhaps we should thank the Ottoman Turks for conquering Constantinople and hence causing a crystallization of our ecclesial traditions. The Church did not see a renaissance, a reformation, or an enlightenment. And yet, we were not insulated from the ideas of these movements, for we ourselves became products of the modern age. Materialism and logical positivism are our defaults. Our thinking is shaped by empirical concerns—science and historical methodology—which we then try to impose upon antique texts. Everything must be squared with our way of seeing the world. As a wise parishioner once quipped, “We moderns bow down before the explanation.”
A good litmus test is our reading of Genesis. A modern reader examining the text would ask the question, “Is this historically accurate?” In other words, should I read these stories literally, as a collection of data points that can be mapped chronologically and proven scientifically, or should I read them as the myths of a bygone culture? Our bias is towards facts and singular readings. Thus, an atheist would likely chalk up the entirety of Genesis to legend: like Aesop’s Fables, some interesting lessons may be gleaned from the text, but nothing more. In rejecting this approach, a Christian may assert that Genesis is a collection of facts, insisting that everything contained in its pages is accurate in an empirical, quantitative sense (as though we could go back in time to ask 800 year-old Noah to explain in perfect, biblical Hebrew how he got the alpacas to the Middle East so they could board the ark). Both readers are interpreting the text through the lens of positivism, just with different presuppositions.
To get out of this dilemma, we must regain a sense of the origin and intention of the text. When we aver that the Scriptures are inspired, we do not imply that the Holy Spirit possessed a scribe and forced him to write. Nor do we believe that the worldview, skills, and even limitations of the author were ignored by the Lord. When God acts through his people it is always synergy, our will inclined towards his. There are two agents cooperating: God, and the human author/editor. This being the case, we can say that the Scriptures are written to a specific audience (a certain age and culture), but for all the faithful. And if indeed God guides the formation of the Bible, then the words will reflect his very nature: truth.
This is the crux of our problem. We go to the text looking for facts and overlook the truth. We become fixated on facets of the author’s worldview (for example, debating what a “firmament” is—the Hebrew word literally means “a sheet of hammered metal”). We try to contort the story to make it fit our modern worldview, rather than seeing the intent of the authors (both human and divine). God did not hide the mysteries of the Big Bang, evolution, or climate change in the Bible. He hid therein the mystery of salvation.
The Church Fathers referred to at least two levels of meaning in an inspired text: the literal (historia) and the spiritual (anagogia). We may be tempted to see the word “history” in historia, and assume the Fathers read the text the same way we do; but this again would be to impose our views on the ancient world. The literal reading for them was simply the narrative itself. The purpose of exegesis was to draw out meaning from the narrative (not to insert one’s own meaning into it). If truth was being conveyed through the text, it was the job of the exegete to discover it. But as we continue this work of exegesis today, we err in assuming that the text presents to us facts akin to those in modern history books. In so doing, we miss the forest for the trees, confusing facts for truth. We need not impose our modern mindset on the text. This is not to deny that the narrative is grounded in historical realities, but only to reject facile readings. For example, it is not necessary to prove that the fearsome Leviathan and Behemoth actually existed as physical specimens in order to understand what is being conveyed in Job 40:15-41:26.
We may now return to the scrap between St. Nick and Arius. Scholars are welcome to apply their scientific methodology to the texts and make a determination as to whether this event ever took place. But it does us no good to come at the narrative with the same mindset, insisting that the events must have happened exactly as recorded by St. Dimitri Rostov. In short, it doesn’t matter whether or not Arius got decked. What matters is the truth being conveyed through the text. Arius made himself the enemy of God by denying the divinity of Christ; and Holy Father Nicholas, pained in his heart to hear such blasphemy, rebuffed him in the most severe way. No, it is not a justification for violence, nor even an excuse to insult our interlocutors. But it is certainly a reminder that the truth we seek is embodied in the incarnate Lord Jesus Christ himself—and outside of him, nothing makes sense.