Orthodoxy and the Bible

By Oswin Craton

NOTE: This essay has been included in the book Apologia which may be ordered here.

Often when an Orthodox Christian and a Protestant sit down together to discuss their faith, a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding takes place. Particularly as the Protestant attempts to present his own view of what he believes (with the obvious desire to convert the Orthodox), he will be baffled when positions that are so readily assumed in the Protestant world make no headway in convincing the other. Sometimes this reaches a point of utter frustration, and the Protestant will even conclude that obviously the Orthodox do not even believe in the Bible as the Word of God.

But of course we Orthodox do believe in the Bible. We accept the Bible as Holy Scripture, the written Word of God, and we hold it in very high honor, to the point of venerating the Gospel Book at each service of the church. Many Orthodox hold the Bible in such high esteem that they will never place anything on top of a Bible, even in their homes.

But we do not believe that the Bible came to us in a vacuum, or that it was given to each one of us individually for our own private interpretation. When an Orthodox Christian reads Scripture, he reads it through the eyes of the church, and he considers the church’s understanding of what he’s reading, just as the church has read the same words throughout the last twenty centuries. (Orthodox Christians do not pretend that those centuries did not exist.)

The confusion and frustration arise between our two parties engaged in religious discussion because of the different ways the Protestant and the Orthodox view the place of Scripture. To the Protestant — who most likely adheres devoutly to the concept of sola scriptura, or “Scripture alone” — the Bible is the sole source of authority on all religious matters. To him, the Bible sits firmly over the church, so that in a sense the church becomes a kind of court of law. This diminishes the church considerably, and today it has reached a point at which many modern-day Protestants consider the church itself inconsequential. Many people nowadays rely on what they call a “personal relationship” with God that consists basically of “me and Jesus and the Bible.” (It is worth noting that Orthodox Christians also know a personal relationship with God — especially seeing as we are focused so much on the Person of Jesus Christ — but we comprehend this relationship on an even deeper level. This relationship is not divorced from the Body of Christ but is experienced within it where we have a very personal encounter with God through the Divine Mysteries [Sacraments].)

The way some Protestants, and especially Fundamentalists, view the Bible, one would think that the New Testament predates the church or is in some way analogous to the relationship of the U.S. Constitution and the nation itself. While intellectually they might admit that this isn’t so, their actions and method of interpretation suggest otherwise.

To the Orthodox Christian, who, like the Protestant, accepts and reveres the Bible as the Word of God, the Bible is properly seen as set within the church, not something that exists outside the Body of Christ. It is not some legal contract that resides in a court of law and to which the church is subject by some sort of formal obligation, but instead it is a divinely collected body of writings that came to us from the church — not something imposed upon the church. And as it was the church herself that gave us Holy Scripture, it is through the church that we are to understand the meaning of Holy Scripture and are rightly to interpret it. Scripture in the Orthodox Tradition is not seen so much as over the church but as part of the church. This varies drastically from a traditional Protestant view of the place of the Bible.

However, if one examines Christ’s mission closely one will see that Christ came to establish His church (referred to in Scripture itself as the “Body of Christ”), not the Bible, as the preeminent culmination of His ministry. Although the Orthodox do indeed regard the Holy Bible as the written Word of God, our main focus is, as it was of the early church, on a person, Jesus Christ, the “Word made flesh.” This by no means should be construed as to minimize the value of the written Word, but it suggests instead that the locus of our faith is — as it should be — on Jesus Christ rather than on a book. The book (Scripture) in fact points us to Christ, not to itself, and it points us to Him through His Body on earth, the church. It is well worth noting that the church existed a full generation before the first book of the New Testament was even penned; if the principal focus of the church was intended to be upon a book rather than on the Word made flesh, why was it that the church was without a written New Testament for so long? The church existed — and indeed flourished, despite monumental persecutions on every side — for more than 300 years before the New Testament canon was firmly agreed upon in A.D. 397. [This was at the Council of Carthage, which affirmed the list of canonical books that had been received by consensus over a long period of time. It is important to know the history of how the canon developed, but we will not go into a detailed history in this paper — though suggested readings will be appended below. Here it is sufficient to point out only a few salient facts that seem to be rarely discussed in Protestant circles: (1) When “scripture” is referred to in the New Testament writings, it is referring to the Old Testament — the only Scripture available to the early church. Even this body of Scripture was not firmly set at the time of Christ (the Jewish canon was not officially received until around the tenth century A.D.); (2) The Scripture used by our Lord, His apostles, and the early church was the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament that included not only the books in the Protestant canon today but also the deuterocanonical books, which Protestants call the Apocrypha. These books were received by the church until the time of the Protestant Reformation when the Protestants excluded them, basing their decision on the Masoretic text of the Old Testament which also excluded them — but again, the Masoretic text was a Christian-era Jewish canon, and the Jews wanted their scripture to be less “Christian” in appearance; since the Christians accepted all the books in the Septuagint, the rabbis chose to exclude the deuterocanonical books from their new canon.]

The way many Protestants today view the New Testament, one would think that as soon as the canon was established the church should have abolished everything it had done up to that point and analyzed the New Testament documents as though they comprised a blueprint or legal contract that should be consulted in order to determine the organization, function, and theology of the church. But this the church did not do. Why? Because the church already had been living the New Testament for centuries, and it was the church that had, in fact, given us the New Testament. This does not mean, as some seem to think, that by “church” we are talking about a dictatorial organization of clerics who determine church doctrine (similar to the Roman magisterium which, curiously, did not develop until the 19th century), but instead we are talking about the whole church, the living church, both clergy and laity throughout the entire world — that is to say, the Body of Christ. The church had lived the teachings of God for generations. As the New Testament came to be written, it preserved these truths in written form — the New Testament did not establish new concepts unknown to the early church, nor did it introduce novel ways of doing things. It preserved the life of Christ, some early church history, and the teachings of the Apostles regarding many things. It corrected some errors that the church had had to deal with, and it encouraged believers to hold fast to the things they had been taught — these included both things they had been taught by letter and by word of mouth (see II Thessalonians 2:15).

In the 300-plus years the church existed before the formulation of the New Testament canon it already had had to deal with, and successfully correct, a number of heresies such as Judaising influences, gnosticism, Arianism, docetism, and Sabellianism. How could it do this without a New Testament to appeal to? It did this because it had the promised Holy Spirit. It was to the church (the people of God) to whom the Spirit was given, not simply to a printed book. This does not mean, of course, that we consider the Bible uninspired, but it does mean that we do not hold to the idea that the Spirit of God can be found only on a printed page. God’s Spirit has indwelt His church since Pentecost and has been active in preserving the Oneness of the church’s doctrine from the beginning, both by guiding the authors of the New Testament documents and also by guiding men through the various church councils (which began in Jerusalem as recorded in Acts 15). Indeed, we believe that it was the Holy Spirit who guided the church both in the writing of the New Testament documents and in the development of the established canon through the church’s acceptance of these books by consensus over time.

The early church interpreted the New Testament documents in light of what they already knew to be true. Certain unaccepted gospels and epistles that were disallowed canonicity were rejected not because the people didn’t like what they said; they were rejected either because they were known to be spurious (not authentic) or because they contained doctrines that the church already knew to be erroneous. So those who attempt to appeal to Scripture today in an effort to show that an early church practice (such as infant baptism) is contrary to God’s will are appealing to a modern-day understanding of something the church already knew was correct, inasmuch as it had practiced it from the beginning. There were things the writers did not feel the need to include in their documents because they were things already accepted and understood by the church as a whole. For example, the early church already knew the practice of baptizing infants since it had practiced it from the beginning. There was no need to discuss this practice in detail as it already was known. (Believer-only baptism, on the other hand, which many Protestant churches practice, did not originate until the 16th century.)

Another example would be the doctrine of the Trinity. While the concept of the Trinity is alluded to in many places in Scripture, the doctrine itself was never spelled out in detail in the New Testament. Again, the reason this is so is because it wasn’t necessary — the church already knew and believed this doctrine from the beginning, having received it from the time of the Apostles on by oral Tradition.

Yet another example is the belief that, between the Crucifixion and Resurrection, our Lord Jesus descended into Hades to proclaim victory over death, opening the way of salvation to all. This belief is alluded to in two places in the New Testament (Ephesians 4:9 and I Peter 3:19), and the typical Fundamentalist response to this is, “How did people develop such a profound and elaborate belief from only two obscure verses?” The answer is, of course, that they didn’t; this was a belief already known and handed down in the church from the beginning through Holy Tradition. Sts. Paul and Peter had no need to elaborate on it but merely referred to it as an already existing belief that had been part of the church from the outset.

Neither was a concise description of early church worship included in any New Testament document because the church already lived it and practiced it. St. Paul addresses only a few specific worship practices in his epistles because they were things that needed to be corrected in certain areas, and his message was to get the people back on track — not to institute a new practice. (I am referring here to his admonitions to the Corinthians to restore proper observance of the eucharist and to practice effective church discipline.) If the New Testament were intended to be used as many today try to use it, it would have spelled out in great detail how a worship service should be conducted, exactly how a congregation should be organized and governed, the precise steps to becoming a convert, etc. While some will maintain that the New Testament does in fact spell out all these things, they say it does so only in a very convoluted fashion, and the various particulars of these subjects can be learned only by collating puzzle pieces from a number of different books. Why would a God who desires that all should be saved deliberately make His message of salvation so complicated that only a person of intellect and persistence would be able to ascertain its message? What does this say to the spiritual state of the less educated (remember that the ability even to read was, throughout most of history, limited to a small percentage of the people in most cultures) or those of limited intelligence? Are we to assume that God accepts only those of the proper mental capacity with the adequate ability to analyze rationally? Is IQ now a criterion of acceptance into the Body of Christ? Can a person not belong to Christ who does not have (or cannot read) a Bible?

So, when someone asks whether the Orthodox even believe the Bible, that question might actually be understood to mean, “My Protestant upbringing tells me that such-and-such is what the Bible says. Because you don’t see it that way — you’re doing something that the early church may have done but before they even had a complete Bible — then obviously you don’t accept the Bible as authoritative.” But shouldn’t the questioner rather consider whether the Protestant (i.e., more modern) interpretation be scrutinized, since the early church already was living the Gospel of Christ even as the New Testament was being written? And because it was through the church that the New Testament came to us, shouldn’t the understanding of Scripture by the church be of considerable importance in our own understanding today?

The Protestant appeal to “Scripture alone” may indeed sound noble and rational. I myself was brought up in a tradition which taught that we should use the Bible and the Bible alone in everything we believe and practice. The appeal was to “speak where the Bible speaks and remain silent where the Bible is silent.” It was believed that if we all would do this we would achieve true Christian unity and abolish sectarian division. But in point of fact, this appeal to the Bible alone (divorced from the church and from Holy Tradition) has led only to further and more pronounced division. There are today literally thousands of groups who claim to use the “Bible alone” in the formulation of their doctrine, and yet among these groups we find tremendously disparate beliefs. Even within my own former fellowship, which boasted of using only the Bible and nothing else, there now are upwards of thirty different bodies, many of whom refuse acknowledgment of others because of a disagreement over the interpretation of various biblical passages ranging from whether to use one or many cups in communion to whether congregations can cooperate with one another in offering assistance to orphans! (Interestingly, while disagreements over such seemingly trivial matters has led to rancorous divide, I personally have known people within that church who advocated the Arian heresy — the belief that Jesus Christ is not God — to be tacitly tolerated.)

A verse I heard quoted by many within the Protestant world to try to prove the idea of the all-sufficiency of Scripture alone is II Timothy 3:16, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness....” But what most who use this verse fail to realize is that when St. Paul wrote these words (around A.D. 63) the Scripture to which he was referring was the Tanakh or Old Testament. It was the Old Testament Scripture the early church studied in great detail. I remember as a child picturing the early Christians meeting daily to study the New Testament (Acts 17:11 was often quoted to us as an example of this, though that passage actually is talking about Jews searching the Tanakh to see whether the words of Sts. Paul and Silas were true), but this would have been quite impossible since those documents had not even been penned at that time. Instead, those who could read studied the Old Testament and listened to the church for understanding.

Today we are blessed to have New Testament Scripture to read and study, but this should be done with the church’s understanding — not through our individual, modern, Bible-in-a-vacuum concept. So yes, my dear friend, Orthodox Christians do indeed believe in the Bible and revere it and hold it up as truly sacred. And we do not doubt that our Protestant friends also honor Scripture as the Holy Word of God. But Scripture never should be separated from the church or from the Holy Tradition that gave it to us. To do so is only to invite yet further division to the Body of Christ.

Suggested reading:

Bajis, Jordan. Common Ground. Minneapolis: Light & Life Publishing, 1989.
Bernstein, A. James. Which Came First: The Church or the New Testament? Chesterton, IN: Conciliar Press, 1994.
Braun, Jon E. Finding the New Testament Church. Chesterton, IN: Conciliar Press, 1992.
Bruce, F.F. The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVaristy Press, 1988.
Constantinou, Jeannie. “The Eastern Orthodox Approach to the Bible” [interview transcript]: ancientfaith.com/podcasts/aftoday/the_eastern_orthodox_approach_to_the_bible
Damick, Andrew Stephen. Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy. Chesterton, IN: Conciliar Press, 2011.
Harakas, Stanley Samuel. Orthodox Christian Beliefs About the Bible. Minneapolis: Light & Life Publishing, 2003.
Metzger, Bruce. The Canon of the New Testament. NY: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Stylianopoulos, Theodore G. The New Testament: An Orthodox Perspective. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2004.
Ware, Kallistos. How To Read Your Bible. Chesteron, IN: Conciliar Press, 1988.
Whiteford, John. Sola Scriptura. Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 1996.
Zell, Raymond L. Scripture and Tradition. Chesteron, IN: Conciliar Press, 1992.

Copyright © 2013 by Oswin Craton
The above text may be freely copied and distributed, provided no alterations to the text are performed.

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