Appropriating the Academic Study of Scripture from an Orthodox Perspective

Appropriating the Academic Study of Scripture

When I first studied Orthodoxy, I had long been studying contemporary Biblical scholarship.

The history of the Church was foreign to me, and the revelation that the canon of Scripture emerged out of the history of that same Church (thus making Sola Scriptura self-contradictory)—along with the revelation that Patristic theology resembled Catholic and Orthodox theology far more than Protestant theology of any variety—convinced me very early on that Protestantism was untenable. Thus began a long struggle with Catholicism and Orthodoxy which I won’t go into here. Soon after I became convinced that the Orthodox Church was the way to go, I returned to the pages of Scripture.

I had absolutely no idea what it meant. And it was enormously difficult to ever begin reading it in an Orthodox manner.

From personal experience, I have discovered that this state of mind remains the norm for many Orthodox Christians, even studied converts, who are better versed in liturgics and the history of the Church. Studying the commentaries of the Fathers can be enormously helpful, but the Fathers generally preached and wrote from a pastoral perspective rather than exegetical. This means that they will often spend little time arguing in-depth for their perspective against other points of view—especially since Protestantism, which we confront most often today, would not exist for centuries.

Furthermore, most Patristic commentaries on the books of the Old Testament are lost. When Orthodox Christians approach the Old Testament, I’ve found that they either ignore it, declare it ahistorical and allegorical (which is a distortion of the Patristic approach), or shrink back in despair.

So I started my journey back into the world of Biblical scholarship.

When I began, I was overwhelmed and confused. There are a great variety of different perspectives present today in the academic world, most of them secular or Protestant. At the same time, especially in New Testament studies, there is fruit that can be gleaned from an academic study of Scripture, made to serve Christ from within the Orthodox Church.

One example, especially relevant today, is the movement called the “New Perspective on Paul.” This movement represents a seismic shift in the way modern scholars read the Pauline corpus. It began with a lecture of E. P. Sanders arguing that Protestant scholars had misread Paul in light of the Reformation instead of in light of Second Temple Judaism. Even though the movement began with Sanders, it has been expanded and argued further by scholars such as James D. G. Dunn, N. T. Wright, Richard Hays, and Michael Gorman. Each of these scholars has their own approach to Paul, so that some have suggested referring to New Perspective(s) in the plural, rather than simply the New Perspective.

Gorman’s work is the closest to Orthodox teaching. He argues, without even referring to the Fathers or the teaching of the Orthodox Church, that Paul, when speaking of justification by faith, means participation in the life of the Christ-God, crucified and risen. He calls this what all Orthodox Christians call it: theosis. In short, Gorman argues—with precedent from Church History (particularly Ambrosiaster)—that God’s “righteousness” refers to His covenant obligations to fulfill His promises to Israel. God’s covenant faithfulness is displayed in the faithfulness of Christ, which means Christ’s faithfulness in suffering and dying unto resurrection. Our faith, then, is called such because it embodies the faithfulness of Christ. If we “suffer with Him” says the Apostle, “we also shall be glorified with Him” (Rom. 8:17).

This is but one example of how serious, careful study of the Scriptures from an academic perspective can produce readings entirely congruent with the teaching of the Church. This is not to advocate Sola Scriptura, but rather to say that the Church’s interpretation of Scripture is the right interpretation.

The reasons why modern Biblical scholarship can be useful to and should be critically appropriated by Orthodox Christians today are multiple.

First, from the standpoint of apologetics, it can break down significant barriers for a Protestant seeking to understand Orthodoxy. If Sola Scriptura is impossible, yet the Orthodox exegesis of Scripture is also impossible, then perhaps no Christian group is true and Christianity is either false or in need of a divine restoration? Even if a Protestant becomes convinced logically that Sola Scriptura is unworkable, he may well set that aside if he is convinced that Orthodoxy cannot reconcile its teachings with the Holy Scriptures.

Second, the results of scholarly study can confirm, in specific ways, that the Church is led by the Holy Spirit. Some of the findings of modern scholarship demonstrate Orthodox teaching conclusively, with information from the Ancient Near East that could not have been known to the Fathers. For example, the Church teaches that the creation is a temple, and mankind is its priesthood. Studies from the Ancient Near Eastern world have confirmed that Genesis 1 takes the pattern for temple-building in the ancient world and paints creation as God’s Temple—with humankind as the image, the bearers of the Divine Presence.

Third, the Scriptures belong to the Orthodox Church. It has been a great displeasure of mine to watch Orthodox Christians declare proudly that the Old Testament has been historically annihilated and therefore must be interpreted allegorically. Brothers, this should not be! The Old Testament, like the New, is the sacred history of the birth of the Church and must be treated reverently. An allegorical reading of Israel’s story depends on its historicity. The Scriptures are typological because history is typological, and the one who assumed flesh from the womb of the Virgin is the author of history. If the Scriptures are truly the property of the Church, then Orthodox Christians must be at the forefront of their defense.

Fourth, due to the printing press, Orthodox Christians have better access to the Scriptures than they ever have in the history of the Church. This enables us to more thoroughly fulfill the words of St. Innocent of Alaska:

First of all, a Christian must thoroughly study the foundations of the Christian faith. To that end, you must read and reread the Holy Scriptures on a regular basis, especially the books of the New Testament. You must not only learn their contents but also develop an interest in their origin, who wrote them and when, how they were preserved and have been handed down to us, and why they are called Divine and Sacred.

Fifth, studying the Scriptures from an academic perspective is enjoyable. While we must always remember that the purpose of reading Scripture is growth in holiness, we can develop our love for the inspired words by studying it in its ancient context and personally working to appropriate these insights within an Orthodox world-view. This can be used to develop a habit of immersing yourself  in the Scriptures—Moses, the Prophets, the Psalms, and the New Testament—which will inspire you to awe-full worship of the One who blessed the world in Abraham’s seed, who is the true Messiah of Israel.

Orthodox Christians can study Biblical scholarship both carefully and critically.

Ideally, it should be done once a person has developed a thorough Orthodox world-view. Orthodoxy, in the words of Fr. Andrew Phillips, must be “in your bones and blood.” Do not remain a neophyte. Truly become Orthodox before critically appropriating the work of non-Orthodox scholarship. Even as academic study must be undertaken critically and in a spirit of obedience to the Church, such study can be of great benefit—both for ourselves and for others.

Comments

  1. mmcfm says

    Wow. My experience is so different than yours. Our priest started with Genesis (thirteen years ago), and we’ve studied Old Testament scripture through the Fathers, the Divine Liturgy and other services, Hymnography, Iconography and the Sacraments or Mysteries. Inspired by this gradual, book by book, line by line study of the Old Testament (and beyond, into the New Testament), I’ve amassed a library of primarily Protestant European scholarship from the last four centuries that has (in fits and starts) has examined first century (and earlier) Jewish scripture, belief, and practices and the way the Early Church adapted them to worship, to teach, and to spiritual development of the Body of Christ. I’ve learned the etymology of many of the Greek words used in the Septuagint, how they were applied in the New Testament, and eventually in the Divine LIturgy, the Councils, the priesthood, dogma, and the Church Fathers, because they add clarity to scripture, what it means, and ultimately to what an Orthodox mind-set of scripture is. I don’t think I could ever consider scripture in isolation from the Jewishness of it, the etymology of the Greek words, or the completeness of Orthodox faith, because scripture was written in the context of the worshipping, practicing Church that was in many ways still more Jewish than Gentile even into the fourth century. I think these things are still relevant to how we study scripture in the Orthodox Church today, because this is the origin, the paradigm of Orthodox Biblical Studies.

    • says

      I think your point about the worshipping, practicing Church is where scriptural studies for me personally have the most meaning.

      I’m not against all academic study, by any means, but I also think it has its limits. There’s a balance to be struck.

      There are a number of ways to interpret and apply the scriptures, and we shouldn’t limit it to any one method (especially not the grammatical-historical method).

      All in all, the scriptures live and breathe through the Church, and it is up to us to preserve them with our life and actions.

  2. David French says

    Thank you again for a wonderful post, which like many you write, sent me off to do further reading. As I make the journey from West to East I am hungry to learn all I can about the ‘faith once delivered…’ And now a question, if I may: Which of the books by Michael Gorman would you recommend as most helpful on this subject?

    • Seraphim Hamilton says

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. I would recommend Gorman’s “Inhabiting the Cruciform God” to get a more depth study of his reading of St. Paul. Please pray for me.

  3. john burnett says

    I’ve been teaching Scripture in Orthodox contexts both in America and in Africa for over 35 years and it seems to me that we’re actually on the verge of a great moment, if we can make use of it.

    I totally agree that the ‘New Perspective’ has unlocked all kinds of doors both for believers to appropriate the benefits of scholarship and for scholars to benefit from the actual use of the scriptures by believers down through the centuries, both directions critically of course.

    Source criticism had its value but seems largely to have run out of steam by the 80s. What has emerged since then is a plethora of different critical approaches, but many are occupied “once again for the first time” with the literary or narrative dimensions of the Text— all the things that come under the rubric of “story”— structure, plot, characterization, and so forth. And that’s where the opportunity has appeared.

    For myself, I’ve found it crucial to understand the structure of each book and then, in terms of that structure, to learn to actually tell the story as such. Now, by “structure”, I mean more than just looking up the outline in the appendix of your bible or downloading one from the internet. I mean carefully and critically working through the book to discern how it works as a narrative. That’s not particularly easy, because not a lot of it has been done, but once it’s done, it’s very teachable (in fact it worked swimmingly with semi-literate Africans).

    I’m convinced that all the books of the Bible were designed to be remembered for reflection and for oral performance— that is, they’re deliberately structured to make remembering and reciting them easy— while at the same time, as texts, they contain all kinds of subtle features that would not be apparent if they were purely oral compositions— features such as significant numbers of repetitions of words or phrases, embedded cross-references, gematric values as a compositional strategy, and so forth. These are the kinds of ‘easter eggs’ that someone studying the Text as a text will find hidden in the grass of the letter, which remain hidden in the context of aural reception, for instance in the liturgy, where the more obvious aspects of plot, character, chiasm, and so forth come to the fore.

    The academic study of Scripture now includes some very insightful work on the nature of literary work. Theorists like M Bakhtin, P Ricoeur, J Kristeva, have done brilliant work on narrative that has found good use in RB Hays, NT Wright (who simply rocks!— and no Orthodox should be unfamiliar with him!). I can’t recommend JH Sailhamer highly enough for Torah. What is more, the sociological analysis of the Scriptures— I am thinking of B Malina and R Rohrbaugh and the Context Group of the SBL— have thrown stunning light on so much that we have never seen since the first-century context ceased to be anyone’s lived reality.

    All of this has revolutionary implications for catechesis. Story telling is something that everybody does and everybody loves. In teaching the scriptures we can actually teach the actual stories as such, with careful attention to their own structures, dramatic development, and so forth. This can be done with groups of any age and any ability from parish kindergarten class to post-doctoral university students. As the student (or teacher) deepens, s/he can learn the complex interconnections and the deeply illumining subtleties embedded in the Text, always in view of (never losing sight of) the whole story. And the whole story is what we need to get across. It also happens to be the one thing that’s most interesting about any book in the Bible— if you see how it works.

    That was always the weakness of academic biblical studies up till the 1980s— we tended to dissolve the story into its atoms and failed to hear what it was saying in its unity. Much of that work was a necessary critical corrective to the primary naiveté which, left unaided, ends up either in rejection of the Bible or in fundamentalism. But as Paul Ricoeur famously said, there remained a second naiveté to which the critic must still ascend. Analytic approaches to the Bible were never complete, and generally aren’t preachable as far as they go. Whereas the story— which is what all our work should lead back to— *is* the point.

    I’d enjoy further dialogue on this, so feel free to contact me through the contact link at jbburnett.com. I’m not sure I’ll see responses here, so i may need a nudge.

    • Seraphim Hamilton says

      Wow, we really do have similar interests. I’ve been studying the same thing lately- have you read David Dorsey’s book on the literary structure of the Old Testament books? I’ve gotten a fair bit out of Saihamer. I just read his “Meaning of the Pentateuch” in late December. I found myself disagreeing with his understanding of the lawcodes (I think he really tried to hard there) but was fascinated by his study of the strategic placement of the poems in the Torah. Have you read Seth Postell’s “Adam as Israel”? Postell refines Sailhamer’s methodology and notes the strategic composition of the Torah and indeed the whole Tanakh to pave the way towards Israel’s king as the second Adam. It’s really amazing stuff. The one thing I really disagree with is Sailhamer’s and Postell’s reading of the creation account in Genesis 1-3 as referring to the land of Israel. In the HB, the land of Israel is a microcosm of the whole creation- it’s God’s base of operations. This is why Paul sees Jerusalem as the point from which God’s light radiates across the whole Earth. There’s nothing inherently special about the land of Israel- but God’s work for the nations began in earthly Jerusalem.

      I absolutely love N.T. Wright, by the way- met him in November when I went to Grand Rapids to hear him lecture! We’ve also talked a little bit over email. Wright gave me some thoughts on my idea about the interplay between Zechariah 3 and Romans 8.

      • john burnett says

        The problem with Wright is that nobody can keep up with him! I just got his three tomes on Paul and Perrin and Hays’ *Jesus, Paul and the People of God: a theological dialogue with NT Wright*, but how on earth will i ever find time to read 2500 pages??! Not to mention Sailhamer’s own 1200 and etc etc! Haven’t heard of Postell, but just looked up the review. Good stuff, though i’m slightly surprised this is being treated as new material, since someone turned me on to the main idea 30 years ago. But I want to read what he says!

        I’ve seen Dorsey’s book, and have a note to myself to check it out, but I haven’t read it. I’ll look it up, on your recommendation. Who is doing that kind of work for the New Testament? I can give you Mark and Romans, i know where to go for John, his letters, and Revelation, but i’ve been in a monumental struggle with Matthew since a full year now, and i’m only through the Sermon on the Mount (but i have that much *down*, now).

        You mentioned, “There’s nothing inherently special about the land of Israel— but God’s work for the nations began in earthly Jerusalem.” Yes, absolutely, and the same point can be made about the chosen *people* as well. “Nothing inherently special” about them— but God’s work for the nations began with them, because he had to begin somewhere, and that’s who he began with. Wasn’t that the point of Abraham’s call (Gn 12)? That has been soooooo helpful in teaching, not only here in America but especially in Africa, where i spent some years.

        So— yes yes yes, this is all exactly the direction we need to go. And the implications in all kinds of directions— not least for relations with other churches— are mind-boggling. Exciting times!

        You might be interested in a flyer i just wrote, “Adam, High Priest and King”, the very top item at http://jbburnett.com/theology/theol-bib-creat-evol.html.

        Please get in touch with me privately at jbb at jbburnett.com. I’d like to explore some ideas with you out of the limelight.

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