The Sources of Theology
Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies · April 17, 2012
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware futher explores the foundation of Eastern theology and its historical roots in the writings of the Fathers and the Orthodox life.
This, my second talk, is entitled “The Sources of Theology.” I said that theology rests on revelation, when speaking earlier. I’d like to develop that and fill it out.
Let me start with a work which had deep influence on subsequent Christian thinking: Origen’s On First Principles. This is a book that contains many of Origen’s most daring ideas, but it’s also an epoch-making book in that Origen offers not entirely a systematic account of Christian doctrine but a reasoned attempt to present the Christian faith as a unified whole. Though it contains things that the Church has not subsequently accepted, even Origen’s mistakes are creative.
Taking up this work, On First Principles, looking at the first page, the preface, looking at the first sentence, Origen says
All who believe and are convinced that grace and truth came by Jesus Christ, and that Christ is the truth, derive their knowledge from no other source but the very words and teaching of Christ.
So that is the first and primary source of theology: the words and teaching of Christ. More generally, the gospels, the New Testament, and also the Old Testament—holy Scripture. So the Bible is the first source of theology. All theology needs to be biblical.
But then, still in his preface, on page two, he says that what we believe is
...the teaching of the Church handed down in unbroken succession from the apostles, which is still preserved and continues to exist in the churches up to the present day. We maintain that that only is to be believed as the truth which in no way conflicts with the tradition of the Church and the apostles.
Here we have a second source, though I shall qualify that phrase, “second source,” later on: Tradition. That which has been handed down from the apostles in unbroken succession up to our own time. Scripture, then, and Tradition. These are two sources.
Then, a little later on, Origen goes on to mention a third element in theology. This is no longer in the preface; it is in book one, chapter one, section two. In section one he’s been discussing what it means to call God a spirit, to speak of him as wisdom and light. Then he says,
If we accept this argument proved by reason about the nature of light…
So here’s a third element in theology: reason. The power of discernment that is given to us as human beings, that is refined when we follow the Christian life. So there I think we have, as it were, three sources or elements: the Bible, Tradition, and reason.
I said in my first talk that theology is not just something rational and intellectual, but certainly we use our reason when we theologize. We use our powers of intellectual understanding, our powers of organized expression.
These three sources, as I call them, are not to be separated; they are conjoined. They are all linked with one another. Here I recall what is said—here’s your literary reference today—by E.M. Forster in his book Howard’s End: “Only connect.” That’s said by one of his characters, and it’s a very good principle in theology. “Only connect.” Try to see how things fit together.
When I was at school, our history master had a favorite phrase, and he spoke with a high-pitched voice: “It all ties up, you see! It all ties up!” Well, that’s a very good way to teach history, to show how all things are connected, but it’s also a good way to teach theology. It all ties up. So Bible, Tradition, and reason are tied up together.
Now let’s look at these three elements, and, first of all, Scripture. In the Orthodox Study Bible, there is a brief piece at the end, called, “How to Read the Bible,” by myself, and that is on page 1757 [and] onwards. I recommend you perhaps to look at that, though I shall be making some of the points that are to be found there. I did prepare a little reading list, but Marcus, because he’s had other concerns on his mind, has not been able to distribute that. Another thing that is in my reading list is an article I wrote on “The Unity of Scripture and Tradition: An Orthodox Approach.” This is to be found in a collection of essays by one Philip McCosker in honor of Fr. Henry Wansbrough. There I make some of the points that I wish to make about Scripture. Also in my reading list was volume one in the Collected Works of Fr. Georges Florovsky: Bible, Scripture, and Tradition, and all of the essays there are relevant to the subject of my talks today.
Scripture. Let me recall here an experience I had in the Ukrainian city of Chernigov in September 1988, when I was traveling round with Fr. Ephrem Lash, who lectures sometimes in a characteristic way at this institute. We had brought with us a stock of Bibles in Russian and Ukrainian. Actually, at the entrance to Russia, we had our luggage searched. They took everything out of our suitcases, and they found various books of the Bible and service books, all of which they had piled up, and they called a senior official, and said, “Look, they’re bringing in all these books. What should we do about this?”
But in 1988, things were beginning to be relaxed, and the senior official looked at this pile of Bibles and service books, and he picked up one of the service books—which was in Slavonic, so he couldn’t read it anyway; different alphabet—and he said, “Hrmph. Let them through.” Now, a few years before, of course, they would have been confiscated and we would never have seen them again. They wouldn’t have been destroyed, because in the Communist era Bibles had a very high value, so they would be sold on the black market. In the end, they would have brought much profit to the customs officials, but they would also have brought profit to the readers.
Any way, we in Chernigov, in the cathedral, met an elderly lady, and we asked her did she have a copy of the Bible. “No,” she replied. “I have a friend who sometimes lends me her copy, but I’ve never been able to have a Bible of my own.” So we produced out of our stock a Bible which we gave to her. And she placed it carefully on a lectern, she opened it, she began reading, constantly making deep bows and the sign of the Cross, and tears flowed down her face. And Fr. Ephrem turned to me and said, “If we gave copies of Scripture to one of our university colleagues, would they respond like this?” I think that expresses the reverence within Orthodoxy for the Bible, within Orthodoxy at its best.
When I go visiting people, Greeks, I say to them, “Do you have a copy of the Bible?” and usually they produce a prayer book, a synopsis. I say, “No, no, no. But the Bible. Do you have that?” Then there’s a pause, and they come in and dust off a book that they have found. Well, unfortunately we Orthodox do not read the Bible as much as we should, but the principle of reverence for the Bible is very deep in the Orthodox conscience.
Let me tell you another story. This is the story told by the great Romanian theologian, Fr. Dumitru Stăniloae, about his own childhood. He was born in a fairly remote village. His grandfather was a chanter in the local church, and his grandfather owned a large Bible with vivid illustrations. As a child, he loved to look at these pictures, and he read the text in order to understand the pictures.
And (he says) I read the text with a close attention so as to understand the pictures. I read sitting by the window, totally absorbed by my reading. Everyone—my mother, my father, all who entered the room—felt as if they were in church. “The child is reading the sacred Book,” they said, and they kept silent. Everyone felt that here something holy was taking place.
That I think also expresses the Orthodox reverence for Scripture at its best. Would that it did not remain theoretical.
Here is what St. Gregory of Nyssa says about the Bible:
We treat the holy Bible as the test of every dogma and rule, accepting only such things as agree with the meaning of Scripture.
So Scripture is the test of everything that we believe. This is the patristic view of Scripture. St. John Chrysostom says:
That which the Scriptures affirm the Lord himself has said; and so even if someone were to rise from the dead or an angel were to come down from heaven, they would not deserve more credence than the Scriptures.
Here is a 19th century testimony [from] Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, now a glorified saint.
The only pure and all-sufficient source of the doctrines of faith is the revealed word of God, contained now in the Holy Scriptures… Everything necessary to salvation is stated in the Holy Scriptures with such clearness, that every one, reading it with a sincere desire to be enlightened, can understand it… Every one has not only a right, but it is his bounden duty to read the Scriptures in a language which he understands… Holy Scripture being the word of God himself is the only supreme judge of controversies… The decisions of Councils are to be tried by the Holy Scriptures… The traditions of the Church are to be tried by the Holy Scriptures…
That’s quite an emphatic statement. Admittedly, at this period in his life—this was at the beginning of his 40 years as metropolitan of Moscow—he was very much under the influence of the Biblical Society, which was active in Russia at that time, a branch of the British and Foreign Bible Society, so one might say that there’s a certain Protestant influence there, but he never revoked what he said there. He never disowned it.
I remember once, in a discussion group, there was present a Serb of fiery temperament, as many Serbs are, called Živan Barbulović. (This was in my student years.) He heard somebody refer to himself and his fellows as “Evangelicals.” “Evangelicals!” he said. “What do you mean? We Orthodox, we are the evangelicals!” He wasn’t going to allow other people to usurp that title. “We depend on the Gospel!” he said.
So let’s allow for this strongly biblical element in Orthodoxy. Orthodox have not been very prominent in the last 200 years in the field of biblical scholarship in comparison with the Protestants and the Roman Catholics. We have a few Orthodox who have written about the Bible, like Fr. John Breck or Dr. Tarazi, both at St. Vladimir’s, or they used to be. But on the whole, we Orthodox have not really claimed our own biblical heritage in the way that we should.
What are the key features in the Orthodox approach to the Scripture? The first is—and here I quote 1 Timothy 3:16—“All Scripture is inspired by God.” So Scripture is inspired. What does that mean? We can find two models of inspiration. The first is the view of Philo who was a Jew, almost contemporary with the time of Christ, living in Alexandria, and Philo regards inspiration as a form of ecstasy, of divine possession or frenzy, in which the person inspired by God loses consciousness and is no longer aware of what he or she is saying.
The Christian apologist, second century, Athenagoras, uses the analogy of somebody playing on a flute. God is the person who blows into the flute; he’s the performer. And we, the human author, say, the authors of the gospels, are simply like the flute that God is playing. That implies, this image of the flautist, that the human authors of Scripture are passive. It’s not they who speak, but God who’s speaking through them.
I think that this is very much the view that Orthodox Jews take with regard to the Pentateuch, and strict Muslims take with regard to the Quran, although Muslims will not admit any critical studies of the Quran, because it’s simply dictated by God. So they see inspiration as divine dictation. You might see this reproduced in Orthodox icons, where you see one of the Evangelists, and you see an angel speaking into his ear. That again sees inspiration in a very direct way: divine dictation. The human author is just a passive instrument.
But this is not the only way of thinking of inspiration, as a kind of ecstasy or derangement where our faculties are not used at all. I was looking, some little time ago, at a journal produced by the Orthodox in Africa, and their use of English was sometimes picturesque. There was a section about the recent transfer of bishops from one diocese to another, and it was entitled, “The Derangement of our Bishops,” which was perhaps truer than they realized. So this could be the way one might think of inspiration: you no longer exercise your own faculties.
But here is a different view, upheld by Origen, and he is reacting against the group known as Montanists. The Montanists were a second-century group who laid great emphasis on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, on visions, ecstasy, dreams, divine possession. Origen took issue with them, and he distinguished sharply between possession by evil spirits and inspiration by the Holy Spirit. When people lose self-awareness and no longer know what they are saying or doing, this is the work of evil spirits. But when the Holy Spirit enters into a person, says Origen, the result is quite different.
The soul (he says) suffers no mental disturbance or aberration whatsoever as a result of the divine inspiration, and it does not lose the free judgment of the will.
So Origen argues that inspiration of the Holy Spirit doesn’t make you lose your faculties, but it clarifies and enhances your understanding. And Origen quotes the example of the priestess in the Delphic oracle. She would sit on a tripod over a hot spring at Delphi, and fumes would rise from the hot spring, and she would lose consciousness, and while unconscious, she would utter all kinds of strange sayings which were written down by the priests of the temple, and these were her oracular answers to questions. Then she would regain consciousness and have no knowledge of what she’d been saying. Now, says Origen, that’s not the way the Holy Spirit works. The Holy Spirit doesn’t cloud, but it clears our mind.
If we understand inspiration on this second model, the authors of Scripture are fully conscious of what they are writing. They do not lose, and I quote Origen’s words here: “They do not lose the free judgment of the will.” There is, if you like, in the writing of Scripture, then, a cooperation between the divine and the human. God, indeed, speaks to the authors of Scripture, not perhaps through a vision, but through their ordinary understanding, but they cooperate with God, so there is divine inspiration in Scripture, but also human expression, both of those things going together. That is why each gospel writer has his own particular approach, from his own human point of view.
Let me quote the words of Fr. Florovsky.
In Scripture we see God coming to reveal himself to man, and we see man meeting God, and not only listening to his voice, but answering him, too.
Not only listening but answering.
We hear in the Bible not only the voice of God, but also the voice of man answering him—in words of prayer, thanksgiving and adoration, awe and love, sorrow and contrition, exultation, hope, or despair. There are, as it were, two partners in the Covenant, God and man, and both belong together, in the mystery of the true divine-human encounter, which is described and recorded in the story of the Covenant. Human response is integrated into the mystery of the Word of God. It is not a divine monologue; it is rather a dialogue, and both are speaking, God and man.
Not a monologue but a dialogue.
I would definitely favor not Philo’s view of biblical inspiration but that of Origen, that of [Florovsky]. Divine-human. There is a real human element, so divine inspiration but does not eliminate, but it enhances the human element in the Bible.
Now, arising out of this, we may say that the Bible should be read in a spirit of obedience. We listen to the word of God, but because the Bible embodies a human element, we may also exercise our critical faculties. Within Orthodoxy, we do not have simply fundamentalism. We do allow a place for the critical study of biblical origins, of the historical context in which the different writers were working. Perhaps we’ve not been very prominent in this area, but we are able to read the Bible with our understanding. Of course, we are not bound simply and automatically to accept the opinions of the scholars—the Church tests them—but we do at least take into account all creditable scholarship of the Bible in the last 200 years. Much of it we may feel is excessive, subjective, and does not conform with the approach of the Church.
Yes, we listen to the scholars, but in interpreting the Bible as Orthodox, we follow certain clear principles. The first is: Treat holy Scripture as a coherent whole. In trying to understand any one passage in Scripture, we put that passage within the context of the total Bible. We don’t isolate texts, but we see how it all ties in. There we differ from certain Protestants who will quote a text from the Bible as if that settles the argument. We Orthodox would reply, “Yes, but let’s see how that specific text fits into the total scriptural pattern.”
Here is a fundamental principle for interpreting the Bible in an Orthodox way: We interpret Scripture by Scripture. This means often much more valuable than a whole shelf full of commentaries is a good concordance. If you want to understand a particular text, look up the key word in the concordance and see how it is used in other passages. “Only connect.” That’s a first point.
A second point in interpreting the Bible we would consider: first, how it is used in worship; second, how it is understood by the Fathers; third, how it is interpreted by the saints. Those would be three criteria for our Orthodox approach: worship, Fathers, and the saints. Worship. Look, for example, at the way Old Testament readings are employed on the different feasts and during Holy Week, different events, particularly on Good Friday. See how the Old Testament is understood in the light of the New Testament.
Then the Fathers. There is a very useful series now available called Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. That is edited by one Thomas Oden, who belongs [despite] Mr. Barbulović, to the Evangelical tradition. It’s interesting that here we have Protestants, even Evangelicals, who are interested in what the Fathers have to say about Scripture. This is, I think, a fairly new development in Protestantism, and this Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture is available in many volumes. They haven’t covered the whole of Scripture, but there are about 30 volumes for you to be getting on with. And they are published by the InterVarsity Press. There you have, very clearly, evidence from the Fathers, how they understood particular passages. Sometimes the Fathers don’t seem to be answering our specific concerns, but we have to explore and struggle to understand what they’re saying.
I think here of one of the questions that occurs in the Russian rite for the reception of converts.
Do you acknowledge that the holy Scripture must be accepted and interpreted in accordance with the beliefs which have been handed down by the holy Fathers, in which the holy Orthodox Church, our mother, has always held and still does hold?
So we are to understand Scripture through the Fathers. That’s a second criterion.
Thirdly, we are to allow for the way the saints have understood Scripture. Here let me quote some words from a great Serbian witness, St. Nikolai Velimirović, who was bishop of Žiča, died in 1956. This is what he said in the 1927 Faith and Order Conference at Lausanne. He’s speaking with particular reference to the sacraments, but his words apply also to the Bible.
If anyone should think that perhaps Baptism and Eucharist, or rather two or three of the seven Mysteries, are the only mysteries, the only sacraments, well, let him ask God about it, by fasting and prayers and tears, let him ask God. He will reveal to him the truth, as he’s always revealed it to the saints.
Then he goes on.
All we have said about great Christian mysteries is not an opinion of our own. If it were an opinion of our own, it would be worth nothing, but it is the repeated experience of the apostles in the ancient days, and of the saints up to our own days. For the Church of God lives not on opinion, but on the experience of the saints, as in the beginning, so in our own days. The opinions of intellectual persons may be wonderfully clever and yet be false, whereas the experience of the saints is always true. It is God the Lord who is true to himself in his saints.
So we would allow for the way the saints have understood Scripture.
All of this means, using worship, the Fathers, the saints to guide us, that our understanding of Scripture is ecclesial. Here is what is said in an agreed statement put out at the Anglican-Orthodox Conference meeting in Moscow in 1976, so it was a statement signed by the Anglicans as well as the Orthodox, but I think it gives a very good expression of the Orthodox position.
We know, receive, and interpret Scripture through the Church and in the Church.
So when we read Scripture, we read it not as scattered individuals, but as members of the Church.
That deals with Scripture, but then—Tradition. Interpreting Scripture through the Church signifies interpreting Scripture in the light of Tradition. Now the old view in the Orthodox as in the Roman Catholic Church was to treat Scripture and Tradition as two sources, but today we try to avoid the two-source language, and we would say there is only one source: Christ himself. But we have different ways in which Christ speaks to us: through the Bible and through, then, the Tradition of the Church. But these are not two sources; they are one source. Scripture and Tradition are scripturally interdependent. Here is the Moscow Agreed Statement of 1976 on this:
Any disjunction between Scripture and Tradition such as to treat them as two separate “sources of revelation” must be rejected. The two are correlative. We affirm (I) that Scripture is the main criterion whereby the Church tests traditions to determine whether they are truly part of Holy Tradition or not; (ii) that Holy Tradition completes Holy Scripture in the sense that it safeguards the integrity of the biblical message.
So Scripture is the way we test traditions to see if they’re truly part of holy Tradition, but, in turn, it is the Tradition of the Church which ensure the true interpretation of Scripture. Now, Metropolitan Philaret, in the passage that I quoted to you earlier, says that everyone can understand Scripture, but, in fact, there are many things in Scripture that are quite difficult to understand, and there are many places where there are different interpretations of what Scripture means. How do we decide what is the true interpretation? We need the evidence of Tradition to help us to interpret.
Here let’s have another literary reference for David’s benefit. This is what William Blake says.
...read the Bible day and night,
But thou read’st black where I read white.
So what are we to do when we find that Scripture is interpreted in many different ways? We invoke the Tradition of the Church, so that does not automatically give you a quick and easy answer. We have to struggle, You may remember the meeting between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. He met the eunuch sitting in his chariot, and he asked the eunuch, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And the eunuch was reading Isaiah, and the eunuch replied, “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” So we need to be guided when we read Scripture, and it is Tradition that guides us.
But I think the best way to express the relationship between Scripture and Tradition is to say that Scripture exists within Tradition. Tradition is something brought. Tradition does not just mean the teachings not contained in the Bible, which was the old idea. Tradition is rightly defined by Lossky as “the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.” Life. Tradition is something alive, dynamic, creative.
Scripture exists within Tradition. This means, first, that tradition precedes Scripture. Christ left no written teachings, and at first the Church exists solely with Tradition—what people remembered from the teaching of Christ—and it’s only afterwards that it’s written down. So Tradition exists before there was any Scripture. Secondly, Tradition defines Scripture. It is Tradition that tells us which books are part of the Bible and which are not. So we get the canon of Scripture from Tradition. Thirdly, Tradition interprets Scripture, because in Tradition we have the true interpretation of the Bible. One way of looking at Tradition is to say it’s the way the Bible has lived through the centuries in the Church. So we don’t separate Scripture and Tradition. They are interdependent.
Just to sum up what I’ve been saying about Scripture and Tradition: we are to give Scripture a personal interpretation. St. Mark the Monk, who lived in the fifth century, on whom I wrote my doctoral dissertation, says
Whenever you read something in Scripture, apply it to yourself, and not to someone else.
So this is another criterion in interpreting Scripture: make it personal. St. Tikhon of Zadonsk says, writing in the 18th century:
If an earthly king, our emperor, wrote you a letter, would you not read it with joy? Certainly. With great rejoicing and careful attention.
But what is our attitude towards the letter that has been addressed to us by no one less than God himself?
You have been sent a letter, not by any earthly emperor, but by the King of heaven, and yet you always despise such a gift, so priceless a treasure.
To open and read this letter, St. Tikhon continues, is to enter into a personal conversation face-to-face with the living God.
Whenever you read the Gospel (he says), Christ himself is speaking to you, and while you read, you are praying and talking to him.
So we are to approach Scripture as if it were written for me personally.
Good. Thank you.