Scriptures Belong to the Fallen World

Orthodox Christians believe the Scriptures are the Word of God containing God’s revelation to the world of the Holy Trinity and the incarnation of God’s Word in Jesus Christ as well as His resurrection from the dead.  Certain of God’s chosen saints were inspired by God to write about this revelation – so the Scriptures have a human element to them as they were written by the hand of these inspired saints.  The Scriptures did not fall in tact from heaven but are the result of this synergy between God and the chosen people.  The Scriptures also require their readers to be inspired because the Scriptures must be interpreted which is also part of this synergy between God and the chosen people.

St. John Chrysostom (d. 407), considered in Orthodoxy to be one of the greatest expositors of the Scriptures in the early Patristic period, in commenting of the Gospel according to St. Matthew makes some claims about the Scriptures that might be startling to the modern Christian, who not knowing the history of the Scriptures and their development or of the canon of Scripture’s history, wrongly assumes the Scriptures simply fell from heaven and required no human involvement.   Chrysostom says the Scriptures really belong only to the fallen world.  They didn’t exist in heaven nor in paradise and became necessary only as sin separated humanity from divinity.  God spoke directly with Adam and Eve and needed no scriptural intermediary to convey His will to them.  But as humans became more entangled in sin, they no longer could receive the pure Word of God spoken to them directly.  God gave the Scriptures because of love for humankind and because of his considerateness for fall humanity.  God was not willing to let us lose all sight (and sound!) of Him and so Scriptures are God’s continued effort to reach down to humanity in the depths of our fall from grace.   In his first homily on St. Matthew’s Gospel, Chrysostom writes:

It were indeed meet for us not at all to require the aid of the written Word, but to exhibit a life so pure, that the grace of the Spirit should be instead of books to our souls, and that as these are inscribed with ink, even so should our hearts be with the Spirit. But, since we have utterly put away from us this grace, come, let us at any rate embrace the second best course. For that the former was better, God made manifest, both by His words, and by His doings. Since unto Noah, and unto Abraham, and unto his offspring, and unto Job, and unto Moses too, He discoursed not by writings, but Himself by Himself, finding their mind pure.

God, as St. John Chrysostom describes it, intended to speak to us humans directly.  This required only that we humans maintain a pure heart for the Spirit would ‘write’ the word on the pure human heart.   We, however, fell in sin, losing the purity of heart.  A few individuals, those great saints like Noah, Abraham, Job and Moses, still had purity of heart and God was able to speak to them, but alas, even those folks disappeared from the earth.  So God in His continued love for humanity and being considerate of our fallen state spoke to us through the written Word.  Thus the Scriptures were necessitated by sin and belong to the fallen world, not to paradise or to the Kingdom of heaven.  The Scriptures are but ‘Plan B’, the contingency plan.

But after the whole people of the Hebrews had fallen into the very pit of wickedness, then and thereafter was a written word, and tables, and the admonition which is given by these. And this one may perceive was the case, not of the saints in the Old Testament only, but also of those in the New. For neither to the apostles did God give anything in writing, but instead of written words He promised that He would give them the grace of the Spirit: for “He,” says our Lord, “shall bring all things to your remembrance.”  And that you may learn that this was far better, hear what He says by the Prophet: “I will make a new covenant with you, putting my laws into their mind, and in their heart I will write them,” and, “they shall be all taught of God.”

Even to the apostles and the saints of the New Testament God did not use a written word to communicate to them, rather God’s incarnate Word spoke to them directly.   God speaking directly to His people is obviously His preferred method of communication.  God relies on the written word to communicate with those who have lost purity of heart and cannot hear His voice any longer.  That God prefers to speak to His people rather than give them a written word is a profound thought.  We are to hear the word of the Lord.  Hearing, listening to God is a different activity than reading the word.  For when we read we become far more focused on grammar, punctuation and every “jot and tittle” in a way that hearing the word does not allow.  It changes our relationship to the Word; the end result being a fall into literalism as we rely more on our minds than our hearts to hear the Word of the Lord.

And Paul too, pointing out the same superiority, said, that they had received a law “not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.”  But since in process of time they made shipwreck, some with regard to doctrines, others as to life and manners, there was again need that they should be put in remembrance by the written word.

Moses receiving the word written on stone.

Chrysostom makes an interesting point – when God is still able to speak to us directly because we have hearts pure enough to receive His Word, we hear the Word of God and we have to remember it internally, in our hearts.  It only can be written on our hearts! There are no written words to look at, and none are needed. But when we cease to be able to hear the Word because we have lost purity of heart, then we have to rely on the written Scriptures to remember the Word.  This written Word is external to us, recorded perhaps even faithfully and exactly, but still externally to our hearts.  They are words written on stone or with ink on paper, but they loose that life-giving property.  St. Paul says with the coming of Christ and the Holy Spirit we now receive “a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life.”  It is even possible for the written word to lead to an idolization of the text or stone on which the word is written word which does not bring us closer to God and His Word, Jesus Christ.  The stone on which the Ten Commandments were written became an object of veneration, but this object was not in the hearts of God’s people but exterior to each of them.  God Himself did not prevent Moses from destroying the original tablets of stone, and even provided a replacement copy, perhaps indicating it is not what they are written on that is to become the object of veneration.  Rather, the stones themselves are already the “second remedy” because humanity had lost its purity of heart.  Instead of idolizing the stone tablets, God wanted us to replace our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh upon which His Spirit could write His Word! (Ezekiel 36:26)

Reflect then how great an evil it is for us, who ought to live so purely as not even to need written words, but to yield up our hearts, as books, to the Spirit; now that we have lost that honor, and are come to have need of these, to fail again in duly employing even this second remedy. For if it be a blame to stand in need of written words, and not to have brought down on ourselves the grace of the Spirit; consider how heavy the charge of not choosing to profit even after this assistance, but rather treating what is written with neglect, as if it were cast forth without purpose, and at random, and so bringing down upon ourselves our punishment with increase.”

(NPNF, Vol X, Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew)

As Chrysostom describes it, we already suffer the shame of having lost our pure hearts and so God can no longer speak to us directly.  But then, when God chooses in love to still speak to us through the written word, we neglect reading or listening to the Gospel anyway.  God is completely considerate of our weakened condition, and still tries to provide a help to us.  Neglecting that help is a scandal for all Christians.

[An additional thought  –  In John 20:30-31, we are told the Gospel was written so that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.  John doesn’t say they were written so that we might remember what Jesus did.  They are written to enter into our hearts and minds so that we might believe which will then give us eternal life.  Interestingly, in Luke 22:19 and in the writings of St. Paul (1 Corinthians 11:24-25), remembrance is invoked in association with the Last Supper, the Mystical Supper.   It is in Communion that we remember Christ.  The written word witnesses to Christ, but in celebrating the Eucharist, we remember Christ.]