Gregory the Great on Song of Songs 1:4b

Reformed Covenanter

Puritanboard Commissioner
What do you make of Gregory the Great’s comment on Song of Songs 1:4b?

The king has brought me into his bedchamber. We shall rejoice and be glad in you [Song 1:3cd]. The Church of God is like the house of a king. And this house has an entrance. It has a staircase. It has a banqueting hall. It has bedchambers. Everyone who has faith within the Church has already passed through the entrance of this house. For as an entrance gives access to the rest of the house, so faith is the gateway to the rest of the virtues.

Everyone who has hope within the Church has already reached the staircase of this house. For hope lifts the heart such that it pursues the lofty regions and abandons the lowly. Every resident of this house who has charity walks as if in the banquet halls. For vast is charity, which extends itself even to the love of enemies. Every resident of the Church who already scrutinizes God’s lofty secrets, who already ponders his hidden commandments, has entered as if into the bedchamber.

Gregory the Great, Exposition on the Song of Songs (594-98), 25, trans. Mark DelCogliano (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2012), p. 128.
 

Seeking_Thy_Kingdom

Puritan Board Freshman
Every resident of the Church who already scrutinizes God’s lofty secrets, who already ponders his hidden commandments, has entered as if into the bedchamber.
This is a very odd thing to say.... however I do not envy those who try and expound Song of Songs, personally I can not think of a harder book to dig into.
 

py3ak

They're stalling and plotting against me
Staff member
Part of the allegorical method is just running through the possible variations. Gregory has faith as entrance, love as the expansive areas, and the more private bedchamber stands for what would later be called (in Anselm and the Victorines, for instance) contemplation. Those aspects of truth which are not accessible to beginners could be called "lofty secrets" or "hidden commandments."
 

iainduguid

Puritan Board Sophomore
What do you make of Gregory the Great’s comment on Song of Songs 1:4b?

The king has brought me into his bedchamber. We shall rejoice and be glad in you [Song 1:3cd]. The Church of God is like the house of a king. And this house has an entrance. It has a staircase. It has a banqueting hall. It has bedchambers. Everyone who has faith within the Church has already passed through the entrance of this house. For as an entrance gives access to the rest of the house, so faith is the gateway to the rest of the virtues.

Everyone who has hope within the Church has already reached the staircase of this house. For hope lifts the heart such that it pursues the lofty regions and abandons the lowly. Every resident of this house who has charity walks as if in the banquet halls. For vast is charity, which extends itself even to the love of enemies. Every resident of the Church who already scrutinizes God’s lofty secrets, who already ponders his hidden commandments, has entered as if into the bedchamber.

Gregory the Great, Exposition on the Song of Songs (594-98), 25, trans. Mark DelCogliano (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2012), p. 128.
This highlights the problem with allegorical exegesis, which is that it spends its time talking about whatever the interpreter wants, rather than what the text is about. There is nothing in the text about an entrance, or a stairway, or a banqueting hall (though a "house of wine" gets a mention in 2:4, it seems more likely that this would be a private dining area in the manner of the Book of Esther than a vast hall such as Gregory envisages, if it is not a metaphorical "house" to begin with). What he says may be true and Biblical, but it is not clearly what this passage is about, so the Bereans would have been left scratching their heads at where exactly in this Scripture these ideas are.

For a different, better interpretation of what the writer of the Song had in mind, you could consult one of my commentaries (REC or Tyndale), or indeed a bunch of other more recent commentaries. But then it is not surprising that a preacher addressing an audience of monks in a series of (if I remember rightly) 84 sermons on the first three chapters of the Song is not going to resonate with the Biblical teaching of the Song that a desire for sex is good and holy within marriage. That's certainly not the only thing we learn from it, but it is clearly not something Gregory was likely to acknowledge.
 

DTK

Puritan Board Junior
This highlights the problem with allegorical exegesis, which is that it spends its time talking about whatever the interpreter wants, rather than what the text is about.
If I may, this reminds me of some words of wisdom I recall from John Chrysostom...

John Chrysostom (349-407) commenting in Isaiah 5: There is something else we can learn here. What sort of thing is it? It is when it is necessary to allegorize Scripture. We ourselves are not the lords over the rules of interpretation, but must pursue Scripture’s understanding of itself, and in that way make use of the allegorical method. What I mean is this. The Scripture has just now spoken of a vineyard, wall, and wine-vat. The reader is not permitted to become lord of the passage and apply the words to whatever events or people he chooses. The Scripture interprets itself with the words, “And the house of Israel is the vineyard of the Lord Sabaoth.” To give another example, Ezekiel describes a large, great-winged eagle which enters Lebanon and takes off the top of a cedar. The interpretation of the allegory does not lie in the whim of the readers, but Ezekiel himself speaks, and tells first what the eagle is and then what the cedar is. To take another example from Isaiah himself, when he raises a mighty river against Judah, he does not leave it to the imagination of the reader to apply it to whatever person he chooses, but he names the king whom he has referred to as a river. This is everywhere a rule in Scripture: when it wants to allegorize, it tells the interpretation of the allegory, so that the passage will not be interpreted superficially or be met by the undisciplined desire of those who enjoy allegorization to wander about and be carried in every direction. Why are you surprised that the prophets should observe this rule? Even the author of Proverbs does this. For he said, “Let your loving doe and graceful filly accompany you, and let your spring of water be for you alone.” Then he interprets these terms to refer to one’s free and lawful wife; he rejects the grasp of the prostitute and other woman. Duane A. Garrett, An Analysis of the Hermeneutics of John Chrysostom’s Commentary on Isaiah 1-8 with an English Translation, Isaiah Chapter 5 (Lewiston/Queenston/Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1992), pp. 110-111.

The Antiochians are sometimes remembered today for their disdain of allegory as exemplified in "Alexandrian" exegesis, but I do think Chrysostom's caution here is sound. This is simply one more example of what the Westminster divines emphasized, namely, that "the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself."

Though he was a scholar in the Roman communion, who has provided us with the service of translating into English (for the first time) a great number of John Chrysostom's sermonic works, Robert Charles Hill did not shy away from recognizing this hermeneutic principle as displayed eminently in the ministry of John Chrysostom...

Robert Charles Hill: In fact, he [i.e., Chrysostom] is a great believer in his principle “Scripture interprets itself,” which he formulates in connection with Psalm 45.4, where he says the meaning emerges “if you examine it precisely.” Robert Charles Hill, St. John Chrysostom Commentary on the Psalms, Volume 1 (Brookline: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1998), p. 30.

Robert Charles Hill: This is another of Chrysostom’s hermeneutical axioms arising from his incarnational theology of the Word: “Scripture interprets itself.” Figurative though the language may be, especially in the lyrical books, it is not to be interpreted as lavish allegory, but yields to patient and “precise” exegesis, providing the key to its own explanation. See fn. 61 of Robert Charles Hill, St. John Chrysostom Commentary on the Psalms, Volume 1 (Brookline: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1998), p. 287.
 

Scottish Presbyterian

Puritan Board Freshman
Chrysostom's rule doesn't apply to most of the parables.

@iainduguid Out of interest, what is the earliest source you know of which espouses the view of the Song of Solomon that you take?
 
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SRoper

Puritan Board Graduate
I think Gregory offers a true and beautiful reflection on the passage in the tradition of the Christian exegesis of Song of Songs. The allegorical interpretation predates monasticism and even Christ's advent, so it is anachronistic to suggest it is driven by a dislike of sex. I don't believe Song of Songs would have ever been accepted in the Jewish or Christian canon if it wasn't seen as allegorical.

I am embarrassed that I used to find the Driscol interpretation edgy.
 

iainduguid

Puritan Board Sophomore
I think Gregory offers a true and beautiful reflection on the passage in the tradition of the Christian exegesis of Song of Songs. The allegorical interpretation predates monasticism and even Christ's advent, so it is anachronistic to suggest it is driven by a dislike of sex. I don't believe Song of Songs would have ever been accepted in the Jewish or Christian canon if it wasn't seen as allegorical.

I am embarrassed that I used to find the Driscol interpretation edgy.
One of the things I point out in my commentary is that the spiritual interpretation has no monopoly on allegorical interpretation. Driscoll (and Tommy Nelson's tamer version in the Book of Romance) have as little to do with the original intent of the Song as Gregory the Great (or Cyril of Alexandria's suggestion that the sachet of myrrh between the breasts of the beloved is Christ coming between the testaments). My point is that we should interpret Scripture by Scripture, and both the natural AND the spiritual interpretations come in two varieties: responsible attempts at interpretation and free association. Of course there is a connection between any passage in the Bible that talks about marriage and Christ! But that doesn't mean that everything people claim a passage means is what it means. And sometimes breasts are, well, breasts (see Prov. 5:19). How did Proverbs 5:19 come to be in Scripture? Could it be that we need some instruction in what exactly "love" looks like, in a world (ancient and modern) that is deeply confused?
With Gregory the Great in the passage cited, the clue is in the fact that he imports in elements (entrances, staircases, banqueting halls) that are not part of the original passage. The result is the free association variety of allegorization - the kind of thing Spurgeon recommends to his students and often practices himself, dragging his text through a hedge and across a ditch in order to get it to Christ. No one is more passionate about preaching Christ from all of Scripture than me (including the Song of Songs, as the REC demonstrates). But if we are going to train our hearers to be good readers of Scripture, we must show them how to do it in the right way.
 

Scottish Presbyterian

Puritan Board Freshman
I think Gregory offers a true and beautiful reflection on the passage in the tradition of the Christian exegesis of Song of Songs. The allegorical interpretation predates monasticism and even Christ's advent, so it is anachronistic to suggest it is driven by a dislike of sex. I don't believe Song of Songs would have ever been accepted in the Jewish or Christian canon if it wasn't seen as allegorical.

I am embarrassed that I used to find the Driscol interpretation edgy.
Of course interpreting the book as being about sex is also allegorical - it's just a different allegory. The book is not explicitly about sex.
 

iainduguid

Puritan Board Sophomore
Of course interpreting the book as being about sex is also allegorical - it's just a different allegory. The book is not explicitly about sex.
Well...it's true that the book is not only about sex, and is focused more on desire than sex as such. But as I wrote in my commentary on 1:2:
2. We do not have to wait to discover what it is that the woman desires from the man: kisses – or more specifically, kisses of his mouth...Certainly, she has in view something more intimate than the kind of kissing in which a brother and sister may engage in public (see 8:1). Indeed, she desires not only his kisses but his “caresses” (dôdîm), translated as love in most English versions (e.g. ESV, NIV). The singular form of the word, dôd, can designate a close relative (e.g. Lev. 10:4, Esth. 2:7) or a beloved individual (e.g. Isa. 5:1 and repeatedly in the Song). However, whenever it occurs in the plural in the Old Testament, as here, it generally has sexual intimacy is in view (Garrett 2004: 128). For example, in Ezekiel 16:8, it describes a young woman who has reached sexual maturity and is therefore ready for dôdîm. In Ezekiel 23:17, Judah shares a bed of dôdîm with her Babylonian lovers. Meanwhile, in Proverbs 7:18, the adulteress seduces the young man with the words, “Come let’s take our fill of dôdîm until morning.” It is thus a particular kind of “love” that she desires – sexual love – yet at the same time, the word also connotes a particular kind of sex – passionate sex, not simply an act of procreation. She wants the man for himself (and for herself), not just so that she can bear his children.
 

C. M. Sheffield

Puritan Board Senior
Every resident of the Church who already scrutinizes God’s lofty secrets, who already ponders his hidden commandments, has entered as if into the bedchamber.
This sounds like Gnosticism or at least a "higher life" mysticism. But then, I would need to know what Chrysostom meant by these expressions.
 
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