In the Orthodox Church

Why do the orthodox read the Holy Scripture less?

The Holy Scripture’s role and its place in the orthodox spirituality is different from the western spirituality, may it be the roman-catholic tradition, or the protestant and evangelical denominations. Here are a few findings :

a. In the orthodox space, the Scripture is being less read. Above the negative aspect of this finding, there is also a positive view concerning our relationship to the Holy Scripture. There is a certain shyness of the orthodox believer when it comes to reading the Scripture. This would be one motivation. The others will follow.

b. The Holy Scripture is not the first and immediate mark, and most of all not the only one, when looking for answers to our problems .To explain this thought, I will say that the orthodox believers don’t go running to the Scripture when they have a problem or a question, they go to the church and to the priest. This doesn’t minimize the Scripture’s role, but comes from a difference in the perception of what the Holy Scripture means to us.

c. The Holy Scripture is not being read in order to satisfy our thirst for theoretical knowledge, but to learn and to find out things about God, or answers to our questions. To read the Scripture is a way to communicate with God, to fill yourself with God’s words, just like it happens when you read a letter from a dear one. Even if reading it once would be enough for you to understand the information this letter brings, you will read it again and again because it is like meeting the person who wrote it. By reading it, it will not be your thirst for knowledge that will be satisfied, but your longing for this loved one, it will not teach you new things, but it will warm your heart and it will strengthen your relationship with this person.

d. The above things also apply to the liturgical life of the Church. The Holy Scripture is present and has a very important place in the Church, the Holy Gospel always reigning on the Holy Table and being solemnly read during the Holy Mass. But, referring only to the Holy Liturgy, the central moment is not the reading from the Bible, the central moment is the turning of the bread and wine into to Body and the Holy Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and the communion of the believers. The same goes for all the other Sacred Mysteries and all the services in the Church, where the reading from the Holy Scripture is a part of a more complex work, centered in the end on the communion of the believers with the Holy Spirit of God and His work.

See baptism, ordination, wedding etc. In all of these cases, the believers come to Church to get baptized, ordinated, married, healed and not to read or study what is being said in the Holy Scripture .The reading of the Scripture, present in all of these services, is part of the work that is being done by the priest, through the power of God’s Spirit in each and every one of the above services.

e. The same phenomenon can be observed in the monastic spirituality, another main landmark when considering the orthodox space. Of course within the rules and the struggles of the orthodox monk is the persistent reading of the Holy Scripture (also the reading of the Psalms), but the monk’s life is more complex than that. Obey, restraint, fast and prayer, repentance seem to have a higher priority in the monks life. The monks talk about the power of the Psalter to defeat the temptations and to chase away the demons, to clear the mind in order to find solutions to our problems, not by offering information by which to better discern between multiple logical reasoning, but by enlightening the mind or the sympathetic understanding, like the monks would say.

f. When it comes to the popular spirituality, so in the way the average believer relates to the Scripture, the things seem to be even more different .Our believers, we must admit it, read the Scripture less. This is true also for the most devoted among them. This is how the things are, and we will try to search for a positive evaluation of it. Anybody can notice that for an orthodox is more important to baptize his child, to get married and to bury his beloved ones in the church, to confess, to have memorial services, than to read the Scriptures. An orthodox can forgive himself for not reading the Scripture, even though he criticizes himself for that, but he cannot forgive himself if his child dies unbaptized or his parents died unconfessed.

Also it is a very big sin if a man and a woman live together but aren’t married, and a big mistake not to have a priest inaugurate your house for example. This hierarchy of things may be scandalous for our fellow protestants or even for some orthodox theologians, but I think it can be positively evaluated from the perspective of the orthodox hermeneutics.

There were long periods of time when the orthodox believers had no access to the Holy Scripture because it wasn’t translated in their language or because very few copies were available. This was a vital loss. The reading of the Scripture should not be excluded, but encouraged in every possible way, but now we are talking about a hierarchy of things, like it appears in the everyday life.

g. We can mark a similar attitude of the patristic theology and spirituality of the Philokalia. The most basic reading of them forces us to recognize on one hand, the vital role of the Holy Scripture in the written works of our Holy Fathers, and on the other hand, the direct and much more complex reference to the continual history of the presence and work of God in history.

h. The academic theology strikes a false note. It places the Holy Scripture on the first place among the sources it bases its theological presumptions. It can be easily remarked that the majority of the savant theology works from the modern period, base their arguments on quotes from the Scripture and from the patristic theology  and less or none on the evidence and facts of everyday life or the life in the church, may it be in its manifestation in the community or in private.

Nor the Holy Liturgy and the Sacraments, nor other sanctifying works of the Church, nor the life and experiences or feelings of spiritual people are sources for the academic theology. The exclusion of the hymnodist treasure of the Church, just like the literature from Philokalia, the Patera, the lives of the saints and spiritual literature in general, from the works of advanced academic theology literature is an argument hard to contest in support of the above. If we consider the place of spiritual literature in the life of monks and ordinary believers, – and these especially in recent years – we have to point out once again the dissonant position of the academic theology towards them.

We must recognize an inappropriate reflex for the Orthodox space, where life and work as such have priority over recorded or written comments on life itself, as authorized and authentic as they are. Certainly there is a precedence, not absolute but complementary of the Holy Scriptures, but not on the written word level but on the spirit.

i. The Orthodox  space does not operate with the absolute precedence of Scripture, limited to that of Sacred Scripture (see the Protestant and evangelical space) or extended to the writings of the Fathers – the Holy Tradition (see also some academic work in space Orthodox Theology) or a precedence of the authority of the institutionalized church (see Roman Catholic tradition area), but operates, as we have seen, with  the precedence of God’s Spirit, manifested in Holy Scripture and in the  ecclesiastical authority to the extent that they are part of the living organism, and the unity of the Church as such. It is the spirit which gives life and life is manifested in all churches, as in the life of every member of the community or ecclesial body, to the understanding of which the Scripture and other monuments of the Church’s life function as fundamental guidelines.

j. I shall now invoke to support what was said above, a typical attitude of the orthodox space: in crisis situations, from what I consider a healthy reflex, it will not be resorted to the theologian authority, that may well have vast knowledge of the Holy Scripture, nor to the ecclesiastical authority, not matter how high in rank, but – and this makes theologians and ecclesiastical authority itself – to a spiritual man, a great father. He can be a simple monk or a high bishop, and they both may possess great knowledge, but it is not for this quality, but for the authority conferred by the direct experience of the divine things or their knowledge through spiritual vision, that they were chosen.

k. This perspective doesn’t exclude or marginalizes the Scripture, quite the opposite; it recovers its place and role in the Church’s life together with God. It is a perspective that avoids the exclusivism of the Bible, this theological monstrosity, like a known orthodox theologian used to call it.

l. We must not be afraid to admit a very obvious thing in the community and personal life of the orthodox: that the Bible and the reading of the Bible are not the center of their lives, the life itself, with God is the center – The Holy Liturgy and the other sanctifying works of the Church, the prayer etc. – and the Bible is a part of all that. In a very concrete way to live with God in a specific historical social context, the Bible, reading and explaining it, has its place, a  very important but not exclusive. If we may again use the example of the letter from a dear person, nobody will limit himself to this letter – even though he will keep it as a treasured thing and reread it many times – if he would have the possibility to meet and live next to this dear person who sent him the letter, being happy and hoping to spend time with this person and enjoy the beauty of her soul and to share all her personal gifts.

I will now quote from Saint John Chrysostom who expresses the absolute priority for a person, in spite all other exterior realities: „Deliverance from hell! The Kingdom’s delight! Above all this, much more important is to love Jesus Christ and to be loved by Him!” This reality, clear in the life of the eastern Church, brings us to an understanding of the Scripture, her place and role in the life and theology of the Church.

A positive evaluation of  the above – and not persistently remaining with the critical and negative evaluations, especially under the pressure of our fellow  believers from the west or because of some inferiority complex that some orthodox theologians have – brings us to the conclusion that the eastern Church, in her liturgical life, in the monastic and popular spirituality, referring to the Holy Scripture has its own hermeneutic, in line with their belief about the possibility of intelligible communication between God and man and her own theological epistemology.

 (Pr. Prof. Constantin Coman – Through the church’s window – a theological reading of the reality, Editura Bizantină, pag.36)

Translated by Irina Holospin

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