This is Jesus’ description of those who encountered Him but did not understand. Just because we see something doesn’t mean we see it. Just because we hear something doesn’t mean we’ve heard it. This is particularly true of Holy Scripture. Just because we read it doesn’t mean we’ve read it.
Why do we read the Scriptures?
I assume that anyone who is “reading the Scriptures” is, in fact, a believing Christian, otherwise they would just be reading a collection of ancient writings held in esteem by Christians. For the books of the Bible to be “Scripture” is to say that they are considered somehow inspired and somehow authoritative. But to read them as Scripture also asks the question: “Whose Scripture?” The answer is, “The Christian Community’s – the Church’s.”
Some point famously to Paul’s admonition to Timothy:
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. 3:16-17).
However, this is the admonition of an Apostle to a Bishop. “Doctrine” (“teaching”) is not the task of every Christian. Instead we are told that not many of us should be teachers (James 3:1). St. Paul urges believers at various times to give heed to the “doctrine” that they have received (Romans 16:17; 1 Timothy 1:3; 1 Timothy 4:6; etc.).
In our modern culture, many Christians act as though they have a major task in life to learn doctrine, meaning to once again study the Scriptures and come to their own conclusions about everything under the sun. It is as though Martin Luther was reincarnated multiple times in every generation.
Doctrine, sound teaching, is the “pattern” of teaching which has been delivered (traditioned) to us. We find witnesses to this teaching in the Fathers from the first century forward. The reading of Scripture is not the means whereby we arrive at sound doctrine – sound doctrine is the means whereby we rightly read the Scriptures. The Christian reading of Holy Scripture is a “doctrinally-ruled” reading. We do not come to the Scriptures to decide whether the Nicene Council “got it right.” Without a knowledge of doctrine, much of Scripture will remain closed to the reader.
But there are ways of reading Scripture that are appropriate and generally essential to the Christian life. “Search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life, and these are they which testify of me,” Christ says (John 5:39).
The most appropriate and life-giving manner of reading the Scriptures is to read them as a means of communion (koinonia) with God. Communion with God, sharing in His Life even as He shares in ours, is the means and the goal of salvation. Everything in the Christian life – indeed, the whole purpose of human life – is communion with God. Sin is the breaking of this communion, while salvation is its restoration. All of the sacraments have the one purpose of communion with God, whether manifest as Eucharist, Healing, Ordination, Baptism, etc. The only purpose of prayer is communion with God, for we do not speak to God to inform Him of what He already knows nor to convince of what He is already going to do. We are taught to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17), because communion “without ceasing” is the very definition of the Christian life.
So how do we read for the purpose of communion? St. Isaac of Syria says this:
The course of your reading should be parallel to the aim of your way of life…. Most books that contain instructions in doctrine are not useful for purification. The reading of many diverse books brings distraction of mind down on you. Know, then, that not every book that teaches about religion is useful for the purification of the consciousness and the concentration of the thoughts.
In our democratic culture, we find it offensive that anyone should be forbidden to read anything. I would only point to the spiritual abuse found on any number of “Orthodox” websites in which serious matters, originally written for monastics or for the guidance of clergy are tossed about for even the non-Orthodox to read. As if the canons of the Church were meant for mass consumption!
Parents who care about the health of their children usually follow some regimen in the course of their young lives when it comes to feeding them. “Milk and not stong meat” is the Scriptural admonition for those who are young in the faith. St. James offers this warning:
Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness(3:1).
And St. Peter’s Second Epistle offers this:
So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. 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 (3:15-16).
It’s not that Scripture or Canons or books of doctrine are to be avoided or forbidden – rather, that we should learn to read with wisdom in an effort to grow spiritually and not in an effort simply to gain knowledge of a questionable sort.
St. Isaac’s observation is that we give attention first to “purification of the consciousness and concentration of thoughts.” By such phrases he refers primarily to the daily regimen of what we read and how we pray (as well as fasting and repentance) towards the goal of overcoming the passions. Only someone who is not himself ruled by the passions is ready to safely guide someone else beyond those same rocks. Anger and condemnation, pride and superiority are marks of the passions. The passions cannot read the Scriptures and the Traditions rightly, nor offer them to others without doing harm. The same can be said about most argumentation. Reading for the sake of feeding our opinions is actually spiritually harmful.
So, to follow St. Isaac’s guidance, we are reading rightly when our reading is an integral part of a life whose single goal is communion with God. Obviously, “single goal” is the end of the game. On a daily basis we build towards that goal.
Reading with communion as a goal does not mean we avoid information (when we read), but that gathering information is not our primary purpose. Before the Divine Liturgy, as I enter the altar, I recite the portion of Psalm 5 appointed for priests:
I will enter Thy house, I will worship toward Thy holy temple in the fear of Thee. Lead me, O Lord, in Thy righteousness because of my enemies; make my way straight before Thee. For there is no truth in their mouth; their heart is destruction, their throat is an open sepulcher, they flatter with their tongue. Judge them, O God, let them fall by their own counsels; because of their many transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against Thee. But let all who take refuge in Thee rejoice, let them always sing for joy; and do Thou dwell in them, that those who love Thy name my exult in Thee. For Thou blessest the righteous, O Lord, Thou coverest us with good will as with a shield.
How can I read this as communion? About whom am I speaking? This is roughly how I read this in my heart:
I will enter my heart [that place where God dwells], I will acknowledge that it is You who dwell in me. Lead me rightly, O Lord, because of the wicked thoughts within me [my enemies]….My thoughts [logismoi] have no truth in them – they think only of destruction. They are like an open grave….Let me sing with joy in my heart – where You dwell. Let me exult in Your name. For those who rejoice in the Name of Jesus will exult and be blessed. You protect them with Your good will.
And I follow these thoughts into my heart. There I find communion with God – distractions flee away. There have been other times in my priesthood when I recited this Psalm as though it were a meditation of God protecting me from other people – particularly those about whom I felt anxious, or whom, in my neurosis, I imagined to be enemies. Such a reading (close to a literal reading) was not only useless, but left me deeper in darkness than I had been before I began my day.
Devotional reading tends to be slow, and often of short duration. For many books that I read – I can only take in a few pages a day.
Contrary to our popular self-conception, we are not a culture that values learning. We are a culture that values opinion, and opinion as entertainment (God save us from the pundits!). Dilettantism plagues us. If we want to be Christians, we must start with the small things and the practices that make for proper discipleship and “let not many of us become teachers.” Let many of us become those who pray, who fast, who repent, who forgive even their enemies and through the grace of God come to know the stillness within which God may be known.