How the Church Reads the Church

You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart. (2 Cor. 3:2-3)

The mental habits of the modern world are not unlike the scientific method. We examine things, study them, compare and contrast, weigh and measure, consider and decide. We do this with ideas as well as with objects and situations. We also do this with texts, such as Scripture. Or do we?

What I have described is what we often think we do with information. It works so long as everyone involved in the circle of information (the conversation) agrees that this is what we do. That is one of the common assumptions of the modern era. The debates in this model have generally been about the objects of our consideration. The Post-Modern question has been to focus the discussion on the process of consideration itself.

What happens when we read a text? How does information go from text into meaning? What role do prior assumptions and the community of reception play? These are all obvious questions – though they were often questions that remained unasked through much of the modern period. The arguments between various groups (e.g., Protestants and Catholics) tended to remain with the text itself. Post-Modernism, focusing on the process rather than the text, has tended to say that the text matters very little – truth (or truth claims) rest solely within the community that makes them.

Orthodoxy comes to this conversation as an outsider. The modern arguments between Catholic and Protestant, begin and continue without reference to the Orthodox. For argument’s sake, Orthodoxy doesn’t exist. But the point made by Post-Modern thinkers is not foreign to Orthodoxy. It’s observations about the relationship between text and reader were made long ago by St. Irenaeus of Lyons (2nd century). Those same observations go to the heart of the Orthodox approach to the Scriptures.

The discussion involving the use of texts that drew St. Irenaeus’ attention, was engendered by conversations with Gnostics. These “Christians,” put forward a radically different account of salvation and the place of Christ within human history. Often, the Gnostic account included the disparaging of material reality or the dismissal of Jewish history. Suffice it to say that the Christ of Orthodox Christianity and the Christ of the Gnostics were radically incompatible.

Irenaeus is among the few voices in the debate whose writings are still extant. What he says is deeply significant. He cites his credentials (ordained in succession to the Apostles, etc., “I knew Polycarp who knew John”). In this, he is very similar to an earlier Orthodox bishop, Ignatius of Antioch. But Irenaeus presents an argument with regard to Scripture that goes beyond the mere authority of his position. He essentially claims that the Gnostics are unable to read the Scriptures. Father Georges Florovsky gives this summary:

Denouncing the Gnostic mishandling of Scriptures, St. Irenaeus introduced a picturesque simile. A skillful artist has made a beautiful image of a king, composed of many precious jewels. Now, another man takes this mosaic image apart, re-arranges the stones in another pattern so as to produce the image of a dog or of a fox. Then he starts claiming that this was the original picture, by the first master, under the pretext that the gems (the ψηφιδες) were authentic. In fact, however, the original design had been destroyed — λυσας την υποκειμενην του ανθρωπου ιδεαν. This is precisely what the heretics do with the Scripture. They disregard and disrupt “the order and connection” of the Holy Writ and “dismember the truth” — λυοντες τα μελη της αληθειας. Words, expressions, and images —ρηματαλεξεις παραβολαι —are genuine, indeed, but the design, the υποθεσις (ipothesis), is arbitrary and false (adv. haeres., 1. 8. 1).

This same effort to describe how the Scriptures are unique to the Church continues throughout the early Church and its struggles with false teachings. St. Hilary of Poitiers states: Scripturae enim non in legendo sunt, sed in intelligendo. [“For Scripture is not in the reading, but in the understanding;”] ad Constantium Aug., lib. II, cap. 9, ML X, 570. His focus, and that of the fathers, is on  the very process of interpretation and the nature of the community in which it takes place rather than arguments about the text itself. To argue with someone outside the Church about the meaning of a text is to engage in a conversation that is largely useless.

This is decidedly different than the discussions about Scripture within the Modern period. Recent academic work, coming from a Post-Modern perspective, has begun to move conversations about Scripture (and all written material) in this direction. The result is something similar to chaos, since the fragmentation of modern culture gives little to no consensus from which to read anything. The various absurd claims of contemporary liberal Bible studies are only one illustration of this fragmented world. If a Bishop uses the “Scriptures” to deny that Christ is raised from the dead, what is the community from which he speaks?

However, Orthodoxy would largely agree with Post-Modernism that there is no one single, objective place from which everyone, believer and non-believer, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, can read the Scriptures. And so it is that the “Church reads the Church.” It is hard to find an adequate way to express this – our modern habits are so accustomed to thinking of a text as an independent, self-existing fact.

The Church should not be seen as an institution, a business or a club, or an organization existing through the centuries, managing history. Some “Churches” in the West may very well fit this description, but they are not “Church” in the proper sense of the word. The Church is the Eucharist and the Eucharist is the Church. The people, members of the Body of Christ, are those assembled in the liturgy (and in its continual life beyond the immediate assembly itself). That the Church reads is patently part of its liturgical life. What is considered canon, authoritative, is that which is read in the liturgy. The Church not only reads the Scriptures, it prays and enacts the Scriptures. It sings the Scriptures and interprets them in the embodied life of praise and thanksgiving to God. “Bible study,” and such notions, outside of the worshipping Church are akin to nonsense. There can be no study of the Scripture for the sake of the Scripture (or simply for the sake of learning). This would be similar to discussing (ad nauseum) the lyrics of a song whose music you never hear and whose tune you never sing.

The Scripture is the song of God, both sung to the Church by God and sung to God by the Church. In the life that is that song, the Church is continually conformed to the image of Christ. This is the Church’s liturgy (and God’s liturgy), the song of the image of God.

The life that is the continual liturgy is the Christ-conforming life of the believer in union with others within the Body of Christ sharing in the one Spirit. The Scriptures are not a source or reference-book for that Christ-conforming life, they are part of that life itself.

Our habits of thought are so shaped by the concept of a self-existing Scripture, that we fail to understand the life and action of interpretation. When the fathers of the Church are invoked as authoritative interpreters of Scripture, we are primarily referring to the lives which they lived, of which the words they wrote are but one manifestation. But just as God is seen by the pure in heart (Matt. 5:8), so God’s word is heard by the pure in heart. And just as God’s word is heard by the pure in heart, so the fathers are understood by the pure in heart. We cannot invoke a means of authority that will serve for the impure.

To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled…(Titus 1:15).

We can despair, “Who is pure?” But this is the role of continual repentance in the life of the worshipping Church. The Church is pure as it repents and turns to God. In the act of repentance we begin to see and hear. This repentance is also rightly grounded in the liturgical life of the Church. The place of monasticism in the life of the Orthodox faith is irreplaceable. Asceticism and repentance are essential to the purity with which we discern the truth. Nor is there a form of Orthodox faithfulness that is not also grounded in ascetical practice and continual repentance. It is in this manner that we should understand statements such as: “Orthodoxy is not a religion but a way of life.” There is no system of beliefs or doctrines that have any bearing on the truth if those beliefs or doctrines are not rooted in the path of purity. They quickly become something other than they were, even were they given by God. Orthodoxy that is not lived in the path of purity is not Orthodoxy.

Thus St. Paul can say of the Corinthians, “You are our epistle…read by all men.” No other epistle is worth reading.

The consequences of this are immediate: there can be no proclamation of Christ that is not also a proclamation of the Church.

For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake [but Paul does not preach Christ without himself as bondservant!] (2 Cor. 4:5).

It is easy to look at this and wonder where we begin? If the Scripture can only be read in the Church then how do we enter the Church? The mystery of our birth in Christ is always just that. We are birthed in many ways – but always only by God. And we are birthed into the life of the Church. It is there that we begin to discover:

For all things are yours: whether…the world or life or death, or things present or things to come – all are yours. And you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (1 Cor. 3:21-23).


A comment this evening brought this quote forward. It is so apt that I have added it to the original article. From St. Athanasius On the Incarnation of the Word.

But for the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind and grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life. Anyone who wants to look at sunlight naturally wipes his eye clear first, in order to make, at any rate, some approximation to the purity of that on which he looks; and a person wishing to see a city or country goes to the place in order to do so. Similarly, anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds. Thus united to them in the fellowship of life, he will both understand the things revealed to them by God and, thenceforth escaping the peril that threatens sinners in the judgment, will receive that which is laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven.