The earlier attempted debate (in the comments about St. Michael the Archangel) about Scripture and Orthodox understanding of the saints, prayers, etc., is rooted in an understanding of Scripture that is itself the very basis of the Christian faith. Attempts to remove the Bible from its proper Churchly context by the Reformation and modern day Protestants inevitably leads to a misunderstanding of the gospel and an attack on the very Church itself. Fr. John Behr’s lecture on the Orthodox Faith, which I excerpted and posted much earlier on this site, is worth revisiting. No Church is as Scriptural or Scripturally based as the Orthodox Church – indeed – I think it is safe to say that no other Church continues to interpret the Scriptures as they were interpreted by the Fathers (at least I think I could make that case).
If you are reading Scripture in a manner that differs from that of St. Athanasius, or St. Irenaeus of Lyons, then, chances are you are possibly reading Scripture in a heretical manner. There is Scripture, but there is a way of reading Scripture. That way is a necessary part of the faith.
The following is excerpted from Fr. John Behr’s lecture on the Orthodox Faith, delivered in 1998 at the University of North Carolina. A link to the full text is given at the end of the article. Fr. John is now Dean of St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary.
Rather than talking about the historical or external aspects of the Churches who have identified themselves as Orthodox, “Orthodoxy” in the first sense of the term, it is primarily with the latter sense of the word, ‘Orthodoxy’ as ‘right belief’, that I am going to be concerned tonight — for it is this which the Orthodox Churches claim for themselves, though I will explore it, and some of the key and differentiating themes within the Eastern understanding of Orthodoxy, by looking at various historical developments as seen from the perspective of the Eastern Orthodox Churches.
The classical picture, as it was presented for instance by the book of Acts, and Eusebius the Church Historian in the fourth century, of an originally pure orthodoxy, manifest in exemplary Christian communities, from which various heresies developed and split off, has become increasing difficult to maintain — especially since the work of Walter Bauer: Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (1934) — and rightly so. The earliest Christian writings that we have, the letters of Paul, are addressed to Churches which are already falling away from the Gospel which he had delivered to them. However, whereas Bauer concluded that orthodoxy itself only appeared at the end of the second century, emerging victorious out of a conflict with other traditions, I would argue that the reality is there from the beginning — it is the Gospel which was delivered by Paul and the other apostles — but that it has never been perfectly manifest or realized within any community.
It is a mistake to look back to a lost golden age of theological or ecclesial purity — whether in the apostolic times as narrated in the book of Acts, or the early Church, as recorded by Eusebius, or the age of the Fathers or the Church Councils, or the Empire of Byzantium. Christians are strangers in this world — in any society of this world. As the Second Century Letter to Diognetus writes, concerning Christians:
They dwell in their own fatherlands, but as if sojourners in them; they share all things as citizens, and suffer all things as strangers. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is a foreign country.
And this is inevitably so: our citizenship is in heaven, as the Apostle Paul puts it, and its from there (ex hoy) that we wait for our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (Phil 3.20). It is a mistake to look for this as something realized in the past, and since lost — a mistake to which Eastern Christians especially are tempted as they have been subjected to foreign or atheistic powers, and forced to dwell in other lands.
Nevertheless, the Gospel was delivered. Debates certainly raged about the correct interpretation of this Gospel — but it was nevertheless delivered once for all. In the debates about what was the orthodox position, the issue of what is authoritative for this position was paramount. And in this question of authority, two particular and inseparable aspects were fundamental: the canon of Scripture and the correct interpretation of that Scripture — expressed most clearly in the rule [canon] of faith/truth.
The earliest Christians, of course, already possessed a collection of writings which they considered authoritative — the Scriptures — the Jewish writings (what became known as the OT); and it was in accordance with these Scriptures, says Paul, that the Christ died and was raised on the third day (1 Cor 15). The Gospel, as it was originally delivered, seems to have been a particular, Christocentric, reading of what was later described as the “Old Testament.” As St Irenaeus put it, at the end of the second century:
If anyone reads the Scriptures [that is, the “Old Testament”] in this way, he will find in them the Word concerning Christ, and a foreshadowing of the new calling. For Christ is the ‘treasure which was hidden in the field’ (Mt 13:44), that is, in this world — for ‘the field is the world’ (Mt 13:38) — [a treasure] hidden in the Scriptures, for He was indicated by means of types and parables, which could not be understood by men prior to the consummation of those things which had been predicted, that is, the advent of Christ. … And for this reason, when at the present time the Law is read to the Jews, it is like a fable; for they do not possess the explanation (tên exêgêsin) of all things which pertain to the human advent of the Son of God, but when it is read by Christians, it is a treasure, hid in a field, but brought to light by the Cross of Christ (Against the Heresies, 4.26.1).
The Word concerning Christ, the Gospel, is a treasure hid in Scripture, brought to light by the Cross.
It is the Gospel, Scripture read in a particular fashion, through the prism of the Cross of Christ, that is salvific — if the Law itself were salvific, then Christ would have died in vain, as Paul points out (Gal 2:21).
Yet the Gospel remains intimately linked to the Scriptures — Christ is the Word of God disseminated in Scripture. It is interesting that those who appealed most to the apostolic writings during the course of the second century — such as Marcion and Gnostics such as Ptolemy — failed to appreciate the relationship between these Scriptures and the Gospel — usually heightening the contrast between the two, claiming that they were about two different Gods. It was only by the end of the second century, with St Irenaeus, that the continued preaching/kerygma of the Gospel came to be crystallized as a rule of truth, and that the writings of the apostles themselves came to be recognized as possessing Scriptural authority. As Irenaeus wrote:
We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. … These have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the Law and Prophets; and one Christ the Son of God (Against the Heresies, 3.1.1-2).
The reason I am dwelling on this, is because it helps to understand the Orthodox Church’s insistence on Scripture and Tradition, and the place of creedal formula within this. The Gospel which is the foundation of the Church, has, according to Irenaeus, been preserved intact within the Church, as the tradition of the apostles. It has been maintained through a succession of bishops teaching and preaching the same Gospel — he continues a little later:
It is within the power of all, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted as bishops in the Churches, and to demonstrate the succession of these men to our own times (Against the Heresies, 3.3.1).
It is not that the bishops, instituted by the apostles (who are not thought of as the first bishops, as they would be by Cyprian), automatically preserved the tradition of the apostles — the Gospel which the apostles delivered — but that they are bishops of the Church only to the extent that they do so, for the Church is founded upon the Gospel.
More important is the fact that the content of tradition is nothing other than that which is also preserved in a written form, as Scripture — they are not two different sources. Tradition is not the accumulation of various customs, nor does it provide us with access to knowledge necessary for salvation that is not also contained in Scripture. It is the Gnostics, according to Irenaeus, who appeal to tradition for teachings not contained in Scripture.
The community founded upon the apostolic Gospel, the Church, is also the community which has recognized certain writings as apostolic and as authoritative Scripture (and will eventually speak of a canon of Scripture). As there were many writings laying claim to apostolic status, the claim to apostolicity, however, was not itself enough to justify the recognition of a particular writing as Scripture. What was essential was the conformity of the writing to the apostolic Gospel which founded the Church, which has been preserved intact, and which had since come to be phrased in terms of a rule/canon of truth/faith. This also means that the apostolic writings are accepted as Scripture within a community that lays claim to the correct interpretation of these writings. Tradition is, as Florovsky put it commenting on Irenaeus, Scripture rightly understood . In Irenaeus’ vivid image, those who interpret Scripture in a manner which does not conform to the rule of truth are like those who, seeing a beautiful mosaic of a king, dismantle the stones and reassemble them to form the picture of a dog, claiming that this was the original intention of the writer (Against the Heresies, 1.8).
Read the entire lecture here.
This is a great lecture by Fr Behr.
He deals with some of the same issues in greater depth and with great power in his recent book The Mystery of Christ: Life In Death. This outstanding book has my highest recommendation.
“The community founded upon the apostolic Gospel, the Church, is also the community which has recognized certain writings as apostolic and as authoritative Scripture (and will eventually speak of a canon of Scripture). As there were many writings laying claim to apostolic status, the claim to apostolicity, however, was not itself enough to justify the recognition of a particular writing as Scripture. What was essential was the conformity of the writing to the apostolic Gospel which founded the Church, which has been preserved intact, and which had since come to be phrased in terms of a rule/canon of truth/faith. This also means that the apostolic writings are accepted as Scripture within a community that lays claim to the correct interpretation of these writings. Tradition is, as Florovsky put it commenting on Irenaeus, Scripture rightly understood . In Irenaeus’ vivid image, those who interpret Scripture in a manner which does not conform to the rule of truth are like those who, seeing a beautiful mosaic of a king, dismantle the stones and reassemble them to form the picture of a dog, claiming that this was the original intention of the writer (Against the Heresies, 1.8).”
This is one of the concepts that blew and still blow my mind when thinking of Tradition. Protestants know no tradition; they know systematics. Well, most don’t even know systematics, they just know bits and pieces of an incomplete picture. Tradition is like water being poured over a bowl full of rocks. At first you have air and space between the rocks in the bowl, but when the water is poured in, there is no space and gaps; all is filled up.
What you say on behalf of the orthodox ‘church’ is worth respect, and it has mine, but the core of Christ in the life of human beings is the answer to ‘what must I do to be saved’ a cry heard frequently before there was an orthodox church.
Thanks for this post, and for the link to Fr. Behr’s full lecture.
Hughstan, those who answered Christ invitation of salvation, were even then Baptized (though usually the disciples rather than Christ did the Baptizing) and they clearly were baptized into the Body of Christ. Christ life in human beings is what forms the Church. That Church, in its fullness since and during the ministry of Christ, is coterminous with the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church was not invented later. It had to continually defend the faith delivered to it from heresies and schisms. But it is the same Church. I think this is both true from the life it bears within it, and from simple historical analysis. The answer to “what must I do to be saved,” if given in shorthand, “Accept Christ,” still does not have the meaning of accepting Christ outside the Church and never has. Though the generosity and kindness of God extends even beyond the boundaries of that Church – and I will certainly accept as Christian all who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. But will still urge them towards union with the One Church.
Father, In addition to reading the Holy Scriptures in line with the Fathers’ understanding (which on some remote questions isn’t always totally clear), I suggest that we also read them with the greatest veneration of the Blood of Christ that makes all Truth possible.
The question to ask then is not “What would Jesus do?” but “What does the Blood of Jesus accomplish?”
“The Word concerning Christ, the Gospel, is a treasure hid in Scripture, brought to light by the Cross.” X marks the spot …
I’m sorry, but there are huge problems with Fr. John’s presentation. The claim that the Church is “founded on the Gospel” is patently absurd, as is the notion that the Christian faith itself is based on a particular understanding of the Scripture. Fr. John doesn’t like it when people say things like “The Church wrote the Bible,” because the Church inherited the Hebrew Scriptures (in LXX form). True enough, but there was an Israel *before* there was an Old Testament. Israel (Old and New) produced the Bible, not the other way around. Nor was Israel founded on an “idea,” be it monotheism or “the Gospel.”
The Israel of God begins with the encounter of the Word of God–the personal expression of the Father, not an idea–with men. In other words, it begins with the experience of the Saints. All scripture is antecedent to this experience. Furthermore, it is the experience that interprets the Scripture, not the other way around.
What I see in Fr. John’s approach, however, is a dangerous tendency to turn the Gospel into an Idea, the cross into a hermeneutical principle. Frankly I don’t see much difference between this approach and that of Luther, save to say that a cruci-centric reading of the Bible has more to recommend it historically than Luther’s insistence that the Gospel just IS Justification by faith.
The Church is first and foremost the Body of Christ, gathered around the eucharistic table, partaking of one bread and cup. The Scriptural witness (“in accordance with the Scriptures”) is an essential element of the constant formation of this Eucharistic community, but the Scripture is NOT in any way the FOUNDATION of this community.
No one will quarrel with your insistence that the Eucharist is constitutive of the Church (least of all Fr Behr, I am sure). But the Divine Liturgy encompasses the liturgy of the catechumens as well as the liturgy of the faithful, and the Church’s liturgical proclamation of the Word is just as much constitutive as is her liturgical performance of the sacrament. The “interpretive engagement” that Fr Behr speaks of is not an academic interaction with an Idea, but the liturgical experience of the Church’s kerygma.
Of course the Divine Liturgy is constitutive of the Church, but we must never divide the Eucharist from the synaxis nor forget the kerygmatic aspect of the liturgy.
Clark, I would probably take exception to your reading of Behr on this one. The New Testament is itself a ujique reading (the unique reading even) of the Old Testament, revealing to us Christ’s presence in the Old Testament. Of course the Church is founded on Christ and our experience of Him, and it would then be correct that the New Testament bears witness to the teachings of Christ and the Church’s experience, such that “this is how read the Scriptures,” “They testify of Christ.” As Behr himself points out in his citation of Irenaeus, if the Scriptures disappeared, the Church could restore them because we know the true Christ – we have the apostolic hyposthesis to use Irenaeus’ language, and with that we are guided surely in our knowledge and interpretation of Christ (under the Holy Spirit).
I would even go so far as to say that the Church is the “interpretation” of Christ, when it rightly lives the gospel. St. Paul said (to the Corinthians I think) “You are my epistle written in the fleshy tables of the heart.” I think Behr is doing a very important work of helping to teach a proper Orthodox means of reading Scripture, that I find of a piece with how the liturgy reads the Scripture.
I don’t think we properly say that this is the foundation, or that is the foundation (other than the quotes concerning such we have in Scripture) but that the whole of it is given to us by God as foundational. We cannot appeal to something “against the Scriptures.” That much is clear, even if Tradition gives us more than is written. It agrees with what is written.
But the Bible is the Church’s book, in the sense that only in the context of the fullness of the Church can the Scriptures be rightly read. You can’t start with Scripture and then invent the Church. But I don’t think Behr is saying this.
I don’t know that I would say a crucicentric hermeneutic is the answer, but that Christ (whom St. John calls the exegesis of the Father) gives us in his life a Pascha-centric reading of everything (if Pascha is understood to mean to whole of his incarnation, death, resurrection, etc. ). But our experience of Christ cannot be divorced from these things anymore than the liturgy is divorced from these things. The Liturgy is Pascha – Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.
By the way, Clark, reread Behr’s statement. He has not said Scripture (i.e. the Bible) is the foundation of the Church, but the Gospel, which is a far more inclusive term, meaning the whole teaching of the Christian faith, as in St. Paul’s use of “The Gospel which I preached to you.”
Father, you beat me to it. How can anyone deny that the Apostolic Gospel is not the foundation of the Church.
Clark Carlton is a friend, and a philosopher, and author of one of the better catechetical series in the Church. I respect his opinion – thus I think he may be reading Behr from a direction Behr doesn’t intend. I always tend to think my friends (especially my Orthodox friends) surely must agree with one another, if only they get to what they’re actually trying to say.
I know that Fr. Behr is dealing with a particular set of academic arguments in a fair amount of his work and I think he’s heading in a good direction that will bear much fruit for the Church. But I think some of what he’s doing is not familiar with many Orthodox yet.
Clark is a former Baptist who is properly sensitive to anything that would take Orthodoxy down the dead end of Protestant hermeneutics. But I don’t think this is what Behr is doing.
I hope that’s good refereeing!
I am in sympathy with Fr. Stephen’s first reply. Ultimately though, the question is “What IS the rule of faith?” (Not in the sense of “What is it’s content?,” but, rather, “What does it DO?”) My fear is that Fr John’s mode of expression leaves the door open to a misleading concept, namely the view that Orthodoxy is an idea or a teaching and that the Church is founded on that teaching.
I must strongly disagree with Fr Stephen’s last statement. The Gospel is not the foundation of the Church, the God-Man is, and no other foundation can any man lay. The Gospel is the proclamation of the Good News that the Word has become flesh. This proclamation, however, is neither the source nor foundation of the Incarnation.
My point is simply this: Christianity is a form of life (lebensform), not an ideology. It is born of the Font, centered around the Table, and consists primarily of ascetical effort. Every aspect of our Orthodox culture, including the Scripture, is an expression of that lebensform. (As the crazy Austrian, Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out, all “language games” arise out of concrete lebensforms.)
The key to understanding any element, including the Scripture, is to understand its function within the lebensform. The rule of faith is not, ultimately, a set of ideas or beliefs that form an “interpretive grid” (to wax modern) through which the Scriptures are read, it is ultimately a “way of living.” As St Irenaeus says, “our opinion conforms with the Eucharist and the Eucharist supports our opinion.”
The bottom line is this. The only person who has a clue what the “mystery of the cross” is is the one who takes up his cross and follows Christ in a life of ascetical obedience. Everything else is just hot air (including most of what I write). Someone mentioned the liturgy of the catechumen above. But remember, these folks are already enrolled in the Church. No one back in the day went out and read the Gospels or the Epistles on the street corner. Romanides makes the point that John was reserved for the Paschal season, when the catechumen would have been “newly illumined.” The Synoptics, on the other hand are primarily “catechetical Gospels.” This is what I mean. To understand the Scriptures, we must understand their role (use) within the life of the Church.
There is no other “hermeneutical key” to understanding the Scriptures besides living the life of the Church. (This is why ecumenical dialogue is absolutely pointless. What is wanted is genuine witness: the manifestation of Christ-like love to those outside the Church.)
At the end of the day, Fr John’s mode of expression leaves open the door for a Lutheran-esque view that there is this core “idea” that determines the meaning of everything else. I’m sure this isn’t what he intends (though at least one of his colleagues at SVS has some problems with his theology), but some of his expressions and even some of his translation choices give me pause.
I’m way out of my league here, so I’ll ask a question. What essential difference exists between the Incarnate Word and the proclamation of the Word which, in my limited understanding is the Gospel?
Just as a side note, I have always liked your presentation of the Faith in your “The Faith” – I recommend it before any other catechism.
I like your warning here to not turn the Gospel into “an idea” – something I often see done when thinking about “applying” the Gospel (WWJD as a crude example). I have been thinking about this lately, how “the Gospel” can and should “engage the culture”. Fact is it should not, not “as an idea” – otherwise it is reduced to an idea, in the “market place of ideas”, in the “liberal round table” where the overriding “Idea” or really life lived is that no idea is better than any other idea, and truth is ultimately to elusive to ever be convicted of something more than an “idea”…
I do tend to shun philosophical arguments concerning my Christian faith because of the necessity to look up the meaning of all the words thrown around, but I must say that I appreciate the kind and reverent exchange taking place — so far — here.
I must also say that I am extremely thankful for the Orthodox Study Bible, and last but not least the good news (Gospel?) that is Our Lord and Saviour and His Bride, the Church. May God bless your day!
This last exchange was very helpful and your point is well taken. The Cross cannot simply be the idea of the cross. The Epistle, as I noted, must in the fleshy tables of the heart (lived) and not in the abstractions of the mind. My confindence is that in the crucible of Orthodox life, any tendencies that Fr. John may have in an abstract direction will be brought back to the life lived.
I think you are seeing a divide that is not there between your position and Fr John’s. His “mode of expression” may be open to an ideological approach to the faith, but the substance of what he is saying is not.
At the same time, your assertion that “Christianity … consists primarily of ascetical effort” is also open to some unfortunate understandings — not ones that you intend or would agree with, but the opening is there all the same. Christian ascesis, as important as it is, must be grounded in fidelity to the dogmatic content of the faith (i.e. the Church’s teaching) and can never be separated from it. And that is given to us precisely in the “interpretive engagement with Scripture” that is the Church’s liturgy.
Remember that our Lord first opened the Scripture to Luke and Cleopas, and then made Himself known to them in the breaking of the bread. They did not recognize Him on the basis of Scripture alone (even with the true exegesis from the Word Himself!), but only in the breaking of the bread; but the recognition of the Lord in the breaking of the bread did not occur (and, I would argue, could not occur) without the Scriptures first having been opened to them. In the Divine Liturgy the Church does the same for us as the Saviour did for them: first she opens the Scriptures for us, and then gives Christ to us in the breaking of the bread.
Father, et al,
I am fairly new to Orthodoxy — converting from a life as a Protestant, and still not yet a catechumen — and I keep coming to this blog daily to check in on the ideas presented. I consoider myself a smart guy, though not much of a disciplined philospher, and I know there is good stuff here, but I just don’t get it alot of the time.
I opened my Orthodox study Bible last night, sensing a craving for some life-giving truth. I turned to several passages from the lectionary readings and elsewhere and I would love to have a better understanding of the proper manner to read and understand scripture. I was interested to see the introduction to the post discussed here, but the meat of Fr John’s lecture doesn’t seem to be practical for me. Am I missing something?
BTW, Father Stephen, I love the thoughts on our One-storey Universe and your experiences with iconagraphy. Thanks for writing about those things!
I think Behr is a good read. Other places to look (there’s still too little out there on Orthodoxy and Scripture), are the verses, etc., composed for use at the Vigil of a particular feast. You can go on the OCA website and look under liturgical texts and find a lot of it. You then have to go back to the Scripture behind it and see what has been done with the text. But it makes an excellent study.
Pray for more publishing!
Is it possible that the language and articulation of the Orthodox approach to Scripture is one of the things we need to be clear on here in America with the Protestant paradigm so much in everyone’s minds?
Some traditional Orthodox language is not understood because the traditional Orthodox context is not really here or understood. Or am I way off base?
Orthodox Scripture studies are sadly lacking in English – as well as a good clear articulation of a traditional Othodox approach. The approach over the past few centuries has been much influenced by the West and is currently being reevaluated in many ways. Like everything Orthodox, it needs to stand on its own two feet. But it will take time in English
Speaking from a sort of in-between perspective, I can tell you that one of the things that draws me to Orthodoxy is what looks like (even from a distance) an interpretation of scripture that seems lived out as a cultural unit. In other words, the Orthodox community has a way of life together that appears to breathe scripture in and out. This, I’m guessing, has something to do with the Traditions of the Church and the rythm of the Church calendar. Whatever it is, it’s refreshing to see. The appeal is more than the postmodern longing for roots or a foundation, I think. The Catholic church and even Episcopal church both have something for those looking for something stronger to stand on, especially in the face of the so-called emergent church wave; but the Orthodox way seems like such a different paradigm, at least more than any of my protestant experience (Evangelical and Baptist).
I know it takes time, as I’m learning everything in Orthodoxy does, to really digest this new way of seeing scripture and who I am as a human and who God is (or isn’t, in the apophatic approach). I’m grateful for little clues and pieces of insight found in places like here and Ancient Faith Radio and such.
The frustration for this converting evangelical is that I’ve lived for so long with the idea that changes in me should come more quickly than I’ve actually experienced them. (“Read your Bible, pray everyday, and you’ll grow, grow, grow… and grow quickly” is the implication I got.) The problem with that in my church experience is that there lacked a methodology that made sense. There was no ascesis, the church did not act as a therapeutic place (more like a pop-psychology club). But Lord have mercy, for I am responsible for my own lack of discipline.
Anyway, this may all be off topic now. Thanks, Father, for doing what you do and truly Keeping the Faith.
Go back and read my article on the slowness of grace. It’ll speak precisely to what you’re experiencing and why it is – and must be as it is.