Sacred Texts: The Eastern Orthodox Church on Scripture
Editor’s Note: FāVS has launched a new series on Sacred Texts. In most religious traditions they are considered sacred because it is believed they were divinely revealed or inspired, and they form part of an authoritative canon. In this series we ask how scripture is used in particular traditions and if it’s necessary or dispensable. Is it subject to interpretation? What is its purpose? How have scriptures been used to promote or justify certain types of behavior? And, do ancient scriptures have any relevance today?
Commentary by Nicholas Damascus
Most religious traditions have sacred writings, texts and scripture. Often they are considered sacred because it is believed they were divinely revealed or inspired, and they form part of an authoritative canon.
I thought I would tease out the “Sacred Texts” prompt itself and with a series of my own questions as it relates to my Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition.
How is Scripture used in your particular tradition? Is it necessary or dispensable?
Scripture is the language of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In 2 Thessalonians 2:15, Saint Paul says, “Brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions (τας παραδόσεις) which you have been taught, whether by word (oral) or our epistle (written).” These holy traditions are defined as the living continuity of everlasting and unchanging boundaries, beliefs and practices as they were imparted and received from Christ and the apostles.
Are these traditions/scripture subject to interpretation, or is the meaning fixed and absolute for all time? Who has the authority to determine the meaning?
The interpretations of the Holy Scripture and traditions are not subject to individual interpretation or change in their meaning, just as Christ’s love for us never changes in the past, in the present or in the future.
The author of the Bible (scripture) is the church. According to 1 Timothy 3:15, “the church of living God is the pillar and ground of the truth.” Christ promised in John 16:13, “that when he, the spirit of truth, has come, he will guide you (the church) into all truth.” The church is the body of Christ (believers) participating in the sacramental life of the Holy Spirit of God.
Is the purpose of Scripture to prescribe specific ways of living?
In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the way (how to live), the truth (only one reality), and the life (the spiritual life source, love).” The “way” to live can be understood from Matthew 22: 36-40, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.’” Scripture refers to “Love one another” more than 15 times in the Bible.
Does Scripture hand down ethical and moral precepts?
Scripture is a path to become love and righteousness, which is holiness, or to be “set apart.” Holiness is where we get our morality in a Christian, God-centered society.
Verses that back this theme include:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image (love), according to our likeness (holiness).’” (Genesis 1:26)
“… that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love.” (Ephesians 1:4)
“But as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy.'” (1 Peter 1:15-16)
Does Scripture transmit historically accurate accounts of actual events?
Saint Paul established at least 20 plus churches, some of which exist today alive and well, as in Corinth and Thessalonica, which were written about in the Bible. 1 Corinthians 1:2 says, “To the Church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints. Also, in 2 Thessalonians 1:1, we read, “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the Church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Eastern Orthodox Church is that church whose beliefs are defined by the Nicene Creed www.goarch.org/chapel/liturgical_texts/creed.
In Asia alone, the New Testament mentions Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea, Colossae, Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira and Hierapolis. These historical accounts were witnessed by many, written by many and revealed by many.
Is Scripture literally true, or does it contain existential truths encased in poetry, parable, myth, and metaphor?
The Bible can be literally true or contain existential truths presented in the forms of parables, metaphors, stories and apocalyptic visions. A full understanding of these forms comes from developing spiritual eyes and ears. It is not immediately understood by the intellect but rather by the transformation of the spiritual heart.
How have Scriptures been used to promote or justify certain types of behavior, both good and evil?
If a car is designed to run at optimum by using gasoline as a fuel, why would anyone put diesel in the gas tank? It may run, but probably dysfunctionally. As previously noted in Genesis 1:26, God said, “let us make man in our image (love), according to our likeness (holiness).” We are designed to become love, to do good and to be righteous/holy, and when we strive to become this, we will function in a way that will be totally beneficial to our being.
So, if we fill our gas tank (the heart) with the passions of anger, pride, lust, greed, jealousy, gluttony, etc., we still may function, however not in a beneficial way. Part of our mission in preparation for going home is to become as dispassionate as possible.
“He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:8)
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” (Mark 8:36)
“The Lord is …not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)
Do ancient Scriptures have any relevance today?
Yes, Scripture always applies to the human condition, which never changes. Since Adam and Eve fell, we suffer from the effects of ancestral sin. Man continues to sin by choice, darkening the light of God within him. Scriptures remind, instruct, and reveal the “way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6).
Nick Damascus is one who seeks to discover and apply the proverbial question of what is truth and wisdom, to fill that gaping hole, to become complete and to become realistically and synergistically functional. In an attempt to live the Christian life, which he says is a definite work in progress, he has discovered that he’s created the Christ that fits his lifestyle and agrees with his ego (and boy what an ego, he says), often finding himself avoiding what God intended him to be.