Eastern Orthodox

The Bible in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition

In this article, I will give a short overview of the function, place, and authority of the Christian Bible in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. First, it must be noted that I am not, as of the writing of this post, an official member of the Orthodox Church. My family is currently attending a Greek Orthodox Church and plan to join the Church in the near future. The view of the Bible outlined in this post is one factor, among many, that led to my exploration of Christian Orthodoxy.

If an Orthodox view of the Bible can be summed up in a single statement, it might be stated as: The Bible is a tradition of the Church. “Of the Church” meaning that it emerged from decisions made by those within the Church. It is the Church that preserved the texts that are found within the Christian canon and it is the Church that decided which books would be included. It is for this reason that the Orthodox Church believes the Bible must be interpreted from inside the Church. The Bible belongs to the Church, not the Church to the Bible. As Bishop Timothy (Kallistos) Ware states in his book The Orthodox Church:

“It is from the Church that the Bible ultimately derives its authority, for it was the Church which originally decides which books form a part of Holy Scriptures; and it is the Church alone which can interpret Holy Scriptures with authority. There are many sayings in the Bible which by themselves are far from clear, and individual readers, however sincere, are in danger of error if they trust their own personal interpretation.”1

This is why Orthodox theologians argue that the Bible must be read with the “mind of the Church.” The Orthodox Church believes that reading the Bible as the body of Christ prevents the kind of scriptural misuse we see today in forms such as “rapture” theology and prosperity gospel teachings. Orthodox Christians view the Bible as one of several important sources of authority. The doctrinal formulations of the seven Ecumenical Councils and the writings of the Church Fathers constitute additional authorities to help Christians on their path to God.

It should be no surprise to learn that the Bible did not drop from the sky in the English King James Version so popular today. The Bible actually had a long, slow, and methodical history of development. The Orthodox Church has always understood this. This is why the Church is not necessarily opposed to a critical academic approach to studying scripture. “Christianity, if true, has nothing to fear from honest inquiry. Orthodoxy…does not forbid the critical and historical study of the Bible, although hitherto Orthodox scholars have not been prominent in this field” says Bishop Kallistos Ware.2 In an essay in The Orthodox Study Bible, Bishop Ware also notes that the Bible is a collection of writings “composed at various times, by different persons in widely diverse situations” and that “our reasoning brain is a gift from God…we Christians neglect at our own peril the results of independent scholarly research into the origin, dates and authorship of the books of the Bible, although we shall always want to test these results in light of Holy Tradition.”3

On the other hand, efforts to find the “original” meaning of a text could serve to detract from the ability of scripture to speak to all Christians in all ages; the never-ending desire to find an “untainted, original” translation of either the Old or New Testaments misses the point that God and His message cannot be contained within any single text or confined to a single language.

According to Andrew Louth, professor of Patristic and Byzantine studies at Durham University in England:

“Scholarly interpretation has been governed by an overriding concern to establish the original text and meaning. But there are many circumstances in which this is either not appropriate or not the whole story. For the Scriptures do not simply belong to their original context: they have been read and re-read over the centuries. When we venerate the Book of the Gospels, we are acknowledging it as something that belongs to the present: it bodies Christ forth now…we are dealing with a living text.”4

According to Fr. Anthony Coniaris, founder and president of Light & Life Publishing:

 “The Orthodox Church does not believe that every word in the Bible was dictated by God verbatim and written down word for word by the person who wrote each book. Such an approach would accuse God of using people as tape recorders – a notion that both dishonors God and destroys man.”5

Fr. Coniaris goes on to quote Fr. Theodore Stylianopoulos, a New Testament scholar at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, in saying that the Bible should be seen as a “record of truth and not truth itself” since the Church sees the truth as “God alone.” This view, according to Fr. Stylianopoulos, opens the door to other “records of the experience of God, such as the writings of the Church Fathers, the liturgical forms and texts, and the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils. It rescues the Church from an exclusive focus on the Bible…and thus guards Orthodox life from the error of idolatrous veneration of the text of Scripture (bibliolatry).” For Fr. Coniaris, this is crucial since “God kept on talking even after His Book had gone to press.”6

We often forget that the earliest churches had no Bibles to place in their pews. In fact, the early Church had no conception of what we call the Bible today. They had scripture to be sure, but it took centuries of prayer, debate, and critical study to determine which works were authentic and which should be deemed heretical. Thus, for the early church these documents were not put together in a single book. Even today, the gospels and epistles are read from different books during Orthodox Church services. This leads to another point regarding how the Orthodox Church views the Bible. There is a hierarchy that gives some texts priority over others.7 The book containing the four canonical gospels is given special reverence above and beyond that given to the epistles and other texts. Every Divine Liturgy, the main service of the Orthodox Church, features one reading from the gospels and one from the epistles, but the Old Testament is only read during special services for the purpose of showing how Christ was the fulfillment of the scriptures of ancient Israel.

As a living, divinely-inspired icon of Christ, the texts found within the Bible should be read for the sole purpose of leading Christians to communion with God through Jesus Christ. Any reading that deviates from this purpose is a misreading. This why Orthodox theologians insist that the Bible should not read in an ultra-literal way that seeks scientific or historical truths. The Bible must be read spiritually with the Holy Spirit guiding the Church. When read in this way, the Bible is always spiritually true, even when not literally true.

View Sources
Chris Smith

Chris Smith

Chris is currently employed as a library specialist for Middle Eastern language materials at Duke University. Prior to that he spent two years as a teaching assistant and Ph.D. student in Islamic Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. He holds a M.A. in Religion from Wake Forest and a B.A. in Global Studies and Religious Studies from UNC-Chapel Hill. Chris has two daughters and currently resides in Chapel Hill, NC.

Previous post

Everyday Warrior

Next post

Endings Are Beginnings