Archive for March 19th, 2007

Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

March 19, 2007


Learning to read the Bible (since we now have them so readily available) is a difficult thing. We pray always for the Bishops of the Church that God will “grant them to the Churches, long lived…rightly dividing the word of Truth.” Rightly dividing the word of Truth, or properly interpreting the Scriptures is quite difficult.

The modernist approach of the historical critical method can be useful for some things, but has never been used for the purpose of creating doctrine. In many cases that I know of here in the West so-called “higher criticism” has robbed people of their faith. No longer feeling secure about what is found in the Scriptures, they declare themselves agnostic or worse.

Many modernists are beginning to show their hand, simply attacking the Scriptures as “culturally biased” and in some cases to be “evil.” Those are the words of modern scholars (not Orthodox) and show how far many Christians have drifted from the Truth.

At the same time we have fundamentalists (of many varying hues) who insist on the “plenary verbal inspiration” and proceed to read the Bible in a literal, historical manner. They create doubt in believers as well leaving people thinking, “If that’s what I must believe in order to be a Christian, then I can’t be a Christian.”

Virtually unknown in our day is the proper reading of the Scriptures. We hear this “proper reading” all the time in the Orthodox liturgical cycle, hearing how scripture is used and what sense is made of it.

As I noted in my previous article, the Seventh Ecumenical Council declared that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” We could turn this saying around and say that what the Scriptures does with words it does “iconicly.” When we read the Scriptures we are reading more than an historical narrative (as in the gospels or many other books) we are instead reading the Good News of Jesus Christ which is presented to us in an icon-like form.

This method of reading can only be done as part of a community where we are initiated into a reading of Scripture by hearing it over and over again, presented in its proper form. The key to this form is the “Apostolic Hypothesis” as described by St. Irenaeus. This is simply the belief we can find generally summed up in such things as the “Apostles’ Creed.” These short summaries of Christ’s work reveal the framework on which all New Testament writing is built, and by which all the Old Testament is read properly.

If we are reading the Old Testament properly, then we are looking for Christ (not that there isn’t much other kinds of information to be found there). Other information in the Old Testament might be of interest to us, but it is not “saving” information. It does not lead to Christ.

We must also learn to “read backwards,” that is, to see everything in the light of “that which is to come.” The Scriptures are, like icons, also eschatological. The One who is born in Bethlehem, is also the One “through whom all things were made.” And He is also the One who is to come. Indeed, it is in knowing Him as the “One who is to come” that we begin to be able to rightly divide the word of Truth.

The Christian community, when it exists and lives as it has been taught, is itself a witness and testament to the last things. We literally live as though there were no tomorrow, for the Truth is, there is no tomorrow. There is ever only today, and this day is the day of salvation. People who know the End of all things can begin to live in that End (which is Christ). Because He is the end (and He will be my end as well), I do not have to live as if I were in charge of history. I do not have to see to it that everything turns out fine. To do so usually means that we have to agree to do violence in order to bring about a just society (in then those societies are never just).

I can turn the other cheek, because it doesn’t matter, in light of the End of all things, that I should be insulted.

I can forgive my enemies because the End of all things means to reconcile them to Himself.

My life is not being formed and shaped by my past (except where I am still an inveterate sinner). Instead, my life is being shaped by Him Who is to come. I am being changed, from glory to glory, into the image of Christ, the coming One.

The gospels are clearly written “backwards.” The gospels know from the very beginning that Christ would be crucified and that this was the fulfillment of Scripture. But the apostles did not know this, not at the time of the resurrection itself (John 20:9). “They did not yet know the Scriptures how he must rise again on the third day.” But the gospels know this throughout and do not keep it secret. It presumes the reader knows the One who is to come already. Thus the telling of the story of Jesus, like a good icon, is arranged in such a way that we will see what it means. In these “icons” we see the Truth of who Jesus is, was, and is to be.

By the same token, the Old Testament, which is a “shadow” of the New, is read backwards. We read Christ in writings by people who never knew Him. But these are not ordinary people, but people whose role as the chosen is to represent Christ incarnate, crucified, ascended and seated at the right hand of the Father and sending us the Holy Spirit. Whether any of those who were writing/acting in that setting knew what they were writing is doubtful and not necessary. The meaning of the Old Testament as Scripture is not to be found in the intent of the author, but is to be found in Christ Himself, for He is its meaning.

Thus Christ in the belly of the whale prays:

The waters closed in over me, the deep was round about me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever; yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God. When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the LORD; and my prayer came to thee, into thy holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to thee; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the LORD!

This is not Jonah praying from the belly of a whale (except in some sense) but Christ praying from the Pit of Hades. It is Christ who is the perfect image of the Father, not Adam. Adam and Eve never fulfill their creation as image and likeness of God, until that created promise was fulfilled in Christ. He is the Second Adam, the True Adam, for He is the beginning and the End.

I heard some “preacher” on television today say that 75% of prophecy in the Old Testament has already been fulfilled. Of course he was a Darbyite fundamentalist who is reading his newspaper everyday believing that Biblical prophecy is being fulfilled before our very eyes.

Far more the 75% have been fulfilled – but virtually nothing that this man would think of as a fulfilled prophecy is actually any such thing. He is looking for Armegeddon, not Christ.

God give us grace, under our Holy Bishops, to rightly divide the word of Truth.

The Truth of an Icon

March 19, 2007


Icons are lovely objects – directing our hearts towards God – sometimes miraculous and truly “windows to heaven.” But I want to be somewhat theological today and write about the “truth” of an icon. Icons are peculiar, when painted according to the most traditional patterns. They are not just “ahistorical” they are positively non-historical. We can look at an icon and see any number of events depicted that do not belong to the same time framework at all. Icons are simply not about history as we popularly understand it. This separates them dramatically from much that flowered in the Western Renaissance.

The “truth” (I hardly know what else to call it) of an icon is never to be found in its past, it’s historical message, but in the future, in what it is manifesting of the age to come. There is a Patristic maxim, put forward by both St. Maximus the Confessor and earlier by St. Ambrose of Milan: the Old Testament is shadow; the New Testament is icon; while the eschaton (the end of all things or the fulfillment of the Kingdom, etc.) is the truth itself. In both of these Fathers, one Eastern, one Western, truth is understood to be a property of the end of things. In theological terms, the truth is “eschatological.”

Thus we have this rather strange aspect of icons. They are eschatological representations. They not only show us what happened (if we’re talking about a Biblical scene) but also show us what that scene means in its fullest and final sense. Saints are not painted as they might have appeared in life, but in an eschatological fashion representing how they shall be in the age to come (at least this is what the intention is behind many stylistic aspects of an icon). They are thin (not heavy and of the earth); their senses are either deemphasized (small ears, small mouth, thin and elongated hands) because they are turned inward to the heart; or overemphasized (large eyes and enlarged forehead) representing heavenly vision and wisdom. They are always presented to us face-to-face, never in profile, for the truth of who they are is only to be known personally (hypostatically) in relationsip, never as a merely existing object. This last aspect is quite notable in the resurrection appearances of Christ. He cannot be objectified.

In the Seventh Council, the Fathers said, “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” And so it should not be surprising to find that the Scriptures themselves only open their Truth to us eschatologically. St. John’s gospel is probably the most obvious in this respect. He places Christ’s discourse on the meaning of the Eucharist at the occasion of the feeding of the five thousand, and yet does not have an account of the Last Supper in the Passion Narrative (or at least does not include the Eucharist in his account of the Last Supper as do Matthew and Luke). Christ makes statements in his sermon following the feeding of the five thousand that would and will make sense only to those who are eucharistically aware. It is a sermon out of time.

All of the New Testament is written from a “future” perspective – it’s all after the fact – Christ having been raised and taught the Church and ascended into Heaven. The Holy Spirit has already come. Indeed, the Scriptures of the Old Testament are now seen as fulfilled in Christ. Thus, they will only yield up the “truth” of their meaning by examining them through Christ.

This is also true of our own lives as Christians, as well as the corporate life of the Church. The meal of which we partake together is Christ’s Body and Blood, the Messianic Banquet. It is food from the end of the world. Thus in St. John Chrysostom’s Liturgy, we actually speak of the Second Coming in the past tense.

St. Paul taught us to understand that the truth of ourselves lies not in the present but in the age to come. In the third chapter of Colossians he says:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

St. John says the same thing: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1John 3:2).

Thus the icons of the Church stand around us not as reminders of the past, but as witnesses of the age to come. They say to us: “Thus shall you be.” And we ourselves groan within for such truth, as the Scriptures tell us, “Looking to Christ, the author and the finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2).


Boundaries Which God Has Set

March 19, 2007


I have written previously of boundaries and their essential nature in our spiritual lives. This can be described by the boundaries we experience within ourselves (certain ones must be maintained) or the boundaries we experience in an Orthodox Temple (such boundaries serve to teach us about ourselves and the Truth of our relationship with Christ).

One boundary which is perhaps the most essential, and yet contrary to much modern thought, is the boundary at the Cup of Christ. In Orthodox terms there is an absolute boundary set at Eucharistic fellowship that can only be crossed by those who share the Orthodox faith, life, and churchly communion. We never cross that boundary for “eucharistic” fellowship, or to promote “ecumenical” harmony.

Many who first visit an Orthodox Church, particularly if they are used to a communion with no boundaries, find Orthodox eucharistic discipline to be jarring and even “hostile.” Of course, nothing of animosity is intended. The Orthodox are only stating the obvious with the Cup. “You are not one with us in Christ.” That unity presupposes unity of doctrine, discipline, unity of worship, unity of submission to the Bishops of the Orthodox Church.

Though the Orthodox have traditionally avoided pronouncements about other Christian groups, the Orthodox cannot but believe that the Church is “One,” just as we have received it in the Creed. There cannot be two Churches, because Churches only come in “ones.” Neither can there be some overarching “invisible” Church – this is simply a modern fiction that seeks to remove boundaries that are necessary to our existence.

If the Church is not defined by its communion with Christ, what else would give it definition? Doctrine? Of course true doctrine gives the Church definition, but in most matters, the majority of Protestant churches would have no existence – for very few have any expectation of unity of doctrine.

Can institutional unity define the Church? Only if the Church is reduced to the level of a modern corporation. This, indeed, is the unity that most modern Churches have. They share a label and the right to that label exists like a local franchise. Pay your dues and you get the name. The sacraments are reduced to mere products offered to those who happen to be at any given sacramental service.

The Orthodox understanding of the sacraments and of the nature of the Church always makes it vulnerable to schism. There must be unity of faith and doctrine between Bishops (and with their people and priests) or communion, the living boundary of communion in Christ, is breached and schism results. Orthodox history is replete with the stories of schisms, both of some that continue to last, and some that have been healed, and some that are soon to be healed. But the virtue of the Church’s boundary existing at the edge of the Cup is that communion itself is never reduced to a mere ceremony, a token of hospitality, or something less than essential to the Church’s very being.

As recently as 50 years ago, almost all of the churches in the world, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant practiced communion discipline that understood that communion requires unity of faith. That consensus was shattered by the ecumenical movement as churches became convinced that “open” communion would soon result in unity within the Churches. The unity that has resulted has been a unity that has eviscerated Eucharistic Doctrine. No longer a sign of unity, it has become a matter of private piety between the believer, his or her conscience, and Christ. That is one way to do things, but it has no warrant in Scripture.

My first encounter with the Eucharistic discipline of the Orthodox Church did not offend me. It reminded me at the time that I was not Orthodox (not even orthodox if I were honest). It was a call to repentance and to a searching of heart. It gave me a boundary that invited me to approach – but in approaching it invited me to change – to believe the gospel as taught by Christ and the Apostles and recognize that many things in me had to change (or at least embrace the willingness to be changed).

I pray for all those who struggle amid impending schisms, and those who struggle with the understanding of the Cup having a boundary. Without that boundary, the Eucharist would lose its meaning, being relegated to the private imaginations of the individual members of invisible Churches.

These are boundaries that God has set. They are not the invention of man. Like the angel at the gate of paradise, they are a gift from God.