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 The Saints: Why read the Bible?
In the next several blogs I will be looking at the comments of Orthodox saints, contemporary Orthodox scholars and some non-Orthodox biblical scholars, regarding their ideas of how to read and study the Scriptures. I return to the theme of the very first blog in this series that the Bible is a Treasury, which we open to discover the riches of God’s love and power.
“Reading the Holy Scriptures is like a treasure. With a treasure, you see, anyone able to find a tiny nugget gains for himself great wealth; likewise in the case of Sacred Scripture, you can get from a small phrase a great wealth of thought and immense riches. The Word of God is not only like a treasure, but is also like a spring gushing with everflowing waters in a mighty flood… our forebears drank from these waters to the limit of their capacity, and those who come after us will try to do likewise, without risk of exhausting them; instead the flood will increase and the streams will be multiplied.” (DAILY READINGS FROM THE WRITINGS OF ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, p 48)
St. John Chrysostom (d. 407 AD) is part of the Antiochian “School” of Patristic writers. Relatively speaking, they were not as attracted to an allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures as were the saints of the Alexandrian “School” of the Patristic age. Their focus was on accurately discerning the precise meaning of Scripture and they often rejected a purely allegorical reading of the Bible. Nevertheless, the Antiochian School saw the Scriptures as containing God’s revelation to the world, and as such understood the biblical texts to be deep and rich with the revelations and hidden mysteries of God. The texts are not merely human texts, though they were written by men inspired by God. Their true content is the revelation of God Himself, which is why the meaning of the scriptural text might be much deeper than its most obvious meaning.
“The Apostle says: ‘The letter kills, but the spirit gives life (2 Cor 3:6). Those are killed by the letter who merely wish to know the words alone, so that they may be esteemed as wiser than others and be able to acquire great riches to give to their relatives and friends. In a similar way, those religious are killed by the letter who do not wish to follow the spirit of Sacred Scripture, but only wish to know what the words are and how to interpret them to others. And those are given life by the spirit of Sacred Scripture who do not refer to themselves any text which they know or seek to know, but , by word and example, return everything to the most high Lord God to Whom every good belongs.” (St. Francis of Assisi, FRANCIS AND CLARE, p 30)
Knowing the Scriptures for Christian saints throughout the ages are not for only the learned and biblical scholars. One memorizes and lives by the Bible, not to impress others with one’s education, nor to get others to think highly of you, nor to become famous and sought after for one’s erudition. One learns the Scriptures to order one’s life, to live the evangelical life, to know how to be a disciple of the Son of God. In the Patristic Age, congregations were to take note of those who knew the Scriptures by heart – this was evaluated not by how many verses they could spout from memory, but by how they lived their lives. This is how a bishop candidate might be recognized: have they memorized the Psalms. It was not that the man who wants to be bishop should go about memorizing Psalms, but when the community recognizes that a man truly has the Psalms in his heart that one recognizes who the episcopal candidate should be. It is a lifetime pursuit of knowing God’s Word that is a sign of one’s commitment to Christ.
This pursuit of the knowledge of God’s Word was not just for those interested in becoming priests or bishops. St. Jerome (d. 420 AD) wrote in his day about the widow Marcella:
“And because my name was then especially esteemed in the study of the Scriptures, she never came without asking something about Scripture, nor did she immediately accept my explanation as satisfactory, but she proposed questions from the opposite viewpoint, not for the sake of being contentious, but so that by asking, she might learn solutions for points she perceived could be raised In objection. …whatever in us was gathered by long study and by lengthy meditation was almost changed into nature; this she tasted, this she learned, this she possessed.” (quoted in READING SCRIPTURE WITH THE CHURCH FATHERS, p 44)
Those who learn the Word of God, who hide it in their hearts, become formed by that Word, they become living icons of God the Word in their lives and life styles. This is the goal for every Christian, not just those few who choose to be professional Christians, namely the paid clergy and hierarchs.