Orthodox Social Thought and Biblical Theology

To search the Scriptures is a work most fair and most profitable for souls. For just as the tree planted by the channels of waters, so also the soul watered by the divine Scripture is enriched and gives fruit in its season, viz. orthodox belief, and is adorned with evergreen leafage, I mean, actions pleasing to God. – St. John of Damascus

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Growing up Evangelical (I’m a convert to Orthodoxy), I sang a lot of songs about the Bible. In principle, there’s nothing wrong with that—the Bible is great! (Turns out, we Orthodox have one, too.) However, upon reflection as a Greek Orthodox adult, not all of these songs hold up. In particular, consider the first verse of “The B-I-B-L-E”:

Oh! The B-I-B-L-E,
Yes that’s the book for me.
I stand alone on the word of God,
the B-I-B-L-E!

The phrase “I stand alone” is probably a reference to the infamous words Martin Luther likely never said at the Diet of Worms: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” In any case, I’m glad to say that as Orthodox Christians we do not “stand alone.” When we consult the “word of God,” we read it with the Church.

Continuing my series on Orthodoxy and modern Christian social thought and having reviewed a few other Christian traditions’ contributions in my previous essays, it’s time to dig into some of the many resources at our disposal within the Orthodox Tradition, starting with Holy Scripture, i.e., the “B-I-B-L-E.” 

In particular, in my next several essays I will explore what Scripture, read within the Church, can teach us about our social relations in general and our duties to the poor among us in particular. The goal will be to construct what some Protestants might refer to as a “biblical theology” for modern Orthodox Christian social thought. That is, rather than proceeding systematically by theological topic, I will attempt to trace themes and principles as they come to the fore throughout the biblical canon and story with reference to our contemporary question of how best to serve the poor in the modern world.

However, being Orthodox, I do not intend to “stand alone,” but rather to follow the rule of St. Vincent of Lérins: “universality, antiquity, consent.” He explains,

We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.

There is, in fact, a social principle already present in our method of reading Scripture: We owe a debt to those who came before us, who gave their lives to pass on the faith—and the Bible—to us. Indeed, it is from the Church that we get the Bible. Christians have disagreed across times and regions as to specifically which books should be included in the Bible, but what has remained constant is the faith by which those books were interpreted and believed to be inspired by God. Every Sunday, in fact, we confess that the Holy Spirit “spoke through the prophets.” And in the Church’s lectionary we see certain preference given to some books, and kinds of books, over others.

In order to divide my task into several essays, I have chosen to follow a few historical divisions of the biblical books. For the Old Testament, I will examine the Law, Prophets, and “Writings.” The triplet of “Law, Prophets, and Psalms” occurs among the Fathers with relative frequency. “Writings,” borrowed from Jewish tradition, is simply a bit broader category than Psalms, but perhaps the latter may sometimes have been used as a synecdoche for the former. The Law is the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. The Prophets, for my purposes here at least, include not only those books named for specific prophets, such as Isaiah, but also the narratives of God’s work among his people from the conquest of Canaan to the revolt of the Maccabees. Last, the Writings includes the more poetic and philosophical books, such as the Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. More specific categorizations are possible, but this will suit our needs well enough. 

Notice that during Great Lent our lectionary actually features one book from each of these categories for the weekday readings: Genesis (Law), Isaiah (Prophets), and Proverbs (Writings). So there is some Orthodox precedent these divisions. In addition to these liturgical readings, our liturgy itself is adorned with Old Testament quotations, and whole psalms are often recited in the course of matins and vespers services.

For the New Testament, I will look at the Gospel and the Apostles, which of course we hear readings from every divine liturgy. However, while we sit for the Apostles reading, we stand for the Gospel, coat it in gold, and regularly venerate it. Obviously, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John hold a special place among the Scriptures as they contain the life and teachings of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.

Finally, there is one additional category worth mentioning, which for lack of a better term I will call “Apocrypha.” This word has taken on a negative meaning over time, usually indicating books falsely claimed to be Scripture. However, the word simply means “hidden,” and in fact some of our Old Testament bonus books (as I, a former Protestant, lovingly call them) are sometimes referred to with this term. In any case, there are books and parts of books that we do not read liturgically and in some cases that the laity are even discouraged from reading. In particular, I’m thinking of the Apocalypse (Revelation) of St. John, the Song of Songs, and a few others. These could all be lumped in with the previous five divisions, but I expect I wouldn’t talk about them at all in that case.

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While I have no intention of dwelling on their more obscure passages, it also would be an error to assume that these books have nothing to say regarding our social relations. Apocalypse, for example, is actually a genre, not just a book, of which there are more than one in the Bible (the book of Zechariah and parts of Daniel and Ezekiel, for example). As visions of the redemption of God’s people and the final judgment are common in this genre, and as Christ tells us that we will be judged especially for our treatment of “the least of these” (see Matthew 25:31-46)—i.e., the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the foreigner, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned—I don’t think we can just skip these texts altogether.

One might still wonder why we should go through the trouble of working out a biblical theology in the first place. Well, the fact is that if we aren’t consulting Scripture we’re probably “doing” theology wrong. The question is not whether we use the Scriptures, but whether we do so well or poorly. By following the narratives and themes of the Scriptures, guided by the Church, we guard against “prooftexting,” i.e., grabbing quotes from the Bible out of context to serve our own purposes. Instead, just like when reading any other books, we will need to pay attention to context and grammar and literary devices and whatnot. As for the more spiritual levels of meaning to the texts—which certainly exist—I will defer to the Fathers if and when recourse to that is necessary, rather than attempting a task above my station or sanctification.

Hopefully these next six essays will serve as a solid foundation for then moving forward throughout the history of salvation to see how the Church proved the Scriptures to be “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 Timothy 3:16-17), mercy for the poor and the marginalized not least of all.

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