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 and Synagogue. 

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 Testament authors.

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 Church.

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 places.

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.

 


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