I saw recently a statement that caused me to pause and think. Someone said, “The New Testament is the only book people read one sentence at a time.” This seems accurate. What seems to be the problem with this? Context matters. If one reads the Bible in context then the whole seems to be full but not as easy to connect with bumper sticker-type slogans.
Interesting in itself, the interpretation of Holy Scripture within Orthodoxy has many accepted guidelines, one such guideline is “Only within the community of the Church can the Bible be understood. It was written by the Church, in the Church and for the Church. Thus, it is a “family document” which is the highest point of Holy Tradition, taken with faith alongside the writings of the Fathers, the Liturgy, the Icons, the Lives of the Saints, and so on.”
Slogans are often part of our life here in the USA and they might work well for tee shirts or bumper stickers but doctrine was never that simple. Doctrine, teachings, are collective in nature that the Church has developed over time. When the Church began in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost 33AD we see that the new converts “continued in the Apostles’ doctrine” but nothing is said to define what that was. Many will declare what that was but really nothing in scripture has ever defined the Apostles’ Doctrine.
The Church existed for 353 years with the only scripture being what modern Christians call “The Old Testament” and if we look into history we find that the one version the Church had was the text called the Septuagint. This text was translated about 299BC during the reign of Alexander who was trying to subdue his entire empire. He knew that as long as the Jews had their ancient language their culture wouldn’t completely submit to his rule. As dictators do, he tried to eliminate the sacred writings that were in Hebrew by translating them into Greek. After the 70 scholars (some records say 72) translated the Jewish scriptures into Greek, he ordered the Hebrew language scriptures to be destroyed. To a great extent that was accomplished. The common scriptures in use in the first century Israel was the Septuagint.
When the Apostles read scripture, when they taught scripture, when they worshipped, the scriptures they used was the Old Testament and was the Greek Septuagint. None of the Apostles knew that anything that they wrote would be called scripture. Saint Paul did not sit down and declare “I’m going to write scripture, okay God, give it to me.” On the contrary, he was giving pastoral guidance to his children. He said to the Corinthians, “For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.” I Corinthians 4:15 NKJV
What are we to say? Is the New Testament not the inspired Word of God? Of course it is. We have known it to be scripture since approximately 389AD. That was when the council of bishops, after three years of consideration, filtered through writings from all over the known world, that had been collected by the Church. Judging them by objective standards that all agreed to, the bishops canonized what we now know of as The New Testament.
What many people do not realize is that the written New Testament scriptures we have today, for 353 years was the oral Holy Tradition of the Church. Today many disrespect the title “Tradition” and some even reject the title outright. Tradition is not evil, nor is it to be rejected simply because of the name. Tradition is simply something handed down from one generation to another. The disrespect for the term “Tradition” comes from the 15th chapter of Matthew where Jesus was calling out the hypocrisy of the Jews who had nullified the commandments of God, specifically “Honor your father and mother…” by the tradition they had erected over the course of time. Odd how this one line, taken out of context, is often used to disrespect Holy Tradition that was taught by the Apostles.
So what is the basis for doctrine? How do we understand doctrines? Where does scripture fit? If scripture is used, how do we interpret scripture?
Many people in today’s religious world follow the doctrine or teaching first popularized by Martin Luther, Sola Scriptura or Scripture Alone. To simplify it, this doctrine declares that the only basis for doctrine is the Holy Scriptures. This can be quite a circular discussion because nowhere in Scripture does it say this. Therefore the DOCTRINE that declares that doctrine is only valid if it is taught in Scripture is not taught in scripture.
It is interesting, only as a side note, that Martin Luther was a Roman Catholic Friar and Priest, and since he originated the doctrine of “Scripture Alone” he also took it upon himself to decide what WAS scripture. He didn’t like the Roman Catholic Latin Vulgate and wanted scripture in the common vernacular of his native German followers. If you teach that doctrine can only be derived or discovered from scripture you must provide a way for everyone to have scriptures that they can read. Martin Luther decided to translate the scriptures himself. This gave him an amazing opportunity to decide what books were accepted and even the language of the text that he translated. One other item of note is that Tyndale used Luther’s German Bible as a comparison text when he translated his English Bible. Anything introduced into the text by Luther would likely also color the English Tyndale Bible.
The Church used the Old Testament in the Septuagint text, a Greek text. Luther chose to use the Hebrew text, most notably originating in the 8th century AFTER Christ. In the “Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs” of 1848, which was a reply to the epistle of Pope Pius IX, “To the Easterns,” the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, along with the other assembled bishops stated: “Our Church holds the infallible and genuine deposit of the Holy Scriptures: of the Old Testament a true and perfect version, of the New the divine original itself.” And so we have always held that the Septuagint is the authoritative version of the Old Testament.
The Apostles had doctrine. In the book of Acts we see, “…And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” Acts 2:42 KJV. So we see that the Apostles had doctrine the new converts continued steadfastly in this doctrine and try as we might, we never see anywhere in the New Testament the clear statement that this or that was the Apostles’ doctrine.
I have extensively searched the New Testament and was really interested. Nowhere is there step-by-step instructions, clear teaching on the following subjects that most Churches have doctrine concerning: baptism, weddings, communion, funerals, ordination, or even how to worship.
From 33AD the Church took what was passed down by the Apostles directly and passed it from bishop to bishop for centuries. Timothy was left behind in Asia Minor to ordain (set in place) bishops. He was given instructions about how to identify the men that were qualified to be bishops. These bishops were to come from among the people. They weren’t to come from outside the area. They were to have a good reputation and to have only one wife. They were to be able to teach others. “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” 2 Timothy 2:2 KJV
These bishops, received doctrine from the Apostles, some directly, others received doctrine from other bishops but I believe that we can expect that they were faithful. These men were judged by those close to them. The community testified, by their words and actions, that these men were faithful. So to accept that, I must also conclude that they were able to teach others. Over the years and centuries these bishops were faithful to teach exactly as they were taught.
In 325AD the Church was faced with a heresy that said Jesus was a created being and NOT God. The ramifications of this heresy would dismantle the Church. To deal with this heresy, the bishops met in a council in Nicea. Each bishop declared what he had been taught from the beginning. In reading the text from the Council of Nicea we see a record of consistency that the Church had passed down sound doctrine from the beginning. The conclusion of the Council of Nicea found the Church bishops writing the first two sections of what came to be known as the Creed. It was the first written doctrine published throughout the Church.
The first two sections of the Creed say:
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; and of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made:
Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man;
And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried;
And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures;
And ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of the Father;
And He shall come again with glory to judge the quick and the dead, Whose kingdom shall have no end.
In 381AD due to another challenge of a heresy in the Church, the bishops met in a great council again. This time it was held in Constantinople. The latter half of the Creed was written and the Creed was finalized. The bishops, after prayer, consideration and discussion declared the Creed finished. They also decided that the CREED itself was not to be edited further, no additions or subtractions were to be allowed. The last part of the Creed reads as follows:
And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Live, Who proceedeth from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spake by the Prophets;
And I believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.
I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sin.
I look for the Resurrection of the dead;
And the Life of the world to come. Amen.
This is an example of doctrine, that was consistent with Holy Scripture, and has been written down and included in the Church teachings. This Creed forms the basis of the Church and is a collection of the teachings passed down by the bishops over the centuries. Saint Paul held that his oral teachings were to be taught equal to his written epistles placing oral tradition on equivalent stature when he wrote, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” II Thessalonians 2:15 NKJV
After the Council of Constantinople the bishops commissioned the collection of writings that the Church revered in various places and the bishops were to judge what text was scripture and what was not. The canonization of the New Testament was finalized in 389AD and ultimately distributed throughout the Church.
So then, how do we interpret scripture? Many will say “scripture interprets scripture” but really is that enough? Can we interpret scripture in a vacuum? Outside of the life of the Church can we truly understand scriptures? The Divine Liturgy provides us clarity to understand scripture. We read the scriptures in the context of the worship of the Church, this is the primary interpretation of scripture. We don’t interpret scripture apart from the life of the Church otherwise trying to do so will lead to much error.
The Fathers of the Church wrote, as they had been taught, the wisdom that had been passed to them. Some, like Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp were with John the Theologian on Patmos where he was exiled. Later Fathers had only what was passed down through writings and by word of mouth of the bishops that taught them. They also were able to confer with each other, bishops could check each other for sound doctrine and like in the larger councils they could pray and compare pastoral guidance. The pattern is consistent throughout the history of the Church.
Outside of the body, without guidance from those who have been entrusted as overseers when we find scripture passages that are not clear, it is good to get guidance. The Fathers’ writings give us much guidance. Can’t we understand it without them? Sometimes but when looking for the account of an event that I was not alive to remember I would trust someone who was there or knew someone who saw it rather than trust the word or recollection of a guy that knew a guy that knew a guy whose mother’s father thinks he worked with a guy that read a book about it or heard a sermon about it once.
So for doctrine, sound doctrine, the basis should be and can be anything in Holy Tradition. The highest form of Holy Tradition is the Bible, but there are the deuterocanonical books of the Apocrypha which was part of the Old Testament that Jesus read. History shows us that the pattern of worship from the Church of the first century is recorded, Justin the Martyr who was martyred in about 125AD in his apologetics to the Emperor described the worship of the Church. The Divine Liturgy currently celebrated in our parishes was written in the fourth century and with only minor changes remains the same. The life of the Church, its worship, its iconography, the writings of the Fathers, its bishops, and the congregation of the people all work together to build sound doctrine. This sound doctrine requires that in order to properly interpret Holy Scripture, one must be progressing toward Godliness. It’s not simply a work of literature, and while many will read it as such, proper interpretation requires us to be progressing toward Theosis. If we are not applying it, the interpretation is simply empty exercise of mental gymnastics for the vanity of the individual.