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The Bible and Orthodoxy

Timothy Copple

On the left you will see a menu of Bible study links. Click on a book of the Bible to see articles that I have written on various sections of the Scriptures.

On this introductory page, however, I wanted to take some space to lay out the basic approach of Orthodoxy to the Scriptures, both for an understanding of their place within Orthodoxy and also so you will understand how I am approaching my studies of the Scriptures I've posted to the left.

Some may think that Orthodoxy and Bible Studies don't go together. This is not at all true. Understanding and applying the Bible to our lives has always been an important part of an Orthodox Christian's spiritual life.

Part of this false perception is probably due to the tendency for most Orthodox to not bring their Bibles to church with them. This, however, does not mean that an Orthodox Christian is not getting plenty of Scripture at the services. As a matter of fact, the truth is that they are getting far more than the "standard" Protestant service tends to. At each Divine Liturgy (the main Sunday morning service for Orthodox Christians) there is always an Epistle reading and a Gospel reading. In the Russian tradition, there are also some Psalms that are sung as well. In all, you may often hear through the entire service, embedded in the prayers various fragments of Scripture. Behind many of the phrases and rituals are Biblical foundations as well. So an Orthodox Christian attending a service will get peppered with Scripture.

The wonderful aspect of this, often missed, is that these things are then put within a context so that they are heard and applied rather than simply studied in an academic manner. Within the context of worship and prayer, the Scriptures take on meaning. Does not mean we do not do the "study" as well. The priest will in most cases give a homily on the Scripture reading for that day. As a matter of fact, the first part of the Divine Liturgy is called since early times the liturgy of the word or catechumens (those studying to become Orthodox) because the bulk of the "teaching" in each liturgy is in that first section. The second section is called the liturgy of the faithful and the Eucharist becomes the central focus there. However, this goes beyond just a study to integration of the Scriptures into our worship.

In the early Church, there were many who could not read, and even fewer copies of the scrolls to read. One of the primary jobs of a "reader," a rank of the minor clergy, in the early Church was taking care of the scrolls containing the Scriptures. There are even some readers who were martyred for refusing to hand over the Scriptures to authorities who were persecuting the Church. For most Christians from the beginning, the Scriptures they heard in worship were what they had, as well as at other times when they were read.

Another reason people can tend to think Orthodoxy and Bible Studies don't go together is the concept that the Church prohibits people from reading them on their own. Well, to put it bluntly, no the Church doesn't. This perception has come more from the Roman Catholic Church's past restrictions on this, especially when published Bibles began to be widely available and there began to be a wide divergence of interpretations during the Reformation on what they meant. We will expand on this in a minute, but let's just say the practice of the Church has never been to prohibit the personal reading of the Scriptures. St. John of Damascus writes about them this way:

Wherefore to search the Scriptures is a work most fair and most profitable for souls. For just as the tree planted by the channels of waters, so also the soul watered by the divine Scripture is enriched and gives fruit in its season, viz. orthodox belief, and is adorned with evergreen leafage, I mean, actions pleasing to God. For through the Holy Scriptures we are trained to action that is pleasing to God, and untroubled contemplation. For in these we find both exhortation to every virtue and dissuasion from every vice…. But let us not knock carelessly but rather zealously and constantly: lest knocking we grow weary. For thus it will be opened to us. If we read once or twice and do not understand what we read, let us not grow weary, but let us persist, let us talk much, let us enquire.
(St. John of Damascus, "An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith," Book 4, Chp. 17)

St. John Chrysostom also points out that there is need for personal reading of the Scriptures:

The Scriptures were not given to us that we might only have them in books, but that we might engrave them on our hearts….And this I say, not to prevent you from procuring Bibles; on the contrary, I exhort and earnestly pray that you do this. Yet I desire that from those books you convey the letters and sense into your understanding, so that I may be purified when it receives the meaning of the writing.
(St. John Chrysostom, Homily 32 on St. John)

The Church has always encouraged people to have the Scriptures when they are able, and to read them when they are able. That is why we do have so much reading of them in the worship services of the Church, because we want the people to be exposed to them in as many ways as we are able. It is why we honor those same Scriptures by kissing the Gospel book in the services when they are read. They are important and critical for the Christian life.

A final reason, and perhaps the main one for many people, is the joining of "Tradition" to them, rather than just allowing the Scriptures to be understood on their own terms. It is with this topic that we wish to look into more fully to understand the place the Scriptures have and why Tradition is so important to hold to if indeed we do treasure the Scriptures so highly.

It needs to be noted that no one interprets the Scriptures without a tradition. You may not call it that, but that is essentially what it is. For a "tradition" is nothing more than a context for understanding and applying a writing to life. Everyone comes to the Scriptures with some context of how they are going to interpret it, even if this context is sub-conscious. In some disciplines these context are called "schools of thought." In much of Protestantism the name of a particular person may be attached to a context in understanding the Scriptures and applying them, such as Calvinism. We could list out a long list of the various "traditions" within Protestant interpretation of Scriptures.

However, when an Orthodox speaks of the "Tradition," we are speaking of the context of interpretation and application by which Christ and the Apostles gave us and have been faithfully passed down to this day. This is a very necessary context to understand the Scriptures because they, not us, had the context in which they were writing these things for our benefit. If we interpret them by a context foreign to theirs, we will not get the message they were attempting to convey.

The key to understanding this is Jesus Himself, who refused to write anything down, but taught His disciples by His life and words. He took living human beings and entrusted to them His teachings, His context and through them we have the context in which they wrote down what He said and did. If we take their written words out of that context and import them into our own, we have shown our disregard for the Scriptures we claim to hold dear. So, the Church has always considered them most trustworthy method of handing down this context, the method Jesus Himself gave us, by investing it in human lives to hand down to the next generation. Written words on a page will not preserve the message of the Scriptures and to restrict their understanding to only what was written is to by default discard the original context for one's own.

Why is this so critical? Because without the context of the Apostles, we can make the Scriptures say anything we wish. Many divergent interpretations have arisen over the years since Christ came, and even within Protestantism one can find many conflicting interpretations of Scriptures. Practically all of them will claim to be getting their teaching from the Scriptures. Most all of them will have a series of verses that prove their point. Most every major heresy in Christian history has promoted itself based upon someone's interpretation of the Scriptures. However, in every case, it can be shown how this interpretation was not the context in which the Apostles and many others after them understood these verses. When no one else has understood it this way before, when it is new and novel, that may be good marketing but it does not make for an understanding consistent with what has gone before.

This was essentially the message St. Vincent of Lerins attempted to convey in his work, "A Commonitory". Here is the often quoted section dealing with that.

But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church's interpretation? For this reason,-because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.
(St. Vincent of Lerins, "A Commonitory", Chapter 2.5)

In other words, we need to have the right context, the right tradition to understand these the way the Apostles intended and to apply them to our lives in a spiritually beneficial manner. Otherwise, as long as someone can quote Scripture which gives the appearance of logic and authority to a teaching, no one can really question them on it. For how can your context or tradition be any more authoritative than his or hers? The only context with true authority is the Apostles, and the only way to get that context is where it has been passed down faithfully.

Ok, you may say, I understand that, but it is the "faithfully" part that I question. How can I know that it has been passed down faithfully? There are essentially two answers to that question. One is you cannot know that any more than you can "know" that the Scriptures you hold in your hand are accurate. For we do not have the original copies that the Apostles wrote down to compare with what we have today. We do not "know" with certainty that copyist did not make some major mistakes that totally changed the meaning of passages. We do not know if someone came in and added or subtracted important sections from these writings. In addition, certain sections, like St. Matthew's were said to have been originally written in Hebrew, so some speculate since we really do not know for sure. What we have now are Greek copies, how do we know if that is the case that these were translated accurately, and then we also know that something gets lost in translation.

When you put all those things together, there is no one who can "know" beyond a shadow of a doubt that the King James Version of the Bible isn't seriously flawed. To a certain degree, you know the Scriptures you have are "accurate" because of two things. 1. While there are minor points of disagreement, it speaks with one voice over thousands of years, various generations, and people. 2. Because we trust that God would not have entrusted His message to this method, knowing all things, if He knew in advance that it would become seriously flawed in the process. So, what it boils down to is that we see a consistent message and we trust in the Holy Spirit to keep the Scriptures we have accurate enough to communicate the Gospel message as intended.

In that understanding, you have the reasons why you can trust the Tradition as well. First, because the Tradition is a consistent message given through all times, cultures, people and languages. It is for this reason that St. Vincent of Lerins says the following:

Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense "Catholic," which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.
(St. Vincent of Lerins, "A Commonitory", Chapter 2.6)

Essentially he is saying that if we depart from the context which has always guided the Church down through the ages from the Apostles, if our "teaching" contradicts and creates a new teaching never taught before, it is the beginnings of a new context, our own context or tradition and not that of the Apostles. So, within what has always been taught, we can read and understand and perhaps have new perspectives upon which to see the same truths, but never to derive new truths and teachings which do not come from the deep well of the Church's tradition/context of what was meant when they wrote the Scriptures.

Because of that, we can see where the Holy Spirit has been speaking with one voice. If we are to claim a new teaching that has been unknown in times past, what are we saying? That the Holy Spirit has contradicted Himself? That God has changed His mind and said what He said before was incorrect and wrong? May it never be! No, if God is in it, then the teaching on essentials will not change. What is important in the first century will be important now, and what was taught then will still be taught now as the essence behind the Gospel writings. If someone comes with an understanding which goes against what the Church has handed down, then we either claim that it is not really based in the Scriptures or we call the Holy Spirit a liar or that God has changed His message to us.

Not only in the Tradition do we see God speaking to His people with one voice and message, we also are accepting the Scriptures and the Holy Tradition of the Church by faith that He will preserve it for our salvation. We know that there is opportunity for deception, for accidents, for odd things creeping in. However, this isn't just man's effort to communicate a message, it is God's. Therefore, when Jesus entrusted His message via this very method instead of writing it down as most religions started by someone, we are trusting that God knew this method would keep and preserve His message most clearly. We are trusting that through the Scriptures and the context handed down through the Church that God will accurately convey His saving message to us and the world. If we cannot trust this, then we might as well give up, for then there is no reason to reject anyone whether Mormon or Jim Jones or whoever may come along saying everyone before them was wrong but they have it right.

The second reason we can trust the Tradition as a faithful source of the Apostolic context is based upon the laws of probability. First, and most obviously, it is the method most likely to have the Apostolic teachings in it. To say otherwise is to suggest that if I pick up the Bible that I can somehow disregard my own context and way of looking at things and through some link with God's mind discern what the Apostles really thought about what they wrote. Is that more likely than trusting the source which is at least linked to what the Apostles taught?

Could it have become corrupted? Sure, it is possible, but even if it did, it would still be closer to the truth of what they intended than anything I could come up with, not ever having talked with them or known them in person. To suggest that I who have no historical connection to them can discern what they intended when it contradicts with what those who have passed down what the Apostles taught is pure pride and arrogance on my part. At least the Tradition has some basis of authority to claim to be what the Apostles taught.

Second, because the Tradition, the handing down of the teaching from generation to generation within the Church, is the most accurate method of passing down such information. Some will suggest that errors have crept in to the teachings, that the Church unknowingly adopted understandings which came not from the Apostles, but from pagan or cultural sources.

To support that, as Thomas Ross Valentine points out, they look to the concept in the game of "telephone." In that game, a group will sit in a large circle. Someone will start by whispering in the ears of another a message. This person in turn will whisper in the person's ear next to them and so the message goes around the whole circle of people until it comes back to the one who originated it. He or she then tells what was just told them and what they originally said and in most all cases the message will have changed greatly. So, they suggest, the passing down of the message in Holy Tradition is like this and it is impossible that the message would be the same that the Apostles started with.

However, hold on one minute. The reasons that the telephone game works as it does is for two reasons. 1. It is said in whispers and often the words are not completely understood, and so miscommunication is much more likely in that situation than if they were to talk in a normal voice. 2. The message is given to only one person and because it is filtered through this one person, it can get messed up.

For an experiment, try this next time. After finishing a round of telephone, have one or two people go out of the room. Then, one person gives a message. Then invite the people back in and the original message giver goes out of the room. Then the group conveys the message to the two people who were out of the room. Now bring the message giver back in and have the two people tell him or her the message he or she gave the group. One of two things will happen. Either the two people give the message giver the original message he or she gave the group, which will happen most of the time, or if they for some reason do get part of it wrong due to human error, one or more people in the group that heard your message will correct them.

That is more how Tradition operates. It is really those people, who have started their own Traditions, often named after them, through which the telephone game implicates because the message has been filtered through that one person. Tradition, on the other hand, is what everyone has been saying. When someone makes a mistake, as does happen from time to time, the others will end up correcting them. It only gets corrupted when "God whispers" in the ear of one person and that person then goes to correct everyone else.

That is really the meaning when St. Peter says that the interpretation of Scripture is not a matter of private interpretation. It means that no one person should be the sole filter though which you understand Scripture, whether that be Luther, Calvin, Wesley, or yourself. To do so is to invite error into the teaching for no one is infallible in that regard.

Because of these realities, the Tradition is going to be a more faithful means of communicating the message of the Gospel, of understanding what the Scriptures mean than any other method. All other methods end up with the problems of the telephone game, only the Tradition from the Apostles which Jesus gave to them has a chance of preserving the Gospel message and context intact because it is said clearly and not in secret, and you have the historical and consistent witnesses through history as to what that teaching was to correct any error that might attempt to work its way into the Church's Tradition.

The next question in this regard might be: What is the relationship between the Scriptures and Tradition? Which comes first, what happens when a teaching seems to contradict the Scriptures?

St. Vincent of Lerins puts it this way:

I Have often then inquired earnestly and attentively of very many men eminent for sanctity and learning, how and by what sure and so to speak universal rule I may be able to distinguish the truth of Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical pravity; and I have always, and in almost every instance, received an answer to this effect: That whether I or any one else should wish to detect the frauds and avoid the snares of heretics as they rise, and to continue sound and complete in the Catholic faith, we must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways; first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the Catholic Church.
(St. Vincent of Lerins, "A Commonitory", Chapter 2.4)

Notice that St. Vincent does put the "Divine Law" or the Scriptures first, and *then* by the Tradition of the Church. This does not mean, however, that they are two separate things. Nor does it necessarily indicate a degree of importance as some might speculate. Rather, it indicates the nature of their relationship. For the Scriptures which were born from the pens of the Apostles and their disciples is so born within that context of their teachings or the Tradition. The various understandings within Tradition, however, also arise from the Scriptures, or more directly, what Jesus taught in word to the Apostles that have been preserved by their being written down so that the application of these words to our lives are outgrowths from the Scriptures, that is, Christ's words. The Scriptures communicate the actual words of Christ, the Tradition communicates their context, meaning and how they are lived out. Because of this, the two really have a very symbiotic relationship to each other.

To illustrate this, we can liken this to a tree. The Scriptures, the words of Christ, form the root. The doctrine of the Church, the core of its teaching and context, the Tradition, forms the trunk of the tree. The branches are the outgrowths of this Tradition over all the world, in every culture and language. The leaves are the various teachings of individuals who have conformed to the Tradition of the Church and so express it in their teachings. The fruit is the practical expression of that in the lives of people in the form of virtues and love for God and man. This integrated organic whole we call a "tree" is all these parts and is incomplete if any is missing.

So, the question of which comes first, the root or the trunk or the branches is sort of silly really. Those who wish to reduce the teaching of the Apostles to just the root of the tree, the Scriptures, as if that were the whole err greatly in so doing they have castigated the Gospel message and preempted it for their own message while appearing to have done the opposite on the surface.

Does this adherence to the Tradition produce a chain around the one reading then that they cannot derive new understandings and applications? In the ways that would be counterproductive to one's spiritual walk, yes. However, what this does really is produce a lot more freedom in this endeavor. For when we read the Scriptures, if we through humble repentance submit ourselves to the Church's teachings, if we err know that we will be corrected. Otherwise, it would be like someone telling you to construct an atomic bomb with just an instruction sheet on how to do it, but no one has ever shown you how nor do you know anyone who has done it. If you attempt to do so, you are likely to kill yourself. However, if you are placed in a group of scientist who know how it is done and what to avoid and where mistakes can be made, if you, following the instructions, begin to go down the wrong path due to your own fallible understanding, they will correct you. At that point, you can either accept their correction because of their authority and your submission to that, or go ahead in pride and blow yourself up.

Outside of Tradition, the fear of not knowing if you are going the wrong direction with something will actually either stifle your creativity out of fear, or you will end up in the ditch with the rest of the blind people leading the way. With the light of Tradition, however, you can see where the holes are, what to avoid, you have an aid in guiding you through the various misunderstandings and wrong teachings to avoid so that you do not have to fall into the same holes. When you do make a mistake, as will happen when you are not as careful where you are walking as you should be, you have someone that can pull you out of that hole. The Tradition is a freeing aspect of reading the Scriptures because they provide light. When we know we can trust that the Holy Spirit speaks through them, we can know that we can read and not end up going down our own road unaware.

How, then, do we deal with teachings of the Church we come across which seem to be going against the Scriptures? There are two things which will happen. Either our own understanding is lacking and giving time for the context of the Tradition to sink in will make it more obvious in what ways this is really in alignment with Scriptures, or if it is a real error, it will be corrected in time by the Church. If it is a teaching that has had a long history in the Church, then the first route is the approach to take.

It is with these understandings that I present the Bible Studies in the menu to the left top of this page. I've done my best to search out the Fathers and be guided by the Church's teaching. My intention is never to teaching anything which contradicts what God has always taught in the Church for the last 2000 years. However, being human I know I will make mistakes. Where I have erred, I am responsible for that and no one else. Read these studies for the value they will give you, share them with those you trust in the faith to confirm the truth, with your priest and whatever you do, don't depend on me to get it right all the time. I only pray that what God has given me I have faithfully given to you in a way that will communicate the truth of the original Gospel message Christ gave. I am always open to correction. May God aid us all to follow Him instead of our own understandings, which the Scriptures say we really cannot trust, but rather lean upon God and what He has given the whole Church. Amen.

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