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 —ρηματα, λεξεις 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