My first introduction to ancient writings was in my Classical Greek classes my freshman year of college. Most of those were tortuous exercises filled with the rules of a foreign grammar. My friends laughed at how hard and long I labored in those studies. With time, however, the work began to yield pleasure as the language became a familiar friend. The same experience followed in my sophomore year as I added Latin to my studies. For most of my college years I thought that my future was a doctorate in Classics and a life as an academic. Those academic thoughts followed me to seminary where I continued to read in the Fathers. Every serious attempt at mastery opened new worlds to me. Tracking down a single problematic passage and making sense of it would easily entail an afternoon in the library and a likely trail through a number of books. It was hard.
What I gained from all of that was some cursory knowledge of a few topics – but a much deeper feel and respect for the true labor of scholarship and the actual price of knowledge and mastery.
Parallel to these studies was my beginning work in Holy Scripture. But an obvious conclusion marked that undertaking. Old books are old books. It doesn’t matter what their content may be, they have that much in common. It made no sense to me to treat the Scriptures in a manner that was essentially different than I treated Plato or Thucydides. I did not dismiss the inspiration of the Scriptures, but they remained “old books,” no matter what.
As such, it seemed obvious to me that reading them in their original languages was essential to their understanding. I added Hebrew to my languages while in seminary. Latin and Greek belong to the same great family of languages as English, German, Russian, etc. – the family known as Indo-European. These languages have their own feel and many things that distinguish them, but they share a great deal in common. This is not true of Hebrew. Hebrew is a Semitic language and is nothing like anything in the Indo-European family. It has its own feel – one that cannot be had in translation – and even more impossible if that translation is into a language that belongs to a completely different family.
This same set of learnings applies to the reading of the Fathers. St. Isaac of Syria, for example, belongs to a culture that was Semitic, though influenced by the Hellenistic culture of the Byzantine Greeks. And I could begin here to add layers of complexity. In short order any reasonable person would throw up their hands and say, “Then who can understand?” The honest answer would be, “Few.”
And it is here that our modern world comes crashing to a halt. For there is no more deeply held assumption within our modern mythology than the equality of all. It is the bedrock foundation of the Spirit of Democracy that defines the modern period.
Democracy (and Modernity) can be said to have started with the Protestant Reformation. The principle of Sola Scriptura was essentially a revolution in the concept of spiritual authority. If the Bible is the only authority, and every man can read his Bible, then every man is his own authority. None of the original Reformers intended such a radical revision of the Church, but its internal logic was irrepressible. And it spread from the Church to the culture at large. In Germany it sparked the Peasants’ Revolt, forcing Martin Luther to reluctantly support the bloody repression that was among the darkest moments of the period (100,000 peasants were slaughtered).
The revolutions that are synonymous with the modern period are all rooted in the same instincts. Some, like the Puritan-led Civil War in England, were specifically religious. Others, like America and France were more specifically political. But all had their roots in the spiritual democracy of the Reformation (and Sola Scriptura).
There is clearly something true about spiritual equality. No one is superior to another before God. But this equality before God (as He loves the evil as well as the good) does not extend to the whole of our lives. We have different gifts and varying abilities. These same inequalities ascend even to the throne of God: “To whom much is given, much will be required.”
The Scriptures may be read by all, but they will not be understood by all. The arrogance of the democratic spirit, however, leads many astray and makes them prey to the manifold charlatans who make them think that they do understand. This also has its supporting democratic fallacy that our lives (and salvation) are the product of a rational response to the universally available information of the Scriptures. The Bible states the facts – I understand them – I do them. Ergo salvation. Today, the children of Sola Scriptura have largely reduced the Bible to a set of slogans: John 3:16; Ephesians 2:8, etc. They are quoted like the popularized scraps of the Constitution that litter the minds of the American public.
The same spirit of democracy is alive and well within modern Orthodoxy, it should be noted. “The Fathers say,” is found as often on the lips of many Orthodox as frequently as “the Bible says” on the lips of Protestants. And it is equally absurd on the lips of almost all.
The Second Epistle of Peter says this of the writings of St. Paul:
… [in all his epistles, Paul speaks] of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures. (2Pe 3:16)
But in our modern, democratic world, everyone who reads this passage thinks it is speaking about someone other than them!
The Scriptures are difficult to understand, simply on the most straightforward level. What often passes for understanding is nothing of the sort. To actually hear the Scriptures without the filters of cultural abuse and twisting they have endured over the centuries (and especially in the modern period) is a great spiritual feat, a miracle.
This feat is even greater when it comes to reading the Fathers – for there the layers become even denser, the required contextual knowledge yet more complex.
The scholarly reading of Scripture and the Fathers is inherently non-egalitarian. All are not equal. All will not have equal understanding. But neither is it truly and solely intellectual. For spiritual meaning is also spiritually discerned. And it is here that many make shipwreck of their understanding. For the arrogance of our times convinces many that “at least with themselves” the ability to spiritually discern will be present. Or, more commonly, they will champion this reader or that and choose sides like the crowds of a football match. Theological debate often resembles the conversation of sports clubs.
At the end of all of this it is easy to wonder how anyone can read and interpret anything.
The answer again is truly “very few” can. What makes such a statement so disturbing in our present world is the assumption borne of the modern, democratic spirit that only by reading and interpreting can we be truly saved. This, of course, is necessitated by the spiritual/political faith of modernity.
And it is not true. Most people cannot rightly read and interpret and they have never been able to. They are as much prey to spiritual demagogues as they are to political ones. In today’s world, those demagogues are the masters of consumerism. We “consume” the “message” of Scripture, just as we consume the nostrums of our political leaders. And the spiritual world is today at least as dysfunctional as the political (and for the same reasons).
But our salvation does not depend on our intellect nor on a book rightly read. There have probably been large stretches of time in which virtually no one living had the scholarly ability to treat texts correctly, to say little of the spiritual maturity required. God has not left us bereft.
The necessity of Tradition is revealed in the very heart of this. Salvation is not found in the pursuit of understanding – it is found in the pursuit of God. That journey is the life lived within the practices of the Church. The Church itself is the interpretation of Scripture – it is what theology looks like. It is why everything within the New Testament is pointed towards the forming and shaping of the Church – not the forming and shaping of a theological argument. Salvation is lived.
The continuity of the Church’s life is Holy Tradition. It is the living remembrance promised by Christ:
“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.” (Joh 14:26)
It is why the “remembrance” of the sacrifice of Christ is a meal that is eaten rather than an idea that is entertained.
The Church has been sustained through the centuries – particularly through the most difficult centuries – by this unbroken continuity of life – particularly as found in the liturgies and practices of the faithful. Interestingly, less harm has been suffered when the intellectual life of the Church was suppressed (as under the Soviets) than when the liturgical life of the Church was suppressed or overthrown (as in the modern Reformation and Post-Reformation period).
The saying, “Lex orandi, lex credendi,” (the law of praying is the law of believing) has always been true. How the Church prays will always (always!) shape what the Church believes. Those who pray like consumers will believe like consumers. Those who pray in the arrogance of their democratic mythology will believe in the same manner.
The day of my ordination to the Orthodox priesthood, I was being driven across town by a group of priests. I was full of thoughts and questions, nervously chatting away. A gruff hierodeacon (from Byelorus) in the car rebuked me sternly, “You don’t need to think! You need to pray!”
It’s still true more often than not.