Bible reading and interpretation within the Orthodox Faith differs greatly from the current Protestant and Catholic methods of interpretation. The Catholic Church for instance offers a very systematic and ordered approach to understanding the Scriptures as enforced by the hierarchy of the church. Evangelical Christians on the other hand have a more liberal view on the interpretation of Scripture, placing emphasis on a more intimate and personal interpretation of the Bible. In contrast to the seemingly divergent approaches of Scriptural interpretation advocated by Catholics and Protestants, the Orthodox Church offers a more middle-of-the-line approach.
The difference in Scriptural interpretation amongst the Christian denominations goes back to the era of the Protestant Reformers. The Reformers advanced the teaching of sola scriptura, holding that Scripture, above all else determines matters of faith and morality. This was largely in opposition to medieval Roman Catholicism which had distinctly separated Scripture and Tradition, giving priority to the latter. These two opposing views on the Christian faith would have a flow-on effect to their distinctive methods of Scriptural interpretation. The Orthodox Church however, being detached from the Protestant-Catholic schism, was able to maintain a somewhat moderate and holistic approach to Scriptural interpretation.
The five-step approach to reading and interpreting the Holy Bible within the Orthodox faith is summarized below:
- Prepare to receive God’s Holy Words.
‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God’[i]. This is what sets the Holy Bible apart from all other texts, and so it must be approached with the reverence and respect it deserves. Before reading through Scripture, one must ask for guidance and wisdom in order to profit from the Biblical text. This is why in all Orthodox liturgical services; the reading of the Gospel is preceded by a prayer, entreating the Lord and Author of the sacred text to open the hearts and minds of the faithful to be receptive to the Gospel words that follow. One such prayer is:
- Read the passage in its original context.
The Biblical text is ancient and eastern. This is not to imply that the text is no longer applicable to the contemporary western Christian, on the contrary, the Scriptures are as relevant today as the very day they were written. However in order to read the text and understand it as it was intended, we must ensure that we are reading and interpreting the Bible as it was understood by Christians of the time, the faithful believers belonging to the early church.
The scriptural passage must therefore be approached with fresh eyes, unscathed by the influences of western thoughts and philosophies. The reader must take the necessary steps to draw out (exegesis) the meaning of the passage as intended by the divinely inspired author, being very careful not to introduce any preconceived ideas.
So how do we do that? Read the passage as if you were reading it for the first time. Outline any unfamiliar phrases, verses, names, locations, etc., and investigate the significance of their inclusion. Be sure to research the context (historical and literary) as well as the purpose for which the text is written.
- Understand the Bible with the Church in mind.
The Orthodox approach to Scriptural interpretation can be defined using the parting words of Christ at His ascension.
‘But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you…He will guide you into all truth… He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you.’ – (John 14:26; 16:13-14)
The emphasis in this passage is on the active presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit in Christ’s church. This Lordly promise to His Church forms the basis of Holy Tradition. Within Orthodoxy, there is a direct and cooperative relationship between Scripture and Tradition. Scripture as written text is born of this Holy Tradition. It is through this Tradition of the church that the Bible was compiled and canonized. Consequently it is through the church that the Scriptures must be properly interpreted and lived out. Ultimately, we must endeavor to preserve the original and ancient Christian faith by adhering to the mode of thought, interpretation, Tradition, teachings and practices of the early church.
The Orthodox liturgy is a prime example of the ever present synergy between Tradition and the Bible. The liturgy is instituted by Christ and is above all else biblical. The very language of the liturgy is Biblical, the readings and all the prayers are Biblical. In addition, the rites and practices of the Eucharistic, along with its established structure are all preserved through the Holy Tradition of the church. This marriage of Tradition and the Bible is present in all the sacraments and worship services within the Orthodox Church.
The early church fathers all agreed that the Bible must be interpreted and practiced within and under the guidance of the church. The fathers dedicated their lives to the careful study of Scripture as well as the preservation of the Tradition, and for this very reason their writings are indispensable to understanding the Bible with the Orthodox spirit and mind of the church. Not only that, but their historical proximity to the New Testament church and the apostles places a high value on their Biblical interpretations and teachings. This makes the patristic writings an essential resource for correct Biblical interpretation. In fact, most Orthodox Bible studies offered by local parishes are likely to be based on patristic exegesis.
Note: Many of the writings of the early church fathers are freely available online (see CCEL).
- Search the Scriptures for:
- Christ, the heart of the Bible
The great Alexandrian scholar Origen believed that the goal of the Christian is to be able to read Scripture with a mind filled with the Spirit of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:12-16).[ii] Christ is the creator of all and the Savior of everyone, the author and finisher of our faith[iii]. It is through the centrality of Christ that we interpret the Scripture. It is also through Christ that Scripture is revealed and understood. Every passage of the Old Testament (through typologies and Messianic prophecies) as well as the New bears direct or indirect witness to the person and work of Jesus Christ. We must therefore strive to encounter Christ in every biblical passage.
‘The Old Testament proclaimed the Father openly, and the Son more obscurely. The New manifested the Son, and suggested the deity of the Spirit. Now the Spirit Himself dwells among us…’ – St Gregory of Nazianzus
- A personal message
We meet Christ in the Scriptures, and by these Holy Words we can conform to His will and be transformed by Him. Through the Bible we enter into a personal dialogue with God; every Word found in Scripture is spoken by the Lord in an intimate dialogue. Through reading Scripture, the Lord directs us to the path of righteousness, exposes the snares of the devil, corrects our fallen and deficient nature and ultimately sets us on the path of perfection. Our question here changes from “What does the text mean?” to “What does it mean for me?”
‘The Holy Scriptures are our letters from Home’ – St Augustine
- A deeper meaning
Whilst most evangelicals and western scholars would support the idea that the grammatical-historical (literal) interpretation of Scripture leads to the only valid interpretation as intended by the author, the fathers of the early church did not. The fathers saw the literal meaning of the text as only one of several layers of interpretation. For these fathers, searching within the biblical passage could reveal deeper meanings of a moral or spiritual nature. For the Orthodox Christian, the literal interpretation is the shallowest, and more truths are to be revealed upon digging deeper.
‘To get the full flavor of an herb, it must be pressed between the fingers, so it is the same with the Scriptures; the more familiar they become, the more the reveal their hidden treasures and yield their indescribable riches.’ – St John Chrysostom
- Inscribe the Scripture within the heart (Memorization)
The memorization of Scripture is an ancient practice as well as a Biblical commandment. The Israelites were commanded by God to ‘lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul’[iv]. This practice was adopted by the early church as common practice, and was taken very seriously; demonstrated by the setting of cannon to forbid the ordination of a bishop unless he had demonstrated that he had learnt all 150 Psalms by heart. This practice was not only out of the scarcity of scriptural scrolls amongst the faithful within the ancient church, but predominantly for the transforming power of the divine message of the Gospel to those who hear it, meditate on it, and apply it.
The Gospel message is still as powerful today as the very day it was written, and must be treated with the same level of reverence displayed by the faithful within the early church. By memorizing, we inscribe the words of the Bible in our hearts and minds, allowing them to work within us to bring about a Christ-like change.
Reading Scripture with reverence, in prayer and with a receptive heart is the ultimate goal for any Christian. In addition to this, the Holy Bible must be approached with the mind of the Orthodox Church, the keeper of the faith as preserved by the Christians of the ancient church. The Orthodox Christian must strive to live the Scripture through the church; within its Holy Sacraments, prayers and services. Only then would the believer gain a deeper knowledge of the life-giving message and begin to be transformed by it. Reading the Scripture then becomes a holistic exercise in the life of the Christian, enabling the faithful to find Christ in the Bible and meet Him in the Church.
[i] 2 Timothy 3:16
[ii] Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers.
[iii] Hebrews 12:2
[iv] Deuteronomy 11:18