Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Rethinking Reading, by Fr. Stephen

Here's Fr. Stephen again, on reading the Bible. I'm reprinting it for your convenience, but heartily recommend you read it at his own blog, so you can profit from the comments there as well.

by Fr. Stephen Freeman

If, as I have wrtten, the Orthodox Church itself is the proper interpretation of Scripture - then one might ask, “How am I supposed to read the Scriptures if their interpretation is the Church?” It is a good, even an obvious question, but one which points us to the very thing at hand: the nature of interpretation.

In general usage, to speak of interpreting something is to speak of explaining and commenting and seeking questions of meaning. Of course, this presupposes that the answer to the question is something that can be spoken, explained, commented, etc. Thus, interpretation is seen as essentially a literary question.

I have taken my lead from two verses of Scripture - both of which illustrate how I am re-presenting interpretation. The first is St. Paul’s statement to the Christians in Corinth:

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart (2 Cor. 3:2-3).

And St. John’s description of Christ as the exegesis of the Father [John 1:18]:

No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared (exegato) him.

(Exegesis is the technical term that theologians use when they speak of explaining a passage of Scripture.)

Thus the question can be pushed back and asked, “How are the Corinthians an epistle?” and “What does it mean that Christ exegetes the Father?”

In both cases the answer is not a literary event, but a matter of a life lived. Christ so exegetes the Father that He can say, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father,” (John 14:9). God did not make Himself known by giving us words about Himself. Those who think the Scriptures are the revelation of God are sadly mistaken. Christians are not Muslims. Christ Himself is the Word of the Father and it is through Christ that we know God, not through the Bible. The Scriptures have their place of great importance and are an essential part of the life of the Church, but that place is precisely that of which I am writing.

The revelation of God to the people of Corinth is not to be found in St. Paul’s two epistles written to the young Church in that city, but in the Church itself. They are God’s revelation to Corinth, “written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the Living God; not in tables of stone but in the fleshy tables of the heart.”

If the people of Corinth do not see and come to know Christ in and through the Church, His Body, which has been established in that place, then Corinth will not know God.

Some of this goes to the very heart of the Church’s existence. It has become a commonplace in modern Christianity to reduce the Church to a fellowship of convenience, existing only to encourage and strengthen individual Christians (this is particularly true in Evangelical Christianity but has spread as a larger cultural understanding as well). Whereas the Scriptures speak quite differently of the Church.

The Church:

Is the Pillar and Ground of Truth (1 Timothy 3:15);

Is the Fullness of Him that filleth all in all (Eph. 1:23).

Is the very Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12 and other places).

Is the Bride of Christ (Rev. 21:2 and elsewhere).

Such descriptions in no way fit an organization whose purpose is to encourage and strengthen individual Christians. The modern understanding of the Church is blasphemous in its denial of God’s own description of His Bride, His Fullness, His Body, the Pillar and Ground of Truth.

The Church is an epistle just as Christ exegetes the Father. Christ said, “For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself” (John 5:26). In the same manner, Christ is the life of the Church. The Church does not exist merely to speak words about Christ but to manifest the very life of Christ among mankind. The Church has no other life.

“Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory” (Col. 2:2-4).

Thus we do not “read” the Church as though we were reading a book. We “read” the Church as its life impacts and informs our own life. If we are part of the Church, then our life itself is to be increasingly the life of Christ, an epistle written on the fleshy tables of the heart. But this is not for us to do as individuals, for we cannot do this outside the Church and without the life that is lived by the whole Church. We do not Baptize ourselves.

The great challenge to the Orthodox Church in the modern world is to remain the Church, to be God’s faithful epistle to the world and not simply an exotic brand of modernized Christianity. For we are an epistle, written by the Spirit of the Living God, not an organization whose programs entertain the interested.

Let the dead bury the dead. The Church has to be about living a Life.

Please forgive me if the force of my writing in this post is in any way scandalous. I do not mean to cause someone to stumble, but rather to point the way to the truth of God’s Church and the place of Scripture within it.