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I am not a biblical scholar, but a missiologist, and so I will leave it to others to go into the details of the writing of the scriptures and the development of the canon of scripture. What I have to say is more concerned with culture, not just because culture is something that interests missiolgists, but because one of the biggest differences between Orthodox Christians and Western Christians, and especially Protestant Christians, in the way we approach the Bible is a cultural one. To put it briefly, and no doubt simplistically, the Protestant tradition (or traditions) are shaped by the Bible, but the Bible was shaped by Orthodox tradition. Let me see if I can explain that.
Talking about “tradition” tends to make Protestant Christians uneasy, and for some, “tradition” stands for everything that has ever gone wrong with the Christian Church. A verse that springs to many people’s minds is Mark 7:8, which speaks of “traditions of men”, and many have quoted that verse to me to try to convince me that “tradition” is a bad thing, a very bad thing. But there are other places in the Bible where tradition is clearly seen as a good thing. In I Thessalonians 2:15 St Paul urges the brethren to hold fast to the traditions they have been taught, and he urges Timothy to pass his teaching on to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (II Tim 2:23). That is the essence of tradition, for tradition means to hand something over, to pass something on, to deliver something to someone. The Greek word used for this is paradosis, and whether it is good or bad depends on what is handed over to whom. It is bad tradition to hand over pearls to swine, or holy things to dogs. It was bad tradition when Judas handed over Jesus to the police.
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In times of persecution those who handed over holy things, like the scriptures or communion vessels, to the authorities, were called “traditores”, from which the English word “traitor” comes. That refers to bad tradition.
The Bible in the Orthodox Church: Page 1
So tradition may be good or bad, and good tradition is handing over, passing on, the Christian faith, as St Jude urges his readers to contend for the faith once delivered, or “traditioned” to the saints. “Faith” can mean both what is believed, and the act of believing, and so tradition can mean both what is handed over, and the act of handing over. And for Orthodox Christians the Holy Scriptures are part of this tradition, part of what is handed on. We do not speak of two sources, of Scripture and Tradition. There is one source, one tradition, and the Holy Scriptures are at the core of it.
Orthodox culture and Western culture, especially Protestant culture, are very different in this respect, and it is this difference that I shall try to explain.
Nowadays we hear a lot about the differences between modernity and postmodernity, the differences between modern and postmodern culture. But to understand the difference between Orthodox culture and Protestant culture one must go back to premodern culture. Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment When we speak of modernity, or modern culture, we are usually referring to Western culture as it has been shaped by three movements or intellectual currents: the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. In my youth there was a fashionable cultural theorist, Marshall McLuhan, who pointed out that modern culture, modernity, is above all a print culture. He wrote several books expounding his theories (in print), and one of them was called The Gutenberg galaxy. In another book, The medium is the massage he tried to escape from the constraints of the print medium to try to get his message across. One of his theories was that the advent of electronic media would change culture in our time as profoundly as print had changed it in the sixteenth century. Television would usher in the postmodern age. The Gutenberg Galaxy The Gutenberg galaxy meant, among other things, that reading, including reading the scriptures, could become, above all, a private affair, an individualistic affair. Printing meant that people could have their own copies of a book, called The Bible, and read it on their own, in private. Early modern Europe saw the rise of individualism. It was not seen only in printed books. If you look at Renaissance painting, you will see that there was an obsession with perspective. And perspective represents, above all, an The Bible in the Orthodox Church: Page 2
individual and individualistic point of view. And this in turn gave rise to the notion of privacy. The new electronic media tend to override these perspectives, and give rise to what McLuhan calls “all at onceness”. In our time people tend to have a foot in both camps: there is a modern concern with “privacy”, but it tends to get erased with social media like Facebook, and people argue about privacy issues without being altogether clear what the issues are. For McLuhan printing is a ditto device, a ditto device, a ditto device, the first form of mass production. And printing, for the first time, made it possible for there to be a book called The Bible, a book that you could hold in your hand, wave around, open and read, or thump to emphasise a point. And the appearance of The Bible in print coincided with the rise of Protestantism. Protestantism was shaped by the Bible, by the existence of this book, by the availability of printed Bibles. But before the invention of printing there was no book called The Bible. It did not exist. The Orthodox Church did not have The Bible. The Orthodox Church did not speak of the Bible, because there was no such thing. What the Orthodox Church had, and spoke of, was not the Bible, but the Holy Scriptures. And that is a huge cultural difference, which I ask you to try to imagine.
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You can see something of the difference in many Protestant statements of faith, which usually begin with the Bible and what they believe about the Bible. The Orthodox symbol of faith, however, has a different starting point. It starts, “I believe in one God…”
Orthodoxy – holistic
Orthodox culture is holistic. The Bible is not separated out as a discrete book. Rather the Holy Scriptures are woven into the life of the church, read and heard, not just in the reading aloud from the scriptures, but in the hymns that weave the words of the scriptures into a pattern that is greater than the sum of its parts. This is reinforced by the holy ikons, and by the gathered people, who together become something that they were not individually. Manuscript culture Before printing, books were expensive, and each had to be laboriously copied by hand. So in most churches there was no Bible. If there were books of scriptures they were arranged in the order in which they were read in church. Collected copies of various books of Scripture were comparatively rare, and very expensive, used by scholars, rather than by ordinary Christians. The Bible in the Orthodox Church: Page 3
The Canon of Holy Scripture
When we read about “The Holy Scriptures” in the New Testament, it is probable that what was referred to was the Septuagint, and most of the quotations of the Old Testament found in the NT are from the Septuagint version. And for the Orthodox Church the Septuagint is the “Authorised Version, though in fact the canon of the Old Testament has never been explicitly defined. Council of 1672 A Council in Jerusalem in 1672 made a list of some Old Testament books, but this is not an official definition for all the Orthodox Churches, and was mainly a response to some developments in the West. .
When people speak of the Canon of Holy Scripture, they usually mean a definitive list of approved books, an officially designated list. Marcion But the first such list was not drawn up by the Church, but by a heretic, Marcion, who tried to censor the Scriptures to suit his own teaching. But before Marcion there was a Canon, or Rule, or Measure, the rule of Faith. In Acts 2:42 we read that the first Christian converts, baptised on the Day of Pentecost or shortly thereafter, “continued in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.” And Orthodox Christians believe that the Orthodox Church has continued in those four things from that day to this. It has continued in the apostles’ teaching, passed on, as St Paul said to Timothy, to faithful men who were in turn able to teach others. And this teaching was known as the Rule or Canon of Faith. And eventually the apostles’ teaching came to be written down, either by the apostles themselves, or those who had been taught by them. And inso far as they did that, these writings came to take their place alongside the Septuagint, the Old Testament scriptures, as the Holy Scriptures of the Christian Church. As one Orthodox writer, John Meyendorff (1978:16) puts it, There cannot… be any question about “two sources” of Revelation. It is not in fact a formal dictation of certain formally defined truths to the human mind. Revelation in Jesus Christ is a new fellowship between God and man, established once and for all. It is a participation of man in divine life. Scripture does not create this participation; it witnesses, in a final and complete form, to the acts of God which realized it. In order to be fully understood, the Bible requires the reality of the fellowship which exists in the Church. Tradition is the sacramental continuity in history of the communion of saints. In a way, it is the Church itself. The Bible in the Orthodox Church: Page 4
Athanasius The first list of books of the New Testament, as we have them today, was drawn up by St Athanasius in AD 367. That is interesting from our point of view, because he was an African theologian, and probably a black one (his enemies called him “the black dwarf”).
The Bible in Liturgy and Worship
Some years ago an Orthodox priest had a job lecturing in the Church History Department at Unisa. He invited his colleagues in the Church History Department to attend the baptism of his son, and one of them, a Baptist, spoke to me after the service. He was amazed, he said, at how scriptural the service was. “We Baptists,” he said, “like to think we are scriptural, and give great importance to the Bible, but I have never been to a service as scriptural as that.” At the beginning of the Divine Liturgy the priest makes the sign of the cross over the altar-table with the Gospel book, saying “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages,” and the people respond “Amen.” As Fr Alexander Schmemann (1966:33) says: In the language of the Bible, which is the language of the Church, to bless the Kingdom is not simply to acclaim it. It ios to declare it to be the goal, the end of all our desires and interests, of our whole life, the supreme and ultimate value of all that exists. To bless is to accept in love, and to move towards what is loved and accepted. This acceptance is expressed in the solemn answer to the doxology: Amen. It is indeed one of the most important words in the world, for it expresses the agreement of the Church to follow Christ in his ascension to his Father, to make this ascension the destiny of man. And the Gospel book symbolises the gospel, the Good News of the Kingdom, the hearing of which has brought us to this point, and which is preserved and transmitted in its written form in the Holy Scriptures. Later in the Liturgy the Gospel book is carried in procession by the deacon while the people sing. Usually the sing the Beatitudes from St Matthew’s Gospel, about the blessings of those who are called to be part of the Kingdom, but on some days other things are sung.
For Orthodox Christians, therefore, the Bible is not seen as something separate and distinct. It is “contextual|” in the sense that it is holistically woven into the life of the Church. If you were to remove it, there would be nothing recognisable left. The Bible in the Orthodox Church: Page 5
The Orthodox “frame of reference” is different from the Western one, and this affects the place of the Bible as well as everything else. To summarise (Bajis 1991:6-7): Orthodoxy is communal Orthodoxy is intuitive Orthodoxy is holistic Orthodoxy sees the church as a living organism of which Christ himself is a member Orthodoxy sees the Christian faith as relational, personal and experiential
Bajis, Jordan. 1991. Common ground: an introduction to Eastern Christianity for the American Christian. Minneapolis: Light & Life. Cronk, George. 1982. The message of the Bible: an Orthodox Christian perspective. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. McLuhan, Marshall. 1967. The Gutenberg galaxy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Meyendorff, John. 1978. Living tradition: Orthodox witness in the contemporary world. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Schmemann, Alexander. 1966. The world as sacrament. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. Stephen Hayes firstname.lastname@example.org http://khanya.wordpress.com 2012-03-06
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