Role of Holy Scriptures in Orthodox Christian Life

The Holy Scriptures play a pivotal role in an Orthodox Christian life. The Bible is the book of the Church. The Bible lives in the Church. Without the Church, there would be no Bible. We, therefore read Holy Scripture, not as isolated individuals, but as members of the Church. In order to keep Holy Scripture in the mind of the Church, we observe how Scripture is used in worship, and how it is interpreted by the Holy Fathers. Moreover, the Holy Scripture transforms personal lives. Therefore our approach then to the Bible is Liturgical, Patristic and Sacramental.

The Holy Scripture is Liturgical. In its wisdom, the Holy Orthodox Church allows us to experience over the course of a year’s Vespers, Matins, Feasts and Eucharistic Liturgies exactly the right mix of Old Testament, Psalms, Gospels, and history of the early Church (i.e., Acts and Epistles) at exactly the right times to bolster our joy at the feasts, and strengthen and inspire us as we prepare for and live out the fasts.

The Church is first of all a worshiping community. Worship comes first, doctrine and discipline second. Orthodox Christians are not merely to read the Bible, we are also to ‘pray’ the Bible. This takes place most clearly and completely in the Holy Qurbono. Yes, there are readings from the Old Testament books; two readings from one of the Letters of the Apostles Paul, Peter, James and John or other apostolic writings; and a Gospel reading from one of the four evangelists. We also pray Lord’s prayer and also sing verses from the Book of Psalms. In the priest’s blessing, “The Love of God the Father, The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all”, we hear St. Paul’s final farewell to the church in Corinth. (2 Corinthians 13:13). When we sing “Kaadeesh Kaadeesh Kaadeesh Moryo Aloho Hailthono….” (Holy Holy Holy Lord God of Shabaoth, Heaven and Earth are full of your Glory), we sing along with the Cherubim seen by the Old Testament prophet Isaiah.

Strictly Speaking, there never was a “Bible” in the Orthodox Church. At least not as we commonly think of the Bible as a single volume book we can hold in our hand. Since the beginning of the Church, from the start of our liturgical tradition, there has never been a single book in an Orthodox church we could point to as “the Bible”. Instead the various “Books” of the Bible are found scattered throughout several service books located either on the Holy Sanctuary itself, or at the deacon’s hand. The Gospels are complied into a single, placed on the Evengelion Table. The book of Praxis and Epistles are bound together in another book called ‘Shleehe’.  The Old Testament is also compiled as a separate book. Therefore the term ‘Holy Scriptures’ is more desirable to connote the Bible in the Orthodox perspective.

The great Fathers and saints of the Church viewed the Holy Scriptures as an ocean of divine mysteries, having inexhaustible breadth and astonishing depths. Saint John Chrysostom says: “Ignorance of the Scriptures is a great cliff and a deep abyss. Not knowing the Scriptures is the cause of all evils. Reading the Scriptures is like possessing a great treasure. A Christian cannot help but read the Scriptures. To be a Christian is to rejoice in the power of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit speaks to us through the Scriptures.”. We interpret the Scriptures in the way interpreted by the Doctors of the Church. So the Orthodox perspective of the Scriptures is essentially patristic.

The Holy Scriptures informs us about the history of God’s encounter with the human race and most specifically about His love for us as expressed in the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible provides the basis for reforming us, for in its pages we find the ideals and standards by which we are to live. And the Bible transforms us because in it, we come face to face with the grace and power of Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. In this sense, the Bible is ‘sacramental’ because it conveys the presence of Christ in the Holy Spirit.

Many Christians have incorrectly viewed the Bible as the only source and foundation of the Christian faith, forgetting that Christ is the source and foundation of the Christian faith. Orthodox Christians always interpret the Bible in the context of the Church and the Tradition of the Church. Not that the Bible and the Tradition of the Church are to be juxtaposed to one another. That is, Scripture versus Tradition, as in the evangelical Protestant scheme of things; or even Scripture and Tradition, as in Roman Catholicism. For us, Scripture and Tradition are not two different things. Rather, the Bible exists within the Tradition of the Church and is the heart and core of the Church’s written Tradition. Saint Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “Stand firm and hold fast to the Traditions which you were taught, whether by our preaching or by letter from us” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

The Bible is not primarily read in order to appropriate theological or doctrinal convictions or to set  moral, social or ethical norms; rather it is read in order to experience the life of communion that exists in God. Historically, this is how the Bible was approached by Dayaroye (i.e., monastics) and Ihidoye (i.e., ascetics) in the Orthodox tradition: as a means for personal spiritual edification, as a companion to achieve holistic personal growth, to reach deification or ‘theosis’. This means that the Orthodox Church’s attitude to the reading of scripture is in addition ‘personal’. The faithful consider the Bible as God’s personal letter sent specifically to each person.

In fact, Orthodox Christians read the Bible personally, but not as isolated individuals. We read it as members of a family, the family of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. We read it in communion with all the other members of the body of Christ in all parts of the world and in all generations of time. God does indeed speak directly to the heart of each one of us during the scripture readings, but this is always done within a framework and with a certain point of reference. The framework is the Kingdom of God, realized proleptically in Eucharistic Divine Liturgy, and the point of reference is the Church.

So it is therefore important to realize Orthodox Christians to adhere to the Holy Scriptures in the right perspective. Let us commend ourselves and each other to Christ our God, as individual members of the Body of Christ to transform ourselves into vessels of the Truth in faith and in holiness.