Saturday, December 31, 2011

"Take Up and Read" part 2: How to Read the Scriptures

In our previous article about the importance of reading the Scriptures, we mentioned how a child’s words, providentially overheard by Augustine of Hippo, led to his conversion as he took up and read the Scriptures. “Take up and read” (“tolle, lege”, the words actually heard by the great North African teacher) should continue to resonate in our hearts too. If our lives are to bear fruit for Christ, we also need to take up and read the Bible, and make this a part of our daily life. The question is: how do we read the Scriptures? What things should we bring to our reading? I would mention four things.
1. The first thing we bring to our reading is a heart of humility and prayer, asking God to teach us through what we read. That is, we must read the Scriptures on our knees (spiritually speaking), or not at all. The most dangerous thing in the world is the read the Bible with a proud and unteachable spirit. God will not touch or teach with the person who approaches His Word in this way. “The Lord regards the lowly, but the haughty He knows from afar” (Ps. 139:6). Rather, “this is the man to whom I look: he that is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at My Word (Is. 66:2).
To be lowly and humble involves a willingness to be corrected. We all come from a secular culture, and we have absorbed many things from it, some of them true, some of them false. Because Scripture is not only the word of men, but also the Word of God, it stands apart from all the other literature of the world, in that its teachings are always true and reliable. Thus, when we read the Scripture we can expect some of our cherished beliefs to be blessed and confirmed, and some of them to be contradicted. Humility means the willingness not only to be confirmed when we are right, but also contradicted when we are wrong. As St. Augustine is reported to have once said, “If you only believe the parts of the Gospel you like, it is not the Gospel you believe in, but yourself.”
This faith in the reliability of Scripture is not Protestant fundamentalism (as some have imagined), but historic Orthodoxy. To quote St. Augustine more fully, “I have learned to hold those books alone of the Scriptures that are now called canonical in such reverence and honour that I do most firmly believe that none of their authors has erred in anything that he has written therein. If I find anything in those writings which seems to be contrary to the truth, I presume that either the codex is inaccurate, or the translator has not followed what was said, or I have not properly understood it.” We see here the mind of all the Fathers, east and west, and their saving willingness to be corrected from the Bible. As children of the Fathers, their willingness must be ours as well.
2. As well as imitating the humility of the Fathers, we read the Scriptures as those who have listened to their sermons and been instructed by them. We read the Bible, as it were, sitting in their lap, interpreting it in ways consistent with their interpretations. This is because before the apostles ever set pen to paper and wrote the New Testament, they also taught their churches through the living word, and these words were kept in those churches as oral tradition. The Fathers represent and carry this apostolic Tradition, and so Scripture can only be interpreted in ways consistent with what the Fathers have preserved.
This does not mean that we are to become patristic fundamentalists, so that for us exegesis becomes archaeology, a mere wooden repetition of what the Fathers have said. We are allowed the same freedom that they enjoyed. But it does mean that their basic approach is paradigmatic for us, and their basic conclusions authoritative. For example, if the patristic consensus about the New Testament is that it teaches that Jesus is divine, then any other conclusion is out of bounds. We cannot follow the creative heretics of the so-called “Jesus Seminar” in their Christological conclusions about the New Testament. We have sat and still sit at the feet of the Fathers.
3. Consistent with this patristic approach, we read the Old Testament to find Christ there. That is, the Old Testament, as well as the New Testament, points towards Jesus Christ, His Cross, His Resurrection, and His Church. This is how the apostles interpreted the Old Testament, and it points the way for us also. The Kingdom of God proclaimed by the prophets does not find its fulfillment in Zionism in this age, but in the preaching of the Gospel and the salvation offered the whole world by Christ. This means that we read the Old Testament differently from the Jews. Jews believe the ultimate fulfillment of the prophecies lies with the exaltation of the Jewish race, with a reestablished Temple and a triumphant nationalism. We assert that the Old Covenant finds its fulfillment in the Body of Christ, in the Church of God in which there is neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, but a new creation (Gal. 6:15), and in a salvation which transcends literal altars, and national boundaries, and the distinction between Jew and Gentile. As St. Justin the Philosopher said in his debates with his Jewish friend Trypho, Moses and the Prophets now belong to us.
4. Finally, we read the Scriptures with all our powers, including that of the mind. Reading in humility and hoping to be taught by God does not excuse us from sweat or scholarship. Scholarship is not to be despised, but all of its useful tools must be utilized, including Bible atlases, concordances, inter-linears, word studies, commentaries, scholarly journals, lexicons. The Fathers themselves prized such scholarship (that was one of the reasons Origen got a lot of fan mail), and they bequeath this love of learning to us also. The Lord tells us to love the Lord our God not only with all our heart, soul and strength, but also with all our mind (Mk. 12:30). Part of humility is the recognition that we need all the help we can get. God will bless us and enlighten us, but not if we use supposed piety as an excuse for laziness. Study involves work.
In many icons where a bishop is portrayed, he is portrayed as holding a Gospel. It is not accidental that our leaders are portrayed as holding this Book. We are “people of the Book”, a people for whom loving Jesus also means loving the Scriptures which His providence has given to the Church. Like St. Augustine and all his other episcopal colleagues, we also are called to take up the Book and read.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Christmas Meditation

In becoming incarnate as a baby in Bethlehem long ago, God revealed a change in His modus operandi. That is, in all His previous visitations (such as His appearance to Israel on Mount Sinai when He gave them His Law, or His theophanies to Isaiah in the Temple or to Ezekiel by the River Chebar), He came to us from the outside. While residing in heaven, (I am aware of the limitations of using such spatial metaphors and language), He spoke to us on earth from a distance. The old dichotomies, held by Jew and pagan alike from time immemorial, remained intact —dichotomies such as heaven/ earth, spiritual/ physical, divine/ human. God remained out there, in heaven, far away, and we remained on earth, at a safe distance. Indeed, the whole apparatus of Law, priesthood, sacrifice and Temple was created to maintain this distance, allowing us on earth to have limited communion with the heavenly God. Despite all the talk about God’s Presence in His Temple, everyone in Israel knew that God did not reside in His Tabernacle or Temple like a man resided in his house. Even Solomon, who spent a fortune building and beautifying the Temple, knew this: “Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You—how much less this House which I have built!” (1 Kg. 8:27). God remained transcendent. His visitations to men and contact with them were visitations from the outside.
God is the God of the unexpected—which is abundantly proven by the fact that He chose to be born of a virgin. He didn’t have to choose such a biological beginning. Jewish expectation was that the Messiah would be born pretty much like everyone else, and the passage in Isaiah 7 often quoted was not interpreted by them as referring directly to the Messiah. In the Hebrew, the text said, “Behold, an almah—a young woman—shall conceive”, and it seemed to refer to events in the eighth century B.C. The word almah was translated into Greek as parthenos, a virgin, and Christians have ever since St. Matthew seen that this could not be a coincidence. But the point is that Jews did not expect their Messiah to be born of a virgin. In choosing a virgin birth for His Son God was not acting simply out of desire to fulfill Jewish expectation. He was doing the unexpected. After such a beginning, it should have come as no surprise to find Him continuing to do unexpected things, such as dying in disgrace on a Roman cross and rising from the dead shortly thereafter.
Perhaps the most unexpected thing God ever did in Israel was this change of modus operandi. For the incarnation meant that now God had invaded and was visiting us from the inside, and that the healing and salvation of the world would occur from the inside out. Everything in Israel’s sacred history had primed them to look upward and outward. Even the posture of prayer taught them this: one prayed by lifting up one’s hands and looking up to heaven. (Kneeling and bowing the head had no liturgical pedigree in Israel.) One looked up to find God, expecting to hear His voice thundering from heaven. When signs came, they came from heaven (see Mk. 8:11), and Jews were trained to think of God as enthroned in heaven far above them.
They were therefore singularly unprepared for His change of approach, and to find that God had come to live beside them. Now God could be found in their midst—going to the same school that they went to, working in the carpenter’s shop that they frequented, attending the same wedding in Cana that they attended, eating and drinking in their presence and teaching in their streets (Lk. 13:26). Poor little drummer boys could approach God on the first Christmas day and say, in the words of the Christmas song, “I am a poor boy too”. God had become a poor boy, a carpenter, a field preacher with nowhere to lay His head. He was now in their midst, Emmanuel, sharing their lot and their load—truly, the God of the unexpected.
This change of approach, this invasion from within, means that the old dichotomies have been overcome and overturned. No more is heaven incompatible with earth, the spiritual incompatible with the physical, God incompatible with Man. In Christ, divinity and humanity dwell as one, and matter has become potentially spirit-bearing. That is the point of the Church’s sacraments. They are physical, and work-a-day and common; they are also Spirit-bearing.
All the sacraments are drawn from our daily existence. Daily and common things like baths, meals of bread and wine, and oil (used as a daily cosmetic—it was only when one fasted that one refrained from daily anointing one’s head—see Mt. 6:17) became the “stuff” of sacraments. In a kind of incarnational extension, these common daily items and activities became the God-ordained means of accessing spiritual power. To receive the new birth, now one took a bath (i.e. received baptismal immersion). To receive spiritual strength and life, one had a meal of bread and wine in the Eucharist. To receive the Holy Spirit and healing, one was anointed with oil. The Church’s life was scandalously secular, in that it used these secular parts of life to a new spiritual purpose. Because of the incarnation, matter was now sanctified, and the physical world saved. Invasion and help and salvation had come—not from the outside, but the inside. God did not appear again on a fiery mountain and speak with the voice of thunder. He appeared as a baby, as one of us, and spoke with a baby’s cry. This is the true scandal and miracle of Christmas.
Admittedly, such a change of modus operandi was of course hard to keep up with. Many in Israel could not keep up, and so rejected Christ’s claim to divinity, and sank into hardness of heart. Keeping up with the God of the unexpected requires spiritual flexibility. Or, to use the Biblical term, humility. Christmas challenges us to be willing lay aside our expectations, our prejudices, our demands. We come as poor boys and girls to God, who has Himself become a poor boy for us in a manger. By coming to Him in humility, (the same way He came to us), we allow His spiritual invasion of the world to reach and heal our hearts also. Christ is born! The saving invasion has begun.

Friday, December 16, 2011

"Take Up and Read": the Importance of Reading the Scriptures

Perhaps the most important words Augustine of Hippo ever heard came from the mouth a little kid playing a game. The child kept repeating in childish imitation of a teacher, “Tolle, lege! Tolle, lege!” “Take up, and read!” On impulse, Augustine took up the nearest book and began to read the words of St. Paul from Romans 13: “Not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” It was all over for him. These words of Scripture provided the internal shove necessary for him to commit his life to Christ. Even in the days before Gideon Bibles, Augustine owed his conversion to reading the Scriptures.
We who are converted, who strive daily to put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh, also need to take up and read. Why? For at least two reasons.
First, all of our Orthodox worship presupposes our familiarity with the Bible, its stories and images. When the Bishop visits, the choir takes up the song as he enters, “The prophets proclaimed you from on high, O Virgin: the Jar, the Staff, the Candlestick, the Table, the Uncut Mountain, the Golden Censer, the Tabernacle, the Gate Impassible, the Palace, the Ladder and the Throne of kings”. The hymn-writer who wrote this verse thought his hearers would recognize these images from the Old Testament. He assumed that all Christians knew of the jar which contained the manna, which was kept in the Holy Place and mentioned in Exodus 16. He assumed that all Christians knew of the uncut mountain prophesied in Daniel. He expected the hearers of the hymn to recognize these images as types and foreshadowings of the Mother of God. It is safe to say, however, that many if not most Orthodox today do not remember these stories with enough familiarity to instantly understand their significance when they hear the episcopal hymn. And that is a shame, because it means that much of our Church’s catechetical richness is lost to us. We are the poorer for it. There is a chasm fixed between our liturgical texts and our understanding of them, between the Fathers teaching and our capacity to receive that teaching. But the chasm is not unbridgeable. We can easily cross it by studying the Scriptures.
There is another even more important reason for studying the Scriptures than enhancing our appreciation of our liturgical hymnody. St. John Chrysostom once said, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is a great abyss.” By this he meant that if one does not know the Scriptures, it is easy to fall into the abyss of worldliness. If this was true in the days of St. John Chrysostom, when the secular world had a distinctly Christian tinge to it and when most of the population of Antioch and Constantinople went to church on Sunday, how much more true is it today, when most of our Canadian population does not go to church, and when our culture is correspondingly hostile to the Christian Faith. In the days of Chrysostom, if you followed the crowd, you would most likely find yourself in church. If you follow the Canadian crowd today, you will likely find yourself in more dangerous places.
St. Paul urged us to “not be conformed to the world, but to be transformed by the renewal of our mind” (Rom. 12:2). Phillips translates this as “don’t let the world squeeze you into its own mould”. As you may have noticed, the world is very good at squeezing, and it exerts its pressure on us every time we turn on the television, listen to the radio, or open a book or magazine—even (or perhaps especially) if the television, radio or book is about “spirituality”. The proper response to this squeeze is not to externally cut oneself off from the world, entering a monastery, or living in a self-constructed fantasy world of fundamentalism, or refusing any contact with the culture around us. The answer is internal. The Lord promised His disciples that if they drank any deadly thing, it would not hurt them (Mk. 16:18). Similarly, we can ingest our culture and live in our world and not be hurt if we have first swallowed the antidote to the world’s lies—namely, the truths of Scripture, as interpreted by the rest of apostolic Tradition. As the Psalmist, says, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to Your Word. Your Word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against You.” (Ps. 119:9,11) Ingesting the Scriptures can keep us safe.
This means, of course, that we approach our reading of the Scriptures for the purpose of transforming our lives, not just gaining intellectual or academic knowledge. Academic knowledge is wonderful, but that knowledge needs to not stay in our heads. It needs to sink down the further saving twelve inches, from our heads into our hearts. St. Paul said that the Scriptures were given “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim.3:16). If we read only to gain head knowledge, we read amiss, and our reading is dangerous, for then we might suppose ourselves to be holy when we are only learned. Being learned is great, but on the Last Day, our Lord will not inquire about how learned we were. He will inquire about how holy we were, about whether or not we let the world squeeze us into its own mould. If we reply to Him that, well, yes, we did let the world squeeze us into its mould, but we wrote some great treatises on the Maccabean dating of the Book of Daniel, we will find that this reply does not impress.
Here then is why we should read take up and read: to enrich our experience of worship in this age, and to be safe in the age to come.

Welcome to the New Edition of "Straight from the Heart"

I am now posting on the blogger account, rather than on my old Shaw account. Older posts can be found here. More to follow soon!