Table of contents
Reading the Bible with Obedience
First of all, we see Scripture as inspired by God, and we approach it in a spirit of obedience. The divine inspiration of the Bible is emphasized alike by Saint Tikhon and by the 1976 Moscow Conference: Scripture is 'a letter' from 'the King of Heaven,' writes Saint Tikhon; 'Christ Himself is speaking to you.' The Bible, states the Conference, is God's 'authoritative witness' of Himself, expressing 'the word of God in human language.' Our response to this divine word is rightly one of obedient receptivity. As we read, we wait on the Spirit.
Since it is divinely inspired, the Bible possesses a fundamental unity, a total coherence, because the same Spirit speaks on every page. We do not refer to it as 'the books' in the plural, ta biblia. We call it 'the Bible,' 'the Book,' in the singular. It is one book, one Holy Scripture, with the same message throughout one composite and yet a single story from Genesis to Revelation.
At the same time, however, the Bible is also humanly expressed. It is an entire library of distinct writings, composed at varying times, by different persons in widely diverse situations. We find God speaking here 'at various times and in various ways' (Heb. 1:1). Each work in the Bible reflects the outlook of the age in which it was written and the particular viewpoint of the author. For God does not abolish our created personhood but enhances it. Divine grace cooperates with human freedom: we are 'fellow workers' cooperators with God (1 Cor. 3:9). In the words of the second-century Letter to Diognetus, 'God persuades, He does not compel; for violence is foreign to the divine nature.' So it is precisely in the writing of inspired Scripture. The author of each book was not just a passive instrument, a flute played by the Spirit, a dictation machine recording a message. Every writer of Scripture contributes his or her particular human gifts. Alongside the divine aspect, there is also a human element in Scripture, and we are to value both.
Each of the four Evangelists, for example, has his own particular stand point. Matthew is the most 'ecclesiastical' and the most Jewish of the four, with his special interest in the relationship of the gospel to the Jewish Law, and his understanding of Christianity as the 'New Law.' Mark writes in less polished Greek, closer to the language of daily life, and includes vivid narrative details not found in the other gospels. Luke emphasizes the universality of Christ's love and His all-embracing compassion that extends equally to Jew and Gentile. The Fourth Gospel expresses a more inward and mystical approach, and was aptly styled by Saint Clement of Alexandria 'a spiritual Gospel.' Let us explore and enjoy to the fullest this life-giving variety within the Bible.
Because Scripture is in this way the word of God expressed in human language, there is a place for honest and exacting critical inquiry when studying the Bible. Our reasoning brain is a gift from God, and we need not be afraid to use it to the utmost when reading Scripture. Orthodox Christians neglect at our peril the results of independent scholarly research into the origin, dates, and authorship of the books of the Bible, although we shall always want to test these results in the light of Holy Tradition.
Alongside this human element, however, we are always to see the divine aspect. These texts are not simply the work of the individual authors. What we hear in Scripture is not just human words, marked by a greater or lesser skill and perceptiveness, but the uncreated Word of God Himself - the Father's Word 'coming forth from silence,' to use the phrase of Saint Ignatius of Antioch - the eternal Word of salvation; Approaching the Bible, then, we come not merely out of curiosity or to gain historical information; We come with a specific question: 'How can I be saved?'
Obedient receptivity to God's word means above all two things: a sense of wonder and an attitude of listening.
(1) Wonder is easily quenched. Do we not feel all too often, as we read the Bible, that it has become overly familiar, even boring? Have we not lost our alertness, our sense of expectation? How far are we changed by what we read? Continually, we need to cleanse the doors of our perception and to look with new eyes, in awe and amazement, at the miracle that is set before us-the ever-present miracle of God's divine word of salvation expressed in human language. As Plato remarked, 'The beginning of truth is to wonder at things.'
Some years ago I had a dream that I still remember vividly. I was back in the house where, for three years as a child, I lived in boarding school. A friend took me first through the rooms already familiar to me from the waking life of my childhood. Then, in my dream we entered other rooms that I had never seen before - spacious, elegant, filled with light. Finally, we came to a small, dark chapel, with golden mosaics gleaming in the candlelight. 'How strange,' I said to my companion, 'that I have lived here for so long, and yet I never knew about the existence of all these rooms.' And he replied, ' But it is always so.' I awoke, and, behold, it was a dream.
Should we not react in the presence of the Bible with exactly the same surprise, the same feeling of joy and discovery, that I experienced in my dream? There are so many rooms in Scripture that we have never as yet entered. There is so much for us still to explore.
(2) If obedience means wonder, it also means listening. Such indeed is the literal meaning of the word for 'obey' in both Greek and Latin - to hear. The trouble is that most of us are better at talking than at listening. An incident on the Goon Show, which I used to follow eagerly on the radio in my student days, sums up our predicament all too well. The telephone rings, and one of the characters picks it up. 'Hello,' he exclaims, 'hello, hello.' His volume rises. 'Who is speaking? I can't hear you. Hello, who is speaking?' A voice at the other end says, 'You are speaking.' 'Ah,' he replies, 'I thought the voice sounded familiar.' And he puts the receiver down.
One of the primary requirements, if we are to acquire a 'scriptural mind,' is to stop talking and to start listening. When we enter an Orthodox Church decorated in the traditional way, and look up towards the sanctuary, we see there in the apse the figure of the Mother of God with her hands raised to heaven - the ancient scriptural manner of praying that many still use today. Such is also to be our attitude to Scripture - an attitude of openness and attentive receptivity, our hands invisibly outstretched to heaven.
As we read our Bible, then, we are to model ourselves in this way on the Blessed Virgin Mary, for she is supremely the one who listens. At the Annunciation, listening to the angel, she responds obediently, 'Let it be to me according to your word' (Luke 1:38). Had she not first listened to God's word and received it spiritually in her heart, she would never have borne the Word of God bodily in her womb. Receptive listening continues to be her attitude throughout the Gospel story. At Christ's nativity, after the adoration of the shepherds, 'Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart? (Luke 2:19). After the visit to Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve years old, 'His Mother kept all these things in her heart' (Luke 2:51). The vital importance of listening is also indicated in the last words attributed to the Theotokos in Holy Scripture, at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. ?Whatever He says to you, do it? (John 2:5), she says to the servants - and to each one of us.
In all this the Virgin serves as a mirror and living icon of the biblical Christian. Hearing God's word, we are to be like her: pondering, keeping all these things in our hearts, doing whatever He tells us. We are to listen in obedience while God speaks.