The Authority of Scripture
September 10, 2007 Length: 58:27A talk by Reader Christopher Orr, born and raised Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran and received into Orthodoxy in 2001. He is an associate at Heidrick and Struggles, an executive search and leadership consulting firm.
TranscriptThe Authority of Scripture in the Orthodox Church, for Lutherans
by Reader Christopher Orr
The author's version of this document is available here.
The first issue that must be dealt with when discussing what authority Scripture holds in the Orthodox Church is the very definition of Scripture itself in the Orthodox Church.
The late Romanian Elder Cleopa of Sihastria (+1998) explained that
The term Holy Scripture denotes the sum of holy books that were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit…
Holy Scripture is like a very deep well wherein is comprised the infinite wisdom of God.
St. Justin Popovich (+1979), a 20th Century saint of the Serbian church:
The Bible is in a sense a biography of God in this world. In it the Indescribable One has in a sense described Himself. The Holy Scriptures of the New Testament are a biography of the incarnate God in this world. In them it is related how God, in order to reveal Himself to men, sent God the Logos, who took on flesh and became man – and as a man told men everything that God is, everything that God wants from this world and the people in it….
Men cannot devise more questions than there are answers in the Bible. If you fail to find the answer to any of your questions in the Bible, it means that you have either posed a senseless question or did not know how to read the Bible and did not finish reading the answer in it. 
"Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk [+1783], writing in eighteenth-century Russia, has this to say about our Orthodox attitude towards the Holy Scriptures:
'If an earthly king, our emperor, wrote you a letter, would you not read it with joy? Certainly, with great rejoicing and careful attention. You have been sent a letter, not by any earthly emperor, but by the King of Heaven....' He goes on to say: 'Whenever you read the Gospel, Christ Himself is speaking to you. And while you read, you are praying and talking to Him.'"
St. John of Damascus (+777) in An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith tells us:
All Scripture, then, is given by inspiration of God and is also assuredly profitable. 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 water, so also the soul watered by the divine Scripture is enriched and gives fruit in its season, [namely,] 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.
St. Epiphanius of Cyprus (+403) teaches that "reading Scriptures is a great safeguard against sin" and "ignorance of the Scriptures is a precipice and a deep abyss."
In one sermon concerning Scripture, St. John Chrysostom (+407) addresses his flock:
I exhort you, and I will not cease to exhort you to pay heed not only to what is said here, but when you are home also you should occupy yourselves attentively with the reading of Holy Scripture. Let no one say to me such cold words – worthy of judgment – as these: 'I am occupied with a trial, I have obligations in the city, I have a wife, I have to feed my children, and it is not my duty to read the Scripture but the duty of those who have renounced everything.' What are you saying?! It is not your duty to read Scripture because you are distracted by innumerable cares? On the contrary, it is your duty more than those others, more than the monks; they do not have such need of help as do you who live in the midst of such cares. You need treatment all the more, because you are constantly under such blows and are wounded so often. The reading of Scripture is a great defense against sin. Ignorance of the Scripture is a great misfortune, a great abyss. Not to know anything from the word of God is a disaster. This is what has given rise to heresies, to immorality; it has turned everything upside down.
Finally, St. Anthony the Great (+356) said, "whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures…"
Such are what could easily be dismissed as Orthodox platitudes – the company line – regarding the Bible. They are broadly in line with what one might normally expect to hear from any Christian.
How are these 'platitudes' backed up in action in the Orthodox Church?
In the ascetic tradition of the Church, short, often biblical 'arrow prayers' were used by the Desert Fathers of fourth century Nitria, in Egypt. St. John Cassian (+433), a Romanian monk, brought this tradition to the West from Egypt recommending what he had been taught "by a few of those who were left of the oldest fathers":
…for keeping up continual recollection of God this pious formula is to be ever set before you. ["Make haste, O God, to deliver me; make haste to help me, O Lord. (Psalm 70:1 KJV)] has not unreasonably been picked out from the whole of Scripture for this purpose.
All things are worship in the Orthodox Church (Lex orandi est lex credendi: 'the law of prayer is the law of belief'), so, the Liturgy and the Divine Services of the Orthodox Church are the place to see and understand the value She accords the Holy Scriptures.
First, the physical layout of the Church gives pride of place – the altar – to the Gospel book. As Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash) notes, "All the other books which make up the Holy Scripture lead to or flow from the Holy Gospel." The Gospel is also never intoned by a layman, always by a bishop, priest or deacon.
Most dramatically and visibly, the Gospel book is regularly processed with great honor and venerated (reverenced) in the services: from the Little Entrance in the Divine Liturgy, which mystically represents the start of Christ's public ministry, to the Gospel reading in the center of the assembly of the people of God in Church, to the veneration of the Gospel at Matins, before Confession, etc. This follows the Christological definition of the Seventh Ecumenical Council placing the Book of the Gospels, the cross and other holy objects such as the icons as worthy of equal honor making present that or they which are represented.
The place of the Gospel in the Orthodox Church can also be seen in liturgical orientation of the Gospel book itself: "…most Orthodox versions of the Bible, [the Gospel of John] is printed before the others as it is the one which is first read in the Church's lectionary beginning at the Divine Liturgy on Easter night" where John 1:1 is read: "In the beginning was the Word…".
Interestingly the Gospel book is actually the only one of the numerous 'Bible books' used in Orthodox worship that has nothing else in it – it's just the Gospels of John, Mathew, Mark, Luke. By comparison, the Psalter is interspersed with the chanting of Alleluia and Glory, now between the various stases, the 'non-canonical' Psalm 151, the nine Biblical Odes or Canticles (including the 'non-canonical' Prayer and Song of the Three Holy Children), and, in some editions, the Prayer for the Departure of the Soul and various 'non-biblical' Kathisma Hymns. In the Apostle (the Epistle book), the readings have their Prokeimena verses to be intoned before and their Alleluia verses after. Other epistle pericopes as well as the various Old Testament Readings for Feasts, Sacraments, services, etc. are found, not 'in the Bible', but within the twelve volumes of the Menaia, the Octoechos (Parakletiki), in the Lenten Triodion, the Pentecostarion, the Great Book of Needs, etc.
In this way, we see that the Bible is very much within the Church. The Bible can only be understood within the synaxis (the assembly) of the people of God in the act of leitourgia, the 'work of the people' – worship, Eucharist.
The Bible is also read publicly, often, and at length. For instance, "the entire Psalter is appointed to be read through once every week in church (twice during the weeks of Great Lent)," and
There are daily readings from the New Testament from both the Epistles and Gospels. [And,] in one year we read through almost the entire New Testament. In the first three days of the week before Pascha… the four Gospels are read in church, and on Thursday night of Passion Week twelve long selections from the Gospels are read concerning the Passion of our Lord, with verses sung in between, commenting on these passages. 
On Holy Friday it is the practice in some churches to keep Vigil over the (icon of the) dead Christ by reading the Psalter through the night – as is traditional Orthodox practice over the relics of the recently reposed. At the Vesperal Liturgy on the morning of Great and Holy Saturday there are fifteen long readings of Scripture in addition to an Epistle and Gospel reading and the rest of the service, and then, again, some parishes will read the Acts of the Apostles until the Midnight Office immediately before the Resurrectional service.
In Orthodoxy, why do anything a little if you can do it a lot? Less may be more, but more is more, too.
"Orthodox Christians also read the Scripture outside the services. [For instance,] St. Seraphim [of Sarov (+1833)], in his monastic life, read the entire New Testament every week. 
But, while it is true that Orthodox are encouraged to read Scripture outside of the Services – prescribed, daily readings according to the Typikon are provided on the Church calendar – the hymns of the Divine Services are also deeply infused with Scripture quoting, paraphrasing, alluding to and word-playing with Scripture teaching how we are to read Scripture according to its multiple levels: literally/historically, typologically, allegorically and personally.
The first and most basic level is historical. "The Bible is intrinsically historical," Fr. Florovsky notes, "thus the historical frame of the revelation is not something that ought to be done away with. There is no need to abstract revealed truth from the frame in which revelations took place. On the contrary, such an abstraction would have abolished the truth as well. For the Truth is not an idea, but a person, even the Incarnate Lord."
Examples of the literal and historical uses of Scriptures include the treatment of events such as the Crucifixion and Resurrection as literal, historic events.
You were crucified as you willed, O Christ, and by your burial you despoiled death. On the third day you rose as God in glory, granting the world unending life and your great mercy.
Down from the Tree Joseph of Arimathea took Thee dead, who art the Life of all…
Christ has risen from the dead, by death he has trampled on death, and to those in the graves given life.
Typology is also widely employed in the hymns of the Orthodox Church. "'A Christian,' remarks Father Alexander Schmemann [+1983], 'is one who wherever he looks finds everywhere Christ, and rejoices in him.' We can say this in particular of the biblical Christian. He is the one who, wherever he looks, find everywhere Christ, on every page of Scripture."
For Lutherans, the most familiar typological images in the Orthodox Divine Services would be those types that the New Testament itself identifies.
Moses set upon a wooden pole a cure against the deadly and poisonous bite of the serpents: for crosswise upon the wood – as a symbol of the Cross – he placed a serpent that creeps about the earth, and thereby he triumphed over calamity. (Cf., Numbers 21:8-9, John 3:14.)
Jonah stretched out his hands in the form of a cross within the belly of the sea monster, plainly prefiguring the redeeming Passion. Cast out from thence after three days, he foreshadowed the marvelous Resurrection of Christ our God, who was crucified in the flesh & enlightened the world by His Rising on the third day. (Cf., Jonah 3)
Less familiar, however, may be details easily skimmed over in the Old Testament narratives and not specifically identified as 'types' by the New Testament and therefore 'allowable'. For instance:
The people of Israel, a sacred army drawn up in four divisions, marched in the figure before the ark of the testimony, gaining glory by their ranks formed in the sign of the Cross. (Cf. Numbers 2.)
Inscribing the invincible weapon of the Cross upon the water, Moses marked a straight line before him with his staff and divided the Red Sea, opening a path for Israel who went over dry-shod. Then he marked a second line across the waters and united them in one, overwhelming the chariots of Pharaoh. Therefore let us sing to Christ our God, for he has been glorified. (Cf. Exodus 14:21-29.)
In times past Joshua, the son of Nun, stretched out his arms crosswise, O my Saviour, mystically prefiguring the sign of the Cross: and the sun stood still until he had defeated the enemy that resisted Thee, O God. And now this same sun is darkened, seeing Thee upon the Cross destroying the power of death and despoiling hell. (Cf. Joshua 10:12-13.)
Prefiguring Thy Cross, O Christ, Jacob the Patriarch, when he gave the blessing to his descendants, laid his hands crosswise upon their heads… (Cf. Genesis 48:14.)
So, too, are the numerous types of the Mother of God in the Old Testament:
Hail, heavenly ladder by which God came down. (Cf. Genesis 28:11-16.)
Hail, living table that hast held the Bread of Life… (Cf., Exodus 25:23-30 and John 6:35)
Hail, only gate through which the Word alone has passed… (Cf. Ezekiel 44:1-3).
Hail, rich mountain flowing with the milk of the Spirit; hail, candlestick and vessel of manna, sweet to the taste of the godly. (Cf., Psalm 67:16; Exodus 25:31; Exodus 16:33).
Hail, mountain not cut by hand of man, depth that none can fathom. (Cf., Daniel 2:34)
From thee has come the dew that quenched the flame of idolatry. We therefore cry to thee: Hail, O Virgin, fleece wet with dew that Gideon saw in prophecy. (Cf., Exodus 3:2, 13:21-22)
Hail, fiery Throne! Hail, Candlestick that bears the Light! Hail, Mountain of sanctification, Ark of life, Tabernacle and Holy of Holies! (Cf., Daniel 7:9; Exodus 25:31-37; Psalm 77:54' Exodus 25:10; Exodus 26:1, 33.)
Typology and allegory are often conflated. I must admit that this former actor's brain accepts rhetorical symbolism, allegory and metaphor too easily, so I often get confused attempting to delineate between the two. But, the difference between the two was established relatively late so that even St. Paul referred to allegory when discussing what we would call typology.
Personally, the use Psalm 136 (137), By the Waters of Babylon, at Matins in the weeks leading up to Great Lent is, to me, the best example of allegory..
By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. Alleluia… Happy shall he be, that shall take and dash they little ones against the rock. Alleluia.
This Psalm was quoted to me in my second confession as an Orthodox Christian when I complained about truly experiencing and 'seeing' thoughts (logismoi) and temptations coming at me following my reception into the Church. The ascetical use of this Psalm, and the reason it is sung in preparation for Great Lent, is that we are to take the "little ones" – seemingly innocent little thoughts – and dash their heads "against the rock" of Christ while they are still "little" and befor they develop into sin.
More broadly, however, the Orthodox 'eye' sees God and His saints, the Church and all things holy in everything in the entire world. Serbian St. Nikolai Velimirovic (+1958; in South Canaan, PA) explains:
Christ must be expressed everywhere, indoors and outdoors. Many Englishmen have remarked that the Bible is read very seldom in the home in Russia and Serbia. That is true. People read the Bible more in symbols, pictures and signs, in music and prayers, than in the Book. Our religion is not a book religion, not even a learned religion. It is a dramatic mystery. The Bible contains the words, but in this dramatic mystery there is something higher and deeper than words…. Looking at an ikon, a Russian [peasant, lit. mujik] perceives the Bible incarnated in a saint's life-drama. Mystery of sin, mystery of atonement, mystery of heroic suffering, mystery of the daily presence of Christ among us in holy wine, in holy bread, in holy water, in holy word, in holy deed, in every sanctified substance, even in matter as in spirit, mystery of communion of sins and of virtues—all are recorded once in the Bible, and all are recorded and repeated also in our daily life...
St. Nikolai's spiritual son, St. Justin Popovich, expands on that point:
In the Bible God has said absolutely everything that was necessary to be said to men. The biography of every man—everyone without exception—is found in the Bible.
Similarly, St. Mark the Monk:
He who is humble in his thoughts and engaged in spiritual work… when he reads the Holy Scriptures will apply everything to himself and not to someone else.
The multiplicity of ways in which Scripture is used personally in Orthodoxy, speaking directly to me has been, for me, the most enjoyable, surprising, intriguing and convicting aspect of Orthodox hymnography. It is seen (felt) especially powerfully in the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, which is read in part over the first four evenings of Great Lent and as a whole on Thursday of the fifth week.
Adam was justly banished from Eden because he disobeyed one commandment of Thine, O Saviour. What then shall I suffer, for I am always rejecting Thy words of life?
Instead of the visible Eve, I have the Eve of the mind: the passionate thought in my flesh, shewing me what seems sweet; yet whenever I taste from it, I find it bitter.
By my own free choice I have incurred the guilt of Cain's murder. I have killed my conscience, bring the flesh to life and making war upon the soul by my wicked actions.
Thou alone, my soul, hast opened the windows of the wrath of thy God, and thou hast flooded, as the earth, all thy flesh and deeds and life; and thou hast remained outside the Ark of salvation.
Skillfully hast thou planned to build a tower, O my soul, and to establish a stronghold for thy lusts; but the Creator confounded they designs and dashed thy devices to the ground.
O my soul, thou hast followed Ham, who mocked his father. Thou hast not covered thy neighbour's shame, walking backwards with averted face.
O my soul, thou hast become like Hagar the Egyptian: thy free choice has been enslaved, and thou hast borne as thy child a new Ishmael, stubborn willfulness.
Thou knowest, my soul, the ladder that was shown to Jacob, reaching from earth to heaven. Why hast thou not provided a firm foundation for it through thy godly actions?
In privation Jacob the Patriarch endured the burning heat by day and the frost by night, making daily gains of sheep and cattle, shepherding, wrestling and serving, to win his two wives.
By the two wives, understand action and knowledge in contemplation. Leah is action, for she had many children; and Rachel is knowledge, for she endured great toil. And without toil, O my soul, neither action nor contemplation will succeed.
O miserable soul, thou hast not struck and killed the Egyptian mind, as did Moses the great. Tell me, then, how wilt thou go to dwell through repentance in the wilderness empty of passions?
Aaron offered to God fire that was blameless and undefiled, but Hophni and Phinehas brought to Him, as thou hast done, my soul, strange fire and a polluted life.
O my soul, the hand of Moses shall be our assurance, proving that God can cleanse a life full of leprosy and make it white as snow. So do not despair of thyself, though thou art leprous.
Like Israel before thee, thou hast made a foolish choice, my soul; instead of the divine manna thou hast senselessly preferred the pleasure-loving gluttony of the passions.
Rise up and make war against the passions of the flesh, as Joshua against Amalek, ever gaining the victory over the Gibeonites, thy deceitful thoughts.
Thou hast drawn upon thyself, O my soul, the condemnation of Eli the priest: thoughtlessly thou hast allowed the passions to work evil within thee, just as he permitted his children to commit transgressions.
As a former WELS Lutheran, a word on the historical-critical method in modern scholarship is in order.
I have little patience with soft science masquerading as science all-knowing. Such scholarship, based on limited, surviving materials, is often less a search for 'the historical Jesus' and more a refashioning of Jesus in one's own image: Marxist, post-modernist, unbeliever, etc.
While claiming to be objective, they rather interpret the Scriptures according to their own sets of traditions and dogmas (be they fundamentalists or liberal rationalists). What Protestant scholars have done (if I may loosely borrow a line from Albert Schweitzer) is looked into the well of history to find the meaning of the Bible. They have written volume upon volume on the subject, but unfortunately they have only seen their own reflections.
Oxford scholar Bishop Kallistos Ware notes that, "Critical scholarship is by no means excluded, but the true meaning of the Bible will only be apparent to those who study it with their spiritual intellect as well as their reasoning brain." As Orthodox, "…we do not read the Bible as isolated individuals, interpreting it solely by the light of our private understanding, or in terms of current theories about source, form, or redaction criticism. We read it as members of the Church, in communion with all other members throughout the ages."
The icon is a useful perspective from which to view the historicism and truthfulness of the Bible.
Icons are not windows to another world, per se, but are a revelation of the truth of existence. When we paint an icon of a saint, the effort is to paint the saint in the truth of their life, not in their mere historical appearance. Thus the symbolism of the Byzantine style, points us towards the holiness of a saint. The same thing could be achieved by writing their lives – but an icon does the same with a single picture.
The same is true of icons depicting Biblical scenes. The icon of the crucifixion famously contains many elements that you would not literally have seen that day in Jerusalem – but if you knew the Truth of all that was happening – then you would know all that is shown in the icon…
Icons frequently show us much about the world as it truly is.
So, too, for the Saturday of the Akathist Hymn during Great Lent, the biblical story of the Annunciation is told poetically and truthfully. The event is described 'as it truly happened' and yet its script contains a conversation not found in Scripture:
O pure Virgin, living book of Christ, sealed by the Spirit, beholding thee the great Archangel said to thee: 'Hail, vessel of joy! Through thee shall we be loosed from the curse of our first mother.'
The Holy Maiden, seeing herself in all her purity, said boldly unto Gabriel: 'Strange seem thy words and hard for my soul to accept. From a conception without seed how dost thou speak of childbirth…?
Seeking to know what passes knowledge, the Virgin said to the ministering Angel: 'From a maiden womb how can a Son be born? Tell me.' And to her in fear he answered, crying:
Hail, initiate of God's secret counsel:
Hail, faith which must be guarded in silence.
Hail, beginning of Christ's wonders…
Hail, Bride without bridegroom.
Coming to the city of Nazareth, the mighty leader of the spiritual angels proclaimed to thee, O Undefiled, the Incarnation of the King and Lord of the ages, saying unto thee: 'Hail, blessed Mary, depth unsearchable beyond all understanding, and restoration of all mortal men.'
This is far from a literalist transcript of the event.
Part of what may be happening is that from the perspective of eternity – which lacks the created thing, time – all events and all knowledge run together. 'Later' reflection with its fuller understanding is elided together with the as-yet-unfolding historical event of the 'past'. An example of the same elision of past-present-future in eternity is seen in the Divine Liturgy where the bishop or priest calls to remembrance: "the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the Sitting at the right hand," – all past events – and, "the Second and glorious Coming again" – a still future event as of the writing of this paper.
Again, Bishop Kallistos:
Since our reasoning brain is a gift from God, there is undoubtedly a legitimate place for scholarly research into Biblical origins. But, while we are not to reject this research wholesale, we cannot as Orthodox accept it in its entirety. Always we need to keep in view that the Bible is not just a collection on historical documents, but it is the book of the Church, containing God's word.
According to the late Fr. Seraphim (Rose) [+1982], an American convert to Orthodoxy:
The Orthodox Church, far from being against the reading of Scripture, greatly encourages it. The Church is only against the misreading of Scripture, against reading one's own private opinions and passions, even sins into the sacred text.
But, isn't the Bible eminently clear and understandable to those of good will? In The Bondage of the Will, Luther objected to the idea "that in Scripture there are some things abstruse, and everything is not plain – this is an idea put about by the ungodly sophists" and while "it is true that for many people much remains abstruse; [this] is not due to the obscurity of Scripture, but to the blindness of indolence of those who will not take the trouble to look at the very clearest truth".
The Orthodox Troparion and Kontakion for Transfiguration (August 6):
You were transfigured on the mountain, O Christ God, revealing Your glory to Your disciples as far as they could bear it.…
Your disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it…
So while Christ the Word is eminently 'knowable' and 'clear', the fullness of His glory must be revealed; and He will reveal His fullness only to those that can "bear it" and only "as far as they could see it".
As Elder Cleopa of Romania put it:
Holy Scripture, according to the Fathers, is bone and no one will venture with teeth fit for milk to break the strong bones of Holy Scripture – for those teeth will be crushed…
The perfect wisdom of Scripture belongs, according to Saint Paul, to the perfect.
Similarly, Theophylact of Bulgaria (+c.1108):
For only he who has been cleansed of sins sees things as they truly are.
St. Symeon the New Theologian (+1022) likewise dissents from this basic assumption of the Protestant Reformers:
Spiritual knowledge is like a house built in the midst of Greek and worldly wisdom, in which house, like a tightly locked trunk, there is the knowledge of the divine Scriptures, and the unutterable treasure hidden in this knowledge of the Scriptures, that is, Divine grace. Those who enter this house cannot see this treasure if the trunk is not opened for them, but this trunk cannot be opened by any human wisdom. This is why people who think in a worldly way do not know the spiritual treasure which lies in the trunk of spiritual knowledge, And just as someone who lifts this trunk on his shoulders cannot by this alone see the treasure which is inside, so also even if someone were to read and learn by heart the divine Scriptures, and could read them all like a single psalm, he cannot by this alone acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit, which is hidden in them. For just as what is hidden in the trunk cannot be revealed by the trunk itself, so also what is concealed in the divine Scriptures cannot be revealed by the Scriptures themselves. (Homily 39)
When God comes to dwell in us and reveals Himself to us consciously, then we awaken to knowledge, i.e., we understand in reality those mysteries which are concealed in the divine Scriptures. But it is impossible to attain this in any other way. Those who do not know what I have spoken about and have not experienced it in reality have not yet tasted of the sweetness of the immortal life which the divine words have, and they boast only of their knowledge; they place the hope for their salvation on the knowledge of the divine Scripture alone and in the fact that they know it by heart. Such ones, after death, will be judged more than those who have not heard the Scripture at all. Especially do those who have gone astray in ignorance corrupt the meaning of divine Scripture and interpret it according to their lusts. For them the power of divine Scripture is inaccessible…One who has the whole of Divine Scripture on his lips cannot understand and attain to the mystical divine glory and power concealed in it if he will not fulfill the commandments of God and be vouchsafed to receive the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who might open to him the words of Divine Scripture as a book, and show him the mystical glory which is within them and might at the same time show the power and glory of God; which good things are concealed in them, together with eternal life overflowing with those good things. But these things are concealed and unknown to all those who are careless disdainers of God's commandments.
The same is true when reading something as basic as the Creed. As Fr. Stephen Freeman points out:
There is an understanding [in Orthodoxy] that unless you bow down to the Lord God and worship Him, the words of the Creed will remain closed to you. You will not hear them rightly nor find them to be for your salvation.
The current Metropolitan of Nafpaktos, Greece, Hierotheos (Vlachos):
When, however, sociologist or ethicists, without having the Holy Spirit, study the works of the Fathers, they divide and separate them. And I think that this isolated, detached use of quotations from the Fathers – out of the ascetic spirit – in order to support our impure and human-centered thoughts is the greatest heresy. When we take the Fathers out of the spirit of asceticism, of repentance, we divide them. And every division is a change for the worse. All of the heretics did the same. They used the passages without understanding them, without having the prerequisites of interpreting them correctly. We should therefore carry out the 'watchword' which prevails in our times – 'return to the Fathers' – not only by studying the texts of the Fathers but also by making the effort of acquiring the life of the Fathers. We should live in the holy Church, live with the holy Mysteries and the holy virtues, stop being individuals and start living like persons, as worthy members of Christ.
The late Fr. John Romanides (+2001) also notes the dangers the Bible can pose:
In the hands of neurologically sick people the Bible becomes a source of 'uncontrollable fantasies'. And indeed 'religion' is ... most dangerous. Instead of being a manual for the cure of the sickness of 'religion' the Bible becomes a book for the propagation of the sickness of 'religion'.
And, as Fr. Gregory Hogg notes with reference to the Lutheran teaching on the Fall:
…recognizing church tradition as a source of theology does not deny the sufficiency of Scripture; it denies the sufficiency of the interpreter. It would seem naïve to deny the effects of the Fall at the point where a theologian is seeking to understand the Word.
To return to basics, what books actually comprise the Orthodox Bible?
"The 27 Books of the New Testament were decreed by the Synod of Laodicea in 381, and later officially [i.e., universally] ratified by the Sixth Ecumenical Synod of the Church in 680."
This New Testament canon is held in common by all Chalcedonian churches and was only officially and universally promulgated by that same Council that anathematized monotheletism, Constantinople III.
Regarding the Old Testament, the Orthodox Church follows the canon in use by many Jews before the rupture between Christians and Jews: the longer canon preserved in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (LXX), translated in the 3rd Century BC. By contrast, the shorter Jewish canon, the recension in use by Protestants, was defined only after the divisive rise of Christianity by the Jewish Council of Jamnia (c. 100 AD). So, while the Septuagint may not be in the original language(s) of the Hebrew Bible, Orthodoxy believes it represents the original text and meaning of the Scripture in use at the time of Christ.
"The Septuagint… consists of the Canonical Books and the Anaginoskomena Books, 'Books worthy to be read'. In English… the word apocrypha is used for the Anaginoskomena Books, while in Greek, the word apocrypha refers [only] to the pseudo-gospels, pseudepigrapha, which are not mentioned in the list of the Septuagint [neither] in the list of English versions of the Old Testament…. The total number of Books of the Septuagint… is 49 (39 Canonical and 10 Anaginoskomena). They were compiled by St. Athanasius the Great in c. 328 and later officially ratified by [the Synod of Laodicea in 381, locally,] and the Sixth Ecumenical Synod of the Church [in 680 AD, universally].
…Books of the Anaginoskomena (Worthy to be Read) have the same validity as the other Canonical Books. "
The 'worthy to be read' books have the same validity because of the typically Orthodox criterion concerning whether they are 'readable' in worship, which they are. Many of the prophecies for the various Feasts of the Church are drawn from the descriptively apt, 'worthy to be read' books – which are read in the Church. While the Anaginskomena have an authority greater than that accorded them as 'apocrypha' by Protestants, they do hold a secondary place to the primary, first canon.
The differences in how the various portions of the Bible are bound and honored also show the Orthodox understanding of the varying levels of authority within the canon – Gospel first, the Epistles and Psalter, then the Old Testament, the Anaginskomena and never the Apocalypse.
The Homologoumena/Antilogomena distinction commonly held in Lutheranism is essentially unknown in Orthodoxy having been taken from the isolated witness of a limited number of Fathers – Eusebius of Caeserea and Jerome – concerning dissenters and then past questions regarding canonicity. One can't simply skip over the later, universal acceptance of the full New Testament canon like a plot point in The DaVinci Code. This is the definition of patristic cherry-picking.
Orthodox ecclesiology is founded on the principle of conciliarity (Slav., sobornost), the principle that an apostolic teaching will be recognized and accepted by the universal Church, founded universally by the Apostles and their disciples. National, regional, local, personal, ethnic and 'contemporary' doctrines that differ from the broad, common view of the universal Church of the ages are more than likely innovations in their creators' own image.
Regarding the establishment of the canon, Fr. John Behr, newly appointed Dean of St. Vladimir's Seminary near New York City, correctly identifies "the inevitable quandary: if the locus of authority is fixed solely in Scripture, and 'canon' is understood exclusively in the sense of a 'list' of authoritative books, then accounting for that list becomes problematic."
So, before one could speak to a group of Lutherans about "The Authority of Scripture in the Orthodox Church" one must ask, "By whom/Whom was the canon of Holy Scripture gathered and recognized?"
Orthodoxy, with her long historical consciousness, cannot simply stipulate "that Holy Scripture, in contradistinction to all other books in the world, is God's own infallible Word and therefore the only source and norm of Christian doctrine."
First, Logos theology has too primary a place in the Greek Fathers and the Church's encounter with Greco-Roman culture to wholly identify the books of Scripture with "God's own infallible Word", as does Pieper.
That being said, Bishop Kallistos Ware describes the Bible as "a book uniquely inspired by God… [which] possesses sacramental power, transmitting grace to the reader, bringing him to a point of meeting and decisive encounter;" and Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dean Emeritus of St. Vladmir's Seminary, notes that in Orthodoxy and "the biblical tradition God is present in and through His [written] Word; He is identified with it. One who is in contact with His Word is in contact with Him… And yet it has in itself also a certain subsistence of its own, a sort of self-independence…".
Second, in Orthodoxy, there is an authoritative place for both the Church and the Fathers, but in a way different than was my Lutheran understanding of the use of these 'secondary' and 'tertiary' authorities in both the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches.
Unfortunately/fortunately, Orthodoxy is far less systematic and proof-oriented than the protagonists of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations. This was a difficult thing for a young WELS Lutheran to understand in his attempts to identify the source of doctrine and authority in the Orthodox Church – and why it wasn't 'just the Bible'.
As a Lutheran, authoritative answers were to be found in books, so the first thing I did on my first serious visit to an Orthodox church (the OCA Cathedral in New York's East Village) was to raid its well-stocked bookstore and library. Lutheran catechisms were, by definition, not much more than explanations and extrapolations of Holy Scripture organized systematically moving from proof to proof, point to point: 'why we are right and they are wrong' (whoever 'they' happened to be: Roman Catholics, the Reformed, ELCA, Missouri, etc.)
The Orthodox books were different, though: more historical and event-based. There was also no generally accepted, authoritative catechism recognized by Orthodoxy as The Summary of the Faith.
But, my experience of diving more fully into Lutheran theology had also been different than my experience growing up a sola Scriptura, WELS Lutheran – even from my reading into Luther. I found The Book of Concord and Mueller's Christian Dogmatics, The Examination of the Council of Trent by Martin Chemnitz, his Two Natures, and the Catalog of Testimonies in an old copy of the Triglotta were filled not just with bible passages (as in 'Luther's Catechim' used in confirmation class), but with non-biblical, patristic support for – proof for, testimony of – the pure, (Lutheran) understanding of the Gospel as the teaching of the Bible and the early Church.
That shocked me not a little. Mostly, though, it fascinated me.
Ambrose, Athanasius, Augustine, Basil the Great, Chrysostom, Cyril, Damascenus, Epiphanius, Eusebius, Eustachius, Gregory of Nyssa, Hilary, Leo, Nicephorus, Oecumenius, Origen, Theodoret, Theophylact, Vigilus, etc., all with their, to me, arcane Latin citations. Who were these people? Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon, Alexandria, Antioch. What was the Christian history of these places that played host to the Ecumenical Councils (whatever they were)?
The sheer volume of patristic and conciliar examples (proofs) given raised, for me, a serious question: "What exactly is the authority of Scripture in the Lutheran church?"
If the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, her sister synod (the ELS), the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod and me, a serious-minded WELS Lutheran, believed in sola Scriptura, then why bother with so many references to the Fathers of the early – and I assumed – erring church? Admittedly, the controlling assumption of my reading in theology and Church history was sola Scriptura as nuda Scriptura. Obviously, this tendency to set the Confessions off to one side so as to "approach the Scriptures anew" is in line with the 'Wauwatosa Theology' of WELS, but the fact that WELS self-identified as a specifically Confessional Lutheran Church; and Confessional Lutherans, by definition, stand on and with the Lutheran Confessions found in The Book of Concord; which is in turn so infused with the testimonies of these ancient witnesses to the 'Lutheran-ness' of the early Church meant these 'Fathers' entered my theological consciousness as a valid – and Lutheran – sphere of witness to the true (i.e., WELS Lutheran) faith of the early Church.
But, what of the maximalist, all-or-nothing Lutheran approach to things holy that kept Luther, famously, from giving his hand in fellowship to Ulrich Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy? Over a single difference in doctrine out of fifteen disputed points, Luther proclaimed that Zwingli and the Reformed branch of the Reformation were of "a different spirit than ours."
Luther's Marburg Rule of 1/15 raised potential problems in light of the use of the Church Fathers in The Book of Concord, Chemnitz and Mueller as trustworthy (and therefore, in some way, as authoritative) witnesses to the true (again, i.e., WELS Lutheran) faith of the early, patristic church My uninformed impression was that the early Church was not as – shall we say – consistent as Luther (the later Luther), Melanchthon (the early Melanchthon), the Confessions (with the Unaltered Augsburg Confession of 1530), Walther, the (pre-1960s) Missouri Synod, WELS, ELS and maybe the 'zealots' in the CLC (who just go too far).
I, at that point, had little or no understanding of Church History – or even the fact that there were men referred to as Church Fathers. I do remember a haphazard semester on Church History in 7th grade that attempted to cover everything between Pentecost and the 95 Theses, but all I really remembered was the 'works righteousness' that led men to live on pillars and graze naked like animals in Syria. I guess you could probably add a general awareness of Athanasius and respect for his Creed – wrongly attributed in The Book of Concord both to Athanasius and as an 'ecumenical' (i.e., universal) creed.
I came at the 'authority' of the Fathers sort of backwards; likewise, I sort of worked myself out of sola Scriptura backwards, too: WELS subscribed to the Lutheran Confessions; the Lutheran Confessions assumed the relative trustworthiness of the Fathers' witness and must, therefore, pass Luther's Marburg Rule of 1/15 (or, more to the point, Luther's Rule of All or Nothing); therefore, on the authority of the Confessions, the Fathers must be trustworthy on all/most/much of what they taught.
I said to myself, "If I am going to trust the Fathers' witness and arcane proofs on such abstruse doctrines as the Trinity, the two ousia in the one hypostasis of Christ, Mary as Theotokos and not Christokos; dyoenergism and dyotheletism over monoenergism and monotheletism, then I can trust them on matters of daily piety and practice, in the main if not each detail."
My understanding of the place of Scripture and the sources of the high doctrines of the Christian Faith had thus become tied up – as they are in the Confessional and dogmatic works of the Confessional Lutheran church I belonged to – with the testimony of the Fathers
As Scripture is not precisely alone in either Lutheranism or the Lutheran Confessions neither is Scripture alone in Orthodoxy.
Based on their extensive use in the aforementioned, authoritative texts, my (naive) assumption was that the Fathers would be at least proto- or mainly-Lutheran, even if they didn't quite meet Luther's Marburg Rule of 1/15.
However, as I read further into Church History and the history of Christian doctrine and the surviving works of these Fathers, these great defenders of the grand doctrines of traditional Christianity held to and practiced many decidedly un-Lutheran things.
How could I gauge the worth and reliability of these Fathers? How could their greatness, their contributions to the true Faith, be retained while covering their nakedness? How could we learn from them without making their mistakes?
Could the Fathers even be counted as trustworthy?
If Zwingli was anathema as both 'witness' and authority for missing only 1/15 of the true faith, what of these Fathers that missed the mark far more often? Why were Athanasius and Basil, defenders of what seemed so obviously to be works-righteousness monasticism, not also of "a different spirit than ours?" Why were the monarchical bishops of the Ecumenical Councils not of "a different spirit than ours?" Why were invokers of the saints such as Ambrose and Augustine – and Chrysostom, who also held to Tradition as a source of authority in the Church – not also of "a different spirit than ours"? Why were they, therefore, not as equally anathema and verboten as Zwingli?
At what point do these fallen men cease being quotable and citable and become unreliable and heretical (like Zwingli)? Can we hold the Fathers in high esteem as reliable 'recognizers' of the true Faith? Or, are we just using them as window-dressing for perfunctory, imposing and academic sounding dogmatics? Do we flee 'cafeteria Christianity' by way of 'cafeteria patristics' and 'cafeteria history'?
Important, paradigmatic comments (for me) were made by Martin Chemnitz in his Examination of the Council of Trent:
There is a very great difference between the primitive church, which was at the time of the apostles
and of apostolic men testifying with regard to the books of the Holy Scripture,
and the papal church, which is foisting its fictions as apostolic traditions on us without proof.
This comment by Chemnitz places the Fathers in time and defines when the Fathers were still trustworthy, "apostolic men": when the church testified "with regard to the books of the Holy Scripture."
Chemnitz here and elsewhere in his Examination refers to the greater trustworthiness of these men whose more ancient and clear-sighted understanding of the truly Apostolic Faith allowed them to testify to (witness to) truly Apostolic traditions such as the inspired canon of Holy Scripture. These "apostolic men" had greater authority than the institutional Roman Catholic Church of Luther and Chemnitz's day with its innovative (pejorative) 'traditions of men' – quite similar, actually, to the Orthodox allergy to 'innovation'.
I had unreflectively assumed that this church of "apostolic men" was limited to either the Apostolic Church of the 1st Century, the generation immediately following the Apostles or perhaps to the Ante-Nicene Church prior to Constantine (a la The DaVinci Code).
Chemnitz notes that after the self-authentication of Scripture's inspiration by the Holy Spirit and the 'sure and special testimonies' of the Scriptural authors, Scripture:
…has its authority from the primitive church as from a witness at whose time these writings were published and approved [again somewhere between 381 and 680]. This witness of the primitive Church concerning the divinely inspired writings was later transmitted to posterity by a perpetual succession from hand to hand and diligently preserved in reliable histories of antiquity in order that the subsequent church might be the custodian of the witness of the primitive church concerning the Scripture.
The Lutheran definition of the reliability of the "primitive church" put forward by Chemnitz was that its witness was trustworthy at the time of the recognition of the inspired canon of Holy Scripture – and this was only finally and officially decreed by the Sixth Ecumenical Council held in 680 AD. At the earliest, we might point to the Episcopal Council of Laodicea in Phrygia in 381 AD – and in 381, we already see all sort of other quite un-Lutheran and 'un-biblical' teachings and practices such as the invocation of the saints, the veneration of relics, etc.
What do the Fathers of this "primitive" and "subsequent church of apostolic men" – which it seems is 'authoritative', in some way, to both Orthodox and Lutherans – witness to concerning 'The Authority of Scripture'?
The 'second Martin' provides a number of examples from various Fathers in his Examination of the Council of Trent. I will limit myself to the patristic ABCs: Athanasius, Basil and Chrysostom.
First, Athanasius says:
The holy and divinely inspired Scriptures suffice for all instruction in the truth.
And yet the same St. Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria, also says:
Let us look at that very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the very beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers preserved. Upon this the Church is founded [and not Scripture alone, per Pieper]; and if anyone departs from this, he neither is, nor any longer ought to be called, a Christian.
Wherefore, keep yourselves all the more untainted by [the Arians], and observe the traditions of the fathers.
Let [the Arians] tell us from what teacher, or from what tradition, they derived those notions concerning the Savior.
Laying down their private impiety as some sort of rule, [the Arians] wrest all the Divine oracles into accordance with it.
Had they dwelt on these thoughts and recognized the ecclesiastical scope as an anchor for the Faith, they would not have made shipwreck of the faith.
Second, Chemnitz quotes Basil who said:
We do not think that it is right to make what is custom among them into a law and rule of the right doctrine. Therefore let the divinely inspired Scripture be made the judge by us, and on the side of those whose doctrines are found in agreement with the divine words the vote of truth is cast.
…Everything which is outside of the divinely inspired Scriptures is sin…
The hearers taught in the Scriptures ought to test what is said by teachers and accept that which agrees with the Scriptures but reject what is foreign.
And yet, the same St. Basil, Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, also says:
…nor do we speak of the Holy Ghost as begotten, for by the tradition of the faith we have been taught one Only-begotten: the Spirit of truth we have been taught to proceed from the Father, and we confess Him to be of God without creation.
And, most famously:
Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us 'in a mystery' by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay; – no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as having no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals…
He, as a member of the "primitive" and "subsequent church of apostolic men", then goes on to detail a number of the vitals of the faith stemming from "the tradition of the apostles". The "very vitals" of the Gospel include: making the sign of the cross; praying to the East; the words of invocation at the Eucharist; the blessing of the water, chrism and catechumen in the Mystery of Holy Baptism; Baptism by triple immersion; the renunciation of Satan and his angels; etc. Such are, according to St. Basil, of the "very vitals" of the Gospel, not adiaphora or 'matters of indifference'.
Thirdly, Chrysostom is brought forward by Chemnitz as a witness to the "primitive church's" use of Scripture first and only:
The Lord commands… that Christians who… want to gain steadfastness in the true faith should take refuge in nothing else but Scripture.
But now there is for those who want to know which is the true church of Christ no way to know it except only through the Scriptures.
But why should all Christians at this time [of Antichrist] head for the Scriptures? Because in this period in which heresy has taken possession of the churches there can be no proof of true Christianity nor any other refuge for Christians who want to know the truth of the faith except the divine Scriptures….
And, "Chrysostom, commenting on 2 Thessalonians 2, writes: 'All things are clear and plain from the divine Scriptures; whatever things are necessary are manifest.'"
And yet, the same St. John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople, can say, commenting on the same chapter of II Thessalonians, the fifteenth verse:
Hence it is manifest, that they did not deliver all things by Epistle, but many things also unwritten, and in like manner both the one and the other are worthy of credit. Therefore let us think the tradition of the Church also worthy of credit. It is a tradition, seek no farther.
Given this seemingly vigorous, if not contradictory, 'proof' for Tradition and Scripture as sources, the Roman Catholic Church argues for a Two Source theory: Scripture and Tradition.
Lutherans simply view these contradictory statements as examples of the fallenness and imperfection of the Fathers thus underpinning Scripture alone as "the pure, clear fountain of Israel which alone is the one true guiding principle according to which all teachers and teaching are to be judged and evaluated."
It should be stated, given my 'proof-texting' of Chemnitz, that neither he nor the Lutheran Confessions are proponents of a controlling patristic authority. He specifically states, "…we do not set the testimonies of the fathers over Scripture, but subordinate them to it." This makes sense. The far-ranging errors, from a Lutheran perspective, of 'the Fathers' far exceed Luther's Marburg Rule of 1/15, which would make them unreliable and, seemingly, unusable as witnesses. After all, honoring a man is one thing, quoting him as reliable witness regarding the central dogmas of the Faith is another.
And yet, these seemingly unreliable, inconsistent Fathers are used as comparitively reliable witnesses by The Book of Concord, Melancthon, Chemnitz, Mueller, Pieper, etc., and not just on tangential issues but on core Triadalogical and Christological dogmas – including the most abstruse of all Christological dogmas, dyotheletism, proclaimed only in 681 by that same Sixth Ecumenical Council that formally and universally recognized the canon of Holy Scripture. Wade through the arguments for and against monoenergism and monotheletism in the works of St. Maximus Confessor for a taste of the difficulty in arriving at orthodox (small 'o') dogma from the 'clear meaning of Scripture'.
Obviously, the Orthodox position on this 'discrepancy' is different than either Protestant and Roman Catholic attempts to square the circle of 'source' and 'authority', Scripture and Tradition. What that difference is, though, is not always as clearly defined as this Anglo-Saxon would have liked.
From varying perspectives, equally, if relatively valid in their own ways, Orthodoxy will explain her understanding of the authority of Scripture and Tradition in different ways.
Much in the way St. Patrick of Armagh used the three-leaf clover to explain the Trinity – true enough, in its way, but not quite the dogmatician's definition – Orthodox will sometimes refer to both Scripture and Tradition as the basis of the Faith, a la Rome. As short hand, this is true enough. This answer, though, is used most often in those texts either speaking to Westerners or heavily influenced by traditional Western systematics (the 'Western Captivity' of the late Orthodox patristic scholar, Fr. Georges Florovsky [+1979] and Russian theology).
Orthodoxy is also often, and 'more' rightly, described as following 'Tradition alone' (sola Traditio) – a position taken by the late Fr. John Meyendorff (+1992), and often ascribed (rightly or wrongly), to Fr. Florovsky. In this schema, Scripture is simply the written component of Holy Tradition, which, in total, includes the decrees and canons of the Ecumenical and Local Councils, the consensus of the Fathers, the lex orandi, the ascetic tradition of the Church, etc.
St. Silouan of Mt. Athos would seem to support this view when he said, so strikingly:
Suppose that for some reason the Church were to be bereft of all her liturgical books, of the Old and New Testaments, the works of the holy Fathers – what would happen? Sacred Tradition would restore the Scriptures, not word for word, perhaps – the verbal form might be different – but in essence the new Scriptures would be the expression of that same 'faith which was once delivered unto the saints'.
Bishop Kallistos Ware gives a nuanced version of this position:
The Bible forms a part of Tradition. Sometimes Tradition is defined as the oral teaching of Christ, not recorded in writing by his immediate disciples' (Oxford Dictionary). Not only non-Orthodox but many Orthodox writers have adopted this way of speaking, treating S
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