The Mutual Interdependence Of Bible And Liturgy

The official evidence for the authority and primacy of scripture is its canonisation as a sacred corpus in the Church's tradition over the first four centuries of church life.

What is the essential content and purpose of the Bible viewed theologically? If the Bible is God's word, what does God wish to communicate through scripture? Three aspects define the substance of the Bible. First is the narration of the great deeds or 'wonders' of God (megaleia theou, Acts 2:11), ranging from the act of creation to the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. These great acts of God form the bedrock of revelation on which everything else depends. A second aspect is the disclosure of the will of God recorded in the form of commands, theological truths, moral teachings and spiritual wisdom concerning God and salvation. At this level of teaching and guidance the Bible offers innumerable instructions and admonitions about a way of life that pleases God and leads to salvation. The third and deepest aspect of the Bible is personal encounter and communion with God. At this level, knowledge about God leads to immediate knowledge of God in his loving presence and power, through prayerful reading and worshipful hearing of God's word. The overarching purpose of scripture is not the mere conveyance of religious knowledge but rather the personal self-disclosure of and intimate communion with the mystery of God. Scripture is never an end in itself but a sacred road map pointing to a spiritual world;what the Church Fathers called 'true realities' (ta pragmata), at the heart of which is the mystery of Christ and new life in him.

But is not the Bible written in human words - Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek? How can it be speech from God and the word of God? The biblical authors themselves never seem to have considered the human factor in the composition of the Bible. Likewise some early Christian theologians, such as Athenagoras (second century), and very likely many ordinary believers, held a rather mechanistic view of inspiration. They believed that God whispered directly in the human author's ear just as the author's hand recorded God's exact words. In that case, the Bible would amount to a kind of enormous computer printout of the mind of God. Every word would have to be taken literally and absolutely; one would be committed to the literal historicity of all events in the Old Testament and the literal truth of all religious and moral instructions in the entire Bible. Such an approach to the scriptures creates a set of impossible intellectual and moral problems pertaining to biblical texts that speak about, for example, hatred and curses for enemies, the killing of children, human slavery, subservience of women to men and, of course, a literal seven-day creation.

In contrast to that approach, the preeminent Church Fathers of the fourth century - Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom - perceived an intrinsic human element behind the genesis of the Bible. The Bible is the word of God in human words.1 Without diminishing the divine inspiration of scripture in its saving message, those Fathers acknowledged that God's revelation inescapably involved human beings with intellectual and spiritual limitations. They assumed a dynamic view of inspiration that allows for the contingency of human understanding. Not every verse of the Bible is to be taken literally. To speak of scripture as the 'word' of God pertains not necessarily to every word of the Bible, but to the Bible's saving message and to those of its passages and verses that communicate its saving message in various degrees of clarity. For example, the Bible in places appears to teach straight predestination (Jn 12:39-40; Mk 4:11-12; Rom 8:29). John Chrysostom called such instances 'idioms' of scripture which must not be taken at face value; otherwise ideas unworthy of God would accrue,2 presenting him as an arbitrary and cruel tyrant. Again, in Revelation 20:2-4 we read about the expectation of a millennial Kingdom upon Christ's glorious return. But the major ancient interpreters from Origen to Gregory of Nyssa either entirely ignored this book or interpreted it symbolically. The Church eventually condemned the teaching of a literal millennium as a heresy. Furthermore, numerous texts of the Bible present women as being subservient to men. But Gregory the Theologian, when consulted by Emperor Theodosius on marriage and divorce, strongly argued by his interpretation of the underlying message of scripture that the same rights ought to be equally accorded to both men and women.3 These are but a few examples showing that the 'mind' (phronema) of the major Fathers with respect to biblical interpretation held a flexible view of the Bible as a divine and human book.

A paradigm for understanding the nature of scripture in its divine and human aspects is the Incarnation. Christ is the incarnate divine Word (Logos) who, by becoming human, experienced the whole range of human attributes and emotions such as physical growth, hunger, pain, joy, anger, sorrow and true death, apart from sin (Hebr 4:15,- 5:7). By analogy, though not to be pressed too far, the Bible is an incarnation of God's saving will embodied in human categories of language and expressions which are not necessarily inerrant in every detail but only in the underlying saving message. Scripture constitutes the image of truth or record of revelation in human words and not the original direct revelation behind the reported biblical events and narratives.4 The Bible is true and trustworthy in its theological and ethical teachings but not always inerrant in its specific historical and geographic data. Moreover, even theological and ethical passages must be assessed in the light of the Bible's governing purpose and saving message. John Chrysos-tom viewed scripture as God's humble accommodation (synkatabasis) to humanity out of love.5 The whole Bible is, to use another metaphor, a lowly manger of human concepts and language signifying the divine treasure of the mystery of the eternal Christ. In the end it is the Church, inspired by the same Spirit that moved the biblical authors, which has the final discernment and normative interpretation about what is historical and cultural and what is theological and binding in the scriptures.

Thus another definitive aspect of scripture is its ecclesial character. St Irenaeus of Lyons in the late second century argued powerfully that scripture belonged exclusively to the Church. Those outside of the Church had no right to it. Modern scholarship has corroborated the fact that the historical origins of the Bible, in both Israel and the Church, lie primarily in the respective communal memories and traditions celebrated in acts of worship and handed down by word of mouth over generations. For example, the Pentateuch and the Gospels largely incorporate oral traditions and interpretations first transmitted orally and eventually committed to writing. Justin Martyr referred to the Gospels as the 'memoirs' of the apostles. In the case of the apostle Paul, we have the composition of individual letters by a specific and known author. He too, however, lived, worked and wrote within the broad stream of the Jewish and Christian traditions. In fact part of Paul's distinct concern was firm adherence to developing Christian traditions (Rom 6:17,- 1 Cor 11:2; 15:3,- 2 Thess 2:15,- 3:6). The force of tradition behind the formation of the Bible is so enormous that scholars have mused whether the slogan 'the Bible alone' (sola scriptura) ought to be replaced with the slogan 'tradition alone' (sola traditio). But in fact, neither slogan is true because scripture and tradition are mutually interdependent.

That the Church is the foundational reality behind both scripture and tradition is abundantly evident. Memories and traditions neither arise nor endure without a community. When God called Abraham, God intended to create a community. When God summoned Moses to liberate Israel from Egypt, his goal was to establish a covenant people based on the gift of the Mosaic law. When Christ commissioned Paul on the Damascus road, he charged him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, calling them to join the one body of Christ, the Church. Divine revelation neither occurs in a vacuum nor is primarily addressed to individuals. God's word establishes and nurtures community. It is through community that God seeks to fulfil his purposes in history. In their mutual interdependence, scripture, tradition and Church cannot be played off against each other.

Those Christians who follow the Protestant Reformation rightly claim that the gospel is supreme. They draw, however, the debatable inference that the gospel itself established the Church and/or that the gospel stands above the Church and its tradition. The Orthodox view is different. In the Orthodox perspective, what established the Church was not the gospel as such, but the original acts of revelation experienced by specific men and women drawn together by the Spirit to form the early Church. The gospel as a saving message has intrinsic power but no voice of its own. There could be no gospel apart from Mary Magdalene, Peter, James, Paul, Barnabas and the others who proclaimed the good news. The opponents of Jesus, who put him to death as a religious and political troublemaker, were not about to advance his cause in the world. The ones who did proclaim him were the apostles and others who experienced the decisive acts of revelation and were thrust forward by the outpouring of God's Spirit. The gospel was never a disembodied, floating message that could exist or act apart from the Church in which it is lived and to which it leads. Moreover, empowering and increasing the Church, the gospel from earliest times was seen as tradition, indeed the heart of the apostolic tradition as St Paul declares, using the explicit language of paradosis or tradition (1 Cor 15:1-11 ).s

Nevertheless, the Church does not possess the Bible in such a way that it can do whatever it pleases with it, for example through virtual neglect or excessive allegorisation. That view would compromise the interdependence of scripture and Church. In its canonical status, scripture occupies the primacy among the Church's traditions. The gospel informs and empowers the soul of the Church. The Bible as the supreme record of revelation is the indisputable norm of the Church's faith and practice. The scriptures thereby bear God's authority and challenge the Church, making it accountable to the revealed will of God. The neglect of the Bible and the silencing of its prophetic witness are inimical to the Church's evangelical vibrancy and sense of mission in the world. Nothing in the Church must therefore contradict the teaching and spirit of the Bible. Everything in the Church must be in harmony with the scriptural witness.7 The Church in every generation is called to maintain the primacy and centrality of the Bible in its life, always attentive, repentant and obedient to God's word.


Scripture becomes truly scripture, a sacred text bearing a saving message, as it is used and applied in the life of faith. The Bible has always functioned in multiple ways for the building up of God's people, such as in worship, preaching, education, mission, personal devotions, daily life and theology. Where people enjoyed neither literacy nor access to costly editions of the Bible, God's word reached them through liturgical recitation, hymnology, iconographic depiction and the ministries of preaching and teaching. Space does not allow here extended examination of any of those aspects. Nonetheless, it is helpful to comment briefly on the various uses of scripture, their mutual connections and distinctive elements, as part of the role and function of scripture in the Church's living tradition guided by the Holy Spirit. Scripture becomes the living word of God insofar as it is believed, embraced, applied and enjoyed in communal and personal life.

The Church's central use of the Bible is liturgical, that is, in the context of worship where biblical events are remembered and enacted (anamnesis) in close connection with selected scriptural readings, preaching and teaching. Scripture and worship share strong connections in language and content. From ancient times, ritual has functioned as the context for the solemn recitation and celebration of God's great acts of salvation, while the descriptive content and language of ritual is incorporated in the composition of the texts of the Bible. Further, the use of the Bible in worship meant that the contents and language of scripture would saturate the developing liturgical traditions. The corpus of Orthodox liturgical texts today is astonishing in its scriptural witness and scripturally based theological richness. The distinctive element of the liturgical usage of scripture is its solemn recitation to the gathered assembly in the spirit of prayer and invocation of God's presence. In this context of worship, the chanted or recited word of God becomes actualised as God's living word, stirring hearts and transforming lives. However, the empowering experience of God's living word in worship can occur only to the degree that worshippers themselves are attentive and receptive to God's holy presence and word.

The homiletical use of scripture, namely preaching, is closely but not exclusively bound to worship. Of course worship can strengthen the impact of the homily, just as the inspired homily can enliven worship. The distinctive aspect of the homily lies in its evangelical meaning and spirit. The eucharistic liturgy finds its focus in the last supper. In parallel, the homily finds its integrity in the gospel, the kerygma or heralding of

God's message of salvation. Just as the gospel proclaims the death and resurrection of Christ, so also the eucharistic service enacts the gospel through solemn sacramental action. The gospel does not merely tell about salvation;it is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16). God's word carries with it God's power. Preaching reaches theological and spiritual integrity to the degree that it concentrates on God's saving activity in Christ, proclaims its blessings and invites hearers to respond with gratitude and obedience. Its efficacy is in part connected to the evangelical life and spirit of the homilist as an agent of the Spirit.

The catechetical use of scripture has its own distinctive aim, namely, instruction. The homily often carries catechetical elements just as catechesis ought to manifest evangelical aspects. The specific functions of each complement the other. They also differ in that the one stirs up faith by heralding God's word and the other nurtures the life of faith through teaching. In the Bible, the ministry of teaching and training is a divinely commanded ministry. For their part, the Church Fathers wrote not only doctrinal works but also catechetical commentaries and homilies for the education and pastoral nurture of the faithful and the catechumens prior to baptism. According to the Church Fathers, Christ himself is the supreme instructor (paidagogos), while the Bible is the textbook for Christian 'training' (paideia). Inasmuch as scripture and theology involve knowledge and wisdom, the ministry of biblical teaching is of enormous importance.

The devotional use of the Bible marks one of the richest traditions that Christianity derived from Judaism. The prayerful reading of the scriptures became a major part of the early monastic tradition.8 For example, in Atha-nasius's Life of St Anthony, three pillars are said to define monastic life in this order: Christ, scripture and ascesis (the monastic discipline).9 But the Church Fathers urged the regular reading of the Bible by all Christians. To read the Bible is, according to Chrysostom, to open the gates of heaven. Through prayerful scriptural reading, Chrysostom taught, hearts responsive to God's word are transformed from clay to gold.10 One partakes of the mystery of Christ, 'eating' the bread of God's word, as one partakes of the same mystery of Christ by consuming the bread of the Eucharist. The distinctive context for the meditative reading of scripture is that of concentrated prayerfulness. Times of prayer and scriptural reading become times of personal revelation through encounter with God's living word. In worship this happens as a corporate experience, whereas in devotional reading it is intimately personal. In both ways, through his word, God spiritually intervenes, speaks, convicts, forgives, illuminates, renews and lifts up the believer into the company of the saints and the angels. True worship and biblical reading mutually enhance each other. Together with instruction, the liturgical and devotional uses of scripture transform receptive men and women into 'living Bibles' (empsychoi bibloi) embodying the scriptural witness in their daily lives.

Another crucial use of the Bible is theological or doctrinal. Doctrine has to do with normative principles and teachings that define the dogmatic framework of the faith critical to the unity of the Church. In the patristic tradition, St Irenaeus was the first great defender of the faith against those who claimed to have an authentic secret tradition.11 His primary line of defence was to invoke the Church's 'rule of faith', grounded in the apostolic tradition and the apostolic interpretation of the Old Testament heritage. The 'rule of faith' was not some vague theological awareness but a doctrinal sense of clarity pertaining to foundational beliefs. Examples are that God the Father is the sole true God and Creator of the universe, that the Old Testament is holy scripture, that the Son of God truly took on flesh, died a true death, and rose from the dead in a transformed body, and that the human body and all of creation are intrinsically good and redeemable. All of these major teachings, often disputed by heretical teachers, defined the content of the Church's doctrinal sensibilities in the heat of controversy. The theological interpretation of scripture continued in subsequent centuries, especially during the great christological and trinitarian debates. Those debates centred on the interpretation of biblical texts and ended with the formulation of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. In scope and content the Creed is but an official theological manifesto, a normative doctrinal framework of the faith, based on the Bible and summing up the Church's binding teaching pertaining to God and salvation. Both the Creed and the theological tradition behind it constitute the substance of the Church's theology. In biblical interpretation, the appeal to the Church Fathers or to the 'mind' of the Church is essentially an appeal to the authority of the Church's normative doctrinal tradition pertaining to core issues of the faith. It is not intended to restrict scholarship and creativity. A rigid traditionalism based on scripture ought not to be replaced by a rigid traditionalism based on the Church Fathers and an inflexible view of tradition that would preclude use of critical non-biblical words such as homoousios ('of one substance') in the Creed.12

The scholarly use of scripture is not a modern development. It has important precedents particularly in Origen, Irenaeus, Athanasius, the three Cappadocians, Didymus the Blind, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Cyril of Alexandria and others. The Church Fathers were notable scholars of the Bible in their own right. Although the focus of their study of the Bible was the pastoral edification of God's people, the patristic tradition also demonstrates rich intellectual curiosity in pursuing biblical and theological knowledge for the sake of truth. The Fathers used contemporary methodologies derived from the Greek and Jewish traditions, properly qualified by theological criteria, to explore the depths of scripture. Convinced of the universal significance of the truth of scripture and the universal mission of the Church, they did not shrink from engaging the contemporary intellectual world philosophically and philologically. A striking example is Gregory of Nazianzus, also known as 'the Theologian' (fourth century). In the struggle between the Church and Emperor Julian's failed rejuvenation of paganism, the emperor tried in vain to prohibit the use of the Hellenic heritage by Christians. Gregory loudly protested that no one was about to cut him off from the intellectual discourse (logos) of his culture.13

Today Orthodox theologians who concentrate on biblical studies engage in the whole array of critical methodologies and discussions in international biblical scholarship. Orthodox biblical scholarship, not without creative tensions, has been established in Orthodox seminaries and universities as a field with its own integrity, but with a close eye on the patristic exegetical tradition.14 In view of certain radical developments in liberal biblical studies, Orthodox scholars are aware that they must not repeat the mistakes of their Western colleagues.15 Suffice it here to say that scholarship has a wholly positive purpose, namely, to explore the wealth of scripture and offer its riches to the Church and to the world. Scholarship in the Church, as in the case of the great Fathers, has a guiding role in the explication of texts and analysis of theological issues for the sake of clear teaching and the spiritual health of the Church's life. Orthodox biblical scholarship finds its true patristic character when it is integrated with all the above uses of scripture in the context of the Church's life, where the biblical message is enacted and actualised by the indwelling of Christ and the Holy Spirit. The Orthodox define the essence of tradition as the communal experience of salvation itself, the living and continuous presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church's ongoing life. The ultimate goal of all the above uses of scripture, including the scholarly use, is to let the scriptures speak afresh with God's explosive and transforming word.

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  • Bungo Goldworthy
    How pragmata contribute to theology?
    2 years ago

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