Greetings to all of you Arena listeners. This is Fr. Josiah. Very recently I was invited to the Moody Bible Institute in Spokane, Washington, and there I delivered what was called an Athanasius Lecture on the subject of “Reading the Scriptures with Accountability: Patristic Counsels on Bible Study.” That’s what you’re about to hear, and I hope it will be edifying for you. God be with you.
Very Rev. Fr. Josiah Trenham: In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Thank you very much, Dr. Armstrong, for the kind introduction. I’m so delighted to be here in Spokane and at Christ the King Church, and especially to be able to participate in this regular lecture series from Moody Bible Institute. My topic tonight is “Reading the Holy Scriptures with Accountability,” subtitled: “Patristic Counsels on Bible Study.” So what I’d like to do in my lecture is to present the Orthodox Christian understanding of what Scripture is. I don’t claim to be able to do that in any comprehensive way, but I want to be able to touch on some points of what Scripture is, the miracle of Scripture, and the miracle of Scripture particularly as it’s come to exist in the Church, and then dedicate the second half of my talk to counsels from the Church on how to read the Scripture so that you can read the Scriptures and attain the mind of Christ and not the mind of heretics who also read the Scriptures. That’s my basic goal.
You will remember that when God fashioned, in his great mercy and love for man, when he fashioned Adam and Eve, he dwelt with them in a very intimate communion, described in the Scriptures as “walking in the garden,” a face-to-face relationship. St. John Chrysostom, in his commentary on Genesis, says that “man’s greatest dignity was to be God’s friend and to live in a communion with the Lord God in Paradise.” Sadly, all such intimacy was shattered in the cosmic rebellion that we call the Fall. And when Adam and Eve turned their backs on serving and loving the Lord God, they lost their closeness to God and they lost their closeness to each other, and they hid themselves in terror and then began to point fingers at each other.
One of the great sorrows that they discovered in their tears, after they had been banished from the garden and set just outside the garden so that they would be close enough to see it and rekindle their desire to enter it again, one of the great tragedies is that they no longer had the word of God in them; they no longer could live closely with God. In fact, St. John Chrysostom in his commentary of St. Matthew’s gospel says that the very presence of Scripture itself, the fact that we have letters now—inspired, beautiful letters—is a testimony to the fact that we’re far away from God. You don’t write letters to people that you live with, that are right next to you. There’s no need. The Scriptures exist because we’re living in a fallen condition and the Lord has had, in his great mercy, to reestablish communion with man and to reach out to man.
Having lost that intimacy, man was in darkness, and when the Lord God appeared to his servant Moses in the Burning Bush, and then granted to Moses and through Moses the people of Israel the great gift of his Law, his own words inscribed with his own finger, the Scripture said, this was treasured by the people of Israel as a fundamental connection that they had established once again with the Lord God, that the Lord had bowed low, so to speak, to speak to them. The great 20th-century Romanian Orthodox theologian Dumitru Stăniloae says that the reestablishment of relationship between God and man and the gifting of the Law is the reestablishment of an intimate and mystical union between God and men.
God had spoken to Adam and Eve after the Fall and prior to the giving of the Law through creation. This is another way that God’s words come to us. All creation bears witness to God, and all creation speaks. The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the work of his hands. Day to day pours forth speech; it’s overflowing. Night to night reveals knowledge, and there’s no place in the universe where God’s voice, through creation, isn’t heard. But the message of creation is not a great intimate detailed message; it’s a message about the grandeur of God, his magnificence, the fact that he is the Creator and that we are the created, that he is providential and sovereign. But God would bend much lower to us to speak his love to us.
And we began to hear his words more clearly in the inspired prophets when men brought into the inner counsel of God—men like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Elias and Elisha—when they were brought into the close communion with God, they were inspired to bring the Lord’s word to the people, and they brought it to the people with this introduction: “Thus saith the Lord.” And then they would speak his words, special words that God had given in his love through prophets to men.
After centuries of receiving the word of God through the prophets, when God had spoken to us in many diverse ways, in the fullness of time God sent his own image, his own Word, his co-eternal Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to become incarnate. He who had dwelt forever in the bosom of his Father, in time became what he was not—a man—without ceasing to be what he was—divine. Then we began to hear words that no human ear had heard since the Fall. Jesus’ teaching is found in the holy gospels, absolutely unique when compared to the prophets, and it left the people undone when they heard his voice. If you read the last verses of Matthew’s compilation of the Sermon on the Mount, (Matthew 7:28-29) he describes the effect of Jesus’ preaching upon the people, that they were undone because he was speaking to them as one possessing authority and not as the scribes.
One of the things that Matthew means in this comment is that he didn’t introduce his speech, his teaching, with “Thus saith the Lord.” He simply spoke. He said, “You have heard that it was said: You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you.” They weren’t used to this. He was speaking as the Lord enfleshed, and his authority was unique. He made no appeal to other authorities. He had an inherent authority. He had a scriptural authority in that he quoted from many portions of the Law and gave definitive understanding and interpretation, especially articulating how that Law was about him from beginning to end.
He had an inherent authority, he had a scriptural authority, he had a comprehensive authority. He spoke about matters that were broad and eternal matters in a way that had never been spoken about before. He spoke about heaven; he spoke about hell. And he spoke about eternal destinies, as though the eternal destinies of men [were] in his hand, because it is. He wasn’t just a rabbi, but the Word of the Father. So when we have his words, when we read the Gospel, we are listening to the words of the Word of God. The New Testament deepens our understanding of holy Scripture by telling us that what we read in the inspired Scriptures is actually the speech of the Holy Trinity, that these beautiful words are actually God’s very speech to men.
One of the most beautiful places in the New Testament to discern this is in the opening three chapters of St. Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews, where the psalter is quoted successively in chapter one, chapter two, and chapter three. In chapter one, we hear these words: “For to what angel did God ever say: Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee?” quoting the second psalm. And in this text, in Hebrews 1:5, those words are ascribed to God, to the Father: to what angel did God the Father ever say: Thou art my Son? In Hebrews 2:11-12, we read these words: “For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying: I will proclaim thy name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation, I will praise thee.” This time the psalter is quoted, but the psalm verses are placed into the mouth of Jesus, the one who stands in our midst and proclaims his Father’s name to his brethren. So here the psalter, having already been ascribed to God the Father, is now being ascribed to his Son. In Hebrews 3:7, we hear these words: “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says: Today when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion in the wilderness.” Here, again, the Old Testament is being quoted, but this time the words of Scripture are ascribed to the third Person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Here we see the mind of the Church, that inspired Scripture is the word of the Holy Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the Trinity’s very speech to men. This is why Paul in the very next chapter, Hebrews 4, can say that “for the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, able to judge the thoughts and the intentions of the heart.”
Scriptural words, sacred oracles are alive. They share the qualities of their Author. These words are living because they are the words of the one, true God, and the writers of Scripture are bearers of revelation, and the Scripture itself is a testimony to spiritual experience. Therefore, when we read the holy Scriptures, we are experiencing God. When we read the holy Scriptures, we are to have a transformative spiritual experience. Reading the Bible is to be a theophany. It’s not just normal literature. Some of us may be very excited that in some places in America, having banished the Scriptures from our public schools—the act of persons who have lost their minds—having banished Scripture from our public schools, in some states Scripture has been reintroduced in the category of literature so that there are classes now designed to educate our young people in Scripture, since this is so important even if you’re a secular person, to know the contents of the Christian Bible [is] very important. So the study of Scripture is reintroduced under the guise of literature, studying the Bible as literature.
That is a distant, distant second from studying the Bible for what it is, reading the Bible as the Word of God, and with the desire to see God, to experience God. The ineffable words, the created words that we have in Scripture speak to us about realities that are beyond words. When St. Paul writes of his own spiritual experience of three times in or out of the body, he does not know, ascending into the heavens, he says there he saw things incapable of being put into human speech. The created words, the inspired created words of Scripture bear witness to a life, a glorified life beyond words. Spiritual experience is the core and the purpose of Scripture. Jesus says, “I have other things to tell you.” John 16:12: “I have other things to tell you, but you cannot bear them now.” He has more things, more beautiful things; there’s more for us, not less. Glorification is beyond words and concepts and prayer itself. The very words of Scripture are God’s own breath.
St. Paul says to his spiritual son Timothy that all Scripture is inspired or breathed forth, theopnevstos, breathed forth from God, profitable for altering our lives, for teaching us and reproving us and correcting us and training us in righteousness. So to read the Scriptures in the mind of the Church is to have God speak to us. It’s to feel the beating of the Spirit’s wings. It’s to disperse human darkness, to fill the reader with joy. To hear our Beloved’s voice.
There’s a story in the Desert Fathers about a holy monk who, whenever he was in a social setting and various visitors or monks would gather around and they would begin a conversation, he would excuse himself. Many people simply thought he was socially awkward, but it was discovered that he would excuse himself to go to his cell. He would often say, “Please excuse me, brothers. I have someone waiting for me in my cell,” and he would leave. But he was discovered in his cell reading his Scriptures. This is the correct mentality about the holy Scriptures. The Bible is a means of communion with the living God. To touch the Scriptures should be first a movement to be near God and to hear him, to perfect the dialogue between man and God.
When I was a young man, when I was 16, I experienced something very like this. I’m a little embarrassed to say it, but I’m going to say it anyway, about my own life. I was raised in the Presbyterian Church. My father was a Sunday school teacher. I had been given a wonderful RSV version, leather, full Bible, when I was in the second grade. I guess I would have been about seven years old. And I kept it on my shelf—only on my shelf—and when I was 16—I had come home, I was in high school, I had come home from school, I was walking through my room. I remember the sun was setting; it was coming in through the windows of my room. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my Bible on my bookshelf, and I had an urge to read it. It was simply a mercy of God. Prior to that I don’t ever remember having an urge to read my Bible.
I pulled the Bible off the shelf, and I literally blew the dust off of it. In my mind’s eye as I speak, I saw the dust spin in the sunlight. It was horrible, and I didn’t know what to do. I simply did not know what to do. I didn’t know where to read. Where does one start when you’re 16 years old and you’ve never read the Scriptures? I didn’t know what to do, so I held my copy, and I just decided I was just going to let it fall open to where it may, and I’ll start there. It fell open—what do you know—to the Sermon on the Mount. What’s the chance of that? And it fell open to Matthew 5, to the Beatitudes, and the first verse I read contained these words: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
When I read that verse, I had a spiritual experience. I had a sense that Jesus was standing directly in front of me with a massive bow and arrow, and he pulled back the string and he shot an arrow right into my heart, because I knew at that moment I did not fit that description. I was hungry and thirsty for many things, but none of them were righteousness; none of them fit that category. I was so terrified that I began to shake. I shut the Bible, and I threw it onto my bed. That was my response. It was a tremendous gift.
The next day when I came home from school, I sat down at my desk, and I opened the Bible, and I started to read the Scriptures. I have read the Scriptures every day of my life for the last 34 years—since that time. I went from being completely neglectful of the Scriptures to being desperate to having them in my life, or else I feel horrible and backwards. I am thankful also that I did not meet the importance of Scripture through academic study. I didn’t meet the importance of Scripture in a Bible-as-literature class. But by the mercy of God I read it as a desperate encounter, a terrifying encounter with a God who apparently was looking for me in a distant land.
Think of how many famous stories we have in Church history of the Lord seeking and finding people by calling them to the reading of Scripture. Think of the conversion of St. Augustine of Hippo. Here is a very accomplished pagan philosopher who hears in a garden these words: “Take up and read. Take up and read.” He didn’t know where the words came from. He had a sense that God was speaking to him, and it was these words that motivated him to begin to read the New Testament, which changed his life and led him to conversion.
One of the great contemporary Orthodox monastic elders is a monk named Elder Aimilianos. He was the abbot of one of the major monasteries on Mt. Athos, from 1974 to 2000. He’s still alive; he’s in retirement in a convent in central Greece. Tremendous scholar, and a very potent theologian, and he writes a lot about Scripture, and I want to share a quote from him. These are his words. Father Amilianos says:
Holy Scripture provides us with spiritual experiences. [... It] is the word of God, it is what God said. If you’re sitting there reading and you happen to hear a voice that you recognize, you say [to yourself: I know that person. The voice reveals the person. Where God’s voice is, there is God, hidden [in] the voice. [The Scriptures are] a mystery, a sacrament, a sign which conceals the presence of God himself. This is why [one] ecclesiastical writer said once that the words and the lines of holy Scripture are the garments of [Jesus] Christ.
This mentality of Scripture as potent mystery, living experience, is one of the reasons that in the Eastern Orthodox Church we enthrone Scripture. We don’t keep our Bibles on our coffee tables with coffee mugs on them. We cover our Bibles in gold. We put them in the center of the altar. For different sacraments we bring them out. We bring them out for baptisms. We bring them out for marriages and plant them straight in the middle of the service; in our marriage services we dance around them. The first steps that a married couple takes are following the priest three times around the table where the Gospel book is enthroned, as if to say our whole life together will be a dance around the lordship of Jesus Christ in our lives.
On our Sunday morning services before we celebrate the Divine Liturgy we celebrate a service prior to that called matins or orthros in Greek. In the center of the service, a cycle of eleven resurrection gospels is read, one each Sunday, so after eleven Sundays you’ve heard eleven different accounts of the Resurrection. When that’s done, as the congregation begins to recite the 51st Psalm (“Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy…”), a very natural movement after you hear the words of the Gospel and you recognize that the high life of Jesus is not quite where you are, the Church leads you into a petition for mercy from the 51st Psalm, and the priest picks up the gospel book and brings it out into the middle of the church, and everyone lines up, old and young, and they approach the gospel book and they kiss it. They kiss it to express their love and their reverence for the text.
So this is what I’m hoping that you’ll hear from me at the very beginning, and that is that the reading of Scripture is meant to be an encounter, a true theophany, and is key to enabling the Christian to live an authentic Christian life.
There’s a recent saint that’s taken our Orthodox world really by storm the last 200 years. His name is St. Seraphim of Sarov. He’s very well known outside the Orthodox Church as well. He lived in Russia in the 19th century. He was an incredible monk, a man of unceasing prayer, who did mighty deeds, mighty, mighty deeds for many, many men and women. Commentators, contemporary historians describe the last 15 years of his life when he lived in a monastery in a small cell and would open the door and spend about half his day receiving visitors. The historians say that on average two thousand people waited outside the monastery outside his cell for him to open the door every day. He would see them one by one by one until basically his strength failed.
He would always wear a white cassock, not a black one—very unusual. He would always wear a white cassock. Some Orthodox priests wear white cassocks during the days of Easter, but he would wear a white cassock 365 days a year, and he greeted everyone who came into his little cell with their problems, he greeted with them with these two phrases. First he would say to them, “Christ is risen!” which is a liturgical phrase that we say in the Orthodox Church for the 40 days of Easter. This is how Orthodox Christians greet each other from the midnight service of Pascha until the Ascension day. But then we stop—not St. Seraphim. Even if it was in the dead center of Lent, and we’re repenting and mourning our sins, he would greet every visitor with “Christ is risen!” and then he would say, “How are you today, my joy?” This is how he greeted everyone—criminals and saints. “How are you, my joy?”
He was known for his radiance, for his living in heaven though he was in his body on the earth, for an overflowing, an unceasing joy, as though he was beholding the face of Jesus without cessation. There is a description of his life that I think explains a lot of this, and I think it has a lot to do with his relationship to Scripture. He had a discipline with regard to the holy Scriptures. He ended up dying on his knees. He was found on his knees, candles lit, reading the gospels. The Gospel book was open. As a matter of fact, the monks who found him were afraid it was going to go up in flames. This is how he died, and it was very symbolic because that’s also how he lived. He literally was catching fire in his death because he had caught fire in his life through the Scriptures.
He gave this advice to people who asked him how to acquire the presence of the Holy Spirit more in your life. He says:
So that our spirit will have freedom to uplift itself there and be nourished by sweetest conversation with the Lord, one must humble himself with prayers and the remembrance of the Lord, and I, humble Seraphim, for this reason, go through the Gospel every day. On Monday I read St. Matthew from beginning to end. On Tuesday, St. Mark. On Wednesday, St. Luke. On Thursday, St. John. The other days of the week I divide between the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles, and I do not for a single day neglect to read the epistle and gospel appointed for the liturgical day and the lives of the saints.
Through this not only my soul, but even my body rejoices and is vivified, because I converse with the Lord. I hold in my mind his life and suffering, and day and night I glorify and give thanks to my Redeemer for all his mercies that are shed upon mankind and upon me, the unworthy one.
This was his life. This was his dedication to the Scriptures. And do you see how he read them to be with God? He read them for encounter. He read them for experience. The New Testament, every week of his life, every year.
This is what the Orthodox Church thinks about the Scriptures. This is how precious they are. That’s why when St. Paul was asked, after the first two chapters of his epistle to Romans and he was asked, after showing that the Jews are accountable for the Law, just like the Gentiles are, that everyone’s under sin, and someone asked him a question: What, then, is the value of being a Jew if everyone is a sinner and is accountable to God? And he said, “Great is their blessing in every way, for they were given the oracles of God.” To possess the word of God is a great honor, and therefore, of course, on the flip side, to neglect it as I did for all of those years? It’s a tremendous message. It’s a tremendous, sad message to give to God that I’m not interested. I’m not interested—remember that when you’re looking for motivation to read the Scriptures. This is a yearning. This is a yearning on your part to respond to God, to love because you’ve been loved, to engage in a true relationship.
Now, having said that, let me speak about some practicalities about how to read the Bible in an accountable way, how to read it with the mind of the Church, how to read it according to the rule of faith. Remember that the Scriptures themselves were collected in a process of canonization that took several centuries, first starting with an identification of the four gospels, and then other New Testament epistles and the Acts. There was some dispute about certain books, especially the Apocalypse, the epistle to the Hebrews, 2 Peter, etc., but certainly by the mid-fourth century the New Testament canon had been formalized. Though it was formalized, it didn’t mean that our brothers and sisters all had copies of the Scripture. In fact, our reality, which we ought not ignorantly project back, our reality post-printing press and now post-digital age, where we can actually access 50 free copies or translations of the Scripture on our iPads and iPhones at any time when we’re in the line at the restaurant—this was not the case for our brothers and sisters.
In the early centuries of the Church, if a person had just a little bit of Scripture, they might put it in a little shrine and wear it around their neck, put it on the bedpost in their room. It was a treasure just to have a little, tiny portion of Scripture. If your church was well-endowed and was one of the great 50 city-churches in the Roman empire at the time of the Emperor Constantine, you would have had the great privilege of actually having a copy of the Scriptures on your altar at church. You could actually hear them read. So when our brothers and sisters went to church like that, you can imagine how carefully they opened their ears when the Scriptures were being read in church. They didn’t say to themselves, “Well, the kids are being noisy. I’ll read it myself when I go home.” There was none of that. There was no reading it yourself when you went home. They had to listen so carefully to the words.
Scripture was read and explained in the early Church according to the rule of faith. Remember, just because we didn’t have printed complete Bibles didn’t mean that we didn’t have the Christian faith and fullness and didn’t mean that we didn’t defend the Christian faith and have barriers and boundaries that theologians and preachers would respect in their teaching and explanation of holy Scripture. Of course we did. This is why, if you read the Apostolic Fathers—these are the disciples of the apostles, men like Clement of Rome and Polycarp of Smyrna, St. Ignatius of Antioch—these men, even in these early years—St. Ignatius was probably martyred around 107—could speak about defending the faith against the rise of heresy. Heresy was rising in the Church in the second century very aggressively, heresies like Gnosticism and Montanism, Docetism; Judaizing heresies which afflicted the Church from the time of the apostles. These were very dangerous heresies that were designed as from below—Paul calls them “doctrines of demons”—designed to take Christians and to compromise their faith so that they would be separated from Christ. This is what heresy does. This is why heresy is worse than any other sin on the earth, and the most dangerous thing to man, because it doesn’t just harm the body but it harms the soul.
The Church Fathers defended the faith. Even though the canon was not complete, they defended the faith by a different canon, not the canon of Scripture, so to speak, but the canon of faith, that is, the faith that had been handed down from the apostles to the Church, that Paul told Timothy he needed to guard and preserve as a deposit, and that he needed to pass on to faithful men who would be able to teach others as Paul taught him.
It’s this union of the faith and the Church that I want to mention here for a moment, so that we understand very clearly that the Christian faith and our sacred Scriptures were given to us from within the Church as an authentic love-offering from God to us in the Church. You know that the New Testament is full of descriptions and sacred names and titles, both for our Lord Jesus Christ, literally hundreds of descriptions and titles for our Lord Jesus Christ, so that through this collage of images we can see his magnificence as a Savior… In the same way that there are many, many descriptions, depictions of Christ and his saving work in the New Testament, so there are many sacred names, pictures, indeed metaphors, used in the Scriptures to describe the Church herself. This is because the Church and Christ cannot be separated. The Church is Jesus’ mystical body. The Church is the continuation of Jesus’ incarnation on the earth. Just as there’s no encapsulating the Person and work of Jesus, because he is ineffable, there is no encapsulating or exhausting the nature of the Church, because the Church shares the qualities of her head.
Names and metaphors of the Church in the New Testament include the very word “church”: ekklēsia, an assembly of God’s people. The Church is called the family of God in Ephesians 3. It’s the family of Jesus (Matthew 12:49-50). His very mother and brothers and sisters are constituted by those who hear God’s words and do them. The Church is called the wife of the Lamb in the Apocalypse and the Bride of Christ in Ephesians 5. The temple of the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 3 and 2 Corinthians 6. The branches of the vine in John 15. God’s olive tree in Romans 11. God’s field and harvest in 1 Corinthians 3 and Matthew 9:13 and John 4. God’s building, the net, the tree of the nations, the great sheet, the spiritual house and the royal priesthood, the household and temple of God, the city of God, the new Jerusalem, the assembly of the first-born, the mother of us all, the pillar and the support of the truth, the sheep, and the flock of Christ, the body of Christ, and, in perhaps the most beautiful description in all the New Testament of the Church, the fullness of Christ who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:23).
Every ecclesial affirmation in the New Testament is tangible, every Church image concrete and visible. The Orthodox Church would suggest this is because there is no such thing as an “invisible church.” The Orthodox think that that theory is well-described as invisible, because it doesn’t exist. There are aspects of the Church that are invisible, certainly, but the Church has definite physical form, as all of these metaphors and images in the New Testament describe. Shape and boundaries that can be seen and touched and measured, just as Christ’s incarnate body while he was on the earth prior to the glorious Ascension could be seen, felt, and touched.
And that last description of the Church as Christ who fills all in all means, according to St. Augustine of Hippo, that if you want the whole Christ, if you want the complete presence of the heavenly Physician, you can’t simply go to the right-hand of the Father and bow down before the Lord Jesus Christ, because that is not the whole Christ, the totus Christus. No, if you want the whole Jesus, then you have to go to Jesus and his Church, which is the fullness of him who fills all in all. Jesus is not a decapitated head, floating around in space, accessed simply by private prayer. He is the head of a body consisting of himself, the angels, the souls and saints of the saints in the Church triumphant and those who are baptized on the earth, and his presence is the fullness of the Church. And it’s that Church which is the great dialogue of God with the faithful through his Son, Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. That is what we think the Church is.
Jesus himself, our Savior, wrote nothing, which is extremely important to grasp. Jesus wrote nothing. He did not come primarily as a teacher, but as a Savior, and this sets him apart from all the founders of the great man-made religions. His primary goal was not to create the Bible, but a life. He came to bring life, abundant life, resurrection life, which exists on the earth in his Church which is his vital body. The Bible is also his miraculous creation, but it serves a subsidiary purpose, and that is to nourish resurrection life in the members of the Church.
With this idea, we Orthodox Christians do not approve of certain dichotomies that we consider to be false that exist in popular religion, specifically in popular Christian religion in America. One of those dichotomies is a dichotomy between Jesus and the Church, as though you can have Jesus but not the Church. When I was a young pastor, just ordained, I had a parishioner whom I was having the hardest time getting to go to church. I tried everything to try to inspire him to go to church, and he kept telling me that he believed in Christ, he knew he was with Jesus, but he much preferred driving up the mountain into the forest on Sunday morning. This is what he wanted. And I told him; I said, “Driving upon the mountain into the forest is a wonderful idea for six-and-a-half days out of seven.” [Laughter] “But it is a tremendous sin to do that when God calls you to the family meal and to the family gathering by divine invitation on the Lord’s day.” “You have no right,” I said, “to do that.” He maintained this false dichotomy.
That dichotomy, that false dichotomy, between Jesus and the Church, as though you can have Jesus without the Church, was something that Paul discovered in a very shocking way before he became a Christian. When Paul was a persecutor of the Church, when he was a zealous opponent of the Way, and he had received letters from the high priest and was going to Damascus to arrest Christians, beat them, and oversee their deaths, on the way to Damascus, he met Christ in a heavenly vision. It was around noon, and the sun, it says in the Acts of the Apostles, was in its height, in its heat. Can you imagine? The greatest luminary in the world at its brightest time. When Jesus appeared, he made by the brightness of his uncreated energy, he made the sun look dark, and he blinded Paul, and he said something amazing.
He said, “Saul”—remember, Jesus had been dead decades—“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” If I was Saul, I’d say, “Jesus, what are you talking about? I have trouble with your followers. I’ve never even met you. I don’t even know you.” He learned very quickly that there is no separation between Jesus and the Church. To touch the Church is to touch Jesus Christ. This is his body.
So the first dichotomy that we Orthodox would suggest to popular culture in America that we should divest ourselves of is this separation between Jesus and the Church. The second dichotomy is the false dichotomy between truth and the Church, as though the Church is not the guarantor and guardian of the true faith, and you can access and have the true faith apart from the Church. In fact, St. Paul in his epistle to Timothy (1 Timothy 3:15) describes the Church. He says, “I’m writing these thing to you, Timothy, so that you might know how to conduct yourself in the family of God, which is the household of the living God (the oikos) the pillar and the support of the truth.” This is St. Paul’s image of what the Church is. If you want the truth, go to the Church, because she is its support. She is the one who is a functional pillar upon which the truth rests, and if you want the truth, you go to her guardian, and you get it.
The third dichotomy is between the Bible and the Church, the notion that the Scriptures exist in the past or in the present apart from the Church. This is not how the Orthodox Church sees it. The Orthodox Church understands the Bible to be the Bible of the Church, not a collection of texts that floated down in a package from Paradise and landed on different portions of the earth and men picked it up and began to read. If a non-believer wants to understand the Bible, there’s one way: come to the Church and ask the Church, “What does the Bible mean?” The thought of the so-called perspicuity of Scripture, from the Latin perspicare, to look through, that any person, near the Church or not near the Church, could take the Bible and simply read it and understand all the essential dogmas that are necessary to be saved because it’s all clear, is not true.
Orthodox Christians do not believe in the perspicuity of Scripture apart from the Church. In fact, what makes the Scriptures clear is the Church: her worship, her sacred traditions, all the other layers of sacred tradition that support the Scriptures, from sacred art to the decisions of ecumenical councils to the writings of the Church Fathers and commentaries from saintly men, lives of the saints, witnesses of the martyrs. This is where clarity comes to the Scriptures, and this is something that the Church learned early when she had a major problem. When Judaizers, Jewish Christians, were trying to convince the Church leaders that pagans who were coming to the Christian faith, were converting, that they needed to be circumcised and keep the Mosaic law, the Church was in a quandary, and she summoned a council, the Council of Jerusalem, described in Acts 15, and there the great apostles discussed and debated and shared Scriptures, and there it was that the Bishop of Jerusalem, the first Bishop of Jerusalem, St. James, stood up and made a declarative, authoritative understanding that Gentile converts to the Christian faith did not need to keep the Mosaic law.
When they issued their decision, they said this—this is recorded in Acts 15:28—“It has seemed to the Holy Spirit and to us to declare this.” The Church in council was confident that their deliberations were under the inspiration of God and that their decisions weren’t just their decisions, but they were the decisions of the elders and the Holy Spirit, and therefore when they sent this proclamation to the Church in the diaspora, they demanded that it be followed. If someone at that time—as some did—as someone at that time said, “No, I reject that teaching of that council of elders and apostles in Jerusalem, because I believe the correct understanding of the apostles’ teaching or of Scripture is this,” they were put out of the Church. They were not free to hold their own private interpretation on the issue of the Judaizing heresy.
The great Russian theologian of the early 20th century, St. Hilarion Troitsky, says this. He says, “All statements about contradictions between the Church and holy Scripture are absolutely false and godless at their very root.” Let me repeat that.
All statements about contradictions between the Church and holy Scripture are absolutely false and godless at their very root. Through the holy apostles, the Holy Spirit wrote holy Scripture for the Church, and according to the unfailing promise of the Savior, the same Holy Spirit instructs the Church in all the truth. The Holy Spirit is one and invisible, eternal and unchangeable. How could it be that in holy Scripture he says one thing, while in the teaching and life of the Church he says another?
This is the mind of the Orthodox Church. The Bible is the book of the Church, read and applied in the Church and interpreted by the Church. Outside the Church, the reading of the holy Bible is often fraught with danger. These are the words of St. Vincent of Lérins in his Commonitorium. He says:
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. Here possibly someone may ask, “Do heretics also appeal to Scripture?” They do indeed, and with a vengeance. For you may see them scamper through every single book of Scripture: through the books of Moses, the book of the kings, the psalms, the gospels, the prophets. Whether among their own people or strangers, in private or in public, in speaking or in writing, at convivial meetings or in the streets.
Hardly ever do they bring forward anything of their own which they do not endeavor to shelter under words of Scripture. They know that the evil stench of their doctrine will hardly find acceptance with anyone if it be exhaled pure and simple. They sprinkle it over, therefore, with the perfume of heavenly language, in order that one who would be ready to despise human error may hesitate to condemn divine words.
They do, in fact, what nurses do when they prepare some bitter draught for children. They smear the edge of the cup all around with honey, that the unsuspecting child, having first tasted the sweet, may have no fear of the bitter. They are following the cunning devices of the devil. If the words, the sentiments, the promises of Scripture are appealed to by the devil and his disciples, of whom some are false apostles and some false prophets and false teachers, what are the orthodox, the sons of the mother Church, to do? How are they to distinguish truth from falsehood in the sacred Scriptures? They must be very careful to interpret the sacred canon according to the traditions of the universal Church and in keeping with the rules of catholic dogma.
This is how an Orthodox Christian reads the Bible. Satan tempted our Savior with Scripture, by the twisting of Scripture. Jesus answered the evil one with a correct understanding of Scripture, something that he guides the Church into, saying three times, “It is written.” C.S. Lewis, in his beautiful Screwtape Letters, emphasizes how the demonic hosts labor to communicate their error through Scripture, through an abusive interpretation of Scripture.
If there is no Church, there will be no Scripture either. The books of Scripture—the words and the letters—will remain, but everyone will put his own meaning to them. [St. Hilarion (Troitsky)]
I was on the plane coming here yesterday, and I was sitting next to a wonderful young Mormon missionary, and he greeted me with bright eyes. He was just coming home from his two-year mission. I introduced myself, and he introduced himself as “Elder Brandt,” and I told him, “It’s nice to meet you, Elder Brandt,” and we began a nice, long, and fruitful discussion in which he asked me what I thought about the Mormon scriptures. I spoke with him about how to read the scriptures and why I was uncomfortable with the content of the additional books associated with the Mormon church. What I told him was this. I said, “Look.” I said, “The Scriptures were inspired and written two thousand years ago. They belong to the Church that Jesus established, that he promised he would build, and that the gates of hell would not prevail against her.” I said, “My problem with the Mormon understanding is that if you take the Mormon teaching and you look for it prior to the rise of Joseph Smith in Church history, you can’t find it. Therefore, it would seem to me that if I was going to be a Mormon, I would have to invent into my ecclesiology something I call the Parenthesis Theory.”
Hey, good doc, my eyesight is so horrible, I don’t know what’s on that paper. [“Pretend.”] Oh, thank you! Thank you, thank you.
And, in fact, that is exactly what Mormon theology does. Mormonism says that there was—abusing that terrible teaching in their faith from St. Paul in 2 Thessalonians about the apostasy, the coming apostasy. They say, “Oh yes, after the apostles died, there was a great apostasy, which is why, when Joseph Smith was young, there were so many different denominations and so confusing, God had to speak to him as the great prophet, even though he doesn’t have characteristics of any of our great prophets. Nevertheless, he made him a great prophet and restored the truth.” Of course, if you believe that, you have to believe that Jesus Christ is a miserable failure, because the vast majority of Christian history therefore, the Church has been in the bondage of error, and the devil in fact has triumphed over the Church and when Jesus said the gates would not prevail, he was not telling the truth, or at least he was mistaken.
That Parenthesis Theory exists in all false teachings. It exists in Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s just Charles Taze Russell instead of Joseph Smith. When I was a Protestant, I believed things, certain dogmas, that I held at the time to be very, very fundamental and very important. It was, however, when I was not able to locate those dogmas in the history of the Church that my confidence waned. I became resolved that I did not want to hold as fundamental, as essential, what we might call in the words of C.S. Lewis “mere Christianity”—I did not want to hold what I considered to be mere Christianity if, in fact, it was not the Christianity that was held in the fourth century in Egypt or in the eighth century in Gaul or in the eleventh century in Constantinople. Any other perspective implies the Parenthesis Theory, and there are, unfortunately, portions of the writings of the major Protestant reformers that convey certainly nothing like Charles Taze Russell or Joseph Smith, but there are aspects of what the magisterial reformers said that give me the same feeling.
Let me tell you what I’m talking about. Martin Luther did not want to start a church of his own, but he reconciled himself very early with the fact that that was the case, and he began to even use that language: “my church.” And he opposed many of his own supporters, who were biblical commentators and theologians, for not agreeing with him on many fundamentals, especially with his teaching of the Eucharist. He opposed them and said that they were threatening to divide his own church, and you know what their response to him was? Their response to him was: “You are acting like a pope. You rejected the pope and you convinced us all to reject the pope, and now you have replaced him with yourself.”
Ulrich Zwingli was even worse. The great Swiss reformer, when he was so talented, just like Arius… Arius was a priest in Alexandria and was a master Bible teacher. He knew the New Testament up, down, left, and right. Zwingli had memorized the entire New Testament in Greek. He was a powerful preacher. But when he was asked by the city council to document his faith and he wrote it out in 67 propositions, he said, absolutely clearly, that the Gospel had not been taught with such clarity as he was teaching it since the time of the apostles. That is a frightfully arrogant thing to say, and extremely dangerous.
John Calvin, in Geneva, who as far as biblical commentary and interpretation go, far surpassed Luther or Zwingli. John Calvin was certain that predestination as he understood it, what might be called today double-predestination, was the clear, irrefutable teaching of holy Scripture. So when one of his own Genevan Reformed pastors questioned him about it, he had the man defrocked and banished, because in Calvin’s mind to question that dogma was to “attack the word of God.” That sounds to me like the Parenthesis Theory. If true pastors are those who believe in double-predestination, my friends, you have very few true pastors who have ever existed in the history of the Church. That’s very dangerous.
From the Orthodox perspective, we would say that that is reading the holy Scriptures outside of the rule of faith, and that’s not even saying that he’s wrong on predestination, although I do think he is, but it’s placing as a non-negotiable, placing as an aspect of the rule of faith something that perhaps is a legitimate theologoumenon, a personal opinion. Teachers are allowed their personal opinions, but we do not preach them. We do not bind people to them. They are not confessed in the Church. I have lots of opinions about a lot of things. [Laughter] I’ve been a pastor in my particular parish for 19 years. None of my people know about them, and they never will, because it’s not what we read and preach. We preach the faith of the Church.
This is why it’s a very hopeful, beautiful sign that in the Protestant communions now there has been a reawakening to biblical interpretation in continuity with the history of the Church. One example is the great series, edited by Tom Oden, called The Ancient Christian Commentators series. This is a complete series of commentary on the Old and the New Testament, multi-volume work, exclusively dedicated to producing this Scripture text and then providing patristic witnesses to the meaning of those texts for the first five centuries of the Church. It’s a fantastic, valuable resource that helps bring patristic commentary to Protestant biblical interpretation so that there can not be a Parenthesis. We don’t want the Parenthesis. This way we can read the Scriptures authentically, and they can truly be spiritual food for the nourishment of the soul, a potent, healing antibiotic against sin, and a true encounter with the living God, a theophany, a spiritual experience which is God’s will for us when we read the Scriptures.
I’ll stop. [Laughter] Thanks for listening. I really appreciate your humility in opening up your heart to hear me, and I brought a Kevlar vest… [Laughter] So let me zip on that Kevlar right now. Before I left the seminary, a really wonderful veteran pastor told me, “I’m going to give you a piece of advice. You’re going to go into the church, and you’re going to pastor people.” He said, “This is what you need: You need a bucket of Teflon, and you need to dip your brush in it, and you need to paint your entire body every single day, so that whatever hits you just slides right off.” [Laughter] Fantastic piece of advice from a veteran.
So thank you, Dr. Armstrong, for allowing me to speak. Can we have questions now, and discussion?
Dr. Armstrong: Wonderful! Absolutely. Let’s thank Fr. Trenham for a really marvellous talk. [Applause]
Fr. Josiah: Thank you.