People of the Book

FingerPrintf1Q63f1r_BL120_fullHow obvious is the Bible? In my part of the world, a simple, cultural Protestantism prevails, one where many people when asked what Church they go to will say, “I just read the Bible and try to do what God says.” They may or may not go to a Church. They may, if questioned have some general doctrines to which they subscribe, but generally this is not the case. Their Christianity is their Bible.

There is an assumption that goes with this that the Bible is simple and straightforward and only becomes confusing when men lay their hands to its interpretation. There is, ironically, a cultural agreement that the Bible can be made to say almost anything. Thus, the only conclusion that I can reach is that the Bible is obvious in its meaning when I read it, but can be very confusing when you read it.

But what is the Bible and why should it be easy to read and obvious in its meaning? Since my childhood I have heard St. Paul’s admonition to Timothy quoted:

But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:15-16).

Often overlooked by those who cite the passage is the community that exists within it. The Scriptures are not presented as a book that is simply useful in itself. Timothy is told to remember from whom he learned them. What he knows, he has known from childhood. Timothy has been raised in a believing family (his mother and grandmother are mentioned as believing women though his father is Greek). His status as an uncircumcised son of a Greek father (his mother and grandmother were Jews) would seem to indicate that he learned the Scriptures somewhere other than a synagogue school – but it would be extremely unlikely that he had the wherewithal to learn the Scriptures in an entirely private setting.

The Scriptures are not just a book we read, they are something we are taught. What we are taught is always more than just the facts (a simple on-the-face literalism). We are taught a way of reading. I have read many ancient writings – some of which are considered sacred by non-Christians. But I don’t read those writings in the manner in which I read the Scriptures.

There is a scene in C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where a young girl absent-mindedly opens a magic book and reads a spell out loud. The result is worthy of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice (and not a little derivative). The sense of the book in that story is that it has an inherent power when read aloud (no matter who reads or why). Orthodox Christianity does not hold the Scriptures to be a magic book. They may be read by anyone (chanted, shouted or otherwise), but read with understanding only within the context of the believing community.

The Scriptures are not a source of authority (as in the three-source theory espoused by some Anglicans). They are a manifestation of the Divine Life within the believing community. The New Testament writings are quite clear about this Рthey are written by the Church and for the Church. 

But the Reformation brought about a new understanding of the Scriptures. Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) is a novel idea – itself not the teaching of Scripture. Saying this in no way lessens the authority of the Scriptures – but it places that authority within its proper context – the believing community.

The notion of the Bible, distinct from the community of believers, as a source for Divine guidance and belief, is not Christianity – at least not any traditional form of it. Instead, it represents an Islamification of Christianity. In such a practice, the Scriptures of the Church become a Christian Koran, while the believer ceases to be a member of the Body of Christ, and becomes part of the People of the Book (a slavish name if ever there was one).

It is disturbing to say such things. I have extended family members who are People of the Book.

But it is important for Christians to understand themselves as Church. There is no Churchless Christianity, and no Church apart from the sacraments. The enfleshed Body of Christ has a history and a visible life. It is manifest in the life of the Common Cup. It is indeed a great scandal that the Christian faith is marked by a multitude of organizations and “Churches.” This is not a failure of ecumenism and an unwillingness to get along. This is the result of bad theology and occasional heresy. The growing individualism of our culture is very compatible with a Bible decoupled from the Church. People respond best to a consumerist culture when they are isolated and removed from institutions like Churches. People of the Book make better shoppers.

Making the case for the Scriptures as part of the life of a community is devilishly difficult today. “Which community and why?” is nearly impossible to answer satisfactorily. To place the right-reading of the Scriptures within a community of interpretation (the Church) sounds like an effort to control and limit their availability. The reform of a culture that long ago drank the Kool-Aid of the People of the Book is beyond our power.

But we can make the journey ourselves to the Scriptures within the Church. How do the Scriptures reveal themselves in the context of the praying Church? How should we have learned the Scriptures from our childhood? The answer to those questions is ultimately  made known by being a part of that praying community Рand then praying within the community. Becoming children again, we learn the Scriptures in union with the great souls of the ages.





  1. Nancy Chiasson says

    Thank you for this. As a convert to Orthodoxy of only 5 years with many of my friends and family in the “People of the Book” category or many more in the “I believe in God” category with no real knowledge of a life in Christ, let alone in the Church, this is an issue I struggle with and your writings are always enlightening and concise. Wishing you all the joy of Lent!