This is the 8th blog in this series which began with A Quest to Know What It Means to be Human, and the immediately preceding blog is Scripture is Not the Text, but the Reading by God’s People. In this blog and the next, I am looking at the writings of Fr. Georges Florovsky on the meaning of revelation, Scriptures, the Church and Tradition, as well as the relationship of these terms to each other. The quotes from Fr. Florovsky come either from his book BIBLE, CHURCH, TRADITION: AN EASTERN ORTHODOX VIEW (from now on referred to as BCT:AEOV) or from his article “The Work of the Holy Spirit in Revelation”, THE CHRISTIAN EAST, Vol XIII, No. 2 (1932) (referred to as TWHSIR).
In Fr. Florovsky’s thinking, the Scriptures serve as a witness to Christ –they help us to see what the original disciples themselves saw: that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God (Mark 1:1).
“The Evangelists and the Apostles were no chroniclers. It was not their mission to keep the full record of all that Jesus had done, day by day, year by year. They describe his life and related his works, so as to give us his image: an historic, and yet a divine image. It is no portrait, but rather an ikon – but surely an historic ikon, an image of the Incarnate Lord.” (BCT:AEOV, p 25)
“Scripture is a God-inspired scheme or image (ikon) of truth, but not truth itself.” (BCT:AEOV, p 48)
The incarnation makes Christianity a visible faith – we are not based mostly in ideas or philosophy but in the reality of God in the flesh – both capable of being seen and touched (1 John 1:1). Christian Scriptures are not just commandments to be obeyed, for they are revelation: they reveal to us the Trinitarian God and the incarnation of the Word of God.
“The basis of the New Testament is facts, events, deeds – not only teaching, commandments or words.” (BCT:AEOV, p 24)
The Scriptures of the Jews and of the Christians are a witness to God’s own actions and God’s revelation. They however require a people prepared to receive the message and to interpret its meaning. The incarnation of the Word of God is the most explicit interpretation of the Scriptures that is possible. The Jewish Scriptures bore witness to God’s Word and were in a sense a pre-incarnation of the Word of God. The key to understanding their meaning, to unlocking their message and manifesting the previously hidden revelation of God is Jesus Christ. He is the meaning of the Scriptures, its full interpretation, its hermeneutic. In Christ the full revelation of God is made manifest, and the Scriptures are revealed as bearing witness to this revelation.
St. Jerome wrote, “We do not think that Gospel consists of the words of Scripture but in its meaning; not on the surface but in the marrow, not in the leaves of sermons but in the root of meaning.” (BCT:AEOV, p 91)
Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh, is the fulfillment and meaning of all the Scriptures – poetry, history, prophecy, typology, promise, allegory. The Word become flesh is the interpretation of all of the Scriptures. The Scriptures thus bear witness to Christ with the Old Testament being for humanity the continued presence of God’s Spirit/breath AND prefiguring in anticipation the incarnation of the Word; and the New Testament giving us a visible icon of the incarnation. However, as Florovsky notes, the Bible is not the ultimate authority on every form of knowledge. For example,
“The Bible is no authority on social science, as it is no authority on astronomy.” (BCT:AEOV, p 34)
To try to use the Bible, as some literalists want to do, to be the source for our knowledge of archeology, biology, astronomy, geography, and every natural or social science is to miss the main purpose of the Scriptures (see John 5:39-40), which is to bring us to and to reveal to us the incarnate Christ. The task of the Church is to help us do what Jesus Christ Himself said the Scriptures are to do:
“You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40).
The Church has the role of preserving the true interpretation of the Scriptures.
“Tertullian….’For only where the true Christian teaching and faith are evident will the true Scriptures, the true interpretations, and all the true Christian traditions be found.’”( BCT:AEOV, p 77)
The Church as the Body of Christ finds the words and images to express the right interpretation of the Scriptures.
“Perhaps it may sound paradoxical, but it is still true to say that dogmas can arise, can be established and expressed, but they cannot be developed. A dogma once established is an eternal inviolable ‘rule of faith’ and the measure of it.” (TWHSIR)
Dogmas, the teachings of the Church which maintain faithfulness to the preaching of the apostles, can develop in order to clarify and preserve the unchanging revelation. They don’t develop because they are not offering something new that was never previously taught, but they arise from time to time to help new generations comprehend God’s revelation to the world.
“Tradition is not limited to Church archeology. . . . Tradition is not a principle striving to restore the past, using the past as a criterion for the present. … Tradition is authority to teach, potestas magisterii, authority to bear witness to the truth. The Church bears witness to the truth not by reminiscence or from the words of others, but from its own living, unceasing experience, from its catholic fullness. … Tradition is a charismatic, not a historical, principle.” (BCT:AEOV, pp 46-47 )