Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Scriptures and the South - Part IV

Most Southern Christians, being the evangelical, Protestant kind, hold to this view of Holy Scripture:

VII. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them (Westminster Confession, http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/index.html?body=/documents/wcf_with_proofs/ch_I.html, accessed 9 June 2015).

But with such a view ‘the centre cannot hold’.  Unity of faith will fly apart as individual interpretations multiply, as pride and delusion give birth to schism after schism.  Indeed, the very need for a Church disappears if one believes that the Bible is the one thing needful for a person’s salvation.  With the Church thus rent apart and sore weakened by arguments over what is true and what is not, souls become disordered, and vice tramples virtue underfoot in secret and in the open.  

If the South wants to keep same-sex ‘marriage’, transgender rights, pornography, no-fault divorce, theft, rioting, and all the rest of it from flooding into every corner of her land, she will have to show humility by returning to the Ancient Faith of her forebears and learning from the Holy Mothers and Fathers of the Church how to rightly interpret the Scriptures.  Without the unifying, life-giving effects of the Orthodox Faith, Dixie will remain defenseless before the march of ‘Progress’.  As it has been elsewhere in the West, so will it be here.

So let us once again listen to Elder Cleopa Ilie of Romania:

 . . .

Holy Scripture contains within it unanswerable passages or, as Saint Gregory of Nyssa puts it, strong bones. Some would like to break these bones of Scripture with their wisdom teeth as of yet still only suitable for sucking milk. However, such a thing they would never be able to manage. All who have desired to plunge into the depths of Scripture have drowned in the fathomless ocean that is the wisdom of God. Such was the portion shared by Origen, Arius, Macedonius, Nestorius, Sabellius, Dioscorus, Eutyches and all the other chiefs of the ancient heresies who have been swallowed up in the unfathomable sea of Holy Scripture. The profundity and depth of Scripture was not the cause of their fall and drowning, but rather they themselves were the cause, due to their own insufficiencies, of being drowned in the depths of the mysteries of the Scriptures.

Holy Scripture is like a fountain or an endless spring, of the wisdom of God in which we must be steeped and partake in accordance with our level of wisdom and spiritual maturity. Just as we take water from the well with a bucket, empty it into our pitcher and then into our glass in order to quench our bodys thirst, so must we also do with our spiritual thirst when we are urged to drink of the deepest ocean of wisdom, the Holy Scriptures. Thus, spiritually speaking, if we draw more water from the well of Scripture than is drinkable (out of desire for the purity of our intellect (νούς) and heart), due to our pride and inquisitiveness we will be destroyed in our attempt to grasp the incomprehensible with our limited human faculties. If, for example, we were to see a child from the first grade trying to learn and to teach others that which is taught at the university, how much laughter and amusement would it provoke in us! The same and worse happens to those who desire to scrutinize and unravel the incomprehensible mysteries of the Scriptures with an intellect inexperienced and unenlightened by the Holy Spirit.

The divine Prophets and Apostles, as well as the holy Fathers of the Church, while by the purity of their lives attaining to the simplicity and innocence of infants, at the same time also, on account of their wisdom, became as perfect spiritual men (Eph. 4:13). Nevertheless, they were never so bold as to delve into the impenetrable mysteries of the wisdom of God. Before these elevated notions and expressions they remained as if enraptured saying, How great are Thy works, O Lord, exceeding deep are Thy thoughts, (Ps. 91:6) and Great is our Lord, and great is His strength, and of His understanding there is no measure (Ps. 146:5). Still further, in another place, it is said: Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? There is no searching of his understanding (Is. 40:28). Listen also to the vessel of election, the Apostle Paul, as he says with wonderment; O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been his counsellor? (Rom. 11: 33-34).

You understand, therefore, my friend, that this fathomless depth of the wisdom of God cannot be approached by any intellect among His creatures, neither those found in the heavens, nor those on earth. Much more difficult is it for those who, without purifying their intellect (νούς) and heart from the passions, and being bereft also of divine enlightenment, presume on their own to penetrate the unbounded abyss of the Scriptures.

 . . .

Source:  The Truth of Our Faith, http://orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/ec_salvation.aspx, accessed 9 June 2015

He says elsewhere in the same book,

 . . . Each Christian has the need to read Holy Scripture, yet each Christian does not also have the authority or ability to teach and interpret the words of Scripture. This privileged authority is reserved for the Church via its holy clergy and theologians, men who are instructed in and knowledgeable of the true faith. When we consider how our Saviour gave the grace of teaching to His Holy Apostles (Mat. 28:20) and not to the masses it is easy for us to see that the prerogative to teach is held only by the bishops, priests and theologians of our Church. It was the Apostles who were sent by Christ to teach and to celebrate the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments). Our Apostle Paul says: How shall they preach, except they be sent? (Rom. 10:15). Accordingly, the bishops are the lawful successors to the Apostles and those sent for the preaching (κήρυγμα) to the people. Paul entrusts the heavy burden of the instruction of the people to Timothy and not to the faithful. He speaks of this elsewhere: Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? (1 Cor. 12:29) Again he says to Timothy that the clergy must be apt to teach others (1 Tim. 3:2). He does not, however, say the same thing for the faithful. He makes a distinction between shepherd and sheep, between teacher and those taught. Still, the teachers cannot teach whatever they would like, but that which the Church teaches universally. They teach in the name of the Church and of Christ. Not everyone has the intellectual ability and the requisite divine grace necessary to expound Holy Scripture correctly. The Apostle Peter also says this in his second epistle, referring to the epistles of the Apostle Paul. He says the following: There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures (2 Peter 3:16).

 . . .

Source:  The Truth of Our Faith, http://orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/ec_holy_scripture.aspx, accessed 9 June 2015

Gabe Martini adds,

 . . .

As Orthodox Christians, we believe the proper context of scripture is the life of the Church.

Rather than isolating scriptures from the life of the Church and taking them “on their own,” we recognize that the life-giving Spirit inspiring the authors of holy writ is the same life-giving Spirit indwelling, guiding, and preserving the holy Church through history; the same life-giving Spirit that creates and perpetuates this “thing” we call holy tradition. After all, holy tradition is little more than the life of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church.

As a consequence, understanding the scriptures depends more on a person’s unity with God than it does education. Deification or theosis—an acquisition of the Holy Spirit through ascesis, prayer, almsgiving, mercy, and the sacred Mysteries—is the path laid before us, and it’s a path every single person in the Church is called to follow (i.e. it is not for the super-spiritual alone). This is one of the reasons why on the Great Feast of Pentecost, we sing of simple, illiterate fishermen who became great apostles through the sending of the Holy Spirit.

Discovering the true context of scripture is not really all about the best exegesis or commentaries, but rather embracing the Mind of the Church.

Isolation Begets Schism

Going back to taking passages of scripture “on their own,” history paints a rather graphic picture of what happens when enough individual Christians adhere solely to this maxim.

Influenced largely by humanism and other concepts of individual liberty, the key architects of the Reformation paved the way for an uncontrollable revolution—a revolution in which anyone could be the final arbiter of truth. Instead of a single, corrupt papacy, there were now thousands of individual “popes,” all serving as the head of their own unique movement. And today we now have dozens of different English translations of the scriptures, each with its own “spin” on the text and various liberties taken to massage one passage here or there in a certain, doctrinal direction.

The goal of escaping every presupposition has failed—indeed, it is impossible—and we’re left with a choice of which presupposition. Left to our vices, discovering the “original context” of the Bible becomes an exercise in dividing the people of God.

Embracing the Body of Christ

For Orthodox Christians, the choice should be rather clear: we believe “in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church,” as our Creed demands we acknowledge. A prerequisite to partaking of the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ is a confession of this fact. And through that Mystery of Mysteries, we truly become the Body of Christ.

The Church is, of course, the pillar and foundation of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15), but this has little to do with us individually, and everything to do with her sole Head: Jesus Christ (Eph. 5:23; Col. 1:18). In Christ is truth personified, and so by following the words of his apostles and their successors, we embrace a continuation of Christ through the ages.

Additionally, we know that the Church is built on a foundation of the apostle and prophets, with Christ the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). This is not a structure in need of linguistic or historical analysis in order to discover the hidden meaning behind words penned two thousand years ago (or more); she is rather a Body that lives and breathes through history, with a “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) alongside us each and every step of the way.

We are not Deists, believing that God has left us on our own until he decides to return—we are children of the Incarnation, of a God named Immanuel (“God with us”); of a personal and loving God that sends a Helper to guide us into all truth (John 14:26); of a long-suffering and merciful God that gives us his very Body and Blood for sustenance and communion in him (John 6:55ff). This is not a God merely of ideas and books, but of flesh and blood—of matter and substance.

Rather than facing the impossible task of discovering the “original context” of cultures and societies long past, we look to the Body of Christ. We look to the Saints and martyrs, the hymns and divine services, the iconography and sacred Mysteries. We look to our bishops and priests, men ordained in faithful succession from one of Christ’s apostles.

In the end, discovering the original context of the Bible is not a question of epistemology; it is a question of ontology. And as faithful Christians, we belong—body, mind, and spirit—to the all-holy Trinity. It is through our union with Christ and in his Body that we are guided into all truth.

Source:  ‘How to Read the Bible and Divide the Church’, http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/onbehalfofall/how-to-read-the-bible-and-divide-the-church/, posted 2 June 2015, accessed 9 June 2015

And finally St Gregory of Sinai warns,

 . . . For to act on one's own and not on the advice of those who have gone before us is overweening presumption - or, rather, it engenders such presumption. If the Son does nothing of His own accord, but does only what the Father has taught Him (cf. John 5:19-20), and the Spirit will not speak of His own accord (cf. John 16:3), who can think he has attained such heights of virtue that he does not need anyone to initiate him into the mysteries? Such a person is deluded and out of his mind rather than virtuous. One should therefore listen, to those who have experienced the hardships involved in cultivating the virtues and should cultivate them as they have - that is to say, by severe fasting, painful self-control, steadfast vigils, laborious genuflexions, assiduous standing motionless, constant prayer, unfeigned humility, ceaseless contrition and compunctive sorrow, eloquent silence, as if seasoned with salt (cf. Col. 4:6), and by patience in all things (ch. 15, ‘On Stillness: Fifteen Texts’, The Philokalia, Vol. IV, http://www.holybooks.com/wp-content/uploads/Philokalia.pdf, p. 1069, accessed 9 June 2015).  . . .

Be humble, O Souþron, be humble.

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