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?


Mark G. said...

Nice post, & a fair assessment of the Catholic situation, too, I think. Most have very, very poor understanding of the storyline of the Scriptures, as well as the basic principles the Church holds for its interpretation.

Your point is on the money, though: the Baptist may be able to quote their favorite translation from cover to cover, but since they are largely separated from Sacred Tradition, they havn't the means to understand what they read, at least in fullness. Thus arise all kinds of errors.

I believe it was St. Pope Pius X (forgive me if I've gotten that wrong) who said that it was not required for the faithful to study the Scriptures, for everything they needed to know for their salvation would be provided by Holy Mother Church; but he added that it could be useful to do so.

Clint said...

I think you are right on. (Thanks for the prominent quote props, btw).

While I am not really a numbers guy, I think your 50%, 25% comparison is valid.

As an illustration of the Evangelical viewpoint of the scripture, let me pass along a recent blog post conversation in which I took part (not on this site, of course).

The discussion led to someone making the comment that the pen is mightier than the sword. Several quick responses made the point that without a sword behind it, the pen wasn't really that strong (or something to that effect).

Within moments some evangelical person posted the biblical passage (1 Peter 1:24-25, quoting from Isaiah 40) that says:

Right there, the Evangelical was saying that the written word (the pen) was mightier than the sword.

As Orthodox, don't we believe that the verse I quoted is referring to Christ Himself?

I don't mean to get too far afield from the topic at hand. I just thought this illustrated the difference in view between the Orthodox and the Evangelical on this topic.

I do think that Mark makes a great point that even though the Evangelical may have much biblical knowledge, divorced from the Church and tradition, it is of limited value. Only within the confines of the Church can all of that knowledge be really understood.

So I guess my point (which I am sure agrees with Fr. James' point) is that it would be just peachy if the Orthodox could spend the time to learn the scripture as well intellectually as the Evangelical does. With our proper context, it would be a dynamic and powerful thing.

Fr. Christian Mathis said...

Thanks for this post Fr. James. I have been asking the same question with reference to Roman Catholics. What is it that keeps us from delving more deeply and more frequently into the Scripture? It certainly is not our tradition as St. Jerome reminds us, "Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ."

There is some truth in what you have posted here in that evangelicals do not rely on Tradition, so it makes sense they would focus more on the Scripture. My question is more of what can be done not to change the emphasis on things such as the Sacraments, but how we can encourage in Catholics and in your case, the Orthodox to add more to their spiritual life through the frequent reading and reflecting upon the Bible.

Paul said...

I've read my Bible cover to cover twice in my life and of course pieces of it numerous times. There are 27 books in the NT. (I just went and counted). If you want the OT too, you need to tell me which version of the Bible I should count from.

There are 9 fruits of the spirit?You mean I was supposed to count them all and remember the number? I thought I was just supposed to enact them.

I do beleive also there is an Orthodox lazy faire (poor spelling intended) when it comes to reading or even knowing the Bible. I think many of us converts have a lot to offer from our PC upbringing.

I have co workers who are part of AWANA, the Baptist scripture memorizing club and though I can't always quote word for word as they can, I do retain more of the story of what they just quoted and can out-explain their verse to them.

Other than that, See Mark's and Clint's posts.

Katrina said...

A few things...

How much Scripture do you really need to know? What is St. John referring to? It can't be rote memorization. Think about the pilgrim from "The Way of the Pilgrim". He spent his whole spiritual journey based on St. Paul's three simple words - pray without ceasing. Those three words, the Jesus prayer and the Philokalia made up his spiritual life.

Here's another issue. What if you can't read? My cradle Orthodox ancestors could not read in their own native tongue. They depended solely on listening to the Gospel at church. Would St. John speak against them? Now these cradle Orthodox come to the new world, and raise their children in the Church as they were raised which is: learn the Gospel from your priest. And although now these children of the immigrants can now read, it has already been taught to them that the Scriptures are to be learned in church.

I always feel the need to defend the cradle Orthodox. I don't think converts really understand the underlying culture. It is not simply that they don't want to know the Scriptures, it is that the Scriptures, for us, were to be heard and understood within the Church atmosphere.

It is going to take time for cradle Orthodox Christians to catch up. As I mentioned before in my other posts, the Orthodox Study Bible is a HUGE help.

Maybe this little story will help everyone feel better and show that cradles are making some headway.

Last year when the new version of the OSB came out, I had to order 4 cases! Considering that my parish is about 85% cradle and the average age is close to 60 that's pretty darn good. On a normal Sunday we have about 80 people.

Trust me, I could go on and on about the plight of the cradle Orthodox Christian trying to assimilate into the American culture and the damage it has done to the lives of many. I lived it and know it. Be kind to your local cradle. Most of our families have been here for a 100 years or less.

Fr. James Early said...

Thank you all for your comments. This has been very good discussion.

Mark, I agree with what you said, but I would respectfully disagree with Pope Pius X. From an Orthodox perspective, we would not agree that it is not required to study the Scriptures. In fact, I would argue (again, no disrespect intended) that this was a later innovation of the medieval Western Church. Early Western Fathers such as Augustine, Jerome, and Ambrose all stressed the importance of reading and studying the Scriptures, just at did Chrysostom. What we Orthodox WOULD say is that it IS necessary to study the Scriptures and know them well, but it is certainly NOT necessary to try to come up with novel interpretations, like many Protestants tend to do. I'm sure the RCC would agree with that.

Clint, as usual, you and I agree 100%. Your point about the meaning of the word "word" in the Scriptures is a good one. I heard a well-informed Orthodox scholar (I think it was either Fr. Hopko or Dr. Constantinou) say that the Greek and Hebrew words "rema," "logos," and "davar" only mean the WRITTEN word of God ONE time in all of the Scriptures (sadly, I can't remember which time!).

Fr. Christian, I share your concerns, and I am going to attempt to discuss these issues in one or more future posts.

Paul, there is no question that getting to know the Scriptures involves much more than just being able to quote them. To be fair to the Evangelicals, most of them DO try to go beyond the surface, and really get to know them, with the main end of applying them to their lives. But, as I and all the commenters have pointed out, they often arrive at erroneaous conclusions due to their being disconnected from Holy Tradition.

Katrina, I am going to address your concerns in a separate comment.

Katrina said...

Uh-oh. What have I done!

Fr. James Early said...


My post was in no way intended to be a criticism of cradle Orthodox. I don't believe I singled them out at all. But if I did give the impression that it is cradle Orthodox that are the ones deficient in reading the Scriptures, please forgive me. We converts to Orthodoxy owe a great debt to all the Greeks, Russians, Arabs, Serbs, Romanians, and others who sacrificed so greatly to bring Orthodoxy to America so that people like me would have an Orthodox church to convert to.

Both converts and cradles (and Catholics too, so it seems from the comments of our Roman Catholic brothers), in my opinion are (in general) guilty of being ignorant of the teachings of the Scriptures.

How much Scripture do you need to know? I would answer, "as much as you can." Most of us, if not all, have a long way to go before we reach that.

As far as the Pilgrim in Way of the Pilgrim, I believe he also carried a New Testament with him, if my memory serves me correctly. But even if he didn't, the experience of this one pilgrim doesn't invalidate the unanimous teachings of the Fathers (Chrysostom wasn't the only one who urged people to study the Scriptures; I just focused on him because his teaching so well summarizes the overall testimony of the Fathers).

As for people who can't read, obviously they cannot be held responsible for not reading the Scriptures. (Although Chrysostom didn't even accept the inability to read as an excuse for not knowing the Scriptures; more on that later).

Regarding the cradle ancestors you mentioned, they are to be commended for doing the best they could. However, I was not talking about them in my post--I was talking about US. Asking "what about people who can't read?" is a little bit of a straw man, because the overwhelming majority of us today (particulaly in the U.S.) CAN read -- we just don't.

Forgive me.

Katrina said...

Dear Father James and fellow followers,

Forgive me.

I checked my "Way of the Pilgrim" and he did have a Bible. I was wrong which happens quite frequently unfortunately.

What I don't understand is where exactly was everyone supposed to study Scripture? Did people have personal copies of Scripture in their homes in the 4th century?
I honestly don't know. I am just assuming that people were coming to church and just not listening to the Gospel.

I didn't think you were attacking cradles, although I have seen on other places on the Internet, cradles get scoffed at because of their lack of knowledge of the Scriptures beyond what is known through the church services. I was trying, although quite poorly, to show the cultural issues behind this problem. I'll try to take the chip off my shoulder.

Finally, I didn't mean to come across as a smart alec with the illiteracy comment. That was meant to show where some cradles are descended from. I worded it terribly and should not have brought St. John into it for his opinion on the matter. Certainly today in America, where the literacy rate is probably close to 100% I would think, that illiteracy is not the issue. Choosing to do a billion other things over reading our Bibles is the issue. It's all about how we chose to spend our "free" time. Do we choose to spend it with Christ or do we spend it anywhere else but with Him. I am constantly choosing Babylon over Him.

Forgive me all. I obviously have a lot to work on this Lenten season.