Bible Reading: Gateway to the Spiritual Life

“Constant pondering on the holy scriptures will always fill the soul with incomprehensible wonder and joy in God.

We should consider the labor of reading the Scriptures to be something extremely elevated, whose importance cannot be exaggerated. For it serves as the gate by which the intellect enters into the divine mysteries, and takes on strength for attaining to luminosity in prayer.

The reading of Scripture is manifestly the fountainhead which gives birth to prayer.”

(St. Isaac of Nineveh, The Wisdom of St. Isaac of Nineveh, p.. 8, 36, 38)

How To Prepare Yourself to Read Scripture

Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra offers a thought about how we can prepare ourselves to read Scripture.  The Scriptures are spiritual, so we have to prepare our hearts spiritually to receive the Word contained in them:

“…it requires desire, exile, interest and lack of interest. What does that mean? Can you fill up a glass that’s already full? For divine meaning to enter your mind, for divine grace to enter into you, you have to empty your heart of its passions, of your self-centeredness, your selfishness, your hate, envy, and negative feelings; you have to purify your heart of these things, and fill it with virtues.

The passions are like static. You turn on the radio to listen to a station, and all you hear is static. You don’t understand a thing the announcer is saying. If you want to hear, you’ve got to eliminate the static. And how can you hear the voice of God, when the passions are booming away and growling loudly within you? You’ve got to free yourself, because if you don’t, you’ll remain a fleshly, carnal person, and a ‘carnal person cannot receive,’ does not understand, ‘the Spirit of God‘ (1 Cor 2.14).”   (The Church at Prayer, p. 109)

Prayer Before Reading Scripture

Illumine our hearts, O Lord and lover of all humanity, with the light of Your divine knowledge, and open the eyes of our understanding, so that we may comprehend the message of Your Gospel.  Instill in us also reverence for your blessed commandments, so that having conquered sinful desires, we may pursue a spiritual life, thinking and doing all things that are pleasing to You.

For You are the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto You we render glory, together with Your eternal Father and Your all holy, life giving Spirit.  Amen.


The Importance of Studying Scriptures

Reading, studying and meditating on the Scriptures are all a normal part of the life of any Christian.   The Scriptures do not merely teach us about God, but bring us into a relationship with the Holy Trinity.  More than inform us, they form our hearts, souls and minds so that we can love God and fulfill His commandments.

“For many Christians the commandments found in the Bible are nothing more than a list of do’s and don’ts. At their best, they tell us the minimal expectations God has for his creation. But in Jewish tradition the commandment embodied much more than this. It was a gift of God given to his people so that they could openly display their love and devotion to him. Fulfilling a commandment is like offering flowers to a new-found love; though the lover is following a social convention the deed springs from a far deeper font.” (Gary A. Anderson, The Genesis of Perfection, p 150)

We are seeking a relationship with the God who has revealed Himself through Jesus Christ our Lord.  The Scriptures bear witness to Christ.

“Because the scriptures clearly reveal the will of God and provide unfailing guidance toward salvation, according to St. Symeon, they are to be studied with utmost diligence and to be obeyed with absolute care not only by scholars, but by all Christians: We need great soberness, great zeal, much searching of the divine Scriptures. The Savior has (said), ‘Search the Scriptures’ (Jn. 5:39). Search them and hold fast to what they say with great exactitude and faith, in order that you may know God’s will clearly from the divine Scriptures and be able infallibly to distinguish good from evil (Heb. 5:14)….Nothing is so conducive for saving us as the following of the divine precepts of the Savior.[…]

His reliance on and use of scripture to critique the prevailing view and practice of the ongoing religious tradition as viewed and lived by clerics, monks, theologians, state officials, and lay people alike. To put it in another way, St. Symeon’s bold and prophetic call for radical renewal within the Church, a highly controversial position that in part led to his condemnation and lengthy exile by ecclesiastical authorities, had to do with nothing less than his view that the truth of the apostolic gospel had been swallowed up in an ocean of religious formalism unable to bear the words of a prophetic and evangelical voice.” (Theodore G. Stylianopoulos, Encouraged by the Scriptures: Essays on Scripture, Interpretation and Life, pp 38-39)


The Reading of the Gospels

“In his description of the Eucharistic celebration, Justin  (d. ca 162AD) refers to the ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ – ‘which are called Gospels’. The Memoirs composed by the apostles ‘are read as time permits’. He does not specify how many gospels there are or which of them are included in the ‘Memoirs’, yet it is most likely that he meant the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). This is the first known reference in Christian literature to the reading of the Gospels in a liturgical setting. Such readings at the Sunday worship service contributed to their canonization. Justin’s account implies that reading of the Gospels was practiced everywhere, beyond the confines of Rome as well.”  (Veselin Kesich, Formation and Struggles: The Birth of the Church AD 33-200, pp 157-158)


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.]

Theology: Who is God?

The Scriptures begin with a narrative, not with dogma about God.  We immediately are brought into the unfolding story of what God is doing.  We, through our ancestors, immediately become part of this unfolding story and we are drawn into the story of our humanity, or doctrine under the guise of narrative as St. Gregory of Nyssa is claimed to have said.  God is not something to be studied, but the Great Poet who is also the great architect and creator of the world we live in.   God is a who, the one who is, not a ‘what’ to be studied, but the eternal One who loves His creation.   This One who is, is the same who bestows His love on the world in the incarnation (John 1).

“The critical question for the entire New Testament within its Jewish context is not ‘what’ (a question about divine ‘nature’), but ‘who’ God is (a question of divine ‘identity).   …  although the theology of the person of Christ (who Christ is in relation to God) received thorough doctrinal attention, the ‘meaning’ of the saving work of Christ (how we are saved in specific terms) never received similar doctrinal focus in the patristic period.  One will not find an Eastern parallel to the West’s discussion about justification.”  (Theodore Stylianopoulos, ENCOURAGED BY THE SCRIPTURES, pp 120-121).  

The Bible itself in the book of Genesis begins with “who” – namely God.   God exists and acts.  Genesis does not tell us “what” God is, but God is the main actor and the narrative is His story.  So too, St. John’s Gospel begins with God as does the Nicene Creed.  “Who did this?” is the question that is being answered, not “what is God?”

Adam naming the animals of God’s creation.

The best way to know God is not to study about Him but to know Him through prayer and worship – to encounter Him and experience Him.  God is love, something we might hear about but we are transformed by experiencing His Love.   Trying to know God through definitions, dogma and doctrine is not unlike trying to describe colors to someone born blind.   We need some kind of experience to help us know these things.   St. Ephrem of Syria who usex poetry to help others encounter God had reservations about relying to heavily on doctrine to teach about God.

“To Ephrem, theological definitions are not only potentially dangerous, but they can also be blasphemous. They can be dangerous because, by providing ‘boundaries’, they are likely to have a deadening and fossilizing effect on people’s conception of the subject of enquiry, which is, after all, none other than the human experience of God. Dogmatic ‘definitions’ can moreover, in Ephrem’s eyes, be actually blasphemous when these definitions touch upon some aspect of God’s Being: for by trying to ‘define’ God one is in effect attempting to contain the Uncontainable, to limit the Limitless.” (Sebastian Brock, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of St. Ephrem the Syrian,  pgs. 23-24)

Moses and the Burning Bush

Prayer Before Reading Scripture

Great Lent is a time for us to do spiritual reading, including the reading of the Holy Scriptures.  Scripture reading is begun with prayer and often in Orthodox tradition causes us to move from meditation on the Word of God to prayer to Christ the Word of God.

St. Theophylact (d. 1108AD) credits St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) for authoring the following “Prayer Before Reading or Listening to the Word of God”:

O Lord Jesus Christ, open You to the eyes of my heart, that I may hear Your word and understand and do Your will, for I am a sojourner upon the earth. Hide not Your commandments from me, but open my eyes that I may perceive the wonders of Your law. Speak unto me the hidden and secret things of Your wisdom. On You do I set my hope, O my God, the You shall enlighten my mind and understanding with the light of Your knowledge, not only to cherish those things which are written, but to do them; that in reading the lives and sayings of the saints I may not sin, but that such may serve for my restoration, enlightenment and sanctification, for the salvation of my soul, and the inheritance of life everlasting. For You are the enlightenment of those who lie in darkness, and from You comes every good deed and every gift. Amen.”

(The Explanation of The Epistle of Saint Paul to the Galatians by Blessed Theophylact, pg. XXV)

Reading The Scriptures in an Orthodox Manner

One of the common concerns for devout Orthodox Christians is the desire to read the Scriptures in an Orthodox manner.  Especially many converts are concerned about this – they learned the importance of the Scriptures in the Christian tradition from which they came, but now that they have become Orthodox Christians they want to know how to read the Scriptures within Orthodox Tradition.  They embraced Orthodoxy welcoming its understanding of Christ, the Holy Trinity, and salvation but now want to make sure they also read the Bible through an Orthodox perspective rather than retaining perspectives on Scripture learned from their days in other Christian traditions. 

While Orthodoxy claims to understand the Scriptures through the Patristic Tradition that does not readily translate to a quick and easy interpretive trick or exegetical method.  For the Fathers saw the Scriptures as a treasury of the richness of God’s revelation and wisdom, and they used many interpretive tools to reach their understanding of what God is revealing to us.

There is an interesting passage in the writings of St. Isaac the Syrian (7th Century) in which he describes reading the scriptures as one of the ministries of the Church which is also an ascetical path to which some Christians are called.  He points out, however, that this ministry of interpreting Scriptures is to be done within the spiritual tradition of the Church.  Reading Scripture for St. Isaac is not the same discipline as studying other literature.

“… and if there is someone with the ability, the reading (of Scripture) too, though this person cannot, and is not permitted at all to, perceive the (full) sense of what  he is reading, even though he may be very learned and highly educated in the habit of ordinary reading and in the exact rendering of the words.  As for the exact meaning, corresponding to the spiritual significance, this is something which, in accordance with the growth of the inner person in the ascetic life and (his) hidden progress, the divine power will cause him to taste—that power which acts as a guide to him on the great and extensive ocean of stillness.”  (St. Isaac the Syrian, ISAAC OF NINEVEH: THE SECOND PART, p 138)

St. Isaac equates the reading of Scripture for its exact meaning with finding the spiritual significance of the text.   Discovering this exact meaning of what God has placed in the words/text of the Scriptures comes about only as there is spiritual growth in the inner person who is following an ascetic discipline.  Understanding the Scriptures cannot come about just by learning the right hermeneutic or exegetical method – it requires one to be growing spiritually and to be following the discipline of a Christian community.  Understanding the Word of God is not a matter of getting university degrees, but of becoming a disciple of Christ the Teacher.

Finding the spiritual significance of any text of Scripture is an Orthodox interpretive goal.   Following that line of thinking we might consider what spiritual significance St. Andrew of Crete (d. 712AD?)  found in some of the early chapters of Genesis.   St. Andrew was writing about the same time as St. Isaac or a decade or two after him.  St. Andrew’s reading of Scripture comes through in his famous Great Canon of Repentance which is sung in the 5th and 1st weeks of Great Lent in the Orthodox tradition.  We can look at a few of the poetic verses which St. Andrew composed to get a sense of his understanding of the spiritual significance of Scriptural narratives.

“Alas, wretched soul! Why are you like the first Eve? For you have wickedly looked and been bitterly wounded, and you have touched the tree and rashly tasted the forbidden food.”

“The place of bodily Eve has been taken for me by the Eve of my mind in the shape of a passionate thought in the flesh, showing me sweet things, yet ever making me taste and swallow bitter things.”

In the two hymns above, St. Andrew contemplates Eve, the first woman created by God according to Genesis 2, and the human tempted by the talking serpent to disobey God.  St. Andrew does not spend much time wondering whether or not Eve was a real person – he probably accepted her historical existence.  Her spiritual significance resides in how we are like her (the Eve of our minds!) – we behave as she did, disobeying God’s commandments and pursuing things which are not good for us.  The exact deed of Eve – what she ate – is not what is important, but how we imitate her and grasp for things which God does not wish us to have.  Whatever the forbidden fruit is, does not matter, for we are just like her taking things not intended for us.  The first Eve (bodily Eve) has been replaced by each of us thinking just like her (Eve of my mind).  The spiritual significance of Eve is she is a prototype of all human beings – we all behave like her so end up in the same spiritual condition as her: exiled from God!

In the three hymns below, St. Andrew offers the spiritual significance of Cain and Abel.  Their historical reality is not in question, but St. Andrew again treats them as models of behavior and compares and contrasts himself (and us) to them.  This is their significance to us.

“I have willfully incurred the guilt of Cain’s murder, since by invigorating my flesh I am the murderer of my soul’s awareness, and have warred against it by my evil deeds.”

“I have not resembled Abel’s righteousness, O Jesus. I have never offered Thee acceptable gifts, nor divine actions, nor a pure sacrifice, nor an unblemished life.”

“Like Cain, we too, O wretched soul, have likewise offered to the Creator of all foul deeds, defective sacrifice and a useless life. Therefore we too are condemned.”

St. Andrews sees the people of the Scriptures as models for him – to emulate or to avoid.  Their importance  is not in being persons of ancient history, but rather their spiritual significance is that they offer us living examples of people who were faithful to God, who repented when the failed God, or who wickedly rejected God’s ways.  They are each and always examples for us to consider, learn from their mistakes, or to imitate their holiness.  They are part of the living scriptures, not just dead figures from ancient history.

This way of reading the Scriptures (very much like the Pesher method of of interpretation of the Jews in Qumran about the time of Christ for example) is affirmed in Mark 12:24-27 by the Lord Jesus.

Jesus said to them, “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? … have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living…”

The spiritual significance of the heroes and saints of the Old and New Testaments is lost if we treat them as the dead of bygone ages.   Their spiritual significance is that they are alive in Christ, and in Him and His Gospel teachings we find their real meaning.