I seem to be spending most of my free minutes working on a website that is taking longer to get up than it is supposed to! But part of that has involved discovering helpful material tucked away in various corners of the internet. Yesterday I discovered this article on Tradition by Father John Behr on an old site and thought it worth sharing:

The idea of “tradition” is deceptively simple. The word itself simply means “handing down” or “that which is handed down.” It is also something with which we are intimately familiar, for each one of us lives within a web of traditions that influences everything from the ways in which we celebrate family or national events to our general world-view, whether an “enlightened” commitment to rational inquiry or a more religious outlook. To be a Christian also means to stand within a tradition. Even those who, following the Protestant Reformation, claim that Scripture alone (sola scriptura) is the only legitimate ground for faith and theology, nevertheless stand within a tradition, inheriting certain assumptions and attitudes. Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, embrace their tradition, laying great emphasis on tradition itself as a fundamental dimension of the Christian faith and of their life in the Church.

But what is this tradition to which Orthodox Christianity lays claim? The Orthodox speak about “tradition” so frequently that the term tends to become rather vague. Heirs to a two thousand year old tradition, we inherit a vast treasury of riches – theological, liturgical, artistic, ascetic. But this very richness creates its own difficulty, for not everything handed down is of equal importance. As St Cyprian put it, “tradition without truth is but the antiquity of error.” We need to know what is true, not simply what is old. Modern Orthodox theologians have rightly emphasized that tradition is not simply a mindless repetition, but a living, creative faithfulness. However, we need to be clear about exactly what it is that we must be faithful to, if we are going to be able to embody this living tradition, speaking the same word of truth to an ever-changing world.

It would be wrong to say that we have both Scripture and tradition, for tradition is not an independent source of authority. Rather, tradition is the continuity of the correct faith, “Scripture understood rightly” as Fr Georges Florovsky put it, which has found numerous expressions, embodying the same truth, over the last two millennia – conciliar statements on doctrine and church order, iconography, liturgical practices and so on. But it would be equally mistaken to claim that Scripture is part of tradition. It is true that the Church was already in existence, granting new birth to Christians through Baptism and celebrating the Eucharist, before the texts of the New Testament were written and collected. Yet we must not lose sight of the fact that the earliest proclamation of the Gospel, upon which the Church is founded, already refers to the Scriptures: the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets, which we now call the “Old Testament.”

In one of the earliest statements of the Christian proclamation, the importance of this reference to the Scriptures is emphasized: “I delivered [literally “traditioned”] to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-5). So significant is this reference to the Scriptures that Paul mentions it twice within a short sentence. What Paul “traditions” as the basis of the Christian faith is the understanding and proclamation of the crucified and exalted Christ “according to the Scriptures,” referring, not to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but to the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets. So important is this “tradition” that the reference to the Scriptures is preserved in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed which is the common inheritance of most Christians to this day: we still confess that Christ died and rose “according to the [same] Scriptures.”

The principle that Paul “traditions” is made clear by the Gospels. According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, the disciples abandoned Christ at the time of his Passion; Peter even denied knowing him. Whatever they learned from Christ or witnessed him doing was not enough to persuade them of who Christ truly is. Only in the light of Christ’s suffering and exaltation did they turn again to the Scriptures, under the guidance of the risen Christ, to understand finally who he is: “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself … he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures and said to them ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead'” (Lk 24:27, 45). As Paul says, we no longer know Christ according to the flesh (2 Cor 5:16), but according to the Spirit. The Spirit, whom Christ promised to send, leads us into the fullness of truth concerning Christ (Jn 14:25-26), so that we can confess that he is indeed the Lord (1 Cor 12:3), that is, the one spoken of in the Scriptures. The importance of Christ’s passion in understanding who he is, is also emphasized in the Gospel of John where, unlike the other Gospels, Christ is not abandoned at the Cross, for standing by him are his mother and the beloved disciple. Furthermore, this is the “tradition” which marks out the four Gospels of the New Testament from all the other writings claiming to be apostolic. Each of these Gospels proclaims the crucified and risen Christ by reference to the Scriptures, while a work such as the Gospel of Thomas, even if it contains authentic historical material, does not proclaim the passion of Christ nor does it proclaim him “according to the Scriptures.”

But the Gospel of Christ which we proclaim is still the Gospel of the “coming one” (Cf. Matt 11:3), the one who is seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven, where the true citizenship of Christians lies and from which they await their Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, trusting that he will change their lowly form to be like his glorious body (Phil 3:20). The “tradition” which the apostles have bequeathed to us, therefore, is not fixed in one text (we have four Gospels, after all, presenting the versions of the four evangelists). Rather the “tradition” in which we stand, as Orthodox Christians, is the contemplation of Christ “according to the Scriptures,” remaining true to the deposit handed over by the apostles, yet with our faces towards the future, towards the one who is still coming. The Word “grows,” as Acts puts it (Acts 6:7), in that as more and more people believe in it and reflect on it, the Word is embodied in an increasing variety of ways that express the fullness of that faith which has been delivered from the beginning, the same Gospel, the same Word of God – Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb 13:8).

It is this quest that Christ challenges us with, when he asks “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16:15). And it is a task that cannot be avoided. Even when his friend John the Baptist was in prison, about to be executed, and sent his disciples to Christ to ask him “are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Christ did not answer him directly. Rather he told them to tell John what they saw, that the blind could see, the lame could walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear (Mat 11.2-5). In other words, Christ himself directed John back to the Scriptures where he would be able to understand these messianic signs and know that Christ is indeed the Messiah. This contemplation of Christ “according to the Scriptures,” is what we do when we gather together in and as the Church, in expectancy of his return and in the confidence of his presence, for we are his body, praising God in and for Christ, in and by the Spirit, using language, images and words, drawn from the Scripture. The hymnography as well as the iconography that adorns the Church and the beauty of the liturgical rites themselves, form a matrix, a womb, in which we are born again in his image, as Christians. The tradition of contemplating Christ “according to the Scriptures” is a task which each of us is called to undertake, in the confidence that when he appears we shall be like him (1 Jn 3:2)

I have been wanting to get back to a discussion of our understanding of Scripture, Tradition and the Gospel for months now – motivated partly, I suppose, out of frustration that I keep coming across people who identify their particular theology, often Calvinism, with “what the Bible teaches”, or, alternatively, people who hold all interpretations as equally valid. I don’t know when I’ll get back to this, but in the meantime Father Stephen Freeman has an excellent post on these matters today. He writes:

Where does the Gospel begin?

That the Gospel would begin by reading the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) would seem the handiest answer to that question. But this leaves another question unanswered: how do we read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? St. Irenaeus (2nd century) gives an extremely insightful example in a discussion directed to Gnostics, whom he contended could not read the gospels correctly.

Irenaeus believed there was an unbroken line of tradition from the apostles, to those they mentored, and eventually down to himself and other Christian leaders. The Gnostics interpreted the Scriptures according to their own tradition. “In doing so, however,” Irenaeus warned, “they disregard the order and connection of the Scriptures and … dismember and destroy the truth.” So while their biblical theology may at first appear to be the precious jewel of orthodoxy, it was actually an imitation in glass. Put together properly, Irenaeus said, the parts of Scripture were like a mosaic in which the gems or tiles form the portrait of a king. But the Gnostics rearranged the tiles into the form of a dog or fox.

As a pastor, then, Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies in order to describe the heresies that were threatening his congregation and to present the apostolic interpretation of the Scriptures. He revealed the cloaked deception for what it was and displayed the apostolic tradition as a saving reminder to the faithful.

Quoted from Christianity Today’s Church History site.

Irenaeus (bishop of Lyons), it is worth noting, knew St. Polycarp, who knew St. John. Thus he was third-generation in the life of the Christian Church.

Irenaeus’ contention that those who are not in the line and community of the Christian Tradition are not able to properly interpret Scriptures (in a Christian manner) is dramatically important. It sets the Scriptures in a non-objective context. The Scriptures are not “self-interpreting,” as some modern Protestants would contend, neither is their reading and interpretation a matter of reason or historical knowledge. Their reading is ecclesiastical, traditional, liturgical or, in Irenaeus’ language, “according to the Apostolic Hypothesis.” In short, the Scriptures are understood within the life of the Church and cannot be rightly read in any other manner. St. Paul’s letters are written to Churches or individuals holding positions within the Church. None of his letters are addressed, “To whom it may concern.”

Go and read the whole post here.

The Scriptures are the “ground and pillar of our faith,” says Irenaeus. If the Bible is dismembered to serve an exotic theological program and biblical texts are deployed willy-nilly (as the Gnostics did), the Scriptures will remain a closed book and it will not be possible “to find the truth in them.” Without a grasp of the plot that holds everything together, the Bible is as vacuous as a mosaic in which the tiles have been arbitrarily rearranged without reference to the original design or as a poem constructed by stringing together random verses from the Iliad and Odyssey and imagining it was Homer. In Clement of Alexandria the Bible’s plan is implicit, suggested by a word here, a phrase there; in Irenaeus the outline  is set out in bold. So successful was Irenaeus’s approach to the interpretation of the Bible that it informed all later interpretation. Whether one reads Athanasius against Arius, Augustine against Pelagius, or Cyril of Alexandria against Nestorius, all assume that individual passages are to be read in the light of the story that gives meaning to the whole.

Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. Seeking the Face of God, 67-68.

This really is an extraordinarily good book, despite the fact that my reading of it has been terribly disrupted.  The chapter on Scripture is particularly good. Highly recommended so far!

I made a rather silly typo in a blog comment yesterday. Or, given that I repeated it twice, perhaps it was more a Freudian slip than a typo. Instead of writing “sola scriptura” I wrote “schola scriptura”. Perhaps I am just an irreformable closet Benedictine after all!

Now, I probably should not have written the comment (or the one that preceded it) in the first place, and I am not going to link to it as it is clear that there is really no room for conversation with the blogger concerned. It’s just that, well, there are certain things that I find really shocking, in this case the idea that Christ did not die for all people, that I felt that I had to say something. But in any case, I should have known better. (Note to self: do not comment on Calvinist blog. In fact, better, do not read Calvinist blogs. Of course the trouble is that, with a few exceptions, most Christian blogs in South Africa seem to be either Calvinist or post-everything, but that is another topic).

But, as I realised that I had written “schola scriptura” instead of “sola scriptura,” it struck me that it was perhaps not such an insignificant difference. For, the school of the Scriptures, with its attitude of sitting at the feet of the biblical authors, and being formed by them, sounds like a far healthier and more traditional attitude to have towards the Scriptures than to see them as a quarry from which to extract arguments with which to defend pre-existing positions. And that reminded me of these words from Father Andrew Louth that I posted over three years ago – how much has happened since then!

The presupposition that lies behind all this – a presupposition either defended (more or less desperately) or finally relinquished – is the principle of sola scriptura, understood as meaning that Scripture is a quarry from which we can extract the truth of God’s revelation: that allied to the more recent notion that the tool to use in extracting meaning from literary texts is the method of historical criticism. We have an alliance between the Reformation and the Enlightenment: not something that inspires confidence. But as will be clear from our considerations so far, both the principle and the method are questionable.

The principle of sola scriptura actually leads one away from the traditional devotion to Scripture as the Word of God which we find par excellence in the Fathers. Scripture is being understood as an arsenal and not as a treasury (to use the contrast drawn by Paul Claudel in his Du sens figure de l’Écriture). And such an understanding leads to a false and misleading notion of the nature of Christianity as a biblical religion. If the bible is seen as a quarry from which truth is to be extracted, then the truth thus extracted – the truth of Christianity – is naturally seen as ‘biblical’. … But as Henri de Lubac protests in his Exégèse Médiévale:

Christianity is not, properly speaking, a ‘religion of the Book’: it is a religion of the word (Parole) – but not uniquely nor principally of the word in written form. It is a religion of the Word (Verbe) – ‘not of a word, written and mute, but of a Word living and incarnate’ (to quote St. Bernard). The Word of God is here and now, amongst us, ‘which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled’: the Word ‘living and active’, unique and personal, uniting and crystallizing all the words which bear it witness. Christianity is not ‘the biblical religion’: it is the religion of Jesus Christ. [Exégèse Médiévale, II/1 (Paris, 1961), pp. 196-9.]

And in those words de Lubac echoes the cry of St. Ignatius of Antioch: ‘For me the archives are Jesus Christ, and the inviolable archives his cross and death and his resurrection and faith in Him.’ [Ep. Philad. VIII. 2.] The heart of Christianity is the mystery of Christ, and the Scriptures are important as they unfold to us that mystery, and not in and for themselves.

Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery,  101-102.

I know that this has been horribly disrupted, but I want to try and finish this series of posts on the opening chapters of Father John Behr’s The Way to Nicaea (previous posts here and here). They may be dense, but the issues they raise are of crucial importance and once I’ve got these posts done I hope to write something that draws on this material to address some of the misunderstandings of Tradition that are all-too-common among contemporary Christians.

Having established the key relationship between Scripture – meaning the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets – and the Gospel, Father Behr turns his attention to the relationship between this symbolic coherence of Scripture – which is effected by the word of the Cross – and the appeal to canon and tradition. This coherence of Scripture which is expressed most explicitly in Saint Irenaeus’ The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, forms the basis for Irenaeus’ appeal to canon and tradition, which he develops in Against the Heresies. This involves a challenge to those, in particular the Valentinians, who “speak the same, but think otherwise.” While they quote Scripture, they have disregarded “the order and connection of the Scriptures” and so distorted it.

They have not accepted the coherence of the Scriptures, as speaking about Christ, but have preferred their own fabrication, created by adapting passages of Scripture to a different hypothesis, attempting to endow it with persuasive plausibility. (32)

To understand Scripture, it is crucially important that one has the correct hypothesis. While for some branches of knowledge finding the right hypothesis may be a tentative and pragmatic thing, we cannot philosophically demand demonstrations of first principles.

This means, as Clement of Alexandria points out, that the search for the first principles of demonstration ends up with undemonstrable faith. For Christian faith, according to Clement, it is the Scriptures, and in particular, the Lord who speaks in them, that is the first principle of all knowledge. It is the voice of the Lord, speaking throughout Scripture, that is the first principle, the (nonhypothetical) hypothesis of all demonstrations from Scripture, by which Christians are led to the knowledge of the truth. (33)

It is these first principles that are the basis for subsequent demonstrations and function as a canon to evaluate other claims to truth. Knowledge is impossible without such a canon, for enquiry would simply degenerate into endless regression and it is for this reason that Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement appealed to a canon to counter the constantly mutating Gnostic claims. Irenaeus writes:

…anyone who keeps unswervingly in himself the canon of truth received through baptism will recognize the names and sayings and parables from the Scriptures, but this blasphemous hypothesis of theirs he will not recognize. For if he recognizes the jewels, he will not accept the fox for the image of a king. He will restore each one of the passages to its proper order and, having fit it into the body of truth, he will lay bare the fabrication and show that it is without support. (34-35)

While Irenaeus enunciates the content of the faith that was delivered to the apostles, and sees this as received through baptism, the forms of this rule of faith is not as fixed as it would later become, for

The point of the canon is not so much to give fixed, and abstract, statements of Christian doctrine. Nor does it provide a narrative description of Christian belief, the literary hyposthesis of Scripture. Rather, the canon of truth expresses the correct hypothesis of Scripture itself, that by which one can see in Scripture the picture of a king, Christ, rather than a dog or fox. It is ultimately the presupposition of the apostolic Christ himself, the one who is “according to the Scripture” and, in reverse, the subject of Scripture throughout, being spoken of by the Spirit through the prophets, so revealing the one God and Father. … For Irenaeus, the canon of truth is the embodiment or crystallization of the coherence of Scripture, read as speaking of the Christ who is revealed in the Gospel, the apostolic preaching of Christ “according to Scripture.” (35-36)

Thus the canon is a mode of interpretation, and

The key elements of the faith delivered by the apostles are crystallized in the canon of truth. This canon expresses the basic elements of the one Gospel, maintained and preached in the Church, in an ever-changing context. The continually changing context in which the same unchanging Gospel is preached makes it necessary that different aspects or facets of the same Gospel be drawn out to address contemporary challenges. However, while the context continually changes, the content of that tradition does not – it is the same Gospel.

Father John Behr continues his discussion of the relationship between Christ, the Gospel and the Scriptures in The Way to Nicaea by addressing the role of literature for both the ancient world and the Scriptures. Classical texts provided models for emulation and provided a symbolic world in terms of which one understood oneself and the events of one’s life. The writers of Israel “used images and figures of earlier events and figures to understand, explicate and describe the events and figures at hand.” (24) Thus they established typologies between, for example, Adam and Noah, and between Abraham and the post-exilic situation of Israel. In this typological parallelism, figures such as Abraham are described as foreshadowing the destiny of their descendents, something that, in Christian understanding, reaches its fulfilment in the New Testament.

This process, reemploying images to understand and explain the present in terms of the past, which is evident throughout the Scriptures, continues in the New Testament and its presentation of Christ “according to the Scriptures.” For instance, Christ’s Passion is described in terms of being the true and primary Pascha (now etymologized as “Passion”), of which the Exodus Pascha is but a type; Christ is the true Lamb of God. Or, according to another typology, in John 3:14: “Just as Moses raised the snake in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, so that those who believe in Him may have eternal lfie.” … Paul also appeals to this concatenation of images, when he points out to those in his Corinthian community who were seduced by wisdom, that the folly of God (Christ lifted on the Cross, as the bronze snake lifted on the pole) overcomes the wisdom of the world, and, as such, Christ is the true power and wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:22-5). In another vein, but using the same scriptural, literary or intertextual technique, Matthew describes Christ as a new Moses, going up a mountain to deliver the law, while Paul describes Christ as the new Adam, correcting the mistakes of the first Adam, whom Paul explicitly describes as being “a type of the One to come” (Rom 5:14). (25)

While the relationship between Scripture, the Gospel and Christ will be more explicitly discussed by the writers of the second century, the apostle Paul points to the dynamics of this relationship in his reference to the veil that covers the words of Scripture in 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:6.

In this very dense passage, Paul begins to address the interconnected relationships between Moses and Christ, the Scriptures and the Gospel. According to Paul, the “same veil” that Moses placed over his own head remains to this day upon those who read “Moses” – now a text. But this veil is removed for those who have turned to the Lord and can now understand Scripture aright. That the veil was removed by Christ means that it is only in Christ that the glory of God is revealed and that we can discern the true meaning of Scripture, and that these two aspects are inseparable. The identity between Moses the man and Moses the text, whose face and meaning were hidden by the same veil, is paralleled by the identity between Christ, in whose face is revealed the glory of God, and the Gospel which proclaims this. So, behind the veil is nothing other than “the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ,” himself the image of God, though this remains “veiled” to those who reject the Gospel. What this means, as Hays points out, is that , ultimately, “Scripture becomes – in Paul’s reading – a metaphor, a vast trope that signifies and illuminates the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (26-27)

This is not to say that the Gospel of the death and resurrection of Christ is straightforwardly derivable from Scripture, but rather that it acts as a catalyst.

Because God has acted in Christ in a definitive, and unexpected, manner, making everything new, Scripture itself must be read anew. The “word of the Cross,” the preaching of Christ crucified” may be a scandal for the Jews and folly for the Gentiles, but it alone is the “power of God” making known “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:18-25). This preaching, the kerygma, provides what Hays describes as “the eschatological apokalypsis of the Cross,” a hermeneutical lens, through which Scripture can now be refracted with “a profound new symbolic coherence.” Read in the light of what God has wrought in Christ, the Scriptures provided the terms and images, the context, within which the apostles made sense of what happened, and with which they explained it and preached it, so justifying the claim that Christ died and rose “according to the Scripture.” It is important to note that it is Christ who is being explained through the medium of Scripture, not Scripture itself that is being exegeted; the object is not to understand the “original meaning” of an ancient text, as in modern historical-critical scholarship, but to understand Christ, who, by being explained “according to the Scriptures,” becomes the sole subject of Scripture throughout. (27-28)

To be continued

I said previously that I hoped to post some things from Father John Behr’s introductory chapters in The Way to Nicaea, but have been putting off doing so because they are rather dense and touch on many issues. However, I have also been aware, particularly recently when in conversation with evangelical Christians, that questions around authority, hermeneutics and the sources of revealed truth are often unaddressed but nevertheless constitute a serious stumbling block to real communication. All too often evangelical colleagues will tell me what “the Bible says” and assume that that settles things. And given that I am not very good at responding with chapter and verse proof texts, and that the context usually precludes a serious discussion of hermeneutics and their underlying presuppositions, this can be rather frustrating and I usually just end up pointing out that that is their interpretation of what the Bible says and leave it at that!

But I have also been aware – and reading Father Behr highlights this – that the popular Orthodox (and Catholic) response to such a challenge, while not entirely untrue, is both simplistic and not without its own dangers. Such a response is of course to point out that the Bible is the Church’s book, that it was the Church that decided on the canon of Scripture, and that Scripture can only be properly interpreted within the Church. But the danger with that is that it can objectify the Scriptures and can appear to view the Church as being above the Scriptures. In an extreme form one ends up with “Scripture” and “Tradition” as two separate sources of authority as the (Roman Catholic) Council of Trent taught. Such developments would appear to fit better in a scholastic mode of theologising than in a patristic one.

As Father Behr notes, the early Christian struggle for truth – and the establishment of a normative Orthodox understanding of the Gospel – was inseparable from the engagement with a particular set of texts and with the correct interpretation of these texts. The two key challenges that the early Christians encountered regarding these came from Marcion and from Valentinus.

Marcion wanted to discard the Jewish (and some of the Christian) Scriptures and to emphasise the discontinuity between the vengeful and malicious God of the Old Testament, and the gospel of Jesus. Thus he establishes an opposition between the Law and the Gospel and attempts to sever the Gospel from the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets – an attempt, incidentally, that von Harnack thought Protestantism should have followed.

If Marcion wanted to fix a (reduced) body of authoritative writings, then the Gnostic Valentinus saw no need to do this, but sought rather to creatively reuse texts and images from Scripture in a way that resonates with people’s hearts but without any relationship to an objective authority. There is thus no distinction between Scripture and commentary, or between source and interpretation. As Frances Young notes, “Gnostic doctrine is revelatory, rather than traditional, textual or rational.” (21) Or, as Ireneaus notes, such a reading produces the reader’s own fabrication rather than the handiwork of God. However, the use that they make of Scripture, can give the impression that they are really being “biblical”.

Such usages of Scripture were rejected by the Church and the Orthodox position on the correct understanding of the Scriptures became established through the work of people like Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Saint Justin Martyr and Saint Irenaeus of Lyon in the first two centuries of the Church’s life. Father Behr writes:

In their own ways, these all maintained a text-interpretive framework for revelation, the point that Christ was preached by the apostles as having been crucified and risen “according to the Scriptures.” So, what sense does it make to say that Christ is proclaimed “according to the Scriptures”? What is the relationship between Christ, the Gospel, and the Scriptures? (23)

To be continued.

It is often said that Christianity (along with Judaism and Islam, though these are not dealt with here) is a “religion of the book,” and this is usually taken in a very weak sense, that somehow, somewhere, for whatever reason, Christianity involves a book. But what is established as normative Christianity in the second century takes this in a much stronger sense: If God acts through His Word, then that Word needs to be heard, to be read, to be understood – the relationship with God is, in a broad sense, literary. As such, it requires the full engagement of all the intellective faculties to understand and accomplish, or incarnate, God’s Word. It was no accident, as Frances Young observes, that what came to be orthodox or normative Christianity was “committed to a text-based version of revealed truth.” This Christianity, one might say, is an interpretive text-based religion. She further points out, concerning the question of historicity touched on earlier, that it would be anachronistic to suppose that in antiquity God’s revelation was located in historical events behind the text, events to which, it is claimed, we can have access by reconstructing them from the text, treating the texts as mere historical documents which provide raw historical data, subject to our own analysis, rather than in the interpreted events as presented in Scripture, where the interpretation is already given through the medium of Scripture. What is recognized, by the end of the second century, as normative Christianity is committed to understanding Christ by engaging with Scripture on the basis of the canon of truth in the context of tradition (παράδοσις).

But if this is the basis for what is established as normative Christianity by the end of the second century, it is no less the very dynamic of the Gospel itself. One of the earliest formulae for proclaiming the Gospel is that Christ was crucified and raised “according to the Scriptures”:

I delivered (παρέδωκα) to you as of first importance what I also received that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. (1 Cor 15:3-4)

The Gospel which Paul delivered (“traditioned”) is from the first “according to the Scriptures.” Clearly the Scriptures to which Paul is referring here are not the four Gospels, but the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets. The importance of this written reference, repeated twice, is such that the phrase is preserved in later Creeds; Christians who use the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed still confess that Christ died and rose according to the (same) Scriptures. The point of concern in this basic Christian confession is not the historicity of the events behind their reports, but that the reports are continuous with, in accordance with, Scripture; it is a textual, or more accurately an “intertextual” or interpretive confession. And this scriptural texture of the Gospel is, as we will see, the basis of both canon and tradition as articulated by what emerges as normative Christianity. If “orthodoxy” is indeed later than “heresy,” as Bauer claimed and as is commonly assumed, it is nevertheless based on nothing other than Gospel as it was delivered at the beginning.

John Behr, The Way to Nicaea (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press) 15-16.

I had just started reading Father John Behr when my life (and access to books) became rather disrupted a couple of years ago, but I have been intending to get back to him and have recently started reading The Way to Nicaea. I regret that I’m not really in a position to blog intensely on this book as it is both pretty dense and very insightful. However, I hope to post a few things if I am able to sufficiently get my head around the issues that he raises in the opening chapters.

For now I must note, rather to my embarrassment, that until reading this book, I have never really stopped to think much about the theological depth that we confess with the words “according to the Scriptures” when reciting the creed. If anything, I’ve probably pretty much thought of them as referring to the New Testament accounts of the Resurrection in much the same way that one might refer to sources to back up accounts of a particular event. But what Father Behr is arguing here, is that this is a confession of what the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets were all about. It structures our reading of them while they give depth to the confession of the Resurrection. A link is established, a narrowing down of the interpretive options available.

Father Gabriel (Bunge) continues the first chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Traditionby noting that psalmody, prayer and meditation have been a regular part of spiritual discipline from time immemorial. However, he argues in this section that the distinction between them is insufficiently appreciated today.

The distinction between psalmody and prayer that is evidently presupposed … and which is a matter of course in the writings of the early Fathers, appears strange to the modern reader. Are not psalmody and prayer one and the same, so that one can rightly speak of the “prayer from psalms” or of “praying the psalms”? And is not the Psalter the “prayer book of the Church”, which took it over from the synagogue? The Fathers would have answered: Yes and no. “Psalmody is not yet praying”, for the two belong to different (not separate) orders. (42)

The psalms are first of all Scripture and form prophetic word of God to humanity that “opens a prospect on to Christ and his Church” whereas prayer is our speaking (or singing) to God, a dialogue with God. While the Psalter includes this sort of prayer or praise addressed to God, it also includes other genres, including those that appear “to the modern reader as the exact opposite of Christian prayer!” (44)

In order to appropriate the Psalter and make it our own, we need “zeal in practicing ‘meditation’.” (44)

By “meditation” (μελέτη) the Fathers (and the psalmist himself) understood a constant repetition of certain verses or entire passages of Sacred Scripture sotto voce (in an undertone), with the goal of grasping their hidden spiritual sense. (44)

This hidden meaning of Scripture is revealed to praying Christians only when the Lord Himself opens their eyes.

Biblical “meditation”, then, has to do mainly with the objective facts of salvation history, in which God reveals himself, his “Name”. “Reflection” upon the enigmatic history of the Chosen People or on one’s own destiny, in which this history is repeated, is thus never an end in itself, but should always lead to “being mindful” of God himself, and thus also to “prayer” in the strict sense. For in prayer, man responds to this salvific action of Go, whether it be in petitions, hymns or praise. (46-47)

Thus psalmody, prayer and meditation are both different and intertwined and are part of a dynamic process.

The “spiritualization” of this Old Testament word of God – in the Holy Spirit

opening its horizons towards Christ and his Church – must not be done through toned-down translations and certainly not, as has become the custom today, through omissions! Only inspired “meditation” is capable of accomplishing this “spiritualization”, which is of course necessary for the Scriptures of the Old Testament in general. The Christian finds the key to such an opening up towards Christ and his Church in the “typological” manner in which the New Testament – and subsequently the Fathers of the Church – read the Old Testament word of God. (48)


I must confess that this section, and particularly the distinction that Father Gabriel draws between psalmody and prayer, has made me just slightly uncomfortable. Much of what he says is true and very helpful. It is also clear that he was – at least partly – writing in the context of current (or recent) Catholic issues around the praying of the Liturgy of the Hours, although I have not seen anything to indicate and that the fact that he originally wrote this book as a Catholic makes it anything less than Orthodox, and my disquiet now does not have anything to do with that. Rather my disquiet is rooted in wondering whether his exclusion of the Psalms from constituting “true prayer” does not represent a particularly Evagrian view of the patristic heritage. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not anti-Evagrius (okay, it seems difficult to deny that his cosmological speculations were of dubious orthodoxy, but his teaching on spiritual life is helpful and has clearly been received in the tradition) but I seem to remember other patristic references to praying the psalms and wonder if there is not a broader tradition that Father Gabriel is downplaying. I don’t have the resources (or the time) at present to look this up further, but I think also of the idea (found in Saint Augustine) that the prayer of the psalms is the prayer of Christ himself.

Of course, these differing perspectives are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and so I will keep an open mind to see how this develops in the rest of the book.

We grow in the spiritual life to the extent that we descend into the depths of listening. Listening means not only confessing that another is present, but making space in ourselves for this presence to the point that we become the dwelling place of the Other. The experience of the indwelling of the divine presence (the ‘visits of the Word’ that St Bernard acknowledged he had received several times following his biblical lectio) cannot be dissociated from our ability to ‘offer hospitality’ to others by listening to them. This tells us that someone who listens, and who defines his or her identity on the basis of the paradigm of listening, is someone who loves – love also comes from what is heard, amor ex auditu. Our listening to God, with all of the dimensions this listening implies – silence, attention, interiorization, the spiritual effort of retaining what we have heard, the effort of decentring our attention from ourselves in order to re-centre it on Another – leads us to welcome within ourselves a presence that is closer to us than our own ‘I’; or, better, our listening leads to this presence being revealed to us. We find ourselves reliving the experience of the patriarch Jacob, who exclaimed, ‘Surely, the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it! (Genesis 28.16). The place where God is found is no other than the human being. In the Bible, God is not simply ‘the One who is’; he is also, and more significantly, ‘the One who speaks’. By speaking, God seeks a relationship with each person and awakens our freedom, because if the Word is a gift, it can always be welcomed or refused. This is why reading is also an important spiritual discipline in the Christian life: when we read, we meet the One who speaks through the biblical page.

One of the terms used to designate the Bible in the Jewish tradition, Miqra’, indicates a ‘call’ to go out ‘from’ and to travel ‘towards’. From the perspective of faith, every act of reading the Bible is the beginning of an exodus in which we leave ourselves in order to meet Another – and this exodus takes place as we listen! Significantly, the biblical account of the exodus tells us that the great obstacle the people of Israel faced during their journey from Egypt toward freedom was their own ‘hardness of heart’: they were a ‘stiff-necked’ people who persisted in listening not to God but to themselves. But it is also true that in the biblical experience of God and in the believer’s own experience, there is the discovery that God is ‘the One who listens to prayer’. Our own listening leads us to recognize God’s listening as a dimension that precedes us and in which we are immersed. Paul says, ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17.28). Listening is the contemplative, anti-idolatrous attitude par excellence. It is by listening that we seek to live consciously in the presence of God, the Other who is the origin of the irreducible mystery of all otherness. For Christians, listening is the source of life.

Enzo Bianchi, Words of Spirituality. (SPCK, 2002) 37-38.

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