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Introduction to Orthodoxy 9: Scripture

Title:  Introduction to Orthodoxy 9:  Scripture

Subject:  Ingredients Needed for Proper Interpretation, Interpretation to Follow

Age:  16+ years

Prerequisites:  Introduction to Orthodoxy 1 Church Tour, 2 Church History , 3 Jesus Christ, 4 Holy Spirit, 5 Salvation,6 Fathers, Saints, and Theotokos, 7 Sacraments and 8 Prayer (see below)

Materials: Scripture Handout

The Bible is a multi-faceted library that contains letters, poetry, history, treatise, revelation, prayers, hymns, allegories, folklore, fables, biographies, prophecy, etc.  Proper interpretation involves knowledge of many things, including history, context, and literary criticism.  Most importantly, proper interpretation comes from context, from within a community, the Church.  Proper interpretation comes from and includes absolutely a faithful adherence to the Tradition and Truth of the teachings of the Apostles, Fathers, and thus the Church Body.  It comes from a soul that is pure, one who is holy, one who lives the mystical life, the one who struggles to live the ascetic life: the life of prayer, fasting, charity, one who is constantly being transformed and transfigured by the love and power of Christ.

"Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place.  For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.  To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life.  And who is sufficient for these things?  For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ" (2 Corinthians 2.14-17). 

Not mere peddlers of God's word we speak in Christ!  This means careful study, prayer, and the sincere desire to live the life of faith and words of scripture are needed to become living words.  Christ is the logos and this is what we are called to become. 

There are a few important things that the Bible is not.  It is not a history book.  It is not a science book.  Today people are too often hung up on what the Bible is not, or that the Bible is full of silly science, odd contradictions, and historical impossibilities.  This is undoubtedly true.  The result has been the following:  one group of people dismisses the Bible out of hand; while fundamentalists go through incredible hoops to prove it is without error.  For example, the creation narrative in Genesis 1-3, for the fundamentalist this story gives an exact rendering of the beginning of the world and the universe.  For those who dismiss scripture or downgrade it to the level of fable, they point out that the science of today easily disproves many of the claims made in Genesis 1-3. 

For the Church, something more powerful is at work in scripture.  It is a window into the power, glory, and mystery of God.  In it, we find God's message about Himself, about us and about the world.  We discover His plan of Salvation and His answers to the even larger questions that plague and haunt human existence: questions about evil, death, sin and salvation, human relation, and the meaning of life.  A way to see our relationship to scripture is the activity of the Theotokos.  We must take the word of God inside of us and nurture it and give it life, caring for it like a mother cares and tends to her newborn child.

"These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name" (John 20.31).  All of scripture comes to focus in the person of Jesus Christ.  Specifically, when we consider His life and ministry, passion and crucifixion, life-giving resurrection, and ascension into Heaven, we must view the entire scriptures through Christ.  This may seem simple and obvious but is rarely done anymore.  In the end the Scriptures are for us Christians the chief icon of our Incarnate and Risen Lord Jesus Christ.

As mentioned, the Bible is a multi-faceted library that can be properly interpreted through knowledge of history, context, and literary criticism, yet these are not primary.  We claim that the Spirit and activity of the Holy Spirit guided the writing of scripture and its compilation so that although it was written over thousands of years by numerous authors living in different times and contexts, we find continuity through the action of the Holy Spirit.  This is a complicated way of saying the Bible is inspired text.  Scripture functions in its entirety—whole—and it cannot be divided bit by bit.  This is true for the books, chapters, and verses of scripture.  It is extremely important that we realize that in order for us to properly understand the message of Holy Scripture, we must view each part with an eye to the whole and to the context of the Church life in Christ Jesus.  We cannot extract one verse or passage from the entire canon of scripture.  All of scripture must be viewed against the entire tapestry and within the living Tradition of Faith; otherwise things can become quite disjointed.  Yet certain scriptures are of greater value than others, for example, gospels versus epistles.  All of scripture points to Christ and is interpreted through His ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension. 

Is the Bible the truth or the record of truth?  For Orthodox the Bible is most definitely God's Word, but it is not God Himself.  It is therefore the record of truth and not the Truth Itself.  It is the ultimate revelation of God but it is not God.  Therefore, Christians have always made room for other writings and teachings that are not contained within the scripture but that also faithfully and truthfully express an experience of God.  These writings are never on par with but support and expand Scripture while not conflicting with or disagreeing with the Bible.  Prime examples would be post-Apostolic writing, and writings of the Saints. 

Staying with this question of whether the Bible is the truth or record of the truth, keep in mind that the Bible is meant to bring us to Christ.  This is for us Christians its sole purpose.  This, however, takes work and careful explanation and thus interpretation.  We must ensure we meet the actual living Christ and not some fanciful notion or derivative thereof.  The question naturally arises: whose interpretation do we follow?  Most of the talk between Christians and the disagreements they have is about interpretation.  Some say traditions, whether you are Baptist, Presbyterian, etc., you have an interpretation, otherwise known as traditions.  Whose do you choose?  This is the question! 

Let us consider the following text from Acts:

"So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?'  And he said, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?' And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him.  The place in the Scripture which he read was this: ‘He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so He opened not His mouth.  In His humiliation His justice was taken away, and who will declare His generation?  For His life is taken from the earth.'  So the eunuch answered Philip and said, ‘I ask you, of whom does the prophet say this, of himself or of some other man?'  Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him'" (Acts 8.30-35). 

The story of the Ethiopian serves us well.  How can we hope to understand the Bible unless someone guides us in its interpretation?  For Orthodox, this interpreter is the Church, who is and has been guided by the Holy Spirit throughout the centuries.  She has been entrusted with the guardianship of scripture.  It is the Church that originally gave us the scriptures.  She naturally becomes the one who can faithfully interpret it for us. 

This leads to two interesting side notes or questions.  First, if we have come to mistrust the Church's faithfulness in its transmission of tradition, worship, teaching, etc., why are we not also suspicious of her ability to faithfully transmit the actual scriptures, the books themselves?  Her decisions regarding what was and was not scripture must be put into question if we also are questioning her interpretation.  And guess what?!  This is exactly what has been happening in academic and now Christian circles.  The text is in question.  Second, certain scriptures were left out by the Church and others were kept but given second importance.  The Church even used certain scriptures in specific ways, for example, how the Book of Revelation is used.  And so we are brought back to a decision we all must face, and that is what interpretation are we to follow, the Church's or mine?  "…Knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1.20-21).  And, "By the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established" (2 Corinthians 13.1). 

From the beginning, it was the Church that was the custodian of scripture.  It was the Church that decided what scripture was, and what it was not.  It was she that established the doctrine and theology of Christianity against that of the heretics.  It was in her and through her that people were nurtured in the faith and brought into close communion with God.  Christ did not leave us written documents.  Rather He entrusted His life and ministry to a specific group of people, the Church.  Infallibility comes not in the individual but in the communion of God's people, in the entire Body of Christ, the Church; a body that is undivided and has not failed.  The role of the Sacred Tradition (Interpretation) of the text within the Church, both Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition (or Holy Scripture and its Holy Interpretation), walk hand in hand.  We need both. 

(At this time, read the passage on the handout written by Kallistos Ware, or it can be found near the bottom of page 157 of Introducing the Orthodox Church.)

Something we must deal with is the idea of Sola Scriptura, its history, and how did we get to such an idea?  Many claim to just use the bible but the situation or idea that we should just get back to the bible is defunct.  Christianity is splintered, Christ's great prayer for unity in John 17 is not manifest.  What is the deal?  Can we just get back to the Bible, or does such an approach, and has such an approach, only led to ruin? On the other hand, do non-denominational Christians just hand out bibles and leave it at that?  No, they do not.  Or, is the question as we already stated above, not whether or not you believe in tradition or a specific set of interpretation but whose do you think is authentic?

Is Sola Scriptura Correct? 

Question #1: Can we find support for the notion of Sola Scriptura in the Scriptures? 

  • No.  We do not find such a position in the Bible.

Question #2: What is scripture in the New Testament? 

  • "From childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3.15-17).

Question #3: Oral Tradition & its importance?

  • "And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written" (John 21.25).  The New Testament then does not tell us everything there is to know.
  • "Now as Jannes and Jambres resisted Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, disapproved concerning the faith…" (2 Timothy 3.8, reference to Exodus 7 & 8).  St. Paul uses an oral tradition in this letter to Timothy.
  • "Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle" (2 Thessalonians 2.15).  Traditions, in Greek: paradosis, "that which is transmitted, or delivered."
  • "Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you" (1 Corinthians 11.2).
  • "For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night which He was betrayed took bread…" (1 Corinthians 11.23).
  • "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ?  The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?" (1 Corinthians 10.16).
  • "Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 1.3).

Then whose tradition do you follow?

Question #4: Can the Church have failed or has she failed in her divine mission and charge?  No, see the Scriptural passages below:

  • "‘And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it'" (Matthew 16.18).
  • "‘…Teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.' Amen" (Matthew 28.20).
  • "…‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches'" (Matthew 13.31-32).
  • "‘However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come'" (John 16.13).
  • "But if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Timothy 3.15).

If the Church failed then Christ has not kept His promise and scripture describes the Church inaccurately.

Question #5: What is the Church?  Who is the Church?

  • "And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all" (Ephesians 1.22-23).
  • "…But, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working  by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love" (Ephesians 4.15-16).

False Assumptions with References from Scripture

1.  Christians can interpret scripture for themselves without the aid of the Church.

  • "As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1.9).
  • "…And consider that the long suffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures" (2 Peter 3.15-16).

2.  The doctrine of sola scriptura can not be found in scripture, in fact, it is contradicted by scripture.

  • "Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle" (2 Thessalonians 2.15).
  • "Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you" (1 Corinthians 11.2).
  • "Knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation," (2 Peter 1.20).
  • "This will be the third time I am coming to you.  ‘By mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established'" (2 Corinthians 13.1).

3.  Some things in scripture that are often ignored by promoters of Sola Scriptura are the Eucharist and the life of the sacraments, Mary, the communion of the saints, Baptism in the Trinity, and confession.  The following scripture passages address these assumptions.

Eucharist and the Life of the Sacraments

  • "And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body.'  Then He took the cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, and they all drank from it.  And He said to them, ‘This is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many'" (Mark 14.22-24).
  • "‘I am the living bread which came down from heaven.  If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.'  The Jews therefore quarreled among themselves, saying, ‘How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?'  Then Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.  Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.  For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed.  He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.  As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me.  This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers at the manna, and are dead.  He who eats this bread will live forever.'  These things He said in the synagogue as He taught in Capernaum.  Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can understand it?'  When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, ‘Does this offend you?  What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before?  It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh that profits nothing.  The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.  But there are some of you who do not believe.'  For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him.  And He said, ‘Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.'  From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more" (John 6.51-66).
  • "Now behold, two of them were traveling that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was seven miles from Jerusalem.  And they talked together of all these things which had happened.  So it was, which they conversed and reasoned, that Jesus Himself drew near and went with them.  But their eyes were restrained, so that they did not know Him.  And He said to them, ‘What kind of conversation is this that you have with one another as you walk and are sad?'  Then the one whose name was Cleopas answered and said to Him, ‘Are You the only stranger in Jerusalem, and have You not known the things which happened there in these days?'  And He said to them, ‘What things?'  So they said to Him, ‘The things concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a Prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to be condemned to death, and crucified Him.  But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel.  Indeed, besides all this, today is the third day since these things happened.  Yes, and certain women of our company, who arrived at the tomb early, astonished us.  When they did not find His body, they came saying that they had also seen a vision of angels who said He was alive.  And certain of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but Him they did not see.'  Then He said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!  Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?'  And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.  Then they drew near to the village where they were going, and He indicated that He would have gone farther.  But they constrained Him, saying, ‘Abide with us, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.' And He went in to stay with them.  Now it came to pass, as He sat at the table with them, that He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him; and He vanished from their sight" (Luke 24.13-31).
  • "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ?  The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?" (1 Corinthians 10.16).

The earliest written documents confirm this point.  St. Justin the Philosopher wrote the following around the year 150 A.D., to the Roman Emperor defending the practice of Christians, "We do not receive these Gifts as ordinary food or ordinary drink.  But as Jesus Christ our Savior was made flesh through the Word of God, and took flesh and blood for our salvation; in the same way the food over which thanksgiving has been offered through the prayer of the Word which we have from Him – the food by which our blood and flesh are nourished through its transformation – is, we are taught, the Flesh and Blood of Jesus Who was made flesh (Apology I)."


"But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" (Luke 1.43).  And, "For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed" (Luke 1.48).

Communion of the Saints

"Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us" (Hebrews 12.1).  Other passages from scripture involving the Communion of the Saints include the healing of the paralytic, the wedding at Cana, and the Transfiguration of Christ.

Baptism in the Trinity

"‘…Teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age'" (Matthew 28.20).

Some final points to consider include that the New Testament canon, the list of books, in the form we know it today, comes to us from the Paschal Encyclical written by Saint Athanasios in the year 367.  In that letter he sets forth the books of the Old and New Testament that the Church accepts as canonical.

St. John Chrysostom, who died in 407, was the first great exegete of scripture, sometimes commenting on books in the bible verse by verse.  The famous passage of the adulterous women in John 8.3-11 wasn't known to him, meaning it wasn't even in the Bible at the time he wrote his commentary!

The Book of Revelations was generally kept out of the canon of the New Testament for several hundred years.  Furthermore, it remains the only book of the New Testament that is not publicly read, or used liturgically by the Church.

End with a prayer.

Prepared by Fr. Evan Armatas


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