An Orthodox Hermeneutic

Is or can there be such a thing as an Orthodox hermeneutic (method of interpretation) of Scripture?  I asserted in a recent post that there was such a thing and that the Orthodox would do well to work towards its recovery rather than using the hermeneutics of others who do not hold the Orthodox faith. I will make a small suggestion for how this may be understood.

St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, asserts:

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).

Thus it is that the Church itself is the proper hermeneutic of Scripture – having been written by Christ, ministered by the apostles, not with ink, “but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.” Thus, to a certain extent, to say that the Scriptures are the Church’s book is a tautology. Either the Church is that epistle, written in the fleshy tables of the heart, or it is not the Church at all. It is partly for this reason that Orthodoxy sees the interpretation of Scripture as something that does not take place apart from the Church nor without the Church, but in the midst of the Church, which is herself the very interpretation, constantly echoing the Word of God in her services, sacraments, and all of her very life.

It is, of course, the case that there are things to be found within the Church that are not “of” the Church, but are things to be purged, to be removed, to be met with repentance. Indeed the life of the Orthodox Church is only rightly lived as a life of constant repentance. “A broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 50 (51):17.

But these are the sins of the old man, buried with Christ in Baptism, whose actions are to be put to death in this life (Romans 8:13).

If the Scriptures are themselves not interpreted in this manner, then every other interpretation is only words about God, and not the word of God. In many cases, Christians have left off living the word of God and have become experts at its discussion. Such exercises may be less than useless: they may prove to be harmful, for we will be judged by every idle word we speak. To take up Scripture and yet not embody it is to be a “hearer of the word and not a doer” as St. John warned in his small epistle.

I have cited the statement of the 7th ecumenical council that “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” It must also be the case that the Church is an icon of Christ, or more than that, the very body of Christ. If the Church is not itself the proper interpretation of Scripture then no interpretation is to be found. If there is a modern “famine” in the hearing of the word of God it would be in the failure of Orthodox Christians to live as fully Orthodox and to keep the commandments of God.

There have been times that unbelievers could look at Christians and say, “See how they love one another.” Could there be a more eloquent interpretation of Scripture?

For this reason there can only be the one interpretation (though a passage may have many layers of meaning) just as there can only be the one Church. For the Scriptures are one even though they may consist of many books – for the meaning of every word, every book, is Christ. And the life of the Church can only be the Life of Christ for there is no other life to be found.

I give thanks to God that in my life I have had occasion to “read” this book in the fleshy tables of the heart. I have also seen many occasions in which those of the Church failed to fulfill the vocation we have been given. But even in the midst of our falling short, I have seen the bright light of Christ, the True Life, and tasted of the heavenly banquet. I have heard the voice of angels singing in choir the one song of the ages.

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

Comments

  1. irishanglican says

    Would not exegesis be itself, a kind of necessary tautology, i.e. tautologous..analytic? “necessary essentials”?
    (Sorry to be kinda a pain in your side, that is not my intention)

  2. irishanglican says

    But in this case, would not exegesis be a necessary form of tautology, or tautologous…analytic? “necessary essentials”?
    (I am not trying to be a pain in your side, just seeking to engage the breath & word of God!)

  3. irishanglican says

    Third try, blogland? Is not tautology necessary in the case of exegesis? I mean, tautologous…analytic. “necessary essentials”?

  4. Robert says

    Thank you Father Stephen for this beautifully written piece. More constructive than wrestling with the false dilemma of a “literal” interpretation.

    I am looking forward to read your follow-up posts on the “meat and bones” of Orthodox Hermeneutics. Possibly about different approaches within OH? Either way, I believe OH to be a very important and relevant subject.

    Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!

  5. says

    Irish Anglican,

    I’m not sure how tautology would be necessary in exegesis. I wanted to make the point that if the Church is the exegesis of Scripture, then to say the Scriptures are the Church’s book would be a tautology. Not wrong, but a tautology.

    Interestingly, St. John describes Christ as the “exegesis” of the Father [John 1:18] though he uses it in a verb form “the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, he has exegeted Him.

    In something of the same sense, I would say that the Church exegetes the Scripture, and certainly is the exegesis of Christ. For if the Church does not rightly exegete Christ, then He will not be known in the world. No individual believer is ever called the “Pillar and Ground of Truth” or “the Body of Christ,” etc. It is the fullness of the Church that makes Christ rightly known in the world, through the operation of the Holy Spirit.

    Only the Church Baptizes and Chrismates. Only the Church gives the Bread of Life. These things were given to the Church by Christ and are the normative means by which we know Him (as we obey His commandments). The “franchising” of Christianity (which is a way I would describe denominationalism) does not offer Christ in His fullness, but offers only a truncated caricature, particularly in its failure to, in fact, be the Church.

    Of course I understand that this is a highly sacramental presentation of the gospel of salvation, but I believe this is what is clearly taught in Scripture and was continually taught by the fathers. Everything else is a deviation.

  6. says

    I post a small apology here to Irishanglican. The spam filter picked up several of his posts (long story) but not by intention. Akismet spam filter has something of a mind of its own. But I’ve freed those comments (I check the filter about 3 or 4 times a day. If you’ve experienced this problem as well, be patient. Blogging is only a part-time thing.

  7. Robert says

    “this is a highly sacramental presentation of the gospel of salvation, but I believe this is what is clearly taught in Scripture and was continually taught by the fathers. Everything else is a deviation.”

    Truly this is the only way to understand Scripture aright. Only in the context of and submission to the life of the All-Holy Spirit in the Body of Christ through the ages can the Bible be understood. It onlyas such that the parchment becomes the Book of Life, the Logos of God for the Bride of Christ.

  8. irishanglican says

    Fr. Stephen,
    Thanks for your reply. As an Anglican (via media) I do try and walk in both the Church catholic & evangelical, I do value the sacramental life, with mystery & presence. But I also see the Word of God in preaching/teaching as sacramental. And it is not one over the other, but the whole life together…Word & Sacrament, Acts 2:42.

    Thank you for your post on exegesis! St. John is an awesome Gospel…can we call it the “Spiritual” Gospel? I love the text of John 1:18…”An only one, God, the one being in the bosom of the Father..” (lit. Gk.)

    And we would agree on so much in the pop church culture! It is hardly identifiable as the Church visible of Christ..very sad!

    Thank you to take time with me. And I am but a poor blogger.

    Peace of Christ,
    Fr. Robert

  9. says

    Irishanglican,

    Indeed preaching and teaching are sacramental. The whole thing is sacramental. We (sacramental Christians) have frequently had too small a definition of sacramentals. They are not one thing amidst others – they are a revelation of all that is – salvation included. The Holy Eucharist is all of Salvation in a Cup (the Orthodox put both the Body and Blood in a single cup).

  10. says

    Irishanglican,

    Indeed preaching and teaching are sacramental. The whole thing is sacramental. We (sacramental Christians) have frequently had too small a definition of sacramentals. They are not one thing amidst others – they are a revelation of all that is – salvation included. The Holy Eucharist is all of Salvation in a Cup (the Orthodox put both the Body and Blood in a single cup).

  11. Phil says

    Father Stephen, relevant, I think, to your discussion here – and, especially, to this comment:

    It is partly for this reason that Orthodoxy sees the interpretation of Scripture as something that does not take place apart from the Church nor without the Church, but in the midst of the Church, which is herself the very interpretation, constantly echoing the Word of God in her services, sacraments, and all of her very life.

    I once read the following. I’ve lost the link, but it’s attributed to the March 1995 “Greek Orthodox Diocese of Denver Bulletin”:

    Strictly speaking, there never was a Bible in the Orthodox Church, at least not as we commonly think of the Bible as a single volume book we can hold in our hand. Since the beginning of the Church, from the start of our liturgical tradition, there has never been a single book in an Orthodox church we could point to as the Bible. Instead, the various Books of the Bible are found scattered throughout several service books located either on the Holy Altar itself, or at the chanter’s stand. The Gospels (or their pericopes) are complied into a single volume — usually bound in precious metal and richly decorated — placed on the Holy Altar.

    The Epistles (or, again, their pericopes) are bound together in another book, called the Apostolos, which is normally found at the chanter’s stand. Usually located next to the Apostolos on the chanter’s shelf are the twelve volumes of the Menaion, as well as the books called the Triodion and Pentekostarion, containing various segments of the Old and the New Testaments. …

    The Church is not based on the Bible. Rather, the Bible is a product of the Church.

    Having just been through my first Orthodox Lent and Holy Week, I can testify to, if not adequately explain, the truth of your words.

  12. Robert says

    Dear Phil,

    “…the Bible is a product of the Church.” Yes so true!

    Such a contrast this is to “Sola Scriptura” the result of which is that the Bible, and in turn the reader’s interpretation, is put above the Church.

  13. Mark Downham says

    You may find this illuminating:

    ‘The Many and the One: The Interface Between Orthodox and Evangelical Protestant Hermeneutic’ – Grant R.Osborne

    http://www.myriobiblos.gr/texts/english/osborne_5.html

    “Thus it is that the Church itself is the proper hermeneutic of Scripture – having been written by Christ, ministered by the apostles, not with ink, “but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.” – Father Stephen Freeman