Nothing has greater importance in the Christian life than the place of Holy Scripture. On this, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant can agree. Even if one places emphasis on the role of Holy Tradition, they still have to admit that the most prominent manifestation of Holy Tradition in the Church are the Scriptures themselves.
But, of course, having said a few kind words about the Holy Scriptures is not to have said very much. For the trouble begins not with the Scriptures, but with what we do with them. Invariably, they must be read and understood – and to be understood, they must be interpreted. This is where the trouble begins, and where it has always begun.
The earliest heresies that challenged the Christian faith quoted the Scriptures, and had yet more Scriptures of their own. The Church’s response to these heresies (most particularly the Gnostics) is probably the best demonstration of how the Scriptures are to be handled at all times.
I have recently been enjoying Fr. John Behr’s latest offering, The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death. I have been reading it with frequent accompanying sighs of relief. Not that I expected anything other than excellence from Fr. John, but with a great relief that says, “At last!” There has been a great need for precisely such a treatment by an Orthodox author. Fr. John takes the reader into the realm of Biblical interpretation within the context of the early Church and masterfully demonstrates both how Scripture was used, and how it should be used by those living in the Orthodox Christian Tradition.
With ample quotations from the early Fathers, with particular attention to St. Irenaeus of Lyons (2nd century), we see the framework understood by the Church and a framework in which we can both live and flourish. My own opinion is that the modern Church has lived for far too long under the yoke of various historical methods, none of which are inherent parts of classic Christian Tradition, and some of which have led to their own sad history of Scriptural abuse. The modern world exalted the historical reading of Scripture above all others giving us both fundamentalism, with its historical literalism, and liberalism, with its historical-critical method. Both are opposite sides of the same coin and have their own set of errors and problems.
Fr. John is careful to note that, for the Church, the Scriptures are read “backwards,” to use an image. All of the New Testament presumes the experience of the Crucified and Risen Christ. No one was taking notes during Jesus’ ministry and keeping a careful historical record. The writings of the New Testament, which were long enough in coming, were the writings of a community that saw something in a radically new way in the Crucified and Risen Christ. The Gospels themselves make it quite clear that no one understood Christ during the course of His ministry. In the synoptic gospels all the disciples ran away at the Crucifixion. In John’s Gospel, Mary, the Beloved Disciple, and Mary the wife of Cleopas, remain.
But it isn’t until the risen Lord begins to appear to His disciples that we hear such phrases as, “Did not our hearts burn within us as He opened the Scriptures!” Jesus’ most radical claim, “You search the Scriptures for in them you think you have eternal life; but these are they which testify of me” (John 5:30), provide a key for Christians in understanding God’s word. Here Jesus plainly states that the Scriptures (the Old Testament) are about Him. It means that when we read those writings correctly, what we are looking for is not arguments of evolution and creation (to use a local Tennessee favorite) but Christ. The opening chapters of Genesis are about Christ. Indeed, those particular chapters scream of Christ if we have the ears to hear.
On occasion (such as the Vesperal Liturgies of Holy Saturday, or the Eve of Theophany or Christmas Eve) the service will have as many as 15 readings from the Old Testament. This is a marvelous liturgical example of the very process of interpretation that Fr. John describes so masterfully. Why, on Holy Saturday, is the entire book of Jonah read in the service as one of 15 readings? It is because the book is, in Christian terms, profoundly about Christ and His descent into Hades. Jonah in the belly of the whale prays:
I called to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and thou didst hear my voice. For thou didst cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood was round about me; all thy waves and thy billows passed over me. Then I said, `I am cast out from thy presence; how shall I again look upon thy holy temple?’ The waters closed in over me, the deep was round about me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever; yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God.
Is this a prayer from the belly of a fish, or from the depths of Hades? For Christian ears, the prayer is the prayer of Christ and the setting is given by the Liturgy: the day of Christ’s descent into Hades. The book, for us, is not about a big fish. It is wasted energy for a Christian to argue with someone over whether there was a prophet Jonah swallowed by a big fish. It simply is not our concern. It is Christ whom we seek and we find Him where He said we would.
The History of Biblical interpretation has had its sad occasions. Some of those occurred in our own land where the descendents of Puritans (and others), welcomed a quasi-historical interpretation of the Old Testament where America gets to be the promised land and we (Europeans) get to be the Israelites. The natives who dwelt here, of course, got to play the role of Canaanites and Philistines. And with careful historical accuracy, Christians who were commanded to love their enemies, justified an American holocaust. Similar exegetical skill helped support the practice of American slavery. Bad exegesis is more than just heretical – it’s dangerous.
Christ is the revelation to us of God. We cannot get behind Him or around Him in our quest to know God. “No one comes to the Father except by me,” Christ says (John 14:6). We could also add to that passage Matthew 11:27 and Luke 10:22. They make the same point. Thus we do not move from an Old Testament presentation of God the Father to a New Testament presentation of God the Son. We do not read the Old Testament except through the Son and He is the object of our reading.
Thus a Christian will not use the Old Testament as a justification to act contrary to the commandments of Christ. For example, Orthodox canon law certainly envisions Christians taking the life of someone in defensive situations, but even then will offer penance. The taking of a human life is contrary to the commandments of Christ and always entangles us in the web of sin. Careful reading of the canons would readily reveal that such defensive actions are not treated in the same manner that murder is treated and I am not trying to make such an equation here.
Rather, rightly reading Scripture, the Orthodox Church never gave its blessing to a Crusade, i.e., promising spiritual blessings for actions that are contrary to the teachings of Christ. There can be no Christian jihad.
The reading of Scripture is as important for the Church today as it has ever been. But it is vitally important that Scripture be read within the Tradition of the Church and not within the grips of those who would wrest it to some other use. The bottom line of both strains of historical methodology, is a claim that the Scriptures can be read by anyone as they would any historical document. This is not the claim of the Fathers. The Scriptures, of course, can be read in such a manner and will yield any amount of information – but they will not yield Christ in such a manner.
I heartily commend Fr. John’s newest book and apologize for any failings in my short article to do his work justice (I have my own issues that may or may not be the same as his). I have made many of the same points for years in my own teaching as a priest and rejoice that someone with the competency and learning of Fr. Behr has given us such a useful work. May God bless it and may it yield much fruit in our lives!