The Parish and Holy Scripture
Once upon a time there was a local church in a far away country and the bishop of this church saw that his people were dispirited and the churches under his care were almost empty. Being a very good arch-pastor – he also a confessor for the faith, by the way – he set out to revive the flock and to renew the life of his parishes and he has left us, in his writings, a sort of recipe for putting things right.
Your Beatitudes, Your Eminences and Graces, Reverend Fathers, Monastics, Brothers and Sisters:
The arch-pastor’s name was Theoleptos, and he was Metropolitan of Philadelphia – the other Philadelphia, in Asia Minor – at the end of the thirteenth century and the first decades of the fourteenth. The reason that his people were dispirited was that they were under constant pressure from militant Islam and thoroughly worn out by church controversy. Their good will and energy had turned to cynicism. The rallying power of the Church and its ability to console the faithful and strengthen them had been subverted. The most pious of the faithful were being attracted to sectarian elders and drawn away from church life. Ordinary men and women simply dropped out. After all, if zealous believers repudiate the parish, its clergy and its worship, what is there in for the rest of us?
The church controversy of those days involved an ecumenical fiasco, political meddling in church life, certain worldliness on the part of the institutional church, and - over against all of this - a powerful reactionary, schismatic movement. This movement is called the Arsenite Schism. It preyed upon real grievances arising from the false Union of Lyons and the manipulation of church offices by the imperial government in violation of canon law. The Arsenites suggested that real Orthodoxy was not to be found in churches and liturgical life and the sacramental ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons. Instead, it was to be found a personal rule of prayer – discipleship - under the guidance holy ascetic elders. The Arsenites called on Christians to break communion with their bishops, reject the counsel of priests, to stop attending their parish churches. Families were divided. The followers of the movement were not to eat or drink, or to pray with or marry those in the communion of the Church.
Theoleptos recipe was to call for a return to church. His prescription was attendance at church services. He called for those enacting public worship to do so thoughtfully, clearly, accessibly – so that the faithful could pay close attention to the words of scripture – the Gospels, the Epistles, the psalmody – and the hymns and prayers. A disciplined, intelligent, receptive stance in the midst of worship opens the faithful to divine grace, to spiritual transformation, to education in virtue, to communion with the Lord. Using the sacred scriptures, the liturgy shapes attitudes, sets out examples, instructs, exhorts, draws the worshipper into sacred history and the story of salvation. Those shaped by the worship of the Church will become apostolic people – living and proclaiming the Gospel through their actions.
I have been asked to say something about the importance of reading the scriptures in the life of our parishes. I am very happy to do this, although I realise that there are many here today who would do a much better job than I can do. After all, I am not a biblical scholar and my remarks will not be informed by a deep engagement with scholarly studies. Please forgive me if critical issues in biblical research or hermeneutic theory have no place in this presentation. Nor am I really a teaching professional, up to date with the latest in pedagogical methods or theory. I am only a pastor – but proud to be a pastor! - and it is a pastor that I am concerned for the study of scripture in our parish life. Our times bear a certain resemblance to those of Theoleptos – it is very easy for the faithful to become distracted or dispirited by relativism and sectarianism, by church controversy. My remarks arise out of the conviction that it is important – really, of utmost importance - to attend to the study of scripture in our church life, in our parishes, by our people. We need to encourage and facilitate devotional reading of scripture, parish bible study, close attention to the biblical content of our liturgical worship, to expository preaching and teaching by our clergy, to making bible stories and scriptural teaching the heart our church school and religious education program … My task this morning is to remind everyone here of why these things are important and to suggest ways in which they are connected directly and at a practical level with the theme of our Council: The Parish Community: Our Life in Christ. Our time today is limited, but we will try to conclude this session with a look at some passages from the Epistle to the Philippians – it may be a bit tricky to have everyone at a plenary session looking up scripture texts – we will see! – a bible that has been provided for each of you and with the wonders of power-point technology, perhaps we will be able to transform this presentation into an encounter with Holy Scripture. I would also like to add that on Thursday, we have some workshops devoted to bible study in the parish, and that Fathers Dahulich and Hainsworth will have inspiring and helpful things to say. I encourage you to participate in these.
We can begin with something very basic. As Orthodox Christians we believe that our life in Christ begins in Holy Baptism. But beyond baptism, this new life is nourished and nurtured by three things:
- participation in the Holy Mysteries, together with liturgical worship and personal prayer; - acts and expressions of mutual love; - study of scripture.
It is in the Church – and for all practical purposes this means in the parish – that these three essential things take place. My personal life in Christ is shaped by the sacramental and liturgical life of the parish community; by the good works that, even if done individually, are in many ways encouraged and enabled by and within the community, and by the study of scripture supported by the community. As we know, in the Church personal and community life are closely connected and mutually strengthen each other. We are being saved together.
By community I mean mot only the parish community immediately at hand, but the larger community of the faithful – other parishes, the deanery, the diocese, the local Church – as well as the community through time – those who have gone before us, who have passed on the faith to us, and those still in the future, to whom we are to pass on what we have received, and finally, the community includes those already mysteriously in Christ who intercede for us in the Kingdom. My life in Christ - our life in Christ - is something that exists in a dynamic context, shaped by relationships past, present, future, and eternal. We do not invent liturgy – we worship as a community that has received its basic pattern of worship from the Lord through the Apostles, modelled in part on worship in the heavenly places revealed in scripture. Our good works express the moral vision and moral imperative arising from the earliest Christian communities living according to the teaching of Christ. And our understanding of scripture is shaped by a tradition of inspired reflection within the community of faith.
These things being true, as the Orthodox Church in America we have – over the years, and with the Lord’s help - sought to refresh the faithful in a lively participation in the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church. I think that you will agree with me that we are a Church known for our attempt to connect people to their worship, to encourage active and thoughtful participation in liturgical life. We have also worked towards encouraging our communities in good works, to expand the scope of acts and expressions of mutual love and service as part of our understanding of what it means to bear the name of Christ. And although discussion of stewardship and appropriate funding of the Church administration sparks debate, it is also true that projects of immediate and obvious charitable purpose can expect a warm response from us. Throughout the OCA charitable ministries and projects are flourishing and there is, I believe, a growing culture of mutual support and community service – of diakonia - in our Church as a whole. All in all, I think that a fair-minded and well-informed person would say that the Orthodox Church in America has made a strong and helpful contribution to Orthodoxy in general, and to the life of many of the faithful, by highlighting liturgical life and Christian service as fundamental aspects of authentic Orthodox parish life.
However – it must also be said that we have yet to take up the third essential element in Christian nurture in a dynamic way. Just how basic and how important scripture is to Christian life is probably something every Orthodox Christian who gives it even a moment’s thought will recognise. But in many of our communities it seems as if the study of scripture has fallen by the wayside. I wonder how many of the clergy and lay leadership gathered here today are pleased with how scripture is studied in their parishes?
There are four reasons why familiarity with scripture, and a certain biblical literacy - or at least an engagement with scripture - is important for all of us. Let me list these reasons: (1) the scriptures tell us who we are; (2) they provide us with important information; (3) they give us the language we need; (4) they draw us into the presence of the Lord. In other words, the scriptures are essential to Christian formation, to Christian identity and self-understanding; and they are a means of receiving the grace of God.
(1) Who we are Scripture is the story of the people of God – a story on a grand and sweeping scale – the alpha of our origins and the omega of our destiny. We are a part of that story. Each boy and girl, every man and woman here in this room and at home in our parishes, all the faithful, are part of that story because God has made it our story, He has included us in it. We find our place as characters within this story, as characters in mysterious relationship with that remarkable procession of biblical figures, marching through the pages of the Bible and into the history of the Church. My own personal story and the story of my parish – our Christian identity - arise out the story of the Lord’s providential ordering of His world and our history from beginning to end: choosing, calling, electing, leading, chastising, empowering, saving, and sanctifying His people. We have only to lift our eyes to see – or open our ears to hear - that we belong to something far greater than our own often rather small, self-centred concerns: we are part of a great drama, an unfolding story.
(2) Instruction Scripture itself tells us that it exists for our profit and instruction. It will be to our benefit to study it. It is full of wisdom and helpful advice; it directs us to great truths. It sets before us examples to follow and others to avoid. The Bible also proclaims that meditation on the Word of God is life-giving, it is spiritual food and drink, nourishment, refreshment, a delight, a blessed activity to which the godly turn their attention day and night. It enlightens and inspires and edifies. It is consolation and a support.
(3) Language Scripture provides us with a language – the language of the relationship of God, man, the world, heaven and earth, creation, fall, redemption and salvation, of faith, hope, and love. What we say to each other as believers and what we say to the world, how we say the things we must, arise out of the rich palette of the vocabulary of scripture. Our very words – the terms, the metaphors and images, the ideas, the doctrines - are something given to us. We did not invent them. We do not invent them. They are not words that arise out of our own best efforts to find adequate words for God and things of the spirit. They are God-given words, words provided by the Lord Himself, adequate and appropriate because they are His self-disclosure. Because they are His words, the scriptures – we believe – give us an authoritative and objective way to speak to God and about God.
(4) Sacrament There is a sense in which our encounter with scripture is sacramental, awakening us to the presence of God. One and the same Word of God gives Himself to the faithful in the Holy Mysteries and reveals Himself in scripture. The inspiration of one and the same Spirit jumps like an electric spark between the faithful in whom He dwells and the words full of His power. An early biblical commentator wrote: “we are said to drink the blood of Christ not only when we receive it according to the rite of the mysteries, but also when we receive his words, in which life dwells, as he said himself: ‘the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life’�? (John 6:63). We receive extraordinary blessings, enlivening grace, through reading the scripture.
Well – for all these reasons - I hope that you will agree with me that there is a need to cultivate a loving and attentive study of scripture in our parishes and among our people. In doing so we will be faithful to the tradition of love for scripture, scriptural reflection and application of scripture to life that is a hallmark of Orthodoxy – a love that we find not only in the easy biblical fluency of the writings of the Fathers, but in the time-honoured manner of thinking and speaking among pious people down through ages. Who treasured their Psalters, and knew many of the psalms by heart. Whose knowledge of the Gospels was direct and intimate. Who reflected on the Epistles, who wondered at the mysteries of prophecy. Who incorporate biblical turns of phrase into every day speech. In whose homes the Bible had an honoured place – yes, even in the homes of our parents and grandparents who placed the ‘good book’ in a prominent place as a blessing on the family… In the special respect with which the faithful approached the sacred words… venerated the Gospel at Matins, kissed it at molebens…
We encounter scripture in a number of ways in the life of the Church. For example, all of our services are largely arrangements of scripture - and of course those texts that are not directly taken from scripture are influenced – shaped - by it. These passages have been chosen for their edification – and by listening closely to them we may, in fact, be edified. How scripture passages are arranged and how they relate to one another serve as a sort of fundamental commentary on scripture, showing the inner continuities and relationships, foreshadowings and pefigurings, types and antitypes, prophecies and fulfillments. Our hymns and prayers weave together the scriptures and church history into a coherent pattern, testifying to Christ and the way of discipleship.
Therefore the most basic way in which a parish hears scripture is in its liturgical life. Attending to the words of worship, hearing the story, praying the prayers, allowing the sacred words to speak to the mind and heart - in the worship of the Church the Christian comes to know the ways of God and to desire godliness. Perhaps the first thing to do in awakening the parish to the scriptures is to find ways to draw attention to the scriptures we are already reading, chanting, singing. We need to listen very carefully to what is right at hand – to make sure that one can hear the scripture in the chanting and music and movement of Liturgy. If the psalmody, the scripture readings, and the hymnody are to be of value in shaping Christian life, an attentive, intelligent participation is called for. The listener must make an effort, be vigilant, attentive, open. Distractions should be minimised. Those giving voice in the services should also do so with full attention. A father says concerning the singers – but it is also true for those listening, “the task of singing the psalms requires the mind to focus its attention on the saving words… When you are singing psalms and hymns, do not give your attention to the melody you are chanting with the tongue, nor consider how many verses there are, nor look forward to the end of the hymns, quickly rushing through as if your were laying aside some kind of burden. If that is your disposition, you do not know what you are saying and you are unaware of the Lord, who is accompanying you and conversing with you through the recital of the divine scriptures…�? All these words, according to the Fathers, can become spiritual food and drink – hearing and meditating on the Word of God proclaimed in the churches grants life and illumination to the soul. Therefore I think that the first, fruitful step in our encounter with scripture is the task advocated by Theoleptos - to strive to enable an attentive, receptive, intelligent listening to what is given to us in the liturgical and sacramental life of the parish.
Of course, the lectionary -and preaching and teaching based on the lectionary – is an important way of hearing the scripture in the parish. All preaching ought to have an expository dimension, to have biblical references and cross references, to be drenched in scripture – the preacher and teacher should seek to share an enthusiasm and love for scripture. Perhaps even our diction – our turns of phrase, our typical figures of speech, our rhetoric – in our sermons ought to be informed by scriptural imagery and memorable biblical texts. So often today sermons are delivered as a very informal conversation with nice, but somewhat dim people – far indeed from the beauty and electricity of biblical language – and the challenging character of biblical teaching. Yesterday, Fr Thomas called for ‘well-prepared evangelical and exegetical sermons’, and ‘well-prepared doctrinal and catechetical sessions’. This preparation will certainly involve close attention to scripture.
Leaving aside personal, devotional reading of scripture – something so intuitively Orthodox and so deeply part of our tradition – it is bible study that most people will thin if they think at all about the theme The Bible and Parish Life. And it is true – bible study - will be an important part of a parish’s engagement with scripture. It ought to be at the centre of parish education. Church school ought to be a form of bible study – passing on to our children the great stories of scripture. Even, a dinosaur like me hopes, having them memorize key verses from the bible. Youth bible studies might well take the form reflections on issues – as long as these are actually grounded in reading and applying the scripture and not just talk about feelings… The same holds true for adult bible studies. And there are so many possibilities here. Parish wide studies, small group studies; studies based on the readings from the liturgical cycles; thematic studies, doctrinal studies; studies based on individual books; word studies; studies involving difficult passages; studies making use of patristic homilies and commentaries…. The possibilities are almost endless. There are many resources available. With a bit of imagination and energy – and of course, grace - the thoughtful pastor can develop a study just right for his parish or groups within his parish. The real issue is to get people to participate in bible studies. I imagine that in many of the parishes that even have a bible study it is usually the same faithful few who show up. There must be ways of encouraging the faithful, of cultivating a love of scripture and desire for learning.
The contemporary Romanian elder Cleopa says that each Christian has the need to read holy scripture - but not every Christian has the authority or ability to teach and interpret the scripture.
Those with the authority and ability – the clergy and those trained and blessed to use their talents in this way – must meet the need of the faithful to have scripture explained. Guidance in understanding and applying scripture is a pastoral task, an essential element of pastoral ministry. It is, in fact, the responsibility of the parish priests to see to it that his parish encounters scripture in every way possible – it comes with the job, so to speak - and he himself must be devoted to bible study as an example and inspiration to the faithful. A priest who does not somehow instruct the faithful in the scriptures is simply not doing the task the Church expects of him.
The fact that there is a need for authoritative guidance in the study of scripture arises at some point in parish bible study because while some passages of scripture speak in a simple and direct way, others are puzzling. The Bible is multifaceted and multi-levelled. We find history, poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic and so on, various strands of tradition and theological vision. Sometimes the meaning of a text is obvious, but sometimes it may be obscure, sometimes specialized knowledge or skills are necessary to assist our understanding.
The interpretation of scripture is part of the tradition. It has a certain objective content. Its roots are in the teaching of the Lord and the commentary of the apostles and developed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The interpretation of scripture is something given and received, transmitted in the life of the community of faith.
According to the Church’s tradition, bible study will often involve discerning the following levels of meaning in the sacred texts
- literal or historical - prophetic or typological - moral or spiritual - eschatological
The literal or historical meaning is the basic sense of the text. It is the foundation for the other levels of reflection. It is always important to first of all understand the literal meaning or historical context of scripture. The prophetic or typological sense of scripture involves discerning how persons and events in the Old Testament scriptures foreshadow those of the New. The moral or spiritual sense of scripture connects bible stories and biblical teaching with aspects of our own lives. The eschatological sense understands the biblical texts to anticipate or point towards the Kingdom of God.
St Gregory the Great says, “Reading one and the same word of Scripture, one man is nourished by history only, another looks for the figure or type of Christ, another by means of this same meaning reaches towards the contemplative meaning. Most often, these three dimensions are found there at the same time… in this way the words of God advance at the pace of the reader�?
All of these levels are important and contribute to the edification of the faithful, but above all, in the parish there is a pressing need to focus on the spiritual sense – as Fr John Breck writes, to the significance of the biblical text as a Word of God for the salvation of those who receive it in faith, as something that speaks directly to the life-situation of the reader. The application of scripture to life is the challenge we face.
With this in mind, perhaps we can pass from my rambling remarks to a quick look at an actual scriptural text – something that can be read in a rather straightforward manner – it doesn’t require any particular exegetical expertise – and has immediate application to every one of our parishes – to St Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians.
Copyright © Andrew Morbey. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.