Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | May 29, 2012

Orthodoxy’s Broader Definition of Scripture

In the process of becoming Orthodox, one becomes acquainted with the notion that Scripture is something more than we’ve thought. First, we’re taught that the word Scripture in the Nicene Creed refers not to the New Testament but to the Old for the simple reason that the Christian faith began before there was an NT. And then we’re taught that Scripture is set within the context of Holy Tradition, and so it is within Holy Tradition that the New Testament is (or was) written. Neither of these is particularly difficult concepts, and in fact they help quite a bit.

But of course there’s more. As you re-read, the continuity from one to the other becomes clear. And it is this continuity that is the mind of the Church, or more broadly, the mind of the Fathers. Here, bifurcation begins to set in as to the instruction to read scripture as well as the lives of the saints, and no, it doesn’t come because we have too much time on our hands, but because we have too little or seem to have too little, and something inevitably slides. But which one? I know in my case the more familiar with scripture I become, the more it seems to shift in tone and feel. That first rush – or even the tenth – of a sort of passion that draws you through the text seems to wear a bit, and the language seems more a more technical and almost purposely dense in others… that when you come to St. Paul’s Epistles his greetings seem particularly graceful and welcoming… even wonderfully warm and a marvel in themselves. Indeed, you might even warm to consider what a gift St. Paul has been… but there you are… and you realize you’ve come quite far from the contemporary angst over Paul’s supposed mire in his time and place. Ha! We should be so lucky to be so caught in our own!

Ah… but the point is that Scripture unfolds itself for you almost as though a person unfolds their own mysteries. This only underlines the notion that scripture is something best read and understood from within the context of the Church… which is not to say that it is without merit beyond her, but only within the fullness of Orthodox worship it seems so much more full-throated. The notion that all our liturgies and worship in essence comprise poetic or at least lyrical commentary on the scriptures is not without expression. Indeed, just the other day I learned the our Holy Friday services of Lamentations and Praises are in essence commentary on Psalm 118 – the mega-psalm – and testament to how the work and life of Christ are the fulfillment of the Psalm. As someone who loves the hymns from these services (and keeps the CD in my car’s disc player), it is in large measure that I came out of Western Rite services to the worship according to St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil BECAUSE of these hymns (and so many more) that I can only echo my priest’s notion that the texts of our services are divinely inspired. Surely they can be no less! and to me, this comprises one of the distinctives of Orthodox worship: the complete integration of scripture and liturgy into a lyrical whole. Knowing the beauty of worship elsewhere, I write with some trepidation, but also without reservation… because the beauty elsewhere as real as it is tends to stand more as a temporal compilation and almost as an accident whereas within Orthodoxy, the whole is scripted and almost beyond us to separate out a “Greatest Hits” service as Anglicans or Roman Catholics might manage here and there.

And so a more holistic view of Scripture might come to be seen as much broader than we’re taught even in our Orthodox catechesis. Here, last night perusing the Glossary to the new (imposing) edition of “The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian” published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Boston, 2011) I stumbled on this account which expands the notion and seems to rebind our reading efforts together:

“Saint Isaac very often writes about the reading of ‘Scripture’. In English this word has come to mean the Bible and nothing else. In Greek and Syriac, however, this is not the case. We may recall Saint Peter’s words, ‘For prophecy came not in old time by the will of man, but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit’ (2 Peter 1:21). For the Church, ‘Scripture’ refers to the writings of all holy men who were moved by the Spirit: the Prophets, Apostles, and the holy Fathers. Therefore, by ‘Scripture’ Saint Isaac means both the Bible and the writings of the holy Fathers. On a few occasions it is evident from the context that he can only be speaking of the writings of the Fathers; here to avoid confusion, we have used ‘writings’. – p. 573

And so we have a very broad understanding of Scripture that if we read back might well include all the texts of our services! Yes, I know there is likely to resistance or at least hesitance to apply this understanding outside the Church as others places commonly revise, remove and rewrite their own services whole cloth with some frequency. But ours have remained remarkably stable… and only been amplified in our Akathists and more that perhaps this understanding lends credence to the value we place on holding fast to our traditions, to what has been taught and lived by our traditions… and therefore, that which makes us less and less comprehensible to the world, but perhaps more transparent beyond – and even to ourselves (if we’re lucky!).


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