Being Orthodox 3: The Bible

A gilt Bible – actually the Four Gospels and the Psalms – used in Coptic Churches as a physical, 3D icon of the Word of God.


You will notice that in the last post I listed the Bible as a subheading under the heading ‘Tradition’. I did this to emphasise the nature of role of the Bible in Orthodox (and Roman Catholic) Christianity, in contrast to its role in Protestant Christianity. Protestants mostly follow a doctrine named sola scriptura, ‘scripture alone!’ This doctrine developed historically as a reaction to the often misguided human inventions of the medieval Catholic Church in Europe that were commanded as though they came directly from God. Doctrines such as purgatory, indulgences, relic-worship and their abuses were (rightly) rejected by the reforming Protestants. But they took things too far, discarding not only the later additions, but also much of the ancient apostolic traditions as well. Having lost their confidence in the clergy and their laws, the reformers decided that each individual should read the Bible for himself or herself and build their faith on that Bible, and that Bible alone.


This is all good and well, until you realise that the Bible as we have it today did not come into existence until the fourth century AD. For the first three hundred years, Christians lived their Christian lives guided not by a single monolithic text, but by a living tradition, some of which was gradually recorded in that text. That’s right, Jesus didn’t hand out NKJV Study Bibles to His Apostles (with an inspirational message scribbled inside the cover) when He sent them out to preach the Gospel to the world. Does this mean that the early Christians were lost? The Protestant Reformation aimed to return to a simpler more authentic Christianity, yet one of the central tenets of their project, sola scriptura, was something that the first generations of Christians could not possibly have practiced!


The Orthodox (and Catholic) approach seems to me to make far more sense and be more realistic and natural than sola scriptura. Think about the bewildering variety of Protestant Churches and how they represent almost as many different interpretations of the Bible. Is humanity free or not? Are we predestined by God or not? Is humanity totally depraved or not? You will find confident and completely opposite answers on opposing sides of each these questions among the Protestant family, each of which proclaimed to be the answer inspired by the Holy Spirit by its champions. But of course, it is just not possible for them all to be correct. No, in practice, sola scriptura seems to fail us if we care about understanding the true message of the Gospel. Clearly, individuals sitting at their desks and working out the meaning of the Bible for themselves might be lovely, democratic idea, but truth is simply not democratic.


If you want truth, you are generally better served by going to the experts. It is better and safer to visit a specialist physician than to read a medical textbook and try to treat yourself. The results could be disastrous. This is why we sing in every liturgy, ‘As it was, and shall be, from generation to generation, and unto the age of all ages, amen.’ Just as schools of medicine do not try to reinvent medicine anew, but draw on the long and rich storehouse of painfully accumulated and carefully guarded medical knowledge, so also a Christian Church needs to draw upon the treasure of its traditions. The Bible is but one part of the living tradition that is Christianity. Granted it is one of the most important parts, but it alone cannot give you true Christianity.


To understand this, we need to ask this very important question: how are we to interpret what the Bible tells us? When are we to read a passage literally, and when to read it figuratively? Tradition comes to the rescue. It tells us how those who lived with Christ, the Apostles, understood His words and life. Much of this comes down to us from the disciples of the apostles, men like St Clement of Rome, St Polycarp, St Ignatius and St Irenaeus, whose writings date from the first and second centuries AD. The Shepherd of Hermas is another early Christian text that some scholars consider to have been written before 85AD; that is before the New Testament books were completed. And we have extremely valuable documents such as the Didache, the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, which was written down about 150AD, but recording oral traditions that go back to the very roots of Christianity. It is interesting to note that the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century did not have access to some of these documents, since they were unearthed later in history. We will be looking at some concrete examples of the difference this makes in the post about the ancient Fathers a little later.


So the first thing to note about the Bible in the Orthodox Tradition is that it cannot be separated from the Tradition from which it springs. The second thing to note is that having said that, the Bible is deeply respected and honoured in Orthodoxy. This is reflected in our rites, such as the gilt Gospels that sit always upon the altar in a position of great honour and are tenderly kissed by the clergy and the congregation at certain times. When the gospel is being read in the liturgy, a priest stands next to the reader and offers incense in veneration, praying inaudible prayers to the incarnate Word of God who revealed Himself to us through the written Word of God upon the lectern. The two main parts of the Eucharistic Liturgy in most traditional Churches are the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Faithful. In the former we are united with Christ through the Bible and its exposition which we receive reverently and absorb into our minds and hearts, while in the latter we are united with Christ through His Body and Blood which we receive reverently and absorb into our bodies and spirits and thus become one with Him as He lovingly commanded (‘I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one’ – John 17:23). Both routes, the Bible and the Eucharist, lead to this unity with Christ, albeit by different methods.


Thirdly, there is a certain way to understand and interpret the Bible in the Orthodox Tradition. It is a policy characterised by flexibility and a yearning and dedication to the transcendent Truth that the Bible contains. The Coptic Church was of course the home of the famous Christian School of Alexandria that lead the world in Biblical interpretation in the first centuries of Christianity and produced such leading lights of theology as St Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St Athanasius the Apostolic and St Cyril the Pillar of Faith. Back then, there were two main approaches in the Christian world. The Antiochene School preferred a more literal and concrete reading of scripture, while the Alexandrian school preferred to seek the deeper symbolic and spiritual meaning behind the words. This is of course a gross oversimplification of a very complex contrast, but I think it is true to say that it was Alexandrian teachers like Origen who pioneered the style of Biblical interpretation that emphasised deep meanings that had to be carefully coaxed out of the text.


One of the things we live with today in the Coptic Church of the twenty-first century is the irony of having come under the influence of a very literal school of Biblical interpretation, that of the British Church Missionary Society and the American Presbyterian Missions during the nineteenth century, so that there are some in our Church today who consider the ancient Alexandrian style of interpretation almost heretical! What I love about our Alexandrian heritage in particular is its unmistakeable record of fearless dedication to the search for truth in all its forms. The Alexandrian School syllabus contained not only theology and Biblical Studies but also mathematics and philosophy and rhetoric; every important branch of ‘worldly’ learning in fact. And all of these were mastered and put to work in the service of seeking a holistic and complete picture of Truth, as far as humanly possible at any rate. If you read the apologetic works of the time, works that respond to the accusations and allegations of the pagans against Christianity, you find them laced with all sorts of pagan knowledge. The Alexandrians expressed the truth of Christ in the language of the pagan philosophers in order to reach them and be understood by them. True Orthodoxy, for me, does not shy away from hard questions. It does not protect itself from examining reality nor does it try to manufacture an artificial faith that ends up being incompatible with the real world. Rather it trusts that the truth of the Gospel is very Truth that can withstand any attack. It is in this spirit that we read and interpret the Bible.


And this approach does indeed work wonderfully. One example is in our understanding of the Old Testament. If you think about it, all Christians who are not Jews by ethnicity would not be interested in the Old Testament were it not for the coming of Jesus Christ. Thus, we should read the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament. Doing so can help us to resolve many problems with the Old Testament that might well be insoluble otherwise. For example, the blood sacrifices of the Old Testament might seem to ‘civilised’ people today to be somewhat brutal and unnecessary. Why would a God of Love order such a thing? But when we consider these sacrifices as symbols, prophecies in actions, of the awful sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, we come a little closer to understanding why they were necessary. God’s people before Christ needed to understand the gravity and horror of sin and the injustice of God’s good creation being so corrupted, and they touched this horror firsthand in the slaughter of the innocent animals before their eyes, or even by their own hands. When Abraham raised his hand to slay his only son Isaac, what must have been going through his mind? Through experiences like this, shared with all the world through the Old Testament texts, humanity developed an appreciation for the fallen state of this otherwise beautiful world and understood the high price of salvation from this sad state, a price that was ultimately paid by Christ.


And it is in the person of Christ that we find our redemption. Protestants often talk a lot about their ‘personal relationship with Jesus’, but nowhere have I found a deeper, more moving, more life-changing reality of such a relationship than in the Orthodox Christian Tradition. That shall be the topic of the next post.

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2 Replies to “Being Orthodox 3: The Bible”

  1. enlightening!

    I have one question regarding OT interpretation. I always believe that the Holy Book is the Truth & therefore it is Truth at both literal and spiritual/symbolic levels. That leaves many open questions about the genocides and whether God changed from OT to NT. And the similar question in the NT about Annaias and Sepphira sudden death punishment. If God does not change, then I must have been killed or dead a long, long while ago… I know answers, but always come back to that question while reading the OT…

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  2. “The Bible is true”. This sentence sounds so simple, yet it is fraught with dangers.

    What do we expect of our Bible? Is it a magical text that was handed down from heaven, like the Quran or the Book of Mormon? No. Clearly, it is a record of the lives and thoughts and beliefs of people who sought God through the ages, and their fingerprints are all over it. Their character, their foibles, event their individual writing style are clear and visible for all to see. What ties these documents together is the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in each heart and mind, not erasing their individuality or the individuality of their time and culture, but using it to tell a story of gradual growth and illumination.

    The Bible is true in its message. But when it tells us that pi is equal to 3.0, not 3.14159… we don’t jump to the conclusion that it is lying. We simply accept that the author used the language and knowledge of the time to express the deep spiritual truths that the Holy Spirit put in his heart. And we then use modern maths to work out the value of pi.

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