Friday, March 6, 2009
Orthodox Christians and the Scriptures
(DISCLAIMER: The following post is not intended to be critical of, much less to condemn, my fellow Orthodox Christians. The intention is rather to point out something that I see as a problem and then later, to propose one or more possible solutions. If this post offends you, I ask your forgiveness.)
Here’s an experiment to try: This Sunday, stand outside the door of an Orthodox parish in your town, near the end of the Divine Liturgy. When the service ends, select ten departing worshippers at random. Give them a test of basic biblical knowledge.
The test should not cover mere Bible trivia (with questions like “Who were Shiprah and Puah in the book of Exodus?” or “In which three books of the Bible is Melchizedek named?”), but an overview of significant content (like, for example, “What are the nine fruits of the Spirit that Paul says we should display?” or “What was the problem addressed by the Jerusalem Council, and how did it resolve that problem?”)
Now: Next Sunday, do the same thing at the main morning worship service at a Southern Baptist church. Which group do you think would achieve a higher average score on the test? Sad to say, but I’m pretty sure that if you were to repeat this in ten different cities, the Baptists would win in at least nine (if not in all ten).
Nearly four weeks ago, I posted a series of quotations from St. John Chrysostom on the importance of the Holy Scriptures. These quotations had been annotated and sent to me by my Bishop, +BASIL of Wichita and Mid-America. The post generated some excellent discussion, and I would now like to follow up on that discussion (at long last).
One of the quotations from Chrysostom had the annotation “Ignorance of the Scriptures by Christians is a disgrace,” and it read as follows: "Is it not strange that those who sit in the marketplace tell the names, and races, and cities and talents of charioteers and dancers, even accurately state the good and bad qualities of horses, while those who assemble in this place [the church] understand nothing of what is taking place here and even are ignorant of the number of the [sacred] Books?" (Hom. 32 On John)
To this quote, I added my own thought: "I would add that it is also disgraceful that most evangelical Christians know their Bibles inside and out, but most of us Orthodox do not."
I stand behind my words. Based on my experience, the average evangelical Christian knows the Bible much better than does the average Orthodox Christian. Why is this? The simple answer is that the average evangelical Christian READS the Bible much more often and in more depth than does his Orthodox counterpart. But this further begs the question, “Why?”
My friend, frequent reader and commenter, and future godson Clint offered the following explanation: “One thing is that we have to remember that Evangelicals believe that the scripture is THE Word of God and therefore find life within the written pages of the Bible. Orthodoxy teaches that Jesus Christ is THE Word. Perhaps the Protestants are so intent on the scriptures because they are looking for life, and since they don't really find it (at least in its fullness) they devour the scriptures, thinking that they are missing something. Orthodox (and I can only presume Catholics), since they have a different relationship with scripture don't have that same "drive" to absorb it. We tend to be content with the ritual of our Faith.”
I think Clint is right on target. To help us grow spiritually, we Orthodox are encouraged to read at least four types of spiritual writings: the Bible, the writings of the Fathers, the lives of the Saints, and writings of contemporary Orthodox theologians (Schmemann, Meyendorff, Ware, Lossky, and so on). Evangelicals, on the other hand, only read two of these: The Bible and writings of contemporary authors (albeit evangelicals). To be sure, they do sometimes read biographies of some of their saints (oops, sorry—I meant to say “heroes of the faith”), but these books do not mean as much to them as the saints’ lives do to us.
To think about it strictly mathematically, the Scriptures are 50% of what Evangelicals are encouraged to read, while they are only 25% of what we are encouraged to read. In other words, if you ask an Orthodox person what he or she is reading right now (assuming the answer is not “nothing”), there is only a 1 in 4 chance that it will be part of the Bible, while for an Evangelical, it will be a 1 in 2 chance. All this is oversimplified, but I think you get the point.
Granted, for us Orthodox Christians, the Bible is not “everything,” as it is for Evangelicals. But that doesn’t mean knowing it (and knowing it WELL) is not important. The Bible is still the most important part of Holy Tradition. I believe that many, if not most, Orthodox Christians do not spend enough time reading and studying the Scriptures, and that this is a big problem.
So what do YOU think? Have I overstated the problem? Do you think that Orthodox Christians read the Bible enough? Are they familiar enough with its content? As my friend Fr. Gregory Jensen always says, “Your comments, questions and criticisms are not only welcome, they are actively sought.” For now, let’s limit ourselves to a discussion of the problem (if indeed one exists), and next time, we’ll try to come up with solutions. Fair enough?
What say you?