The Church: Reading the Scriptures
The unfolding of your words gives light. (Psalm 119:130)
We all know how important it is to read the Bible in our journey towards union with God. It’s right up there with fasting, praying, and partaking in the Eucharist. As St. Clement of Alexandria puts it, “for those who have chosen to major in holiness, there is special training in the Word.”
But what if you don’t feel like it…
You feel like you have too many things to get done to read today
You’re too tired or are feeling lazy and just want to put it off
Well St. John Chrysostom has this to say to you:
What on earth are you saying? … that’s the very reason why you need to read the Bible! The more worries you have, the more you need the Bible to keep you going! People like monks and nuns who have left the troubles of the world behind are quite safe; they are like ships sailing on a calm sea, or moored in a quiet harbor. But you are in the middle of this godless world’s stormy sea, and so you need spiritual help and sustenance far more urgently. They live far from the battlefield, out of the sound of gunfire; but you are in the front line, face to face with the enemy, and you are bound to suffer frequent blows and be severely wounded. So you need the medicine-chest close at hand.
But let’s not just focus on why we should do it… let’s also remember why we want to do it.
There are more quotes than you can believe on this topic basically saying the same thing:
Constant meditation upon the holy Scriptures will perpetually fill the soul with incomprehensible ecstasy and joy in God
-St. Isaac the Syrian
I don’t know about you but ecstasy and joy in God sound like things worth pursuing!
So we know that we should read the Scriptures and even maybe want to read them, but now let’s turn our attention to how one should read.
Do not approach the words of the mysteries contained in the Scriptures without prayer and without asking for God’s help. Say, “Lord, grant that I may receive an awareness of the power that is within them.” Consider prayer to be the key to the understanding of truth in Scripture, says St. Isaac the Syrian.
The Church teaches us the importance of praying before reading the Scriptures as this concept is built into the liturgy itself. Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes in his book, The Eucharist:
The celebrant reads the prayer before the gospel, in which he asks God to send down the “pure light of Your divine knowledge. Open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of Your gospel teachings.” This prayer, which is now read silently, occupies the same place in the sacrament of the word that the epiklesis, the supplication for the Father to send down His Holy Spirit, occupies in the eucharistic prayer. Like the consecration of the gifts, understanding and acceptance of the word depend not on us, not only on our desire, but above all on the sacramental transformation of the “eyes of our mind,” on the coming to us of the Holy Spirit. The blessing that the priest bestows on the deacon as he is about to read the gospel testifies to this: “May God…enable you to proclaim the glad tidings with great power, to the fulfillment of the gospel…”
Read with the Fathers
The Church believes that it has one source of revelation: the Tradition of the Church.
It is important to understand that the Scriptures were given to us as part of this One Holy Tradition. If someone were to say, “I believe in the infallibility of the Scriptures” we should respond, “me too, but as long as they are explained by the fathers and lived by the saints.”
Throughout the ages, heresies have occurred when someone interprets the Scriptures using their own mind outside of the Tradition of the Church. This is why we need to read the Scriptures with the Church Fathers, and with consensus patrum, the agreement between the Fathers as to the correct interpretation.
St. Ignatii Brianchaninov sums up the matter nicely:
You ask: Why is it necessary to read the Holy Fathers? Is it not enough to be guided by the Holy Scriptures as the pure Word of God, without any admixture of human words?
And I reply: Reading the Holy Writ, one also has to read the Holy Fathers of the Church. St. Peter says this concerning Scripture: “No prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (II Peter 1:20,21). So how do you wish to interpret arbitrarily the spiritual words which were uttered not from one’s own will, but as prompted by the Spirit and which, as such, prohibit any arbitrary interpretation. It is the Spirit who uttered the Scripture, and it is he alone who can interpret it. It was committed to paper by men inspired by God, the prophets and the apostles; and men inspired by God, the Holy Fathers, have interpreted it. Therefore, everyone who wished to have the true understanding of the Holy Scriptures must also read the Holy Fathers. For should you confine yourselves to reading the Scripture alone, you will try to understand and interpret it arbitrarily. And misconceptions will be unavoidable, because “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God… neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. Even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God” (I Cor. 2:14,11)… The Universal Church…has always had particular respect for the patristic writings, for they preserved the common Church tradition which had to have a commonly accepted, true and grace-giving interpretation of the Scriptures…
Read Between the Lines
The goal of reading the Bible should not be to read the Bible.
Reading the Bible should be a means to bring us into closer intimacy with Whom it is about.
We don’t worship the words of the Bible but rather the Word of God Himself.
When you read the Scriptures, do not have in mind to read page after page, but ponder over each word. When some words make you go deep into yourself, or stir you to contrition, or fill your heart with spiritual joy and love, pause on them. It means that God draws near to you.
St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain
Just as God became incarnate and met us where we were, God veils Himself in the different versions and languages of the Bible. There is really no ‘correct’ version or proper language in which to read the Bible (although some are preferred because they are closer to the original translation). St. John Chrysostom affirms this by saying
“As when God became man in Bethlehem the eternal Word became flesh, so in the Bible the glory of God veils itself in the fleshly garment of human thought and human language.”
What’s more is that just as we eat His flesh and drink His blood in the Holy Eucharist, we partake of Him in the same way in the reading of the Scriptures. Paul Evdokimov writes, “While reading Scripture, the Fathers read not words, but the living Christ, and Christ spoke to them. They consumed words in the manner of the Eucharistic bread and wine, and the word appeared to them in its Christ dimension.”
So let us read the Scriptures with a new desire for Him and a yearning for Him to open our understanding that we might comprehend them.
I will leave you with the following passage from Kallistos Ware’s, The Orthodox Way,
The real purpose of Bible study is…to feed our love for Christ, to kindle our hearts into prayer, and to provide us with guidance in our personal life. The study of words should give place to an immediate dialogue with the living Word himself. “Whenever you read the Gospel,” says St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, “Christ himself is speaking to you. And while you read, you are praying and talking with him.” In this way Orthodox are encouraged to practice a slow and attentive reading of the Bible, in which our study leads us directly into prayer.
Check out Part VI
(Photo courtesy of Justin Sebastian)
Many of the quotes from this post came from this book: Philokalia: The Bible Orthodox Spirituality and if you want to learn more about the One Holy Tradition of the Church I encourage you to check out St. Cyril’s Society Online Certificate in Orthodox Mission