I recently encountered a use of Scripture in a web posting that was alarming to a degree. The writer (who was not apparently a believer) sought to use Scripture to prove that God was a murderer and that the Bible was an immoral book. It gave me an opportunity to reflect on why certain approaches to Scripture will never be productive of a proper understanding and why the Bible is not a “user-friendly” source of information on God and His will for man.
I think, first off, of an event recorded in St. Luke’s Gospel. It is the story of the encounter of two of Christ’s disciples with the risen Lord, on the afternoon of the resurrection. After not recognizing the risen Lord, they begin to instruct Him on the things that had just taken place in Jerusalem and which they, as yet, did not understand. Then we are told an interesting thing:
And [Christ] said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27)
It is obvious that three years (or so) discipleship with Christ, eating and sleeping beside Him, listening to His teachings, watching the miracles – were simply not sufficient to provide what was needed to understand the most fundamental things about Christ within the Scriptures (at that time, meaning the Old Testament). Only with personal instruction from the Risen Lord, and later continued instruction by the Holy Spirit (John 14:26), do the disciples – those first disciples – begin to understand the Scriptures. Their instruction to those who followed after them, as well as the continued instruction of the Holy Spirit (which in Orthodoxy is the proper meaning of Tradition), remain essential elements of the interpretation of the Scriptures – by the Christian Church.
Anybody can read the Scriptures. Anybody can do what they want when it comes to interpreting the Scriptures. But what the Scriptures mean to the Church, is a very particular interpretation, given to it by Christ and the living Tradition within the Church.
Thus, it is a more or less meaningless statement when someone outside the Church says: “the Bible says,” or “the Bible teaches.” Books are not self-interpreting, and this is most certainly the case for the Scriptures, or is at least the case for the Scriptures as they are understood by the Christian Church.
To a degree, this ecclesiastical position of the Scriptures can be a weakness in the classical protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura (meaning the Scriptures alone). There is indeed a sense in which nothing can speak as clearly or authoritatively as the Scriptures for a Christian. With this, the Orthodox would never argue. But the Scriptures must speak in their proper context – which is in the living Tradition of the Body of Christ. Removed from that context, and the Scriptures remain problematic – subject to misuse and abuse – to misinterpretation (which simply means “not the Church’s interpretation”) – and to confusion.
Thus when a non-believer, or lone believer, takes up the Scriptures and begins to make them say things about God that the Church has never said about God – or uses them against themselves as though it were a book of perfect syllogisms to be tested by a process of non-contradiction – it is simply an absurd case of someone using something that does not properly belong to them and of remaining in at least as much darkness as the two disciples on the road to Emmaus prior to their encounter with the risen Lord.
The Church does not have to defend Scripture to those outside the Church – for the book is not the book-outside-the-Church. St. Paul wrote letters to Churches, or letters to leaders of the Church. The whole of the New Testament, in every instance, is addressed to believers only. Others may read it, and may even come to faith by reading it (God is sovereign and may do whatever He pleases), but they do not and cannot read it authoritatively. That reading – is and has been given to the Church and to the Church alone. It’s not a unique appropriation of a book – it is simply defining what the word “Scripture” means.
Now it is also the case that the ecclesiology of various groups of Christians will understand what the word “Church” means in different ways and will understand the relationship of “Church” to “Scripture” in different ways. What I have offered here is the classical understanding of the Orthodox Church – that understanding which is common to the Fathers of the undivided Church of the early centuries – and remains the understanding of the Orthodox Church today.
The Bible has come to hold a unique place within English-speaking culture, and American culture in particular – a place that is far removed from its proper ecclesiastical position. Everybody can own a Bible now and carry one around in their pocket. Everyone is free to study and to quote. Everyone is free to misunderstand the Scriptures to their heart’s content – but not everyone is free to speak in a manner that is authoritative for the Church. The Scriptures, as they are to the Church, is sui generis, a case unto itself. As such, there can be no “objective” discussion of the meaning of Scripture, or a discussion on its meaning in which the grounds of that meaning are something other than its meaning “to the Church.” Of course, such discussions take place all the time, but, to a certain extent, they are of no concern to the Church.
There is a danger, always present, that the Bible will be viewed as a “Holy Book” by itself – ripped from its context within the Church. The danger is that when Scripture is removed from that context it almost invariably comes to take on other meanings or to be used in a manner that seeks to give it an authority somehow unrelated to the Church. Christians are Baptized “into the Body of Christ,” and “into the death of Christ,” according to St. Paul. He nowhere says that we were Baptized into the Scriptures. And although we are taught by the Scriptures to “desire the sincere milk of the word,” we are also taught by Christ to “eat His flesh and to drink His blood” in the Holy Eucharist. Indeed, we are told that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no Life in you” (John 6:53). The living Body of Christ, the Church, is the proper context of all Christian activity.
The Apostles who were taught by Christ and who wrote the Scriptures of the New Testament, themselves gave instructions that go beyond the Scriptures:
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
And thus it is that in the life of the Church, the living Tradition is both the mind of Christ in the Holy Spirit, manifest particularly in the understanding of Scripture, as well as in those matters which have been handed down to us from the beginning (such as the sign of the cross, etc.).
I do not generally care for the phrase that says “the Bible is the Church’s book,” if only that it may make the Scriptures to seem to be less than they are. But it remains the case that the Scriptures are inherently ecclesiastical – they belong in the Church and are themselves, as Scripture, a part of the Church’s life. Torn from that context they become something else – which, as St. Peter warned (speaking of St. Paul’s epistles): “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” (2 Peter 3:16).
May God give us His grace.