Scripture


The second chapter of Father Georges Florovsky’s Bible, Church, Tradition,* entitled “Revelation and Interpretation,” having discussed the historical and personal nature of revelation, continues by noting the intimate relationship between God and human beings found in the Covenant, an intimacy that culminates in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

In the Bible we see not only God, but man too. It is the revelation of God, but what is actually revealed is God’s concern about man. God reveals himself to man, “appears” before him, “speaks” and converses with him so as to reveal to man the hidden meaning of his own existence. (21)

Moreover, Scripture also shows us the human response to God, so that the Bible is not only the voice of God, but also “the voice of man answering him” ensuring that “human response is integrated into the mystery of the Word of God.” (21) Yet,

…all this intimacy does not compromise divine sovereignty and transcendence. God is “dwelling in light unapproachable” (1 Tim. 6.16). This light, however, “lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (John 1.9). This constitutes the mystery, or the “paradox” of the revelation. (21)

Revelation comprises a “living historical web,” which is not so much “a system of divine oracles” as “a system of divine deeds,” the climax of which occurred when God entered human history Himself. Yet revelation is also “the book of human destiny,” and human beings belong organically to its story, and “the whole human fate is condensed and exemplified in the destiny of Israel, old and new, the chosen people of God, a people for God’s own possession.” (22) While this election is specific, it is orientated to the ultimate purpose of universal salvation.

The redeeming purpose is ever universal indeed, but it is being accomplished always by means of separation, selection or setting apart. In the midst of human fall and ruin a sacred oasis is erected by God. The Church is also an oasis still, set apart, though not taken out of the world. For again this oasis is not a refuge or shelter only, but rather a citadel, a vanguard of God. (22)

Moreover, there is a centre in the Biblical story and “the distinction between the two Testaments belongs itself to the unity of the Biblical revelation.” (22) The two Testaments are organically linked together, and “primarily in the person of Christ.” Jesus Christ belongs to both Testaments; He fulfils the old and inaugurates the new because – as the archē and telos – He is the very centre of the Bible.

The Old Testament is therefore ultimately to be understood as “a book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.” (23) It was the time of prophecy and expectation, but the whole story was prophetical or “typical” – and the promise has been accomplished.

The history of flesh and blood is closed. The history of the Spirit is disclosed: “Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (John 1.17). But it was an accomplishment, not destruction of the old. Vetus Testamentum in Novo patet [The Old Testament extends into the New]. And patet means precisely: is revealed, disclosed, fulfilled. Therefore the books of the Hebrews are still sacred, even for the new Israel of Christ – not to be left out or ignored. They tell us the story of salvation, Magnalia Dei. They do still bear witness to Christ. They are to be read in the Church as a book of sacred history, not to be transformed into a collection of proof-texts or of theological instances (loci theologici), nor into a book of parables. Prophecy has been accomplished and law has been superseded by grace. But nothing has passed away. In sacred history, “the past” does not mean simply “passed” or “what had been,” but primarily that which had been accomplished and fulfilled. Fulfilment is the basic category of revelation. (23)

* This post forms part of a series in which I hope to blog my way through Father Florovsky’s Collected Works, of which this book forms the first volume. Like the other volumes, it is out of print and only available at exorbitant prices on Amazon. However, there are PDFs floating around on the Internet, which I would encourage interested readers to track down.

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In the hope that this series doesn’t simply go the way of other good intentions, I am going to try and continue to work my way through Father Georges Florovsky’s Bible, Church, Tradition.* The posts may become somewhat shorter and deal with less material at a time, we shall just have to see what happens…

The second chapter of this book is entitled “Revelation and Interpretation” and, like the other chapters, first appeared as a separate article. It begins by questioning what the Bible is, whether it has a message as a whole, and to whom it is addressed. Father Florovsky notes that the Bible as a whole was the creation of a community; it is a selection of texts that were selected for a particular purpose, namely, “that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name. (John 20.30-31)” While the message comes from God, “it is the faithful community that acknowledges the Word spoken and testifies to its truth.” (18) The book is inextricably bound up with the community.

The book and the Church cannot be separated. The book and the Covenant belong together, and Covenant implies people. It was the People of the Covenant to whom the Word of God had been entrusted under the old dispensation (Rom. 3.2), and it is the Church of the Word Incarnate that keeps the message of the Kingdom. The Bible is the Word of God indeed, but the book stands by the testimony of the Church. (18)

However, the “Apostolic Preaching” found in the New Testament also has a missionary purpose – it is not simply a “community-book” in the sense that the Old Testament was, but is intended to convert the world as well as edify the faithful. Yet it remains “fenced off” to outsiders, for, as Tertullian argued, heretics had no right on foreign property.

An unbeliever has no access to the message, simply because he does not “receive” it. For him there is no “message” in the Bible. (19)

It is this message of the Bible that Father Florovsky proceeds to discuss, for the authority of the text lies not in the words but in the message. While comprised of different writings,

There is one main theme and one main message through the whole story. For there is a story. Or, even more, the Bible itself is this story, the story of God’s dealings with his chosen people. The Bible records first of all God’s acts and mighty deeds, Magnolia Dei. The process has been initiated by God. There is a beginning and an end, which is also a goal… There is one composite and single story – from Genesis to Revelation. And this story is history. (19)

While there have been stages in God’s revelation, it was always the same God revealing Himself, with the same message – and it is the identity of this message that gives unity to the various writings. The Bible is about God, but a God who reveals Himself in human life. Moreover, the Bible is not simply a record of divine intervention, but “a kind of divine intervention itself.” (20) We do not need to escape from time or history to meet God, for God meets us in history and in the midst of daily existence.

History belongs to God, and God enters human history. The Bible is intrinsically historical: it is a record of the divine acts, not so much a presentation of God’s eternal mysteries, and these mysteries themselves are available only by historical mediation. (20)

The historical framework of revelation is therefore not something to do away with – and I assume that Florovsky is reacting to Bultmann here.

There is no need to abstract revealed truth from the frame in which revelations took place. On the contrary, such abstraction would have abolished the truth as well. For the truth is not an idea, but a person, even the Incarnate Lord. (20)

* This post forms part of a series in which I hope to blog my way through Father Florovsky’s Collected Works, of which this book forms the first volume. Like the other volumes, it is out of print and only available at exorbitant prices on Amazon. However, there are PDFs floating around on the Internet, which I would encourage interested readers to track down.

This post continues to present the opening chapter of Father Georges Florovsky’s Bible, Church, Tradition* entitled “The Lost Scriptural Mind,” which I began here. In the following post, I plan to discuss some of the issues that this chapter raises…

Having argued that one should preach “the doctrines of the creed,” Father Florovsky continues to consider why this is problematic for “modern man” and argues that this is because it is seen in metaphysical terms that “is for him nothing more than a piece of poetry, if anything at all.” (12) However, Chalcedon was never intended to be seen in these terms; rather, it is a statement of faith and “cannot be understood when taken out of the total experience of the church. In fact, it is an ‘existential statement.’” (12-13)

Chalcedon’s formula is, as it were, an intellectual contour of the mystery which is apprehended by faith. Our Redeemer is not a man, but God himself. Here lies the existential emphasis of the statement. Our Redeemer is one who “came down” and who, by “being made man,” identified himself with men in the fellowship of a truly human life and nature.

… this mystery was a revelation; the true character of God had been disclosed in the Incarnation. God was so much and so intimately connected with the mystery of man (and precisely in the destiny of every one of “the little ones”) as to intervene in person in the chaos and misery of the lost life. The divine providence therefore is not merely an omnipotent ruling of the universe from an august distance by the divine majesty, but a kenosis, a “self-humiliation” of the God of glory. There is a personal relationship between God and man. (13)

This means that the whole of human tragedy appears in a new light, for the Incarnation is the mystery of the divine identification with lost humanity, which culminates in the cross of Christ, the turning point of human history. However, this “awful mystery” can only be comprehended within the wider perspective of an integral Christology in which we believe that “the Crucified was in very truth ‘the Son of the living God.’” (13) There is

an amazing coherence in the body of the traditional doctrine. But it can be apprehended and understood only in the context of faith, by which I mean in a personal communion with the personal God. Faith alone makes formulas convincing; faith alone makes formulas live. (14)

Father Florovsky goes on to argue that, while it may seem ridiculous to preach Chalcedon “in such a time as this,” it is only the reality to which this doctrine bears witness that can bring true spiritual freedom. Moreover, the ancient Christological controversies are far from irrelevant.

It is an illusion that the Christological disputes of the past are irrelevant to the contemporary situation. In fact, they are continued and repeated in the controversies of our own age. Modern man, deliberately or subconsciously, is tempted by the Nestorian extreme. That is to say, he does not believe in the Incarnation in earnest. He does not dare to believe that Christ is a divine person. He wants to have a human redeemer, only assisted by God. …

On the other extreme we have in our days a revival of “monophysite” tendencies in theology and religion, when man is reduced to complete passivity and is allowed only to listen and to hope. The present tension between “liberalism” and “neo-orthodoxy” is in fact a re-enactment of the old Christological struggle, on a new existential level and in a new spiritual key. The conflict will never be settled or solved in the field of theology, unless a wider vision is acquired. (14-15)

Father Florovsky then proceeds to bemoan the neglect of theology in modern times. While preaching in the early church was decidedly theological, and was not “vain speculation,” the modern neglect of theology has led to both the decay of personal religion and “that sense of frustration which dominates the modern mind.” (15) Yet both clergy and laity are hungry for theology and, moreover,

… because no theology is usually preached, they adopt some “strange ideologies” and combine them with fragments of traditional beliefs. The whole appeal of the “rival gospels” of our days is that they offer some sort of pseudo theology, a system of pseudo dogmas. They are gladly accepted by those who cannot find any theology in the reduced Christianity of “modern” style. (15)

Within this context, the first task of the contemporary preacher is the “reconstruction of belief.” Florovsky refers to belief here as “the map of the true world.” (15) The modern crisis has been brought about by the rediscovery of the real world, which is “no more screened from us by the wall of our own ideas.” (15-16) Moreover, the rediscovery of the church is also key here:

It is again realized that the church is not just a company of believers, but the “Body of Christ.” This is a rediscovery of a new dimension, a rediscovery of the continuing presence of the divine Redeemer in the midst of his faithful flock. This discovery throws a new flood of light on the misery of our disintegrated existence in a world thoroughly secularized… (16)

In contrast to those who see them as outdated and out of touch with our realities, Father Florovsky argues that this is the time to return to the Fathers of the Church.

I have often a strange feeling. When I read the ancient classics of Christian theology, the fathers of the church, I find them more relevant to the troubles and problems of my own time than the production of modern theologians. The fathers were wrestling with existential problems, with those revelations of the eternal issues which were described and recorded in Holy Scripture. I would risk a suggestion that St. Athanasius and St. Augustine are much more up to date than many of our theological contemporaries. The reason is very simple: they were dealing with things and not with maps, they were concerned not so much with what man can believe as with what God has done for man. We have, “in such a time as this,” to enlarge our perspective, to acknowledge the masters of old, and to attempt for our own age an existential synthesis of Christian experience. (16)

* This post is part of a series in which I hope to blog my way through Father Florovsky’s Collected Works, of which this book forms the first volume. Like the other volumes, it is out of print and only available at exorbitant prices on Amazon. However, there are PDFs floating around on the Internet, which I would encourage interested readers to track down.

What, then, are we going to preach? What would I preach to my contemporaries “in such a time as this”? There is no room for hesitation: I am going to preach Jesus, and him crucified and risen. I am going to preach and to commend to all whom I may be called to address the message of salvation, as it has been handed down to me by an uninterrupted tradition of the Church Universal. I would not isolate myself in my own age. In other words, I am going to preach the “doctrines of the creed.”

Father Georges Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, 11*

The opening chapter of Father Florovsky’s Bible, Church, Tradition is entitled “The Lost Scriptural Mind” and originally appeared as an essay in The Christian Century in 1951. It begins by addressing the question of what gospel Christian ministers are called to preach – and of how they can be sure that what they preach is the same gospel originally delivered rather than an accommodation to the whims of a particular age. This is a serious problem precisely because “Most of us have lost the integrity of the scriptural mind, even if some bits of phraseology are retained.” (10) Scripture is seen as written in an “archaic idiom” that has to be “demythologized” in a continual process of “reinterpretation.” However,

… how can we interpret at all if we have forgotten the original language? Would it not be safer to bend our thought to the mental habits of the biblical language and to relearn the idiom of the Bible? No man can receive the gospel unless he repents – “changes his mind.” For in the language of the gospel “repentance” (metanoeite) does not mean merely acknowledgement of and contrition for sins, but precisely a “change of mind” – a profound change of man’s mental and emotional attitude, an integral renewal of man’s self, which begins in self-renunciation and is accomplished and sealed by the Spirit. (10)

Writing in 1951, Father Florovsky referred to the “intellectual chaos and disintegration” of the age and argued that the only “luminous signpost” we have in this context is the “faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” He is not unaware that this faith is considered obsolete and archaic and that the “doctrines of the creed” are a stumbling block for many. However, he points out that the early creeds were deliberately scriptural, and he argues that “it is precisely their scriptural phraseology that makes them difficult for modern man.” (11)

Moreover, in contrast to those who view the traditional language of the creeds as “antiquarian” or “fundamentalist,” Florovsky points to “their perennial adequacy and relevance to all ages and to all situations, including ‘a time such as this.’” (12)

“The church is neither a museum of dead deposits nor a society of research.” The deposits are alive – depositum juvenescens, to use the phrase of St. Irenaeus. The creed is not a relic of the past, but rather the “sword of the Spirit.” The reconversion of the world to Christianity is what we have to preach in our day. This is the only way out of that impasse into which the world has been driven by the failure of Christians to be truly Christian. Obviously, Christian doctrine does not answer directly any practical question in the field of politics or economics. Neither does the gospel of Christ. Yet its impact on the whole course of human history has been enormous. The recognition of human dignity, mercy and justice roots in the gospel. The new world can be built only by the new man. (12)

To be continued…

* This is the first post in a series in which I hope to blog my way through Father Florovsky’s Collected Works, of which this book forms the first volume. Like the other volumes, it is out of print and only available at exorbitant prices on Amazon. However, there are PDFs floating around on the Internet, which I would encourage interested readers to track down.

Note: Given my recent blogging history, I am a little hesitant about announcing this project too loudly, lest I do not manage to keep it up. I am doing it primarily because I need to get back to some serious theological reading, and blogging has helped me with that in the past. But I hope that it may also be helpful to others. Much of my blogging simply consists of summarising books, although I may also comment now and then (and will probably comment on some things raised in this post when I complete the chapter in the following post). But I think that, particularly with Father Florovsky’s works, making summaries available and encouraging people to read the actual works, and any discussion that may ensue from that, could be rather worthwhile…

If we keep vigil in church, David comes first, last and central. If early in the morning we want songs and hymns, first, last and central is David again. If we are occupied with the funeral solemnities of those who have fallen asleep, or if virgins sit at home and spin, David is first, last and central. O amazing wonder! Many who have made little progress in literature know the Psalter by heart. Nor is it only in cities and churches that David is famous; in the village market, in the desert, and in uninhabitable land, he excites the praise of God. In monasteries, among those holy choirs of angelic armies, David is first, last and central. In the convents of virgins, where are the communities of those who imitate Mary; in the deserts where there are men crucified to the world, who live their life in heaven with God, David is first, last and central. All other men at night are overcome by sleep. David alone is active, and gathering the servants of God into seraphic bands, he turns earth into heaven, and converts men into angels.

Saint John Chrysostom, quoted by Father Lazarus Moore, Orthodox Psalter

A few months ago I discovered Father Lazarus Moore’s translation of the Psalter, which is available online here. (It’s available in Word somewhere too, but I can’t find it now). Apart from being a highly recommended translation of the Septuagint Psalter (the esteemed Esteban Vázquez praises it here as “at once laconic and lyrical”), it also has an introductory essay on the Psalms that is one of the best things I remember reading on them. In it Father Lazarus discusses not only the nature, content, and theology of the Psalms, but also their use and impact as the prayer book of the Church. Here are some rather pithy snippets that suggest the riches to be found in this article and the themes it raises:

The songs of Israel find their full meaning only in the New Adam. …

The eternal Spirit transforms history into theology. …

We need to learn afresh the Christian use of the Psalter. …

The Church never merely studied the Psalms. …

Orthodox theology as a unity of knowledge is a means to an end that transcends all knowledge. The end is union with God. The Psalms sum up the whole salvation history and theology of the Old Covenant. The lights and shadows of the total panorama are all here. …

The meaning of the events lies in man’s meeting with God. …

The light that judges us, transfigures and saves us. …

The Psalms are the Bible in miniature. By a kind of divine tom-tom they drum into our consciousness the truth that we meet God in the world of persons, things and events. Here and now we are to pass through the visible and transient to the invisible and true. Yet the initiative always rests with God. …

The Psalms were the utterances of both David and Christ. …

A striking and mysterious figure looms larger and larger, and gradually takes shape, as we read and re-read the Psalms. He is the Son of God, appointed King on Zion to rule the nations (Ps. 2). … different facets of the same face and person are sprinkled throughout the Psalter, and we need them all to get the full portrait. …

We are at the same time in the wilderness and in the Promised Land. …

The Psalms teach us to enlarge our hearts or consciousness to embrace all mankind. …

…the cross is the key to the Psalms, as it is the key to the Kingdom. …

The Psalter is the expression of the heart of the true man. It is the prophetic portrait of the mind and heart of the coming Saviour. …

One of the images that struck me most in this essay was the comparison of the Psalms to “a kind of divine tom-tom.” I suspect that many of us were brought up expecting religious texts to be clear-cut and to easily and immediately reveal their meaning. I have heard many people saying that that they dislike the Psalms because they are dark or violent or do not express what they are feeling. The Church’s discipline of praying the Psalter – the whole Psalter and not only the bits that we pick and choose – confronts us with a range human realities and does not allow us to escape into our own subjective preferences at any given moment. But it also hold before us a reality that cannot be reduced to any one set meaning; it presents a range of voices and many layers, which, over the years, yield their meaning to us. But this is no simply cerebral meaning – praying the Psalms is a also a physical act, an act that involves our whole person and in which we immerse ourselves, allowing ourselves to be shaped and ultimately transformed by them. As Father Lazarus writes:

People talk of haunted houses. The Psalter is a house of prayer haunted by the Spirit of Christ Who inspired the Psalms. Used aright, they cannot fail to lift us above and beyond ourselves. They confront us with God and we find ourselves haunted by His presence and gradually brought face to face with Him. They bring our hearts and minds into the presence of the living God. They fill our minds with His truth in order to unite us with His love. The saints and fathers of the Church, like the patriarchs and prophets of Israel, were haunted by the living reality of the Redeemer revealed to the world in the Psalter. He is the Word of God hidden in these ‘words of God’. As you persevere in praying the Psalms, you will be drenched with the Holy Spirit as the trees are drenched with the rain (Ps. 103:16), you will be rapt in God and penetrated from time to time with vivid intuitions of His action, your mind and heart will be purified.

Postscript: I had been thinking about this text for some time. But yesterday I happened to listen to a lecture by James K.A. Smith entitled Redeeming Ritual: Penance Takes Practice and realized that it was quite applicable to the praying of the Psalter. While what he says shouldn’t be anything new for Orthodox Christians, he does articulate well what we may take for granted and which I suspect goes rather against the grain for some Protestants, or at least for some of the rather glib things many people say about ritual.

nat Theotokos 2
Today the barren gates are opened and the virgin Door of God comes forth. Today grace begins to bear its first fruits, making manifest to the world the Mother of God, through whom things on earth are joined with heaven, for the salvation of our souls.

from Vespers of the Nativity of the Mother of God

In recent months I have sometimes thought of writing on the differences between a Roman Catholic approach to the Mother of God and an Orthodox one. This is not that post, which may or may not get written, and I am a little hesitant about writing it, both because it is not a clear cut topic and would need to be written with a fair bit of nuance, and because I am unsure to what extent I am simply reflecting my own experience, and my own earlier blindness. While that certainly does play a role, I’m pretty sure that there is more to it than that, but that is another topic for another day.

But what I have been struck by in recent years – and certainly becoming Orthodox has played a large role in this – is how deeply biblical our understanding of the Mother of God is. I remember years ago having discussions with Protestants on the supposed paucity of biblical references to Mary, and the discussion then focused on the historical references in the Gospels and (fleetingly) in the Apostle Paul. But what I have realised more recently is that Scripture, rightly understood, is full of references to her, precisely because it is – again, rightly understood – entirely focused on the bringing forth of Christ to the world so that He may conquer death by death.

And today’s feast is a striking example of this. From one perspective, we do not have scriptural evidence for it – i.e. the biblical writers do not speak directly about the birth of the Virgin Mary. But from the perspective of the believing Christian, all of Scripture, or at least all of the Old Testament, speaks of it. For what is the birth of the Mother of God about if not the culmination of God’s long work of preparation in the history of Israel? In the words of Vladimir Lossky:

Like the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, the birth of the Mother of God, promised by an angel after the parents had long been sterile, finds Old Testament antecedents which are habitually considered as prefigurations of the Resurrection. But the Nativity of the Mother of God is more than a figure; for in the person of St. Anna – a woman freed from her sterility to bring into the world a Virgin who would give birth to God incarnate – it is our nature which ceases to be sterile in order to start bearing the fruits of grace. The miraculous birth of the Holy Virgin is not due to an arbitrary action of God, entering in to break historical continuity: it is a stage of the Providence which watches over the safety of the world, arduously preparing the Incarnation of the Word, a stage which precedes the last decisive act – the Annunciation, when the chosen Virgin will assent to be “the King’s Palace, in which is accomplished the perfect mystery of the two natures reunited in Christ” [Vespers hymnography].

Vladimir Lossky, “The Birth of the Holy Virgin” in Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons(Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983) 146.

Well, there’s nothing like advertising Bibles for sale and then posting something that could be seen as undermining the very concept! But these words by Metropolitan Isaiah of Denver are worth reflecting on. I recently commented to someone that the invention of the printing press brought huge changes in how people related to and thought about Scripture, and I’m not sure that the easy appeals that some make to “the Bible” adequately take that into account. Not that this should undermine our devotion to the Scriptures – I think of accounts of Desert Fathers for whom a book of the Gospels was among the most prized of possessions – but it should perhaps give us pause for thought in assuming that something distinctly modern – and all the baggage that goes with it – always existed in the Church…

Strictly speaking, there never was a ‘Bible’ in the Orthodox Church, at least not as we commonly think of the Bible as a single volume book we can hold in our hand. Since the beginning of the Church, from the start of our liturgical tradition, there has never been a single book in an Orthodox church we could point to as ‘the Bible’. Instead, the various ‘Books’ of the Bible are found scattered throughout several service books located either on the Holy Altar itself, or at the chanter’s stand. The Gospels (or their pericopes) are complied into a single volume — usually bound in precious metal and richly decorated — placed on the Holy Altar.

The Epistles (or, again, their pericopes) are bound together in another book, called the Apostolos, which is normally found at the chanter’s stand. Usually located next to the Apostolos on the chanter’s shelf are the twelve volumes of the Menaion, as well as the books called the Triodion and Pentekostarion, containing various segments of the Old and the New Testaments.

The fact that there is no ‘Bible’ in the church should not surprise us, since our liturgical tradition is a continuation of the practices of the early Church, when the Gospels and the letters from the Apostles (the Epistles) had been freshly written and copied for distribution to the Christian communities. The ‘Hebrew Scriptures’ (what we now call the ‘Old Testament’, comprising the Law (the first five books) and the Prophets, were likewise written on various scrolls, just as they were found in the Jewish synagogues…

The Church is not based on the Bible. Rather, the Bible is a product of the Church. For the first few centuries of the Christian era, no one could have put his hands on a single volume called ‘The Bible’. In fact, there was no one put his hands on a single volume called ‘The Bible’. In fact, there was no agreement regarding which ‘books’ of Scripture were to be considered accurate and correct, or canonical. Continue

H/t Byzantine Texas.

On a related topic, Father Stephen Freeman has a very worthwhile post on Reading the Real Bible and Notes on the Real Hell.

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