Perhaps one of the most memorable verses in the New Testament comes from the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel, “ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.” (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) It was not by accident that St. John used, as the primary vehicle for communicating God’s person and presence, the term “λόγος” – Word.
A word is a means of communication. It is customarily spoken. It is itself a revelation of the One who speaks it. It requires seeing and hearing and, to distill its full meaning, it requires “rumination,” or pondering in the heart. Sacred Scripture is the living compendium of God’s Word, replete with stories, lessons, instructions, directions, and prophetic preaching designed to be seen, heard, and brought deep into the heart. In his book Bread for Life: Reading the Bible, Fr. Theodore Stylianopoulos, Professor of New Testament at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, writes, “The Church does not give us Holy Scripture as a book to study and interpret on our own. Rather, it opens to us the door to that beauty to which we are called by the Bridegroom Himself.”
Sacred Scripture is an encounter. It is a meeting between the human person and the very author of humanity itself. It is an extension of the salvific work done in Jesus Christ. A “living” testimony, Scripture is the presence of the Holy Spirit seeking us out to renew us and recreate us to live life in the post-modern world where, alas, words grow increasingly cheap, meaningless, and void of any power to inspire. If Sacred Scripture is so wondrous, then why do so few Orthodox Christians fail to read the Word of God every day?
A Pew Research Study on Religion and Public Life, indicates that nearly 70 percent of Orthodox Christians seldom or never pick up the Scripture and read it. 70 percent! I suspect that many, if not most reading these words find yourselves in that group. More shocking is the fact that 43 percent of Orthodox Christians believe Sacred Scripture is not the Word of God. These alarming survey results stand in stark contrast to the words of St. John Chrysostom. He tells his listeners “to persevere continually in reading the Divine Scriptures, because it is not possible, not possible for anyone to be saved without continually taking advantage of spiritually reading the Scriptures.”
Saint Jerome confirms Chrysostom’s counsel when he writes that “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ Himself!” For that reason, we need an Orthodox renaissance of Scripture reading. For the sake of our own holiness, spiritual life and desired closeness to Jesus, we need to read the Word, to reflect on the Word, and to live the Word – every day! How can we do that? Because of the limited amount of space, I suggest we begin by understanding how Sacred Scripture is read and by knowing four key qualities of reading the Word of God.
How is Sacred Scripture Read?
- First, there is the reading of Scripture that is principally concerned with whether or not an event actually historically (factually) happened. For this method, historical authenticity means everything. It is often referred to as the “literal” way and is built on the premise that everything in Scripture literally happened as described.
- Secondly, there is the moral way of reading Scripture which seeks to find the moral reality, the values/ethics being taught in every passage. This way seeks out the various principles for Christian conduct, tantamount to a handbook of values.
- Finally, there is the spiritual way of reading Scripture. This method puts far less significance on the historical reality than the literal method and less emphasis on the purely moral reading.
A spiritual reading means discerning what the passage says about God, His world, and His work in the world – and how it applies to my life. This last
method is used by Orthodox scholars as it was by the Fathers of the Church who were the first to engage in the formal study and development of Sacred Scripture. Biblical scholar Fr. Joseph Fitzmeyer notes that, “Our culture is obsessed with literal truth. Yet Sacred Scripture dealt in larger categories that literal truth. The New Testament, in particular, uses symbolic/spiritual language. Rarely do we decide a parable’s worth by whether or not it historically happened, in real time and space.”
Sacred Scripture tells us the story of how the kingdom of Light is expelling the darkness of human sin and death, as the Good News of Christ is preached and lived. The entire Bible is actually telling the “spiritual” reality behind what we perceive with our senses. The Orthodox way of reading Scripture is actually more faithful to reality, not as we see it, but as God sees it. Reading Scripture is an expression of what the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said was, “man’s search for meaning”—a school of psychiatry he named “logotherapy”.
What are the Four Key Qualities of Reading Sacred Scripture?
Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia answers that question in the following way, “We believe that the Scriptures constitute a coherent whole. They are at once divinely inspired and humanly expressed. They bear authoritative witness to God’s revelation of Himself – in creation, in the Incarnation of the Word, and the entire history of salvation. As such they express the word of God in human language.”
Because of this, when we pick up Sacred Scripture to read it, we approach it with four qualities.
- Firstly, our reading should be obedient. We read Scripture like no other reading we may do. It is inspired of God, contains his voice and authoritative witness, and requires our obedience (openness, submission). In short, we must be receptive to the message God is communicating to us in our reading. Not a novel, not a biography, not a history text, Scripture is “Word-for-Meaning” in our life and we use our God-given reason to plumb its depths.
- Secondly, as Orthodox Christians, we should receive and interpret Scripture through the Church and in the Church. The Church tells us what is Scripture and how it is understood. The Church defined what books were to be in Scripture, known as The Canon. In Acts we see the Apostle Philip encountering an Ethiopian reading the Old Testament. Philip asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian answers, “How can I, unless some man should guide me?” (Acts 8:30-31) Though we read the Scripture personally, it represents the mind of the Church and is “the Book of the Church.” For this reason it is precious to our faith.
- Thirdly, our reading of the Bible should be Christ-centered. From start to finish, the Bible is the story of God’s persistent love reaching out and into man, ultimately through the Word-made-flesh, Jesus Christ. Analytical approaches break out the Scriptures into various sources which can harm the inner integrity of the book as a whole. We Orthodox prefer, instead, a synthetic approach, reading the Scriptures as an integrated whole with Christ as the bond of union. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann famously wrote, “A Biblical Christian is the one who, wherever he looks, on every page of Scripture, finds Christ everywhere.”
- Lastly, our reading of Sacred Scripture ought to be personal. St. Mark the Monk, an early ascetic writer, relates, “He who is humble in his thought and engaged in spiritual work, when he reads the Holy Scriptures, will apply everything to himself and not to his neighbor.”
Scripture does not just ask “What does it mean?” but “What does it mean for me?” Where is my story within the larger narrative of salvation history? Where is God encountering me, reaching out to me, correcting me, teaching me? This is the point of all Scripture reading, both private and liturgical: to discover ourselves as part of salvation history, part of the reason why Jesus came, part of the hand of God’s mercy reaching into our lives to heal us and make us whole. There is life and hope in the pages of Holy Writ, there for us to discover.
One day, a still small voice whispered to St. Augustine as he sat in his garden. “Tolle, lege!” – “Take up, and read!” The incorrigible Augustine, who spent his life running from God, took up the Sacred Scripture, by chance flipped it open to the Epistle to the Romans, and it literally changed his life forever! That is God’s promise to each one of us – if we, too, take up and read.