Book Review: Taught by God

All your sons shall be taught by the LORD,

and great shall be the prosperity of your sons.  

(Isaiah 54:13)

In Ecclesiastes 12:12, the author with a heavy heart notes that there is no end to the number of books that can be written – so much to study, so little time.  Despite that sentiment, I welcome the new book TAUGHT BY GOD written by Daniel Fanous.  While there is a veritable tsunami of books on the Scriptures from non-Orthodox writers, there is just beginning a trickle of books from Orthodox scholars. Fanous’ book is one of the few that is scholarly,  respects and uses both Patristic commentaries and also modern scholarship, and is accessible to the informed but not scholarly reader.  The book weaves a tapestry of ideas old and new together as it endeavors to make sense of some of the difficult sayings of Jesus.  For those who perhaps have felt some frustration in reading the Bible because some of the sayings of Christ are difficult to understand, this book encourages you to look exactly at and into the hard sayings.  It invites you to think through the Bible – it is after all God’s Word not just a good book and so you should be willing to be stopped in your thinking and be forced to wrestle with the text.

In a day and age when many Orthodox seem afraid of the 21st Century and its philosophical assumptions and post-Christian thinking, Fanous doesn’t dodge difficult questions, nor is he fearful of ambiguity in the Scriptures, or disagreements among Orthodox Patristic writers in how to interpret difficult texts.  It is his willingness to recognize diversity and ambiguity in the way a text can be read which makes this book so valuable.   He is not shying away from controversy but opens to us all the fact that interpreting Scriptures is a spiritual pursuit and a difficult one, but it is also an adventure into the treasury of God’s Word. 

As St. John Chrysostom wrote:

“…the Holy Scriptures… they are not simply words, but words of the Holy Spirit, and hence the treasure to be found in even a single syllable is great. … we are listening to God speaking to us through the tongue of the inspired authors.”

Fanous picks up on Chrysostom’s theme which is reflected in the title of the book – as we read the Scriptures or listen to them proclaimed in Church – we are to remember we are being taught by God.   This we must not forget.  And God’s revelation is given by God to His chosen people, so it is with those people, in that history, through the Church that we come to a full understanding of God’s will. Scripture is never alone, for it is the revelation of and witness to Jesus Christ.  The words were written by men and women inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Thus the Bible is a Trinitarian book whose meaning is revealed in the life of the Holy Trinity.  It is a text with a context, and Fanous helps us understand that context.

Throughout the book Fanous wrestles with the questions:  What did Jesus mean?  and  What did the New Testament authors intend when they penned the words which became our Scriptures?   He approaches the questions not with the idea to tell us what to think, but really to help us learn how to think as we read God’s Word.

Chrysostom taught by St. Paul

Fanous’ interpretive success is based in what the Great Antiochian biblical scholars such as St. John Chrysostom did- give careful attention to details, to the exact phrases, words and sentences of the Scripture he is investigating.   For example, commenting on Matthew 5, Fanous writes: “To begin, we should note that Jesus did not say in any of the six cases ‘Moses said,’  but rather, ‘you have heard that it was said’…. At hand, therefore, is a discussion of the interpretation of the law—what was heard—not the law itself.”  Fanous places Jesus solidly in the rabbinic tradition of Judaism – Jesus comes to fulfill the law, not abolish it, but also to give Torah its full and proper meaning.  Jesus is thus not in opposition to Torah, but fulfills it and reveals its complete meaning to us.

I read a fair number of scholarly scripture commentaries each year.  As a result, much of what Fanous writes was already familiar to me – I recognize many of the modern biblical scholars he quotes and I appreciate his use of ancient Christian and Jewish commentaries to help shed light on the difficult sayings of Jesus.  The text to me was very readable, and a joy in that it was written by an Orthodox Christian from an Orthodox point of view.

“And beginning with Moses and all the prophets,

Jesus interpreted to them in all the scriptures

the things concerning himself.”  (Luke 24:27)

Valentine’s Day Bugs Me

I will give the Bronx Zoo a lot of creative credit for its Valentine’s Day fundraising: Name A Roach.  For a $10 donation you can have a Madagascar hissing cockroach named after your Valentine.   Here is certainly a case where mixing truth and love produces a questionable result.   The quote of the Day is a greeting-card Valentine phrase:

 Flowers wilt. Chocolates melt. Roaches are forever.

So if you’ve got $10 to spare and you love God’s created earth, visit the Bronx Zoo Webpage.   The Zoo will love you for it on February 14, even if your Valentine does not.