How obvious is the Bible? In my part of the world, a simple, cultural Protestantism prevails, one where many people when asked what Church they go to will say, “I just read the Bible and try to do what God says.” They may or may not go to a Church. They may, if questioned have some general doctrines to which they subscribe, but generally this is not the case. Their Christianity is their Bible.
There is an assumption that goes with this that the Bible is simple and straightforward and only becomes confusing when men lay their hands to its interpretation. There is, ironically, a cultural agreement that the Bible can be made to say almost anything. Thus, the only conclusion that I can reach is that the Bible is obvious in its meaning when I read it, but can be very confusing when you read it.
But what is the Bible and why should it be easy to read and obvious in its meaning? Since my childhood I have heard St. Paul’s admonition to Timothy quoted:
But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 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. 3:15-16).
Often overlooked by those who cite the passage is the community that exists within it. The Scriptures are not presented as a book that is simply useful in itself. Timothy is told to remember from whom he learned them. What he knows, he has known from childhood. Timothy has been raised in a believing family (his mother and grandmother are mentioned as believing women though his father is Greek). His status as an uncircumcised son of a Greek father (his mother and grandmother were Jews) would seem to indicate that he learned the Scriptures somewhere other than a synagogue school – but it would be extremely unlikely that he had the wherewithal to learn the Scriptures in an entirely private setting.
The Scriptures are not just a book we read, they are something we are taught. What we are taught is always more than just the facts (a simple on-the-face literalism). We are taught a way of reading. I have read many ancient writings – some of which are considered sacred by non-Christians. But I don’t read those writings in the manner in which I read the Scriptures.
There is a scene in C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where a young girl absent-mindedly opens a magic book and reads a spell out loud. The result is worthy of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice (and not a little derivative). The sense of the book in that story is that it has an inherent power when read aloud (no matter who reads or why). Orthodox Christianity does not hold the Scriptures to be a magic book. They may be read by anyone (chanted, shouted or otherwise), but read with understanding only within the context of the believing community.
The Scriptures are not a source of authority (as in the three-source theory espoused by some Anglicans). They are a manifestation of the Divine Life within the believing community. The New Testament writings are quite clear about this – they are written by the Church and for the Church.
But the Reformation brought about a new understanding of the Scriptures. Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) is a novel idea – itself not the teaching of Scripture. Saying this in no way lessens the authority of the Scriptures – but it places that authority within its proper context – the believing community.
The notion of the Bible, distinct from the community of believers, as a source for Divine guidance and belief, is not Christianity – at least not any traditional form of it. Instead, it represents an Islamification of Christianity. In such a practice, the Scriptures of the Church become a Christian Koran, while the believer ceases to be a member of the Body of Christ, and becomes part of the People of the Book (a slavish name if ever there was one).
It is disturbing to say such things. I have extended family members who are People of the Book.
But it is important for Christians to understand themselves as Church. There is no Churchless Christianity, and no Church apart from the sacraments. The enfleshed Body of Christ has a history and a visible life. It is manifest in the life of the Common Cup. It is indeed a great scandal that the Christian faith is marked by a multitude of organizations and “Churches.” This is not a failure of ecumenism and an unwillingness to get along. This is the result of bad theology and occasional heresy. The growing individualism of our culture is very compatible with a Bible decoupled from the Church. People respond best to a consumerist culture when they are isolated and removed from institutions like Churches. People of the Book make better shoppers.
Making the case for the Scriptures as part of the life of a community is devilishly difficult today. “Which community and why?” is nearly impossible to answer satisfactorily. To place the right-reading of the Scriptures within a community of interpretation (the Church) sounds like an effort to control and limit their availability. The reform of a culture that long ago drank the Kool-Aid of the People of the Book is beyond our power.
But we can make the journey ourselves to the Scriptures within the Church. How do the Scriptures reveal themselves in the context of the praying Church? How should we have learned the Scriptures from our childhood? The answer to those questions is ultimately made known by being a part of that praying community – and then praying within the community. Becoming children again, we learn the Scriptures in union with the great souls of the ages.
Thank you for this. As a convert to Orthodoxy of only 5 years with many of my friends and family in the “People of the Book” category or many more in the “I believe in God” category with no real knowledge of a life in Christ, let alone in the Church, this is an issue I struggle with and your writings are always enlightening and concise. Wishing you all the joy of Lent!
Well said Fr. Stephen. And there is a part of me which believes that if everyone would submit themselves to a praying community, we would inevitably be better off. This Lone Ranger approach to Christianity seems to be the Number 1 killer of our faith.
Should Orthodox Christians read and study the Bible privately and as a means of private devotion?
Ever since i gave up Sola Scriptura, understanding how to relate to my own copy of the Scriptures has been probably the most perplexing part of being a catachumen.
Yes, the Orthodox are highly encouraged to read the Holy Scriptures at home! Doing so is not outside of the Church Tradition. I have found after 10 years of being Orthodox, is that the Holy Scriptures are now much more understandable when read through the lens of Church Tradition. There is no dichotomy between the Holy Scriptures & Church Tradition. It is not an either/or scenario; it is a both/and scenario. May you enjoy & be blessed by your reading 🙂
Orthodox Christians should indeed read the scriptures devotionally. St Seraphim read an entire gospel every day and recommended to others. What we should beware of is reading the Scriptures in order to form opinions. That is an exercise of the ego. We should read, looking for Christ in all things.
My Bible got bigger when I became Orthodox. I have some catchin’ up to do…
i know this sounds like a strange question, but i’m quite serious: how do you read the Scriptures without forming an opinion about what it means as you’re reading? i don’t know what it would mean to read anything without committing to some understanding of what i read in the process.
Just today I was engaged in a written discussion with a young person (20- something) who was raised in what sounds like a People of the Book tradition. She seems to be trying to come to grips with topics like same sex “marriage,” and she is confused. I told her that I had a relationship with God, through prayer, long before I ever read the Bible. I said that in my religious tradition we revere the Bible and that the Bible; that is, the New Testament, was written by Christians inspired by God and that we don’t do self-interpretation. Rather, the Church has the authority to interpret the Scripture. Nevertheless, we can and do read the Bible for devotional purposes or for study purposes.
I’m not sure if she could understand your post, but I do and I appreciate it.
Guy, might you be asking about the opinions you coincidentally form in pursuing the goal of knowing Christ better through the Scriptures? It seems to me that Fr. Stephen’s concern is not that so much as reading the Scriptures (as so many of us have done) in order to form (“right”?) opinions, which usually takes place as a result of, or in the context of, debates about what constitutes right teaching in which our fundamental ego-driven desire is to show ourselves to be “correct,” not to open ourselves ever more deeply to the transfiguring Presence of Jesus Christ. Or, so it seems to me.
We how do we relate to the people who read the “Bible” according to the Jehovah Witness rendition/translation?
whoops. the above should read>> How do we relate to the people who read the “Bible” according to the Jehovah Witness rendition/translation?
Guy, it is difficult to read and just read, but as Karen says, do we read to reinforce our own ego or to have God revealed to us. If we read and listen then the meaning will be revealed as we participate in the sacramental/prayer life of the Church as well as the transformation. Think as the Ethiopian eunuch did.
It is a discipline to suspend one’s analytical faculties. Reading aloud helps, at least for me because first and foremost the Bible springs from an oral tradition passed down from elder to disciple; teacher to community. Also we are less apt to ‘interpret’ what we read aloud.
Pray the Psalms as we do with Psalm 50/51(and many others). Attend Vespers and especially the Lenten/Holy Week services as often as you can and more than you like. Listen. Allow the words to surround you and penetrate you and speak for you as you stand in prayer.
If you want a simple daily Bible meditation try Dynamis:
One practice that helped me a lot was to read a couple of chapters and simply write a summary of what was said, not theologically, but what did the chapters say. That begins to implant the words of the Scripture in your mind so that when you attend services or stand in prayer at home, the Holy Spirit can reveal the truth as needed.
Be patient with yourself.
True. True. True.
The American tendency to individualism in religion is dangerous and it leads to heresies and cults: Jim Jones, Jim Baker, Jimmy Swaggert, etc. (enough to make one wary of all religious Jims!)
One of the benefits of privately reading the Bible while attending the services in a parish is to see how the Scriptures are reflected in the services. Quotations from Scripture abound in Orthodox hymnody, and their use in the circumstances of worship provide a view of them one may not find in straight reading. The lectionary also provides a discipline to the study of Scripture, and it illustrates the wealth of meaning in specific passages (such as Old Testament readings whose Christological significance is particularly highlighted during the season of Great Lent). A good parish priest can direct attention towards the writings of the Church Fathers in delivering a sermon on the reading of the day. A sense of the history of belief is important, not just why we believe but also why we have believed and how we have believed for centuries can be found in a good parish.
What I mean takes a little reflection on what is happening when we read. Of course when we read we often think about something, and, based on what we read, form an opinion on the matter. But there is another way to read. It is reading and being “present” to the text. Simply listening, not taking the next step, in which I separate myself from the text and begin to have an inner dialog with myself. As soon as the dialog begins, I’ve left the text. Reading the text and being present to it can allow it to speak in a different way. It will sometimes “reveal” itself – when it simply seems clear – we “perceive” it. But the point is to be present to Christ as He makes Himself known in the Scriptures – union with Christ – not so much thinking about the text.
We’re so used to “thinking” about everything that we live divorced from almost everything around us. Instead of being present to anything, we’re just a mass of thoughts flitting here and there. We don’t read Scripture – we barely touch it and our mind races of to consider an idea.
This kind of reading is not easy to learn at first. We grow frustrated, give up, or just give in to the flitting thoughts.
Take a verse such as “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” You can spend hours with simply that verse, being present to it – not trying to parse it or think it – just being present to it. Actually not hours – but certainly minutes.
I like to read the Psalms in such a manner. The more we immerse ourselves in the liturgical tradition of the Church, the more we can learn to do this – it is theoria – a word for a kind of meditation in the Scripture.
The thinking part of us wants information. But we miss out on communion when we do this. Imagine being with your wife. But instead of being with her, you are thinking about her. Everything about her that you see makes your mind wander. You see her hair and you think about how she wore it differently when you first met and you wonder why she ever changed it – maybe it’s your fault – maybe it’s that new hairdresser she had – and you never liked that guy – what was his name? —–And she wonders where you are. I”m with you, you say, but you’re not. I was thinking about you, but you’re not. You’re just listening to your head ramble on. Is it possible to just be with her and be with her? It’s hard, but it’s important.
The same is true with Scripture. I don’t have to get a lot more information. I don’t have to figure out doctrine – it’s already been done. But Christ gives Himself to me in the Scriptures. They are a verbal icon.
There can certainly be a time for thinking about the content of Scripture. But it’s more or less secondary. We don’t need information about God in the way that we just need God Himself. So, I don’t pray to tell God things He already knows or to convince of what I think He should do. I pray in order to be united with Him. Thus, the Jesus Prayer is as good as anything else – better than almost anything else – for it has the name of Jesus.
Those are some initial suggestions of what I mean. Hope it helps.
Not for me to answer your question to Fr. Stephen…however, an approach like lectio divina, is such a way of reading scripture; a way of reading it from the heart (to grow in love with God) more than from the head (to form opinions).
Since I am Catholic, I can’t speak for Orthodoxy, but did read this about lectio divina at oca.org: “It is the slow and attentive reading of the Bible, or perhaps the writings of the church fathers and saints, not for the purpose of gaining information, but for the purpose of communion with God.”
I have much to learn about learning to read scripture myself as Catholicism did not emphasize this in my childhood. My brain has a tendency to want to read through it like I would read other things. I have found some online resources that I can listen to that help me to slow down and reflect. I hope this is helpful to you.
Fascinating. Thank you again, Father.
I hope I can express this clearly. We generally read something to comprehend it, to understand it. This puts us in a position where we analyze, dissect, and – in a sense – stand “over” the text. This makes the text subject to our interpretation. It renders us the master and the text the servant. It also renders humility impossible, since “I” am the determinant of meaning. While we do read Scripture to gain understanding, our posture is conpletely different. We are to listen to it, to submit to it. This is a posture of humility – that requires humility – and is possible only in the Church, in a Tradition where there are others “further down the road” – or, more accurately – more open to the Spirit (the Author) who can enlighten us and lead us properly in the Way and the Life. The key, though, is that the Way and the Life is embodied (as Father said, enfleshed) and conveyed by the Church and the sacraments which uniquely convey a restored creation in which God is everywhere present. Only in the Church and sacraments, both of which express the restored communion of God and creation, does the text have meaning, and do the commandments make sense as life-giving and not just moralism. In short, reading to comprehend puts the isolated self at the center and makes both humility and communion impossible. Reading in order to enter into communion – which is the purpose and process of salvation – must occur within the communion that is the Church and is conveyed by the sacraments. (Well, I tried. Forgive me.)
I find it is easiest to listen to the lectionary, so my wife and I listen to this podcast every day: http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/thepath
Father Tom reads the Epistle and the Gospel, and provides a bit of commentary from the patristic fathers on each reading. It takes about ten minutes every morning, and I find by listening, my voice and my “brain” are less likely to become engaged, and I can hear the words more clearly.
Christians and non-christians have lots of problems reading and studying the bible on a literal level. You can make up new things or heresies by taking a verse and commenting on it. Dr Jeannie Constantinou in one of her podcasts on AFR mentioned that the literal is the lowest level of interpretation and many forget that there are the next higher level of the moral and spiritual application. Check her program with Kevin Allen at
Thank you once more for your edifying posts, Fr Stephen
And, Perry Lee, thank you for this wonderful link
Father Freeman has written a provocative piece here that I am sure will be compelling to many, given the experiences that they have had – certainly there are Protestants who hold to certain versions of the Sola Scriptura positions who will find themselves in this critique.
That said, speaking for Lutherans, I would hope that serious Lutherans would know better – that this critique does not really apply to them.
For those who are interested in learning more, I have written what I hope is a careful and thoughtful response to Father Freeman’s article on my blog (click my name above)
Thank you for your long comment to Guy. That was new and insightful; I’m not sure I ever heard that before.
Is it a fair summary to say that you’re advocating Scripture reading as a mere act of worship rather than an act of information-acquisition (assuming information-acquisition doesn’t count as an act of worship)?
Its a very good question. I’ll be interested to see how Father Freeman answers. Obviously, we don’t go to the Scriptures with the intention of harvesting information for a systematic theology.
And yet… in my blog post mentioned above I said this:
“…as one of the commenters on Father Freeman’s article put it, we read the Scriptures to find and meet Christ. Amen! As Luther said, the Scriptures are the cradle that holds Christ. For example, I would say that particular Scriptures – although often written to particular congregations – are indeed God’s “love letters” to His church – His bride – today. In them we experience the Triune God speaking to us about who He is and what He has done, who we are as His creatures, the love we have and share in Him, and our lives in this fallen world – and the life of the world to come!”
It seems that in the context of doing that, we certainly are “gaining information” – how could we not be?
It is for this reason I do not understand the dichotomy that is being put forth here.
Not at all. Only I think that the information-acquisition angle is overplayed and generally engaged in to little effect. There are so many “Bible Studies” out there – there is no lack of them. I am suggesting that “one thing is needful,” and that is communion/koinonia/participation in the life of the true and living God. The right use of Scripture is a means to that communion – as is prayer – and many things. I would never use a phrase like “mere” worship. There’s nothing mere about it.
It is interesting to me that “devotional” activity (prayer, thanksgiving, etc.) is generally viewed as almost a hobby-like activity in some circles. There’s the “serious” part of the bookstore where real men read real books about real theology. And then there’s the soft stuff, devotional things.
Orthodoxy views prayer, communion with God, as the “one thing needful.” It’s the hard core work of the serious monastic (and the rest of us). It is there that we engage and defeat the enemy, overcome the passions, and cultivate the virtues (the image of Christ). This same communion, particularly for those of us in the world, should be the state in which we do most things – including feed the poor, read the Scriptures. What kind of information is it that we need that isn’t about communion with God?
We should study (I certainly do), but our study should then be taken into prayer and only in the context of communion with God, be appropriated. My experience has been that the prayerful approach (which is slow) to Scripture and the Fathers yields fruit that would never have come otherwise. There are some things that I read (St. Maximus, for example), that really can’t be read any other way. I have to pray just to get through a single sentence!
I just re-read Father Freeman’s comments above.
He said: “There can certainly be a time for thinking about the content of Scripture. But it’s more or less secondary. We don’t need information about God in the way that we just need God Himself.”
Which is basically what I said, I think. So I should have spoken differently above. My apologies.
I love what you have just written above and how you speak about these things. Thank you.
i do see now the sort of dynamic assumed by my question –thanks for clarifying that. i never thought of that as a taken-for-granted assumption of my Protestantism before (heady stuff is “real” and the devotional stuff is “soft”).
Conceptually, i understand the distinction you’re making. But i’m still completely puzzled about carrying out the practice.
(1) Do you mean that when i’m reading, say, Matthew 10, and i’m going through Jesus saying “Do not fear those who can kill the body…”, i should *resist* conjuring to mind any of the following: that this commandment applies to me, that it is Jesus who is doing the speaking, that Jesus was speaking to the disciples who were standing in His presence at the time, that i still face situations today in which i can easily violate this command, that there are systemic ways in which society and even Christians live in fear of those who can kill the body and that’s a bad thing, that in my own heart there is fear and i should get rid of it, etc.? –are you saying i should resist these thoughts?
If the answer is “yes, you should resist,” then i’m more puzzled than i was before. i would say that when i’m “present” in a conversation with my wife or son or friends, these kinds of thoughts are still occurring in my mind. And thus, i really wouldn’t know what you mean by “being present,” unless we’re talking about some sort of mind-emptying in the Buddhist sense. (But i definitely don’t consider that analogous to being present with my wife.)
If the answer is “no, don’t resist,” then i’m just a little less clear about what should be excluded from my thoughts when i’m “being present.” i mean, i think i get the gist. But it seems to me some things you mentioned in your example perhaps only differ in degree from items on my list.
(2) i’m puzzled by the idea that any and all parts of scripture can have this sort of communion-inducing affect you mention. Is reading the more erotically explicit parts of Song of Solomon really as beneficial to this end as reading, say, the resurrection narratives (i could come up with multiple similar comparisons here, but i think you get the point)?
And what about portions of scripture that i really don’t understand at all–that i simply can’t even understand the bottom-most level of interpretation without further study (say certain portions of the prophets or Revelation)? Should i still just read them even though no coherent meaning at all is registering in my mind as i read?
(3) i’m puzzled by your phrase “the right use of Scripture.” The Scriptures are still a source of theology and doctrine for Orthodox Christians, right? i mean, i haven’t done something wrong by reading Luke to find out how to live my life or by reading 1Corinthians 11 to learn details about the Eucharist, have i?
The act of reading 1Corinthians 11 *to learn about the Eucharist* and the act of reading 1Cor 11 *to be present to the text and commune with God*–are these act mutually exclusive? Can they not occur simultaneously? (i mean, when i’m “being present” during a conversation with my wife, there is some degree of cognitive processing of what she’s saying to me, right?)
(i know i ask a lot of questions–i really appreciate how much help you always try to offer.)
Guy, et al,
I’ve decided to write a post on the topic of the kind of reading I’m describing – I’m working on it now. I hope it will address these questions and more.
I look forward to it 🙂
Thanks so much!
My article on reading will be delayed, at least til tomorrow. My brain isn’t working well today. Thank you for your prayers.
And prayers you shall have, Fr. Stephen. Please do not over-stress yourself. I look forward to reading whenever God gives it to you to write…
I feel for you, Fr. Stephen. Some days it just don’t work 😉
Hello Fr. Stephen,
Is it correct to say about Scripture that its authority is not bestowed on it by the community, but that the believing community recognizes the authority that the Scriptures claim for themselves as God breathed writings. Those writings that do not have this sort of authority may be treated with respect and deference but never as intrinsically authoritative, for instance The Didache? Thanks
Wonderful thoughts, Father Stephen!
i still find this issue of the Orthodox understanding of the Bible to be confusing and sometimes a stumbling block. Today in particular, i’m having trouble with the idea that the Orthodox freely admit there are discrepancies or even contradictions in the Bible, and yet claim to believe/trust the Bible or hold it as part of authoritative tradition. i’m hoping that i’m merely getting hung up because of vague notions, and hopefully you can clarify. What troubles me might be hard to explain, so i hope you can bear with me.
Now i take it that there are a couple of important distinctions to be made. Suppose there are two propositions, P1 and P2. P1 and P2 could be related in a few different ways.
(1) They could be identical–that is, P1 and P2 don’t differ in any way.
(2) But P1 and P2 could also be non-identical; there could be a difference between them. If P1 and P2 are non-identical, then they could be either (2a) compatible or (2b) incompatible. If they are compatible, this would mean that it is possible for both P1 and P2 to be true. If they are incompatible, two possibilities follow. P1 and P2 could be (2ba) contrary, in which case they can’t both be true, but they could both be false. Or P1 and P2 could be (2bb) contradictory, in which case if P1 is true, then P2 must be false, and if P2 is true, then P1 must be false; but they can’t both be true or both be false.
Now Jones might look and P1 and P2 and claim that they are incompatible. But Smith might come along and point out that it depends upon how we understand P1 and P2. “Jones,” says Smith, “assumes a particular interpretation of P1 and P2, and that is how Jones arrives at the conclusion that P1 and P2 are incompatible.” “But,” Smith says, “P1 and P2 needn’t be interpreted that way, and”, Smith says, “there’s good reason for interpreting P1 and P2 differently such that they clearly aren’t incompatible.” In this case, from Smith’s perspective, Jones has pointed out an *apparent* incompatibility, but P1 and P2 are not incompatible *in fact.*
So when i was a Protestant, many discussions about the inerrancy of the Bible went this way. Someone might say, “you know the Bible says things that are incompatible, right? Looks at Verse 1 and Verse 2. See! They can’t both be true. Thus, the Bible affirms incompatible claims. Therefore, the Bible is untrustworthy, and you shouldn’t believe it, and whatever doctrines you hold that depend upon it’s inerrancy or infallibility must be false.”
“Just a minute,” i’d respond, “you assume a certain interpretation of Verse 1 and Verse 2, and based on that interpretation, you conclude that V1 and V2 are incompatible. But V1 and V2 needn’t be interpreted that way, and here’s a couple good reasons to interpret it some other way which does not warrant the conclusion that V1 and V2 are incompatible.”
Okay, well, the issues are even a little more complicated than that, aren’t they? i could give some interpretation that doesn’t entail incompatibility. But what matters to me as a Christian is that it’s the *right* interpretation. Lots of crazy interpretations might smooth over contraries or contradictions. But that’s certainly not a sufficient reason for me to want to adopt those interpretations. What do i care about? i care about what God means for me to understand by V1 or V2 (or any other verse by that matter). So i tend to endorse the claim that for any set of verses, each of those verses has a divinely intended interpretation, and no divinely intended interpretation is incompatible with any other divinely intended interpretation. And so based on this claim, it’s easy to retort to challengers, “Sure there are incompatibilities among biblical texts–*if* you misinterpret them.”
But this is not at all how i hear the Orthodox talk about the issue. Consistently i’ve heard Orthodox people just own outright that there are “discrepancies” and “contradictions” (where such language is used more vaguely than i have defined it above) in the text. The end. No qualification. No explanation. Yes, the book is “inconsistent.” And so an objector to Orthodox could say, “So, you guys reject the Bible or think it’s not trustworthy then?” No!, says the Orthodox, it’s a prized part of our tradition. We hold it to be a part of the whole of our tradition which is authoritative and trustworthy.
It’s at this point that i’m at a loss. How can we make this move? Why would i trust something that doesn’t give me a ‘straight story’? When people tell me something and they say things that are clearly incompatible, i take this as a sign that they’ve erred, and i hold the reliability of their testimony in jeopardy if they don’t correct either themselves or my interpretation.
Here’s how i’m tempted to explain it: Even a Protestant understanding of Scripture leads to incompatibilities. For instance, if in every case we take the divinely intended meaning to be coextensive with the author’s intent, then, yes, perhaps we will come up with not mere apparent incompatibilities, but incompatibilities in fact. Or if we use an interpretive structure more rooted in modernity or the Enlightenment than on the interpretive structures germane to the author’s own time and place, then, again, we will likely come up with not mere apparent incompatibilities, but incompatibilities in fact. So we point out that John’s gospel aims to teach us theology and not strict history, and therefore our stumbling block is modernity and not John’s text. Or we say (as i learned the other day) that the Holy Spirit may have intended some meaning different from the meaning intended by the psalmist. But on the whole, the proper way to interpret the Scriptures is by the traditions of the Church. In this tradition, it’s inappropriate to use the interpretive structures of modernity, and it’s inappropriate to interpret always according to authorial intent. If you interpret them according to the traditions of the Church, that’s when you get to the divinely intended meaning of the Scriptures. *And* (the big finish) in the case of divinely intended meanings, there are no incompatibilities.
That’s what i’m tempted to say. The trouble is i don’t hear any Orthodox people saying that. i only hear them affirming that there are incompatibilities. And i hear justifications like: “if you believe in the Trinity, you already believe in contradictions; so either contradictions are okay for you or they aren’t.” i find this incredibly discouraging. If believing in the Trinity means believing in “contradictions” in the sense i described above, then why would it be wrong to say that i believe everything in the Nicene creed *and* all of the relevant contradictory propositions of the Nicene creed? i don’t at all see how such asymmetry can be justified. And more to the point, i don’t see how the set of propositions which describe the doctrine of the Trinity meets the criteria of “incompatible” i described above. i see how we might call it paradoxical. And i definitely understand the Church’s use of the word “mystery” for such things. But i don’t see that “incompatible” or “contradictory” or “contrary” as i’ve defined them above are applicable.
But to come down to the point: What do the Orthodox believe about the Bible’s internal compatibility? Does the Orthodox Church teach that incompatibility within the Scriptures exists even at the level of divinely intended meanings? If so, how is this different than saying that God lies? Or i guess more so what i mean is: if we as Orthodox affirm that there are incompatibilities at the level of divinely intended meaning, what would it even mean to say that it’s impossible for God to lie?
If the divinely intended meanings are all compatible (and more importantly, can’t fail to be compatible), then why don’t more Orthodox teachers say it this way rather than just teaching that there are incompatibilities and leaving it at that?
i’d really appreciate your help. This one is tough for me.
Hi Guy 🙂
“The trouble is I don’t hear any Orthodox people saying that.”
Well, Fr Stephen is pretty much saying that…
I was an Evangelical for more than 30 years, from college until a few years before entering Orthodoxy. The O. way of looking at scripture was indeed somewhat confusing to me at first. At the end of my E. sojourn, I was pretty thoroughly convinced that interpretation is the issue, not “what the bible says.” So I was ready to entertain a different way of interpreting it. The O. way makes better sense to me as time goes on.
The thing is, O. doesn’t stand or fall because of the text of scripture, so there’s no need to resolve inconsistencies. O. is primarily about worship. That’s where one finds the “proper interpretation” of scripture. And *that* begins with the encounter of the disciples with the risen Christ after the crucifixion. As Fr Stephen has noted, all (scripture and everything else) is viewed through Pascha.
This is also the point of Fr John Behr’s book “The Mystery of Christ-Life in Death.” As children of Enlightenment Rationalism (which is also the lineage of Evangelicalism), we want to start from the beginning and arrive by sequential steps at the point. Fr John says that the disciples arrived at the point – Pascha – and then had to grapple with the encounter with “the solution” and how it reframed “the problem” as they looked backwards, yes, at their scriptures.
It’s not actually a matter of scripture being “authoritative.” The question is, “How are these texts read by the Church through the lens of Pascha?” It’s the Church that is the pillar and ground of truth, not the texts. The Church expresses Tradition, which includes the texts and their interpretation.
Hope that helps. Hopefully Fr Stephen can give you a fuller answer. I feel your pain, my brother…
What do you mean by saying that the church doesn’t stand or fall because of the text of the scriptures?
Also, does the Orthodox church not view the scriptures as authoritative for faith and practice? i don’t know what you mean by saying “it’s not a matter of scripture being authoritative.” What is the “it” in that sentence? Are they not “authoritative” in any sense? If not, why care what they tell us to do or not do?
Guy, great questions. Sorry to be slow in reply. My Lenten schedule is heavy with services. I’ll be spending time this afternoon working on the blog. See you then!
Guy, a keep point lies in the nature of Scriptural authority and the nature of the Scriptures themselves. The popular conception of Scriptural authority is like a reference book – accurate in all details and information. If you want to know something you look it up – if you read it – then you know it. Literal readings are the most obvious way to treat such documents.
But consider the fact that the NT’s reading of the OT often uses allegory – in which things have a meaning beyond or deeper than their literal/historical sense. Thus St. Paul says that the rock that “followed” the people of Israel was Christ. How is this a possible meaning? It’s a point to sit with and ponder. There is something about the Scripture that it’s meaning is greater than literal/historical in a way that an encyclopedia article cannot be. How is this possible?
I’ll return to this question this afternoon and look at it in some depth. It is a major point and worth attention. Thanks for the great questions – stay with it!
A certain kind of literalism with regard to Scripture leads to false conclusions. For example, when the Disciples ask Christ (Luke 9:54) whether they should call down fire from heaven to destroy some people who rejected Him, He rebuked them and said, “You do not know what Spirit you are of.” But they made an obvious application of the Scripture based on face of how it is written. But they were wrong, and not of the proper Spirit.
Allegory is possible because there is indeed a deeper meaning of the words of Scripture. It does not necessarily destroy the words on their literal level, but that deeper level is essential. I think of it in a manner similar to the incarnation itself. Christ is fully man, He takes flesh of the Virgin, but the “flesh” of Christ, His humanity, is not the whole story, and it is, when isolated, an insufficient story. Christ as “mere” man is not sufficient to our salvation. Scripture, as the “mere” letter, is not sufficient.
I do not want to press the analogy too far. But the kind of historical/literal perfection/infallibility of the Scripture (on its literal level) that many Christian groups want to assert, certainly falls within the realm of this analogy. We do not have such a historical/literal perfection/infallibility within the Scripture (nor within a Papacy, etc.). Such a “divorced” perfection (existing like an independent encyclopedia of infallible history and doctrine) within Scripture would establish a sort of independent, objective, autonomous authority, that actually doesn’t even need God. It is typical of the 2 storey model.
But, like the Incarnation, the flesh (the literal/historical) also is united to the Divine (it’s deeper, spiritual meaning), and its significance is found in its fullness (not in one without the other, but in the fullness as they dwell in one another).
Learning to read this is itself a transforming experience, for we ourselves have to be transformed. On our own literal/historical level, living independent of God (and the Church), cannot arrive at the truth of authority. We ourselves have to be transformed, filled with the Spirit of God and united to Christ. It is within that life that the meaning of the Scripture becomes clear.
Orthodoxy isn’t particularly troubled by various assertions or questions of the historical/literal sort. The Scriptures are not held hostage by such things. Archaeology is not the interpreter of the Scriptures. We have found them generally reliable about historical matters – though some parts of Scripture clearly are more poetic than historical (the early chapters of Genesis are good examples). For certain parts of Scripture, the historical/literal becomes quite paramount. St. Paul’s letters, for example. The historical heart of the Gospels is another. If Christ is not raised from the dead, all bets are off. It is this central event to which the faith bears witness and from that event, and the life that is given to us within the Church by that event, that we read and interpret.
What if it turns out that much of the Exodus account of the escape from Egypt has a poetic element? Frankly, I don’t worry about it, because the account as we have it has been taken up into the account (and fact) of the death and resurrection of Christ. He is our passover.
It is possible to create a great deal of anxiety about historical reliability. But when you’re dealing with a story that is over 3200-3500 years old (Moses) you’re on shaky ground – particularly when the texts embodying that story don’t seem to go reliably back much further than 2600 years. We can adopt a bunker mentality and ignore every rational attack of the liberal Bible critics, but I think that is a losing game and attitude. Christian fundamentalism is the last act of a dying position (and not the position of the historic Church).
Rather, by use of the Fathers and the actual historical tradition of how the Church uses Scripture, I choose to cut the legs out from under the liberal critics. Their entire historical/literal critique falls apart when there are no fundamentalists to attack. Fr. John Behr’s work on the Mystery of Christ (book by that title) does a good job of showing how the Church understands itself and the story of Christ and how faith, Scripture and Tradition are properly integrated. I recommend it.
Keep the questions coming. This is much better as a conversation.
Thank you for the post and the responses, Father Stephen. I appreciate your continued urging that we *ponder* scriptures and the commentary and writings of the Church Fathers. It has been my own past experience that there is an unfortunate desire or temptation to dissect and over-think these things rather than allow ourselves to pause and simply stare quietly at its beauty. The encouragement to do so has been very beneficial to me. The “checklist” approach towards scripture that you described above once fit me to a “t” and led me into great confusion.
1. i find myself in agreement with everything you said, but i don’t see a direct address of my question. Is there any sense in which the Orthodox Church holds the Bible to be internally consistent? Of course, there are incompatible statements if one adopts this fundamentalist approach to historical literalism. But what about at the level of what the Church takes to be the divinely intended meanings of passages? Would the Church defend that all of those are without internal incompatibilities? Or does the Church believe that incompatibilities exist even at that level?
2. This statement stands out to me more than anything else in your comment:
“Such a “divorced” perfection (existing like an independent encyclopedia of infallible history and doctrine) within Scripture would establish a sort of independent, objective, autonomous authority, that actually doesn’t even need God. It is typical of the 2 storey model.”
i take it there is a very important point about ecclesiology here, but i’m just not quite getting it. i hope you might be willing to elaborate on this statement.
Guy, I think I would say that “yes,” there is an internally consistent teaching within the Scriptures, as read by the Church. Now, that doesn’t mean that the Church holds that it has exhaustive knowledge of everything within the Scriptures – since they themselves are an inexhaustible treasure. For those things that pertain to the dogma of the Church, we hold them with certainty. Many other things enjoy a kind of certainty. While others remain treasure to be explored – understanding that what we hold is ultimately without contradiction.
Now, are there arguments to be had about the historical nature of certain statements? Sure. I know Orthodox (plenty of them) who hold a fairly literal account of Adam and Eve to be important – while there are others who disagree. This same disagreement can be found within the Fathers themselves. But it is the doctrine that is found that we would hold in agreement.
On the ecclesiology question – Orthodoxy would want to hold things together as a single authority – rather than thinking of there being several sources of authority. The authority of the Scripture and the authority of the Church are not two authorities or sources, but one and the same authority, manifest in different manners. This is very important. Without this, things start breaking down. Many Orthodox scholars would agree that the separation of the Scriptures from the Church was an extremely bad development in the history of Christian thought.
I could push this to an extreme and say that the Orthodox would ultimately say that the Scriptures, as Scripture, only exist within the Church. Outside the Church they would be very problematic. Indeed, “Scripture” is not a word that makes any sense outside the context of the Church.
I was trying to say what Fr Stephen said here:
“Orthodoxy isn’t particularly troubled by various assertions or questions of the historical/literal sort. The Scriptures are not held hostage by such things.”
“The authority of the Scripture and the authority of the Church are not two authorities or sources, but one and the same authority, manifest in different manners. This is very important. Without this, things start breaking down.”
I was trying to say that Orthodoxy approaches scripture in an entirely different manner than how we dealt with it in our years as Protestants, and we have put our previous systems of interpretation on the shelf. This can make for what seems to us some uncomfortable uncertainty, such as you may be experiencing now. But it’s somewhat like learning a foreign language: even if a word “looks” like something in English, it may not *mean* the same thing. We have to work with the definitions as we find them in the other language, not in English. The phrase “authoritative for faith and practice” is Protestant vocabulary, and such a phrase, to my knowledge, does not exist in Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is a different language.
The matter has to be approached by moving to a different place, from where we view interpretation of scripture from a different angle. It seems to me that you’re trying to stay put and bend the viewing angle to accommodate where you’re standing (because the new “language” hasn’t “clicked in” yet – not because you’re stubborn or rebellious or anything like that – you’re working really hard to understand! I really do relate to this!). But it doesn’t work that way. Trying to translate idioms word-for-word into a foreign language marks one as a person who is not yet fluent, who hasn’t had the ability to think in that language click in. (This is a pertinent example for me because I have learned a foreign language to fluency and I know how it is to work to shake off my English-language mindset.) Forgive me if I misread, I’m not impugning your motives at all.
The “it” I wrote before roughly corresponds to the Orthodox vocabulary/language – the other angle – the interpretation of all of scripture through Pascha. Again, I would repeat what Fr Stephen said: “Orthodoxy would want to hold things together as a single authority – rather than thinking of there being several sources of authority. The authority of the Scripture and the authority of the Church are not two authorities or sources, but one and the same authority, manifest in different manners.”
We know what scripture *means* because of what comes to us through the church, particularly in worship. One example on my journey to Orthodoxy: I began to get over my “Mary problem” (Protestant baggage concerning the Theotokos) by going to the Dormition vigil and really *listening* to the words of the prayers, hymns and scripture. It was like a throwing a switch and the lights came on, though not all of them at once. I began to hear what is *meant* when the Church talks about Mary.
At bottom, what we’re after is meaning. “The authority of scripture” has to do with “who decides” its meaning; the issue is a hermeneutical one for Protestants, even if they can’t see that. In Orthodoxy, Pascha is The Hermeneutic. Pascha as hermeneutic is not really concerned with “authority” as “who decides,” but rather is concerned with meaning as experience and communion. It’s a different angle.
“If you get the message, you might refuse it- but if you get the meaning, hey, don’t ever lose it…” (Noel Paul Stookey)
Hope this is not too wordy, and that it helps – if not, send to the “round file” as my mom used to say… I haven’t commented so much here for several years 🙂
I hope you’ll indulge a very frustrated brother. If there was time to establish myself as someone other than a usurper, I would. It’s just that the issue at hand is too immediate and a deep point of concern for me. I was chrismated 4 years ago. Before that, I worked very hard to find arguments against Orthodoxy because I wanted to allow myself to be talked out of Orthodoxy. I found nothing that surprised me or gave me pause. That was then.
Over time I have encountered, more and more, an attitude toward Scripture that borders, seemingly, on theological liberalism. Father Stephen, your comments here are an example of what I mean. I really do get that the problem may be mine but I remain unconvinced that Orthodoxy does, in fact, teach that Scripture is subservient to the Church. The Fathers went to writings that were seen to be autoritative so they could order their thoughts about The Father and his Son and the Holy Spirit. They prayed that their eyes would be opened to what god had said in WRITTEN DOWN words.
I would not have become Orthodox if it weren’t for Scripture itself saying that the Church is the pillar and ground of truth. I always took that to mean ( and was allowed to take it that way!) that the Church is where the buck stops as regards the interpretation of Scripture (as necessary) and unlike the concept of “Sola Scriptura” The Church alone is THE arbiter of what constitutes Dogma and historically it played that role when Dogma was in dispute.
Goodness, to actually believe that the Bible isn’t an objective, graspable document. That it can’t be trusted to contain truth that is as plain as it appears or that it needn’t actually be truthful in what it affirms to BE true. Now that’s Islamification… pure and simple.
What Evangelicals have done is to stand as watchmen on the wall as Scripture fell into malicious dispute like no other historical document ever has. And Scripture has stood that test like no other historical document could. Volumes of apologetics written to strengthen the church in the world of skeptics. How I wish Orthodoxy would see the debt it owes to it’s heterodox brothers in this regard!!!
I’ll leave it at that for now with once again a request for indulgence (but not for kid gloves in an energetic response!).
Yes, this is very helpful.
It was precisely your point in your response about the ecclesiological question that made me take my initial toward Orthodoxy. i started to realize that even the Bible by itself teaches this view of ecclesial authority rather than any form of sola scriptura.
What is hard to hear sometimes is language that makes it seem as though the Scriptures are not authoritative at all, but rather just a prop in a play used by an authoritative organization. i guess that impression was mistaken interpretation on my part of people’s language. It’s just scary because that language seems to undercut the very thing that brought me to Orthodoxy in the first place–the seamless sort of tapestry of authority manifested in the Church and the Scriptures.
i’m sure i have more questions, but i think i need to chew on just this much for a while.
i knew “authoritative for faith and practice” was Protestant jargon when i wrote it down. The trouble is, just as you say, i’m searching for meanings. A phrase like this is a case where it’s not just about words, but these words have formed certain cognitive concepts for me, and i have no other conceptual structures for this topic. And i’ve yet to find the proper corresponding meanings in Orthodoxy to issues like authority, infallibility, and inspiration. i’m working on it.
I appreciate your concern. There was a point in my life, having endured years of liberal undermining of Scripture that I had a very “itchy trigger finger” myself. I tended to see liberals under every bush. But I also saw many problems within certain “conservative” positions viz. Scripture as well. I am about as far removed from liberalism as anyone I know – but I consider Western protestant fundamentalism to be a flip side of the same coin. And they’re both wrong and deviate from the teachings of the Fathers and the Holy Orthodox faith.
To say that the Scripture is “subservient” to the Church would be to say that the “Church is subservient” to the Church. If you hear what I have said. The Scripture cannot stand alone – it must be read and must be read faithfully. The utter failure of “rationally” directed Protestants to agree over many very fundamental things demonstrates that Scripture alone is problematic. But God has not given us Scripture alone. Scripture is given to us in the context of the believing community. The use of the Scriptures as authoritative by the Fathers does not make the Church subservient to the Scriptures, however, anymore than one Father citing the Bishop of Rome’s opinion makes the Pope infallible. The Fathers cite one another, they cite the Scriptures, they use all things that God has given them in order to teach and uphold the Truth. Obviously, few things are as suited or primary in that task as the Scripture. The Scriptures run throughout the worship life of the Church. We sing the Scripture. With icons we paint the Scriptures, etc.
And the Church, when it lives rightly, lives the Scripture, so that St. Paul can say to the Corinthians, “You are my epistle.” And they are as much his epistle as the ink he placed on a page. The Church, the living Body of Christ, is the pillar and ground of truth. That life (which is the Life of Christ) is also manifested in the words of Scripture. But when those words are taken away from the context of the Church, it is like taking a man’s kidney out of his body and trying to talk about kidneys. Kidneys only make sense and are true kidneys when they are doing what kidneys are supposed to do in a human body. I see Protestant Churches that call themselves “Bible Church.” It’s like seeing a human being who calls himself “kidney man.”
But placing the Scripture in its living context does not diminish its authority – it rightly guards that authority – for if it is not embodied and rightly live then it would be a lifeless book. God has not left the world without a witness. It is to the Church that He made His promise regarding the gates of Hell, but the Church that will prevail will also always have His word, for His word, we are promised, will never pass away.
But because I live and dwell in the life of the Church, my hope is in God. I am not worried about the liberals – or other enemies of the Truth. I can rest in Christ. I confess the one faith of the Orthodox and live as an obedient priest. I’m not perfect, but I live the Orthodox faith. That faith has been maintained since the beginning and it will be until the end. The enemies of the truth will come and ago, but the Church of God will abide.
As regards the words “objective and graspable.” My resistance to those words is because they are reductionistic. The Scriptures as the Word of God, are like the mystery of the Eucharist (and the Church is the steward of the mysteries as well). Many groups think they can wrestle the Scripture down to some manageable thing and master it. They ultimately make themselves greater than the Scriptures. Orthodoxy does not. The Word of God is powerful and living, sharper than any two-edged sword. We handle it with care and with reverence. We don’t master it – it masters us. But I know, again, groups who contend that with reason alone, the Scriptures can be rightly understood because of some “objective” character they have. Nothing has that kind of character. The real world is simply not able to be reduced in such a manner, much less the living Word of God. How can I grasp that which has grasped me?
I understand how my hesitation around those words can sound like a liberal hesitation. They’ll use a lack of objectivity to further their own agenda. Orthodoxy rightly respects human weakness and the mystery of reality to curb ourselves and limit our agenda. If we don’t know something, then it means we should shut up. It’s very different.
I pray this will be helpful, at least in understanding what I mean. May God grant you grace!
I think one thing that is starting to appear in some of these posts and those on other threads is: “How to I live in the world but not of it” in the face of increasing overt animosity as well as the simple nihilism of life in general.
Many people are feeling the pressure and many of our young feel it even more intensly, I know my son does. He is an intensely practical young man.
Any ideas Father?
Thanks for taking the time to reply at such length.
“I consider Western protestant fundamentalism to be a flip side of the same coin. And they’re both wrong and deviate from the teachings of the Fathers and the Holy Orthodox faith.”
Except that theological liberals deny the faith. Period. While fundamentalists really do believe what the Nicene creed says. It’s true that most would insist that they do not recognize the council itself but because what it says reflects Biblical teaching, they really do believe it. So while the liberal isn’t a christian at all, the “fundies” are, even if terribly lacking in the fullness of the Church. By the way,I should ask you if think that fundamentalists and evangelicals are essentially the same?
The Fathers cite one another, they cite the Scriptures, they use all things that God has given them in order to teach and uphold the Truth. Obviously, few things are as suited or primary in that task as the Scripture.”
Do you mean to say that The Fathers did not themselves view Scripture as uniquely authoritative when teaching or arguing the truth. This is where the word “infallible” is useful to clarify the difference between Scripture and Father. I am comfortable saying that in a manner of speaking, The Bible is infallible but that the Fathers are not. When it comes right down to it I’m certain that “the Church” never questions whether the Scripture might be wrong, only whether the Church is properly understanding Scripture. I am just as certain that the Church Fathers are regularly questioned as to whether they’ve gotten some teaching wrong or not.
“As regards the words “objective and graspable.” My resistance to those words is because they are reductionistic. The Scriptures as the Word of God, are like the mystery of the Eucharist (and the Church is the steward of the mysteries as well).”
There is much in the New Testament that is hard to grasp. The Mystery of the Eucharist qualifies. And yet it is because Jesus says that when I eat and drink that I am eating and drinking his body and blood that I must believe it to be true. When St Paul says That in eating and drinking at the Lord’s table I am fellowshipping in the body and blood of Christ, then I must believe it is true. That is what I mean by objective. When St. Paul says in Romans 13 that I should pay taxes because the governing authorities are put their by God to be His ministers for keeping society in check from evildoers then I pay taxes. No hidden meanings there! That is what I mean by graspable. I may be too blind to see how being so “literal” somehow does damage to the Body of Christ. The writer of Hebrews in Ch. 10 is clear that I must not neglect to get together with my fellow Christians for a whole variety of reasons, none of which requires a priest or Church Father to explain. Graspable!
But because I live and dwell in the life of the Church, my hope is in God. I am not worried about the liberals – or other enemies of the Truth. I can rest in Christ. I confess the one faith of the Orthodox and live as an obedient priest. I’m not perfect, but I live the Orthodox faith. That faith has been maintained since the beginning and it will be until the end. The enemies of the truth will come and ago, but the Church of God will abide.
The Scriptures are not just a sort of “Heilige Geschichte” (Holy History). They are certainly that, to be sure, and maybe this is what you wish to emphasize by your comments. They are also real words, written down by genuine human beings that had something that, in the providence of God, needed to be said. Liberalism takes them apart at that level because in so doing they know that doubt can and does destroy faith. If the patriarchs and Moses and the famous Hittites never really did exist or if the creation narratives are just borrowed myths or if Daniel was written well after Alexander the Great had come and gone (or if the resurrection of Christ had not happened) then us Christians are surely quite miserable and really stupid.
I hope this helps to understand what I’m trying to say. I’ve used way too many words but I know I’m not the only “Bible believing Christian” out here who found Orthodoxy and needs to know that we’re not off the reservation in having such high confidence that Orthodoxy is the true “Bible Church”. I threw that in for fun 🙂