The Shape of Scripture and the Orthodox Faith

Preist-hands(2)_RZI have written frequently about the Orthodox understanding of the Scriptures. I offer a quote taken from a lecture by Fr. Andrew Louth, Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies at Durham University, priest in the Diocese of Sourozh (Great Britain) in the Russian Orthodox Church. This passage comes from the first lecture in the series. I heartily recommend the entire 8 lectures. I could not possibly have said it better:

What does all this add up to? It suggests to my mind an attitude to Scripture that sees it not as some flat collection of infallible texts about religious matters, but rather as a body of witness, of varying significance—some clearly crucial, as witnessing very directly to Christ, others less important (though never of no importance), as their witness to Christ is more oblique. And the criteria for importance are bound up in some way with the way the Church has taken them up into her experience. There is a hierarchy, a shape: the Gospel book at the centre, the Apostle flanking it, and then a variety of texts from the Old Testament, generally accessed not through some volume called the Bible, but from extracts contained in the liturgical books, along with other texts: songs, passages from the Fathers, and so on. The Scriptures then have a kind of shape, a shape that relates to our experience of them.

I would like to say something similar about the other ‘authorities’ we consult in Orthodox theology: the Fathers, the Councils and the prayers of the Church. There is no question of making the Fathers, or any selection of them, infallible authorities. They disagree with one another over all sorts of issues, and we should beware of trying to iron out the differences between them. What we should hear from the chorus of the Fathers is a rich harmony, not a thin unison. Similarly with the decisions of the councils, especially the Holy Canons. Although the canons have been collected together, time and again, there is no disguising the fact that the canons were issued by councils for particular reasons, in particular contexts. If we put them altogether, we shall not find in them detailed guidance on all the problems that face us nowadays. Some Orthodox thinkers have made capital of this, arguing that the open texture of the canons makes room for a creative freedom as we seek to live the Gospel—and I would agree with them. Perhaps most important, outside the Scriptures, are the prayers and songs of the Church, which take us into the experience of the sacred mysteries.

He concludes his lecture with a quote taken from Fr. Pavel Florensky’s Pillar and Ground of Truth:

 … the life of the Church is assimilated and known only through life—not in the abstract, not in a rational way. If one must nevertheless apply concepts to the life of the Church, the most appropriate concepts would be not juridical and archaeological ones but biological and aesthetic ones. What is ecclesiality? It is a new life, life in the Spirit. What is the criterion of the rightness of this life? Beauty. Yes, there is a special beauty of the spirit, and, ungraspable by logical formulas, it is at the same time the only true path to the definition of what is orthodox and what is not orthodox. The connoisseurs of this beauty are the spiritual elders, the startsy, the masters of the ‘art of arts’, as the holy fathers call asceticism. The startsy were adept at assessing the quality of spiritual life. The Orthodox taste, the Orthodox temper, is felt but it is not subject to arithmetical calculation. Orthodoxy is shown, nor proved. That is why there is only one way to understand Orthodoxy: through direct orthodox experience… to become Orthodox, it is necessary to immerse oneself all at once in the very element of Orthodoxy, to begin living in an Orthodox way. There is no other way.

“The life of the Church is assimilated and known only through life – not in the abstract, not in a rational way.” How rightly spoken – and this by a priest who died in Stalin’s Gulag. The knowledge of God and the truth of the Christian faith are never abstract, for God is not abstract and life itself is never abstract. Our penchant for reducing things to arguable moments is symptomatic of a cultural failure. The proclamation of the Gospel is never found in the stating of ideas. It is in action: “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” and in experience, “Come and see.”


  1. Marjaana says

    Great post, Fr. Stephen! As a convert to Orthodoxy, one of the most poignant moment of all services is perhaps during the Presanctified Liturgy when the choir sings: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” No arguments or mental constructs necessary.

  2. dinoship says

    What gems…!

    What we should hear from the chorus of the Fathers is a rich harmony, not a thin unison.

    the life of the Church is assimilated and known only through life—not in the abstract, not in a rational way.

    Gems worth remembering indeed…