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Sacred Scripture and the Church: Orthodox Theology on the canonization of the Sacred Scriptures and the Church

Sacred Scripture and the Church: Orthodox Theology on the canonization of the Sacred Scriptures and the Church

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Orthodox Theology on the canonization of the Sacred Scriptures and the Church. by Fr. Christofóros Schuff
Orthodox Theology on the canonization of the Sacred Scriptures and the Church. by Fr. Christofóros Schuff

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Published by: Rev. Fr. Christofóros Schuff on Feb 20, 2009
Copyright:Traditional Copyright: All rights reserved


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Sacred Scripture and the Church
The validity of the divine inspiration of the Sacred Scriptures, known also as the"Bible", is something which has been debated many times by both "believers" and"non-believers". Let me first say that I personally accept the Scriptures as divinelyinspired. At the same time there are those who knowingly or unknowinglymisinterpret this by taking the Bible "out of context". This entails not only thedisregard for the text itself "in context" (what comes before or after a specific verse), but also removal of the composition from its environment, i.e. when, where, forwhom and why it was written.
However, in order for us to be able to believe that these texts are divine, we mustfirst have accepted the divine inspiration of the canonization: that is to say theprocess of choosing which books to include in the Bible and which to not. Adangerous manner of taking the Bible “out of context” regards the understanding ofhow, when and why the Bible was canonized. Many seem to assume, and thus inignorance, that the members of the early Church had access to the New Testament.This was however not the case. Though we know that most congregations had atleast some portion of what we today call the New Testament, it was a rare occurrence before the 3
or 4
Century A.D. that one manuscript contained all of the N.T. And,even then, such a collection would most likely contain a number of other writingsand letters which were later not accepted as a part of the Christian Canon. In regardsto the Old Testament, the first Christians including the Apostle Paul used theSeptuaginta (the Greek translation of the O.T., having been translated some 200 years before the time of Christ). The Septuaginta also contains a number of books withwhich most reformed-Christians are unfamiliar. These “other books” have beengiven the collective title “Apocrypha”. It would take a process between 300-400 yearsafter Christ to define which writings were “biblical” and which were not. Once again,even then, there were a number of writings defined as “edifying” for the Christianreader, but which were not to be read in the context of liturgy. The conclusion: theChurch was being defined and was “The Church” before it ever had “The Bible”. TheBible, as we know it, was the product of the Church and it was the Church that setthe criteria for how the Bible was to be defined. This has in turn wide rangingconsequences for an understanding of the validity of the Church at that time.
From the time the Church was founded to the time when the Canon of the Bible wasaffirmed a period of over 400 hundred years had passed. During this time theChurch had already been defining Her teaching, form of worship and administrative
structure. There was also a strong monastic movement which had a great amount ofinfluence on worship. These monastics were persons who wanted to live out theexample of Christ in full, selling all they had and giving it to the poor and taking uptheir cross daily and following Jesus. The early Church’s worship can be defined as“liturgical”. From the earliest texts we have describing the services of the Church,especially the Communion service, we see a definite pattern appearing quite early.Also, following the tradition in the synagogues, we see that the life of prayer andreading of Scripture was in place from the beginning. We can call this simply a“Liturgy of Time”. That is to say: daily prayers, weekly fasting, and the celebration ofSaturday and Sunday (called “The Lord’s Day) became a part of the daily, weeklyand eventually year-long cycle. After the Christians were forced out of thesynagogues they formed their own communities, a definite forerunner of the latermonastic communities (See: Acts 2:42-47; 4:32). Daily prayers and Scripture readingsentailed at first the use of the Psalms, frequently chanted, and readings from theProphets. Usually one said prayer in the mornings at sunrise (the 1
hour), around 9in the morning (the 3
hour), at noon (6
hour; See Acts 10:9) and in the afternoon atthe 9
hour (See Acts 3:1; also 10:30. The 9
hour is ca. 3pm). It was an early part ofthe prayers to say the Lord’s Prayer (Our Father) three times daily and this wasincorporated into the Hours of Prayer. Fasting for Christians included the daysWednesday and Friday until the 9
hour (See Acts 10:30), while Jews fasted onMondays and Thursdays. According to an early document called the Didache (or
Teaching of the Apostles
) this was decided upon in order to “not fast as the hypocrites”(i.e. the Pharisees). The main services of the week were Saturday and Sunday where,especially on The Lord’s Day, Communion was held with a common meal following(also called the “Agape Meal”). Also from the Didache, among other documentsincluding the N.T. we see certain formulas used in this service, “This is MyBody…this is My Blood…” and certain other prayers such as the Lord’s Prayer andothers written specifically for the celebration of this service. Other common eventswere baptisms which also included anointing (chrismation). This was the definiteprocess of becoming a member of the Church and one could not receive Communionwithout first having been baptized thrice in the “Name of the Father, the Name of theSon and the Name of the Holy Spirit” according to words of Jesus himself. Even afterthe family of Cornelius was given the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Peter“commanded them to be baptized” (Acts 10:48).The structure of the Church not only has its foundation in Scripture but also in thepractice of the Church
before Scripture was defined
. The three-fold ministry of the localchurch included a bishop under whom were the presbyters and deacons. The Bishopcould be the administrative head of a local congregation as well as head of a numberof congregations in a specific area. The presbyters (priesthood) were seen as anextension of the Bishop’s authority in the celebration of the Holy Communion andthe Deacon was an assistant both helping the Priest and keeping order in the Church.This description applies to the local churches. The other established ministry was
that of the Apostle, the missionary of the time, an establisher of new congregations. Icould go into more detail, but I hope that this will suffice for the current purpose.
I have used these few examples to come to the following point:The acceptance of the Bible as Divine makes also the acceptance of the theologyaround its canonization a categorical necessity. Otherwise we implicitly deny theDivine Inspiration of both the authors and the canonizers and become like theMuslims who believe that their “sacred scriptures” (the Quran) merely “fell fromheaven”. We however, as true Christians believe in the God of history, the God whoreaches into history and who sent to his Son to become man “in the flesh”.For, it was the Church of Bishops, Priests and Deacons; the Church which believed inthe actual presence of the Body and the Blood of Christ in Communion; the Churchof monks and nuns; the Church of Holy Sacraments, Confessions and Ordinations;the Church who honoured Her martyrs and asked for their prayers before the Throneof God in heaven; the Church of Icons and Incense, Processions and Altars; it wasthis Church that defined the Sacred Scriptures and had it not been for This One,Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and Her monasteries and struggle through thecenturies, we would never have the Bible in our possession today.The hierarchy and tradition of the Orthodox Church, so despised and criticized as“pharisaic” by many in the numerous modern denominations of the Western world,is the only thing which kept the true faith of the Holy Prophets, Apostles andMartyrs intact. It is this Church which stayed faithful and did not turn “...from theholy commandment delivered unto them” (2
Pet. 2:21) but stood fast and held “thetraditions” they had been taught, “whether by word, or ... epistle” (2
Thess. 2:15).Finally, it was these same who passed on to us the ancient formula, nowhere foundexplicitly in the Sacred Scriptures that “Jesus, the Christ, was fully God and fullyMan”.May the God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit enlighten our hearts and minds.
Fr. Christofóros Schuff 
τάχα θεολόγος καὶ ἁμαρτωλός

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