Scripture and the Church

codexsinaiticusI have written several posts lately on Holy Scripture – reading comments tells me that there is a point that needs to be underlined that I have neglected to some extent – the relationship between Scripture and Church. Much of the modern world is today the product of Protestant cultures – or cultures in which the view of the Bible has been largely shaped by the Protestant project.

The most critical part of that intellectual project was the decoupling of Scripture and Church. For Martin Luther or the early Reformers (particularly the successors of Luther, Calvin and Swingli), the Bible became the only authority (sola Scriptura) and it was through the Bible that the Church was to be judged, corrected and reformed. Thus the Scriptures took on a new form – one in which they became an independent book with authority over everything else. Problems of interpretation were often met with theories of “soul competency” in which it was postulated that each individual soul was competent to interpret the Scriptures for themselves. Of course, these were all novel doctrines, unknown to the Fathers of the Church.

One of the results was to create something of a Christian parallel to the Koran. Christianity, at the hands of well-intentioned reformers became a “people of the book.” A single Christian, with a copy of the Scriptures, somehow became a sufficient example of Christianity. Of course this phenomenon was itself a contradiction of the Scriptures. Today we see the embodiment of this sea-change. Crowds of young and old, carrying Bibles under their arms, dutifully make their way into buildings, euphemistically called “Churches,” although in America they are increasingly called something more attractive than “Church.”

The separation of Bible and Church was not an accident – it was an intentional political move. The goal was to establish the Scriptures as an authority independent of the Church. Nor was this independence purely for the sake of the spiritual “freedom” of the individual. The great competitor for the authority of the Church in the 16th century was not the individual, but the State. More than the work of reformers, the Reformation was a work of the State. Ask the many murdered monks of England. The 16th century is not the great century of democracy in Western Europe, but the great century in which were born the nation states. The authority of the Church was diminished while the authority of the state was expanded. Far easier to offer the spiritual comfort of a private Bible and a private God than the inherently dangerous┬ápolitical entity of a spiritual community.

Of course history has moved on and these original intentions have morphed into present-day realities. Of course, the individualized Christian with his individualized Bible continues to live at the mercy of the nation state, oftentimes endowing those entities (especially in America) with an authority that does not properly belong to them.

But of course, the radical mistake of removing the Holy Scriptures from the interpretive context of the living Orthodox Church, is to kill the Scripture as Scripture. Scripture apart from the Church makes no more sense than Holy Communion apart from the Church. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Scripture is written for the Church, to the Church, and is read by the Church. Apart from the Church it can have no particular meaning – for within the Church it has a most peculiar meaning that can only be traditioned within the Church.

This is made clear in several incidents within the New Testament. To the Sadducees who rejected most of the Old Testament, Christ said: “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt. 20:29).

And yet more bodly, to the Pharisees He said, “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me” (John 5:39). It is a radical claim in which Christ points to Himself as the meaning of the entire Old Testament. I can think of no bolder claim from His lips to His messiahship.

But we also see evidence of the proper place for reading and understanding the Scripture. The Sadducees did not understand, nor did the Pharisees. To a great extent, even the disciples of Christ did not understand until after the resurrection. On the road to Emmaus, we hear this encounter between the Risen Lord and His yet to be enlightened disciples:

And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, but they constrained him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:25-32).

After this encounter, Christ appears to His disciples by the Sea of Galilee. He greets them from the shore:

And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them. Then he said to them, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:41-47).

It is clear that the entire interpretive scheme of the Old Testament – as a revelation of the suffering and resurrected God – is not at all understood by the disciples until it is given to them by Christ after the resurrection. This same “scheme” (in the sense of “schema” in the Greek – meaning “framework”) is precisely the scheme of the liturgies, hymns and prayers of the Church. They are the most abundant witness to this primitive proclamation of the Church in which the Old Testament, rightly sung in its proper context, yields up its meaning in bearing witness to Christ and His resurrection. This rich interpretive scheme is completely lost to those who have detached the Bible from the fullness of the Orthodox Church and placed it in various forms of history – either fundamentalist literalism – or historical critical schemes of blasphemy.

The Scriptures do not stand apart from the Church. They are the “Scriptures of the Church.” To refer to them as Scripture apart from the Church is simply an absurd statement that ignores the very meaning of the word “Scripture.” They are Scripture, or “Holy Writing,” precisely because the Church sees and hears in them what it was taught to see and hear in them. Removed from that context they will always be read incorrectly. It is equally absurd to claim that the Scriptures have some “objective” meaning, as though they were written for nobody – like a rock exists in the desert. They are not objective, but are “ecclesial,” that is, existing for the life and as part of the life of the Church.

If a man would know the word of God, then he should stand in the midst of the assembly of the Church and listen to the hymns and prayers of the saints. There he will hear the rich treasures of the Word of God offered as praise, as doctrine, as worship, as a verbal icon of Christ Himself. In so doing He can come to know the word of God.