This blog continues the series dealing with the Bible and scriptural issues. It began with the 1st blog: Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasury. The immediately preceding blog is Origen: Discerning the Mystery in Scripture’s Treasury. In this blog we will look at some comments about what the Bible is, which of course is central to why we should read the Scriptures at all – which will be a question that I will turn to over a number of upcoming blogs in this series.
St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. ca 384AD) described the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis as “not so much history as ‘doctrines in the guise of narrative” (Kallistos Ware, HOW WE ARE SAVED: THE UNDERSTANDING OF SALVATION IN THE ORTHODOX TRADITION). St. Gregory was very comfortable with reading Genesis as narrative, but a story with deep meaning, for the Bible in its narrative teaches us the doctrines about God. We however have to look into the meaning of the narrative to discover these doctrines, planted in the Scriptures, sometimes plainly visible and sometimes hidden.
“For Irenaeus (d. 202AD) the Bible was a single narrative whose chief actor was God.” (Robert Louis Wilken, THE SPIRIT OF EARLY CHRISTIAN THOUGHT, p 63)
The Bible is not written as a systematic theology, with dogmas annunciated one after another in neat outline form. Nor is the Bible written as a catechism with a series of questions logically arranged to help guide the reader to a pre-determined understanding. Rather, the Bible which often takes on the form of narrative (among other literary forms – poetry, history, prophecy, typology, allegory, proverbs), requires the reader to discern through these literary forms what it is that God is revealing to humankind. It is a narrative that requires some guided study, and someone to help us understand the text. The fullness of God’s revelation was recorded in the Scriptures which were entrusted by God to His Church; His Church – His people- are entrusted by God with interpreting the revelation contained in the Scriptures. As we read in the Acts of the Apostles when the Apostle Philip encounters the Ethiopian eunuch:
“So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And he said, ‘How can I, unless some one guides me?’ And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him” (Acts 8:30-31).
The Bible provides a framework, a context, in which for us to answer such questions as “Who is this God?” and, “What does it mean to be human?” But the answers are not always self evident, rather they require the reader to develop a patiently acquired wisdom and a persistent desire to know the truth. The narrative of the Scriptures is long, but also it is a path that leads to somewhere, even to someone, for it leads us on a sojourn with a purpose.
“For the most characteristic way of speaking within the Bible itself is historical narrative: it is an account—or, rather, many different or even disparate accounts—of things that were said and done at various junctures in the historical career of the people of God.” (Jaroslav Pelikan, WHOSE BIBLE IS IT?, p VII)
The Bible is a written record of God’s revelation, and we need to read it as such: not just to discover what we already know and believe, but to encounter the truth even which is unknown to us, hidden from us, or which is itself an entry into the divine life. We might think the Bible’s sole purpose is to take us from darkness into the light, but it is also taking us from the known to the unknown, for it brings us into the presence of and the mystery of God.
“Our study of the Bible, in other words, should lead us from the literal sense to the spiritual sense: from the original meaning of a passage to its significance as the Word of God for the salvation of those who receive it with faith.”
“The ancient Fathers, and particularly the early Greek theologians, shared a certain vision of the place and meaning of Scripture… this vision which perceives the presence and activity of God in every aspect of Israel’s history and in every facet of the Church’s life. Theirs was an inspired vision, a God-given perception which they termed theoria. This vision enabled them to discern the deeper meaning of the biblical message and to interpret that meaning for their flock. Avoiding the pitfall of ‘verbal inerrancy,’ they knew that every word of the text was produced by a ‘synergy’ or cooperative effort between the human author and the Holy Spirit. Whether or not they found a ‘spiritual’ sense in every phrase of the text, they were convinced that every word was inspired by God for the purpose of guiding the faithful along the way toward life in the Kingdom of Heaven. To their mind, exegesis has one purpose only: to enable the people of God to hear his Word and to receive it for their salvation. … The Eastern Church Fathers stressed the fact that the Bible is not sui generis but that it was born and shaped within a community of faith.” (John Breck, SCRIPTURE IN TRADITION: THE BIBLE AND ITS INTERPRETATION IN THE ORTHODOX CHURCH, pp XI, 2-3)