This is Jesus’ description of those who encountered Him but did not understand. Just because we see something doesn’t mean we see it. Just because we hear something doesn’t mean we’ve heard it. This is particularly true of Holy Scripture. Just because we read it doesn’t mean we’ve read it.
Why do we read the Scriptures?
I assume that anyone who is “reading the Scriptures” is, in fact, a believing Christian, otherwise they would just be reading a collection of ancient writings held in esteem by Christians. For the books of the Bible to be “Scripture” is to say that they are considered somehow inspired and somehow authoritative. But to read them as Scripture also asks the question: “Whose Scripture?” The answer is, “The Christian Community’s – the Church’s.”
Some point famously to Paul’s admonition to Timothy:
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. 3:16-17).
However, this is the admonition of an Apostle to a Bishop. “Doctrine” (“teaching”) is not the task of every Christian. Instead we are told that not many of us should be teachers (James 3:1). St. Paul urges believers at various times to give heed to the “doctrine” that they have received (Romans 16:17; 1 Timothy 1:3; 1 Timothy 4:6; etc.).
In our modern culture, many Christians act as though they have a major task in life to learn doctrine, meaning to once again study the Scriptures and come to their own conclusions about everything under the sun. It is as though Martin Luther was reincarnated multiple times in every generation.
Doctrine, sound teaching, is the “pattern” of teaching which has been delivered (traditioned) to us. We find witnesses to this teaching in the Fathers from the first century forward. The reading of Scripture is not the means whereby we arrive at sound doctrine – sound doctrine is the means whereby we rightly read the Scriptures. The Christian reading of Holy Scripture is a “doctrinally-ruled” reading. We do not come to the Scriptures to decide whether the Nicene Council “got it right.” Without a knowledge of doctrine, much of Scripture will remain closed to the reader.
But there are ways of reading Scripture that are appropriate and generally essential to the Christian life. “Search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life, and these are they which testify of me,” Christ says (John 5:39).
The most appropriate and life-giving manner of reading the Scriptures is to read them as a means of communion (koinonia) with God. Communion with God, sharing in His Life even as He shares in ours, is the means and the goal of salvation. Everything in the Christian life – indeed, the whole purpose of human life – is communion with God. Sin is the breaking of this communion, while salvation is its restoration. All of the sacraments have the one purpose of communion with God, whether manifest as Eucharist, Healing, Ordination, Baptism, etc. The only purpose of prayer is communion with God, for we do not speak to God to inform Him of what He already knows nor to convince of what He is already going to do. We are taught to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17), because communion “without ceasing” is the very definition of the Christian life.
So how do we read for the purpose of communion? St. Isaac of Syria says this:
The course of your reading should be parallel to the aim of your way of life…. Most books that contain instructions in doctrine are not useful for purification. The reading of many diverse books brings distraction of mind down on you. Know, then, that not every book that teaches about religion is useful for the purification of the consciousness and the concentration of the thoughts.
In our democratic culture, we find it offensive that anyone should be forbidden to read anything. I would only point to the spiritual abuse found on any number of “Orthodox” websites in which serious matters, originally written for monastics or for the guidance of clergy are tossed about for even the non-Orthodox to read. As if the canons of the Church were meant for mass consumption!
Parents who care about the health of their children usually follow some regimen in the course of their young lives when it comes to feeding them. “Milk and not stong meat” is the Scriptural admonition for those who are young in the faith. St. James offers this warning:
Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness(3:1).
And St. Peter’s Second Epistle offers this:
So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures (3:15-16).
It’s not that Scripture or Canons or books of doctrine are to be avoided or forbidden – rather, that we should learn to read with wisdom in an effort to grow spiritually and not in an effort simply to gain knowledge of a questionable sort.
St. Isaac’s observation is that we give attention first to “purification of the consciousness and concentration of thoughts.” By such phrases he refers primarily to the daily regimen of what we read and how we pray (as well as fasting and repentance) towards the goal of overcoming the passions. Only someone who is not himself ruled by the passions is ready to safely guide someone else beyond those same rocks. Anger and condemnation, pride and superiority are marks of the pa