Archive for July 31st, 2009

Rightly Reading – Yet Again

July 31, 2009

I am reprinting this short article on “rightly reading” in response to comments on my last post. I suspect that this article will be reprinted often when the subject of the study of Scripture arises.

isaac1The course of your reading should be parallel to the aim of your way of life…. Most books that contain instructions in doctrine are not useful for purification. The reading of many diverse books brings distraction of mind down on you. Know, then, that not every book that teaches about religion is useful for the purification of the consciousness and the concentration of the thoughts.

St. Isaac of Syria quoted in The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian by Bp. Hilarion Alfeyev

I believe that it was Stanley Hauerwas who once commented in a class I was taking that among some Jewish groups, a man was not allowed to read the book of Ezekiel until he was over 40. The idea behind that prohibition is similar to that offered above by St. Isaac.

In our democratic culture, we find it offensive that anyone should be forbidden to read anything. I would only point to the spiritual abuse found on any number of “Orthodox” websites in which serious matters, originally written for monastics or for the guidance of clergy are tossed about for even the non-Orthodox to read. As if the canons of the Church were meant for mass consumption!

Parents who care about the health of their children usually follow some regimen in the course of their young lives when it comes to feeding them. “Milk and not stong meat” is the Scriptural admonition for those who are young in the faith.

St. James offers this warning:

Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness(3:1).

And St. Peter’s Second Epistle offers this:

So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures (15-16).

It’s not that Scripture or Canons or books of doctrine are to be avoided or forbidden to those beneath a certain age, but rather that we should learn to read with wisdom in an effort to grow spiritually and not in an effort simply to gain knowledge of a questionable sort.

St. Isaac’s observation is that we give attention first to “purification of the consciousness and concentration of thoughts.” By such phrases he refers primarily to the daily regimen of what we read and how we pray (as well as fasting and repentance) towards the goal of overcoming the passions. Only someone who is not himself ruled by the passions is ready to safely guide someone else beyond those same rocks. Anger and condemnation, pride and superiority are marks of the passions and cannot read the Scriptures and the Traditions rightly, nor offer them to others without doing harm. The same can be said about most argumentation.

Again, this is not to say that we should not be regular in our reading of Scripture. But we do well to consider how we read it. To read or sing the psalms is an effort which is a sweet sacrifice of praise to God. If we have difficulty with what we read, then ask questions. The reading of the Gospels, even on a daily basis, is a common devotional activity, properly, in an effort to draw closer to Christ. Reading the daily readings appointed for the Church (most Orthodox calendars have these) is also salutary, even if there are things that we don’t always understand.

Other things should be read with some guidance. There’s nothing wrong with asking your priest the question, “Is this good for me to read at this point?” I’ve seen many people take up the Philokalia with glee (usually after reading The Way of a Pilgrim) only to be disappointed when they find that it is boring and frequently incomprehensible. The same can be said of many of the writings of the Fathers. Taking these things up at the wrong time can leave us with a false impression and lack of proper respect for what we have just put down in frustration.

I generally suggest to people that they read devotionally, with some other things (possibly in the context of a group study) as well. And we should read sparingly – only taking in what we can digest. Many books that I read – I take in only a few pages a day.

Contrary to our popular self-conception, we are not a culture that values learning. We are a culture that values opinion, and opinion as entertainment (God save us from the pundits!). Dilettantism plagues us. If we want to be Christians, we must start with the small things and the practices that make for proper discipleship and “let not many of us become teachers.” Let many of us become those who pray, who fast, who repent, who forgive even their enemies and through the grace of God come to know the stillness within which God may be known.

I readily confess again in my writing that I am an ignorant man. I know very little. But this is the heart of my writing – to urge others to come to know very little. It is so much better than knowing nothing.

The Orthodox Reading of Scripture

July 31, 2009

The following quote is from the Christian history website maintained by Christianity Today (an evangelical source).  It describes the crucial teaching role of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, an early Bishop of the Church and later a martyr, and perhaps the most articulate spokesman of Orthodox theology in the 2nd century. The article discusses Irenaeus’ refutation of the Gnostic heretics, particularly their misuse of Scripture. It sheds light on how the Church rightly divides the Word of Truth.

As he wrote these words, Irenaeus had in mind Jesus’ warning in Matthew 7:15 about false prophets who come in sheep’s clothing but are inwardly ravenous wolves. The Gnostics sounded, and frequently acted, just like orthodox Christians. They read the Bible, used the Bible, and cited the Bible. But the way they understood the Bible, the way they put its pieces together, differed dramatically from the perspectives of Irenaeus, Pothinus, Polycarp, and John.

St_ Irenaeus of LyonIrenaeus believed there was an unbroken line of tradition from the apostles, to those they mentored, and eventually down to himself and other Christian leaders. The Gnostics interpreted the Scriptures according to their own tradition. “In doing so, however,” Irenaeus warned, “they disregard the order and connection of the Scriptures and … dismember and destroy the truth.” So while their biblical theology may at first appear to be the precious jewel of orthodoxy, it was actually an imitation in glass. Put together properly, Irenaeus said, the parts of Scripture were like a mosaic in which the gems or tiles form the portrait of a king. But the Gnostics rearranged the tiles into the form of a dog or fox.

As a pastor, then, Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies in order to describe the heresies that were threatening his congregation and to present the apostolic interpretation of the Scriptures. He revealed the cloaked deception for what it was and displayed the apostolic tradition as a saving reminder to the faithful.

What is clear in Irenaeus’ teaching is that there was what he called the “Apostolic Hypothesis,” a framework of basic doctrine by which Scripture (first the Old Testament, later the New) should be interpreted. This consensus fidelium, or rule of faith, guided the Church century after century into its life, continually enlivened by the Holy Spirit. Though expressed in different ways at different times, the central goal was always the same: that the Church would teach the same Christ as it had received, and proclaim the same salvation it had always known.

Now Irenaeus’ description of the process of interpretation is deeply insightful. He recognizes that Scripture can easily be broken into pieces (we do it all the time when we pull verses here and there). By itself this is not a problem. It’s how you put them back together that matters. Do you reassemble the portrait of a king? or do you make it look like a fox or a dog?

The answer goes to the heart of the matter. What is the matrix by which you seek to interpret Scripture and by what authority do you use it? Anyone who says he just reads the Scripture and that there is no matrix by which he interprets is deceiving himself and his listeners and not admitting that he has already accepted a matrix and on its basis he selects Scripture to fit his point. There really is no other way to read.

Orthodoxy has never denied this. Instead, like Irenaeus, it points to that which it has received. Irenaeus called it the “Apostolic Hypothesis.” It has also been called the “rule of faith,” and various other names. But if you have not accepted this “matrix” you cannot interpret Scripture in the form of the Apostles or their successors or the Church that Christ founded.

Others accept as their matrix a statement of faith written 1500 years later, constructed on a matrix invented by medieval scholastics who sought to reform the Church. They had no command from God, no conversation with the Apostles, nothing but their own ideas and rationality from which to construct new matrixes. From Germany Luther gave us his “salvation by grace through faith,” and read the Scriptures accordingly. Calvin gave us his matrix of the sovereignty of God. Neither could speak with authority or true assurance and neither would have succeeded in their reform had the state not conveniently enforced it with the sword (read the history). The Reformation never succeeded without the state’s cooperation and frequently suceeded by drastically destroying property and torturing its opposition. Not that this was not followed by a war from Catholic authorities. All of these things happened apart from Holy Orthodoxy. But the myth of a popular uprising cleansing the Church of false doctrine, fostered for years by Protestant historians is simply a fabrication.

More to the point of this post – the matrix of Protestant interpretation, though frequently seeking for something like the Apostolic Hyposthesis, in many places failed to adhere to that primitive standard.

For instance, the doctrine of predestination to damnation, discussed in an earlier article on the Pontificator Writes Again, is an excellent example of a modern (i.e. Reformation) doctrine that had never been accepted by the Orthodox Church as a proper reading of Scripture. Verses assembled to support this teaching are like the verses of Gnostics, gathered from a shattered mosaic. Instead of a king, they assemble the picture of a wolf.

God has not created any man and preordained him to perdition. To say that He has is heretical. This is not the faith of the Church. It is contrary to the Apostolic Hypothesis and how we have received the understanding of salvation. If a man is lost he has resisted the will of God, “For God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance…” (2 Peter 3:9). At the end of almost every Orthodox service, the words of dismissal affirm, “For He is a good God and loves mankind.”

This is fundamental to the Christian faith. Any other presentation of God, whether under the cloak of sovereignty or the like, is a distortion and falsification of the Christian religion. There is no God who wills the damnation of human beings. To proclaim otherwise is to proclaim another gospel.

The difficulty in proclaiming this, of course, is the number of well-meaning Christians who will want to quote various Scriptures affirming otherwise. Arius quoted Scripture as did the Gnostics. Either you stand with the Apostles or you do not. If you use the Scriptures in a manner that the Church has not used them, then you stand against the Apostles.

Christian doctrine is not a battle over the Scriptures. Sola Scriptura has not worked and never did. Such an approach simply leads to endless argument and confusion. Others may claim to use the “plain sense” of Scripture or some other 18th century rationalist construct. Such constructs are no more effective than other failed efforts of Sola Scriptura. Either we embrace the faith of the Apostles, once and for all delivered to the saints, or else we exile ourselves to confusion or, worse yet, to the false guidance of those who never sat in the seat of the Apostles.

The Synodicon of Orthodoxy is a proclamation issued at the 7th Ecumenical Council in the 8th century. A portion of that proclamation (which is proclaimed each year in Orthodox Churches on the First Sunday of Great Lent) reads:

As the Prophets beheld, as the Apostles have taught, as the Church has received, as the Teachers have dogmatized, as the Universe has agreed, as Grace has shown forth, as Truth has revealed, as false-hood has been dissolved, as Wisdom has presented, as Christ has awarded, let us declare, let us assert, let us preach in like manner Christ our true God and honor His Saints in words, in writings in thoughts, in deeds, in churches, in holy icons — worshiping Him as God and Lord and honoring them as His true servants.

This is the Faith of the Apostles. This is the Faith of our Fathers. This is the Faith of the Orthodox. This is the Faith which has established the universe!