Orthodoxy and Biblical Revelation
All Scripture is inspired by
God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in
righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good
work" (II Timothy 3:16).
Every Sunday as Orthodox Christians
we confess in the Creed just before the Anaphora Prayer, "... He suffered and
was buried and the third day He arose again according the Scriptures" These
words testify that the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council held in Niceae
in 325 A.D., the composers of these words in the Creed, saw their faith as
being "centered on the Bible."
The phrase "according to the
Scriptures" originally referred, not to the "New Testament," but to what we now
refer to as the Old Testament - the Scriptures used by the Hebrew Temple
One of the first acts of the Risen
Christ was to explain the "Scriptures" in relation to His appearance, Death and
Resurrection. On the road to Emmaus, the Risen Christ not only appeared to the
disciples but "beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded
to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself" (Luke 24:27).
The Apostle Paul made Christ's
fulfillment of the Scripture the cornerstone of his preaching. Thus, in the Acts
of the Apostles he begins by teaching in the synagogue at Berea that Jesus was the fulfillment of the
Scriptures and challenges his hearers. St. Luke tells us that his listeners "received
the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out
whether these things were so" (Acts 17:11).
The Apostle Paul states the central
position of the Scripture in the life of the Church and the believer when he
writes in II Timothy 3:16-17: "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God,
and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in
righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for
every good work."
There can be no doubt that both the
Jews of the Synagogue and the earliest Christians gave a central place of authority
to what we have come to call the "Old Testament."
The Jews in the time of our Lord,
both those living in Palestine and those living
in other parts of the Roman Empire and beyond,
had developed principles for understanding what Scripture was and how it was to
be understood. The Lord Jesus and the
Apostles used these principles to understand and explain Scriptures themselves.
Jesus used literal interpretations as well as those that depended on "types"
and symbols or "allegories."
For instance, in answering the
question about the legality of divorce, He quotes Genesis 1:27 and 2:24:
"Have you not read that He who
made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this
reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the
two shall become one flesh'? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh.
Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate" (Matthew 19:4-6).
The Lord is very literal in His
interpretation of the Scripture here. This was in contrast to those Rabbis of His
time who took a very liberal stance on divorce, permitting it even for such
trivial reasons as bad cooking!
We also see the Lord using typology
in His understanding of the Scripture. Typology is based on the Greek word "typos,"
which originally meant a seal or a stamp in Greek. Think of an old fashioned
"typewriter" - the type faces of the keys are often difficult to decipher until
you press on a key and the type is printed on the paper. The type in typology
is the event which took place in history (the obverse of the typewriter key)
and the antitype is the event that it points to and reveals (the key stroke on
the typewriter which gives us a clear letter from the backwards type).
In John's Gospel the Lord uses typology
to contrast His own crucifixion with the events of the Exodus as related in
Numbers 21: "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so
must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not
perish but have eternal life" (John 3:14, 15).
The lifting up of the broze serpent
in the desert on a pole (forming a cross) was a "type" or a sign of the
Crucifixion of Christ Whose death on the Cross heals, not simply the bite of a
poisonous snake, but the poison of evil and sin that has overcome all of us.
The Lord also used an allegorical
or "symbolic" interpretation of Scripture at times. These differ from types in
the following way. Typological interpretation depends on historical events. The
meaning of one historical event is fully disclosed in another later one.
Allegorical or symbolic interpretation does not necessarily depend on a
historical event, but seeks to find another meaning in a passage of the
Scripture. For instance, Jesus tells the Apostles on the night of His arrest: "All
of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night, for it is written: 'I
will strike the Shepherd, And the sheep of the flock will be scattered.'"
The Lord quotes Zechariah 13:7
here, a passage originally threatening the destruction of Israel for their worship of idols.
However, Jesus identifies Himself as the symbolic shepherd that it refers to.
It should come as no surprise that,
with many ways of interpreting the Scripture, there were several sectarian
groups in the Judaism of Jesus' day. The
Scripture identifies the Pharisees, Sadducees and Zealots. We also know of at
least one other group, the Essenes, whose library comprised what has become known
as the "Dead Sea Scrolls."
Each of these groups turned to the
Scripture to support their own particular views. But Jesus proclaimed to all of
them that He, in His own Person as the incarnate God, was the only acceptable
key to the Scriptures: "You search the scriptures; for in them you think you
have eternal life: and they are they that testify of me" (St. John 5:39).
The problem that any "Scripture
based" faith encounters is, not only the transmission of the documents from
generation to generation, but the need for a constant interpretation of the
documents from generation to generation. In the absence of this, the same Scriptures
can be used by different groups to establish widely different theologies or
visions of God, each claiming the support of the Scriptures.
The necessity of an authoritative
interpretation of the Scriptures was already recognized in the Early Church.
The famous scene of the Apostle Philip and the Ethiopian on the road through Gaza demonstrates this:
"So Philip ran to him, and heard
him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, 'Do you understand what you are
reading?' And he said, 'How can I, unless someone guides me?' And he asked Philip
to come up and sit with him" (Acts 8:31-32).
Using typology, allegory, as well
as the literal meaning of the texts, the early Church very quickly established
a standard for interpreting the Old Testament based on the Life, Death, Resurrection,
Ascension and Second Coming of Christ. The preaching of the Apostle Peter on
the first Pentecost - the first recorded Christian sermon - reveals that for
the Church, the Old Testament was no longer a locked document, but that Christ
was the key to its fulfillment and proper interpretation.
The Book of Revelation captures this understanding:
And I saw in the right hand of Him Who sat on the throne
a scroll written inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals. Then I saw a
strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, "Who is worthy to open the
scroll and to loose its seals?" And no one in heaven or on the earth or
under the earth was able to open the scroll, or to look at it. So I wept much,
because no one was found worthy to open and read the scroll, or to look at it.
But one of the elders said to me, "Do not weep. Behold, the Lion of the
tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has prevailed to open the scroll and to
loose its seven seals" (Revelation 5:1-4).
The scroll here is the Old Testament (the "Scriptures") and
the seven seals mean that it is perfectly sealed and unable to be understood.
It is only when Christ, the "Lion of the Tribe of Judah," comes, opens the
scroll and breaks the seals that it can be understood.
The Apostle Paul refers to how a "veil" lay over the minds
of the Jews who read the Scripture:
But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same
veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Scripture, because the veil is
taken away in Christ (II Corinthians 3:14).
The evangelists all make many references to the fact that
the Lord, through His Life, Death and Resurrection, is the fulfillment of the
Old Testament prophecies-as does, of course, the Apostle Paul and the other New
An additional problem in the early
Church was that there was no New Testament - it simply did not yet exist!
Unlike the Quran or the Book of Mormon, which had only one author and, hence,
only a need to be accepted or rejected (or even the Old Testament, which by the
time of Christ was more or less established as a whole work) the history of the
New Testament spans several generations and many different authors.
For instance, we are all familiar
with the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But few of us are
familiar with the Gospels of Peter or Thomas or the Gospel of the Hebrews or
the "Pre-Gospel of James." Yet all of
these books were circulating by the second century A.D. and all claimed to have
been written by Apostles.
Although some fundamentalist
Protestant authors advanced their vision that the divine inspiration of the
books of the New Testament was self-evident to anyone who read them, it was, in
fact, the Church, through the consensus of Her councils and bishops, that established
the twenty-seven books that we call the New Testament as being the divinely
inspired. These were the works that clearly
expressed the Apostolic Tradition that the Church had received about Who Jesus
was, what He taught and the significance of His Death and Resurrection.
By the second century, the Church,
through the influence of St. Irenaeus of Lyons
and other Church Fathers, generally accepted the four Gospels as we have them
now. The heretics of the second century sought to take the apostolic witness and
twist it to their own ends and wrote many Gospels and "Apostolic Letters" to
further their cause. It was for this
reason that the Church began to "close" the list or "canon" of books that were
to be considered authentic and expressive of the apostolic teachings.
Along with this "recognition" of
the authenticity of the books of the New Testament, the Church accepted, again
through ecclesial consensus that was measured against the Apostolic Tradition, normative
interpretations of the Scripture. Ultimately, all heresies concerning the Person
of Jesus Christ can be found on the pages of the New Testament. Indeed, the
word heresy comes from the Greek word "hairesis" meaning "choice."
Heretics chose interpretations of their own rather than those received by the
This is not to say that Tradition
has made the reading of Scripture dry and ossified. Far from it. The Fathers of
the Church allowed for the possibility that particular verses can "speak to us"
and our needs. What the Tradition does is to help guarantee that what we read
is the Word of God and preserves the integrity of our understanding and keeping
of that word.
Would there have been a Church if
there had been no New Testament? The answer is "yes," for, in fact, there was a
Church long before any New Testament book was written. The letters of Paul to
the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians and so forth were not addressed to the
inhabitants of those places at large, but to the churches in those
Would there have been a New
Testament without the Church. The answer is most decidedly no. Without the
Church there would have been no need for the letters of the various Apostles
and the Gospels to be written since they were intended for the edification,
discipline and spiritual growth of the members of the Church.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy today
is that the Scripture is unread in each home. The story of salvation is no
longer "our story" but it lies, in the words of St. Andrew of Crete,
"in a tomb of neglect."
The Lenten season is the perfect
time to come to know God the Word through the Word of God. His presence is
waiting on the pages of the Scripture to move and inspire us - if we only would
seek Him out.