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Understanding the Bible through the Church
As the Moscow Conference affirms, 'We know, receive, and interpret Scripture through the Church and in the Church.' Our approach to the Bible is not only obedient but ecclesial. The words of Scripture, while addressed to us personally, are at the same time addressed to us as members of a community. Book and Church are not to be separated. The interdependence of Church and Bible is evident in at least two ways. First, we receive Scripture through and in the Church. The Church tells us what is Scripture. In the first three centuries of Christian history, a lengthy process of sifting and testing was needed in order to distinguish between that which is authentically 'canonical' Scripture, bearing authoritative witness to Christ's person and message, and that which is 'apocryphal,' useful perhaps for teaching, but not a normative source of doctrine. Thus, the Church has decided which books form the Canon of the New Testament. A book is not part of Holy Scripture because of any particular theory about its date and authorship, but because the Church treats it as canonical. Suppose, for example, that it could be proved that the Fourth Gospel was not actually written by Saint John the beloved disciple of Christ - in my view, there are in fact strong reasons for continuing to accept John's authorship - yet, even so, this would not alter the fact that we regard the Fourth Gospel as Scripture. Why? Because the Fourth Gospel, whoever the author may be, is accepted by the Church and in the Church.
Secondly, we interpret Scripture through and in the Church. If it is the Church that tells us what is Scripture, equally it is the Church that tells us how Scripture is to be understood. Coming upon the Ethiopian as he read the Old Testament in his chariot, Philip the Deacon asked him, 'Do you understand what you are reading?'
'How can I,' answered the Ethiopian, 'unless someone guides me?' (Acts 8:30, 31).
His difficulty is also ours. The words of Scripture are not always self-explanatory. The Bible has a marvelous underlying simplicity, but when studied in detail it can prove a difficult book. God does indeed speak directly to the heart of each one of us during our Scripture reading - as Saint Tikhon says, our reading is a personal dialogue between each one and Christ Himself - but we also need guidance. And our guide is the Church. We make full use of our private understanding; illuminated by the Spirit. We make full use of biblical commentaries and of the findings of modern research. But we submit individual opinions, whether our own or those of the scholars, to the judgment of the Church.
We read the Bible personally, but not as isolated individuals. We say not 'I' but '?we.' We read as the members of a family, the family of the Orthodox Catholic Church. We read in communion with all the other members of the Body of Christ in all parts of the world and in all generations of time. This communal or catholic approach to the Bible is underlined in one of the questions asked of a convert at the reception service used in the Russian Church: 'Do you acknowledge that the Holy Scripture must be accepted and interpreted in accordance with the belief which has been handed down by the Holy Fathers, and which the. Holy Orthodox Church, our Mother, has always held and still does hold?' The decisive criterion of our understanding of what Scripture means is the mind of the Church.
To discover this 'mind of the Church,' where do we begin? A first step is to see how Scripture is used in worship. How in particular are biblical lessons chosen for reading at the different feasts? A second step is to consult the writings of the Church Fathers, especially St. John Chrysostom. How do they analyze and apply the text of Scripture? An ecclesial manner of reading the Bible is in this Way both liturgical and patristic.
To illustrate what it means to interpret Scripture in a liturgical way, consider the Old Testament lessons at Vespers for the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25) and at Vespers on Holy Saturday, the first part of the ancient Paschal Vigil. At the Annunciation there are five readings:
- Genesis 28:10-17: Jacob's dream of a ladder set up from earth to heaven.
- Ezekiel 43:27-44: the prophet's vision of the Jerusalem temple, with the closed gate through which none but the Prince may pass.
- Proverbs 9:1-11: one of the great Sophianic passages in the Old Testament, beginning 'Wisdom has built her house.'
- Exodus 3:1-8: Moses at the Burning Bush.
- Proverbs 8:22-30: another Sophianic text, describing Wisdom's place in God's eternal providence: 'I have been established from everlasting, from the beginning, before there was ever an earth.'
In these passages from the Old Testament, we have a series of powerful images to indicate the role of the Theotokos in God's unfolding plan of salvation. She is Jacob's ladder, for by means of her, God comes down and enters our world, assuming the flesh that she supplies. She is both Mother and Ever-Virgin; Christ is born from her, yet she remains still inviolate, the gate of her virginity sealed. She provides the humanity or house which Christ the Wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24) takes as His dwelling; alternatively, she is herself to be regarded as God's Wisdom. She is the Burning Bush, who contains within her womb the uncreated fire of the Godhead and yet is not consumed. From all eternity, 'before there was ever an earth,' she was forechosen by God to be His Mother.
Reading these passages in their original context within the Old Testament, we might not at once appreciate that they foreshadow the Savior's Incarnation from the Virgin. But, by exploring the use made of the Old Testament in the Church lectionary, we can discover layer upon layer of meanings that are far from obvious at first sight.
The same thing happens when we consider how Scripture is used on Holy Saturday. Here there are no less than fifteen Old Testament lessons. Regrettably, in many of our parishes the majority of these are omitted, so God's people are starved of their proper biblical nourishment. This long sequence of readings sets before us the deeper significance of Christ's 'passing over' through death to resurrection. First among the lessons is the account of the creation (Gen. 1:1-13): Christ's Resurrection is a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17; Rev. 21:5), the inauguration of a new age, the age to come. The third lesson describes the Jewish ritual of the Passover meal: Christ crucified and risen is the new Passover, the Paschal Lamb who alone can take away the sin of the world (1 Cor. 5:7; John 1:29). The fourth lesson is the book of Jonah in its entirety: the prophet's three days in the belly of the fish foreshadow Christ's resurrection after three days in the tomb (Matt. 12:40). The sixth lesson recounts the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites (Ex. 13:20-15:19): Christ leads us from the bondage of Egypt (sin), through the Red Sea (baptism), into the promised land (the Church). The final lesson is the story of the three Holy Children in the fiery furnace (Dan. 3), once more a 'type' or foreshowing of Christ's rising from the tomb.
How can we develop this ecclesial and liturgical way of reading Scripture in the Bible study circles within our parishes? One person can be given the task of noting whenever a particular passage is used for a festival or saint's day, and the group can then discuss together the reasons why it has been so chosen. Others in the group may be assigned to do homework among the Fathers, relying above all upon the biblical homilies of St. John Chrysostom, which are available in English translation in the series Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, reissued by Eerdmans. Initially we may be disappointed: the Fathers' manner of thinking and speaking is often strikingly different from our own today. But there is gold in the patristic texts, if only we have the persistence and imagination to discover it.