The Interpretation Of Scripture

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The study of scripture is best accomplished with love for the Bible and accompanied by spiritual interests in harmony with its nature and message. But 'the word of God is not fettered' (2 Tim 2:9). Countless women and men throughout the centuries have read the scriptures for comfort and direction without concern for formal matters of interpretation. Indeed most people, even preachers, usually read and interpret the Bible by means of free association within the community they live in and the body of knowledge they possess at any given time. Nevertheless, the issue of interpretation is critical to the integrity of biblical truth and the unity and soundness of the Church. Because Christians have been divided over the interpretation of scripture, it is all the more important to acknowledge the necessity of careful reflection on the principles and presuppositions of interpretation as part of the ecumenical dialogue and the pursuit of unity in obedience to Jesus' prayer (Jn 17:20-1). Of course, here is not the place for an analysis of 'hermeneutics', the art and science of biblical interpretation.16 What follows, leaving aside debatable points, is a bare sketch of how the Church Fathers approached scripture and how contemporary Orthodox scholars have discussed this task.

It is important first to note that the Orthodox approach to scripture is not determined by commitment to any particular methodology or ideological bent. Rather the chief concern is how to be faithful to the revelatory witness of scripture, and its authentic application in the life of the Church, in harmony with the scripture's own purpose, nature and saving message. The approach of the Church Fathers combined both spiritual dispositions and interpretative principles. The spiritual dispositions included love of God, love of his word, faith, true repentance, prayer, cleansing of the heart, a life of evangelical virtue and a ceaseless striving after perfection in the image and likeness of Christ. Those aspects were viewed as absolutely necessary presuppositions for a personal encounter with God and communion with him, the essence of biblical study. Without such dispositions, St Symeon the New Theologian taught, the Bible in its spiritual treasures remains a closed book even to its most erudite scholars.

The interpretative principles that can be gleaned from the patristic exegetical heritage may be summed up as follows: (1) acknowledgement of the authority, primacy and unity of the scriptures according to God's inspiration and providence; (2) the centrality of the mystery of Christ as the decisive criterion of interpretation,-^) harmonious interdependence between scripture, tradition and church; (4) seamless coherence of theology, spirituality and daily life; (5) the importance of the 'rule of faith' and the accompanying theological tradition in interpretation,-(6) creative use of available methodologies with emphasis on spirit rather than letter;

(7) attention to the contextual intent of scripture interpreted in the light of its governing purpose (skopos) and narrative coherence (akolouthia);

(8) full accessibility of the scriptures to the faithful and use of scripture for their pastoral benefit; and (9) the role of the ongoing living tradition as normative interpretative agent ultimately expressed through church councils and their reception by the whole Church.

Orthodox scholars in modern times have shown unwavering commitment to the above guidelines. The challenge has been how to reclaim the patristic heritage effectively in the context of modern culture in order to advance the mission of the Church. Georges Florovsky, perhaps the foremost Orthodox theologian of the twentieth century, raised the issue in a 1936 proposal for a 'Neo-patristic synthesis'.17 Florovsky's proposal was essentially a plea for moving beyond rigid traditionalism to a more creative theology in the encounter with modern realities. What was needed, according to Florovsky, was to follow the 'mind' (phronema) of the Church Fathers rather than slavishly to quote them. The 'mind' of the Fathers was for him an integration of spirituality and scholarship anchored in the fullness of the gospel and the life of the Church, yet permitting self-criticism and creativity.18 Florovsky did not take up the specifics of the hermeneutical task but wrote valuable theological essays on biblical topics expounding dynamic views of scripture, revelation, inspiration, interpretation, tradition and the Church.19

Some forty years later, John Romanides advocated a striking theological and biblical hermeneutic based on the model of the charismatic saint.20 He defined the saint as one who has already achieved deification (theosis) in the present life. According to Romanides, only such living deified saints, who have experienced the spiritual realities to which the scriptures testify, can function as unerring agents of biblical interpretation and all other theological discourse besides. In later decades, John Breck has placed the emphasis not on individual saints but on the charisma of spiritual vision (theoria) itself. For him, theoria manifests the attribute of receptivity and spiritual perception of God's saving presence, the essence of the witness of scripture, supremely experienced in worship.21 Breck finds modern historical methodology virtually useless, but the use of allegory, typology and chiasmus valuable, in that regard. Rather than looking to modern biblical scholarship, according to Breck, the true meaning and saving significance of the Bible can be apprehended only within the 'closed hermeneutical circle' of scripture and tradition in the life of the Church.22 Savas Agourides and his student Petros Vassiliadis have found the key in worship itself, particularly the eucharistic liturgy. Here is the living tradition of truth where the narrated events and verities of scripture are celebrated and actualised. For Vassiliadis, the 'eucharistic criterion' is 'perhaps the only criterion' crucial to the approach to the Bible by the Orthodox: 'the way they know, receive, and interpret the Bible; the way they are inspired and nourished by the Bible'.23

Additional paradigms open a wider horizon. John Panagopoulos laid out a form of an ecclesial model grounded in the Church Fathers but taking modern biblical studies quite seriously.24 He named his proposal 'christolo-gical, biblical, and ecclesial'. Its cornerstone is the classic mystery of the human and divine natures of Christ. On that christological basis, according to Panagopoulos, one and the same biblical text ought to be approached both historically and theologically. Historically the text must be entirely accessible to honest critical study according to the standards of historical and literary criticism. Theologically the text ought to lead the interpreter beyond the diverse results of exegesis to the unified transcendent reality of scripture's spiritual world signified by the text. That mystical reality, when scripture is read and taught, is actualised in both the practice and worship of the Church, 'the living Bible of Christ', which is identical to scripture in function and witness, manifesting the same mystery of Christ. More recently, John McGuckin has offered another form of ecclesial paradigm.2 5 Calling it an 'ecclesial reading' of scripture, in tune with the collective 'song' of the Church's living tradition, he lays it out as a reliable option over against the 'chaos' of modern biblical studies. McGuckin explicates this 'ecclesial reading' in terms of three principles. The 'principle of consonance' marks a spiritual and moral connection between contemporary and ancient interpreters achieved by mutual communion in the Spirit. The 'principle of authority' leads to required respect for the apostolic heritage, expressed particularly in the rule of faith, as guide to interpretation. The 'principle of utility' applies to the usefulness of the study of the Bible for the actual life of the Church, namely, the pastoral nurture of God's people through preaching, a primary patristic concern.

The above Orthodox scholars are deeply committed to the Orthodox tradition of faith and learning. While they come at the hermeneutical task from various angles, they share a theological outlook that is built on common foundations: the centrality of the Church and its traditions, the unquestioned authority of the scriptures, profound respect for the Church Fathers, the inseparability of spiritual life and academic work, high concern for doctrinal truth, and disquiet over the disruptive impact of modern biblical studies. To proceed further, several things are necessary. The first is to establish a tradition of constructive scholarly conversation towards a commonly defined Orthodox hermeneutic. Another is to recognise that, despite the radicals and revisionists in modern biblical studies, there are many more biblical scholars, committed believers, and people of the Church who take very seriously the authority of scripture and the classic Christian tradition, and strive mightily to speak a word from God to the Church and the world today. In the face of secularism and pluralism, scholars from diverse backgrounds who share such commitments have every reason and responsibility to work together and learn from each other in obedience and witness to Christ. Still another need is for Orthodox hermeneutical proposals to refer far more specifically to the actual exege-tical issues arising from the biblical texts themselves,-and this should be done in conversation with Western colleagues who have wrestled with the same or related exegetical issues.26 Orthodox scholars have much to learn as they also have much to teach.

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