It is important, when we come to read any section of the Bible, to be aware of the different kinds of writing that are found in it. The Bible consists of narrative, poetry, prophecy, and so on. Just as we would read a historical novel today in a different way than we would poetry, so it is with the Bible. We must read with a sensitivity to what kind of writing it is. Sensitivity to literary context also includes reading every text in the flow of the book as a whole, remembering the broad purposes for which that biblical author wrote. Second, we must be aware of historical context.
The fact that various sections of the Bible were written during certain periods in history in and around the land of Palestine means that a growing knowledge of events in those periods in history, and of the land of Palestine, will enrich our understanding of the Bible. The parable of the good Samaritan means little if we do not understand who Samaritans were and why Jews despised them.
Due to the historical distance between us and the authors of the Bible, readers of the Bible today will do well to sit under sound preaching and to consult various scholarly resources that help them in their personal study, such as commentaries and Bible dictionaries. While not every Old Testament passage explicitly anticipates Christ, every text does move the story forward, a story that climaxes in Jesus.
Later, when Jesus was on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection, he began with Moses and all the Prophets and interpreted to two bewildered and depressed disciples everything that was said about him in the Old Testament Luke As you read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, you will notice that there is a coherent story line that holds it all together: the themes of this story line are creation, the fall, redemption, and restoration.
These are not equal themes in the way the Bible treats them. Most of the Bible is given to unfolding the third of these, the great drama of redemption through Jesus Christ. But this redemption is set against the backdrop of creation and the fall, and this redemption will find its final completion in restoration and final judgment, when the original creation is restored to what it was originally intended to be. The Old Testament develops this story line, preparing for Jesus, and the New Testament fulfills this story line, portraying Jesus. The person and work of Christ, therefore, is what unites the entire Bible.
As we read both Old and New Testaments through the lens of redemption in Christ, we will understand the whole Bible the way God wants us to understand it. We must also read the Bible reverently if we are to understand it properly. Scripture therefore comes to us from above, calling for reverence. It is a book from heaven.
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As we read, then, we are to sit under the Word of God, not stand over it. When the commands of God contradict our own desires, we must submit to what God has revealed to us. This requires a deliberate humility to receive the Bible in its entirety, whatever it says. Such is the reverence called for by the sacred nature of Scripture. The Bible is not meant to be read in isolation.
To be sure, God has given each of his people an ability to read and understand the Bible individually. Indeed, the Christian who does not set aside time to regularly study Scripture alone will be greatly impoverished. Yet spiritual nourishment through Scripture is received not only in individual study but also through corporate study.
And while you read; you are praying and talking to Him. Such exactly is our Orthodox attitude to the reading of Scripture.
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The words are not intended merely for others, far away and long ago, but they are written particularly and directly to me, here and now. Whenever we open our Bible, we are engaging in a creative dialogue with the Savior. In listening, we also respond. Two centuries after Saint Tikhon, at the Moscow Conference held in between the Orthodox and the Anglicans, the true attitude toward Scripture was expressed in different but equally valid terms. They are at once divinely inspired and humanly expressed.
We know, receive, and interpret Scripture through the Church and in the Church. Our approach to the Bible is one of obedience. First, our reading of Scripture is obedient. Second, it is ecclesial , in union with the Church. Third, it is Christ-centered.
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Fourth, it is personal. First of all, we see Scripture as inspired by God, and we approach it in a spirit of obedience. As we read, we wait on the Spirit. Since it is divinely inspired, the Bible possesses a fundamental unity, a total coherence, because the same Spirit speaks on every page. It is one book, one Holy Scripture, with the same message throughout one composite and yet a single story from Genesis to Revelation. At the same time, however, the Bible is also humanly expressed. It is an entire library of distinct writings, composed at varying times, by different persons in widely diverse situations.
Each work in the Bible reflects the outlook of the age in which it was written and the particular viewpoint of the author. For God does not abolish our created personhood but enhances it. The author of each book was not just a passive instrument, a flute played by the Spirit, a dictation machine recording a message. Every writer of Scripture contributes his or her particular human gifts. Alongside the divine aspect, there is also a human element in Scripture, and we are to value both.
Each of the four Evangelists, for example, has his own particular stand point. Because Scripture is in this way the word of God expressed in human language, there is a place for honest and exacting critical inquiry when studying the Bible. Our reasoning brain is a gift from God, and we need not be afraid to use it to the utmost when reading Scripture. Orthodox Christians neglect at our peril the results of independent scholarly research into the origin, dates, and authorship of the books of the Bible, although we shall always want to test these results in the light of Holy Tradition.
Alongside this human element, however, we are always to see the divine aspect. These texts are not simply the work of the individual authors. Do we not feel all too often, as we read the Bible, that it has become overly familiar, even boring? Have we not lost our alertness, our sense of expectation? How far are we changed by what we read? Some years ago I had a dream that I still remember vividly. I was back in the house where, for three years as a child, I lived in boarding school. A friend took me first through the rooms already familiar to me from the waking life of my childhood. Then, in my dream we entered other rooms that I had never seen before—spacious, elegant, filled with light.
Finally, we came to a small, dark chapel, with golden mosaics gleaming in the candlelight. Should we not react in the presence of the Bible with exactly the same surprise, the same feeling of joy and discovery, that I experienced in my dream? There are so many rooms in Scripture that we have never as yet entered. There is so much for us still to explore. The trouble is that most of us are better at talking than at listening.
An incident on the Goon Show , which I used to follow eagerly on the radio in my student days, sums up our predicament all too well. The telephone rings, and one of the characters picks it up. Hello, who is speaking? When we enter an Orthodox Church decorated in the traditional way, and look up towards the sanctuary, we see there in the apse the figure of the Mother of God with her hands raised to heaven—the ancient scriptural manner of praying that many still use today.
Such is also to be our attitude to Scripture—an attitude of openness and attentive receptivity, our hands invisibly outstretched to heaven.
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As we read our Bible, then, we are to model ourselves in this way on the Blessed Virgin Mary, for she is supremely the one who listens. Receptive listening continues to be her attitude throughout the Gospel story. The vital importance of listening is also indicated in the last words attributed to the Theotokos in Holy Scripture, at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee.
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In all this the Virgin serves as a mirror and living icon of the biblical Christian. We are to listen in obedience while God speaks. The words of Scripture, while addressed to us personally, are at the same time addressed to us as members of a community. Book and Church are not to be separated. The interdependence of Church and Bible is evident in at least two ways. First, we receive Scripture through and in the Church.
The Church tells us what is Scripture. Thus, the Church has decided which books form the Canon of the New Testament. A book is not part of Holy Scripture because of any particular theory about its date and authorship, but because the Church treats it as canonical.