As part of our Enquirers' Course of DVD lectures we use in Portsmouth and along the South Coast, and also other people in the country are following this course, my priest has prepared supplementary reading to go with the lectures. This is from his supplementary reading for the second lecture in the course on the subject of the Bible.
May God guide you in your studies
THE SOURCE OF THE FAITH: TRADITION (THE APOSTOLIC DEPOSIT)
What this reading should help you towards is an Orthodox appreciation of the source of our Faith: the Apostolic Deposit. This is the deposit of Faith and practice received from the Apostles and passed on or 'traditioned' (like a baton in a relay race is passed on or 'traditioned' from one to the next) even unto us today. You will find that some Orthodox writers refer to Scripture and Tradition as two sources of the Orthodox Christian Faith - but this, I believe, is an influence from Western Christianity. There is but one source of the Faith: the Apostolic Deposit, the Tradition, that which has been received. Now this, of course, includes the Bible for the Bible is quite clearly among that which has been received from those before us, even going back to the Apostles. But the Bible should not be seen as something separate from Tradition. Tradition is that which has been passed onto us, that which we have received - and this, you will agree, includes the Bible.
The books that make up the Bible also are among that which has been received - though here you may begin to notice certain differences. Orthodox include within the Old Testament books which Roman Catholics and Protestants call the Apocrypha (the former, if I understand their position, accepting them as slightly âlowerâ than the rest of the Old Testament while the latter reject them as Scripture at all). Jordan Bajisâ statement that the Orthodox accept only the same books as the evangelicals is seriously open to question. He should be cross-checked with Ware who whilst acknowledging that âmost Orthodox scholars at the present dayâ may hold an opinion similar to the Roman Catholic view that these books are in some way âlesserâ than the other Old Testament books does point out that two Eastern Orthodox councils declared them âgenuine parts of Scriptureâ. Thomas Hopko also states that these books âare considered by the Orthodox as genuine parts of the Bibleâ. Given that the Orthodox Old Testament is the Septuagint (the Greek translation as used by Jesus and the Apostles) and the Septuagint included all these books then they clearly are scripture. . The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church accepts still further books as canonical scripture - for example, Enoch. Given that the Epistle of Jude quotes from Enoch I would not find it easy to argue against them on this. Now if I held to a verbally inspired (dictated, in effect) evangelical protestant understanding of the Bible this variation might cause me greater difficulty. But given my Orthodox appreciation of the Bible within Tradition (within that which has been received from the apostles) I do not panic. The Eastern Orthodox may not count Enoch canonical scripture but they quote it and refer to it with reverence as a part of Tradition, the received source of our Faith. Now as Kallistos Ware explains within Tradition a greater emphasis is placed on some aspects than on others. The Bible may have a pre-eminence within but it is not isolated from Tradition. Even in terms of Bible books some would be seen as more important than others â the Gospels being supreme. Whereas in Protestantism there is a harsh divide between the Bible and all else that is not the Bible, in Orthodoxy it is more graded, there are degrees of emphasis and importance within Tradition.
I believe the Bible to be the written record of some who experienced God. (There have no doubt been millions and millions who have experienced God - well, ultimately, all people who have ever lived, multiplied billions, have experienced Godâ¦ but not all have been so conscious or aware of the experience of God). Some of the Biblical writers experienced God through visions and prophecy, others through Godâs working in history, while others expressed their appreciation for God and His creation through poetry. Then there were those who experienced God when God the Son incarnate walked this earth - and their precious records we call the Gospels. Then there are the authors of the epistles - writings that also spring from the experience of Jesusâ¦ So these scriptures are the record of those who experienced God.
Now when I refer to these books as the writings of those who experienced God exactly what am I trying to say? Well, here, as with certain other beliefs, I think it is easier to say what I don't believe - to apply apophatic or 'negative' theology. I do not hold to the evangelicalsâ doctrine of inspiration together with their related doctrine of inerrancy. I do not hold that each and every word of the Bible tells the exact literal word for word account of what was said, for example, by Jesus (as if someone had tape recorded His teachings and was playing them back to us). Nor does it bother me that, for example, in one Gospel the colour of Jesus' robe is purple but in another Gospel it is red. If these accounts were considered as evidence in a court of law, total agreement on all details would suggest fabrication and collusion - it is precisely these differences of incidental detail that show we are dealing with real accounts by real people so that when they agree on the more important points we find them trustworthy. (The argument can be gone into at rather more depth than this but I think that will do for the moment).
Now does this mean that I can't trust the Gospels to tell me what Jesus said? This rather depends on what is being asked by the question. If the question means can I trust that the Gospels report verbatim the exact word for word teachings of Jesus then I would deny this. For example consider the Gospel According to John. The way John writes Jesus as speaking is radically different to the way the other Gospels record His speech. Furthermore the way John recounts Jesus as speaking is the same way most of the characters in John's Gospel speak and even the same way that John writes his Gospel as narrator. One example of this is John chapter 3 where it is notoriously difficult to tell whether John 3:16 is supposed to be words spoken by Jesus or words of explanation inserted by John, the author. Indeed this applies to the whole conclusion to chapter 3 with different versions ending the words of Jesus and beginning the narrative of John at varying places. But if the question about trusting the Gospels to tell me what Jesus said means whether I can trust them to accurately convey to me the teaching of Jesus, even the essential message of salvation that our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ taught, then I have no hesitation in declaring that I do indeed trust these writings, even implicitly and absolutely. As already indicated they can be shown to be trustworthy documents in human terms and according to various ways of testing the veracity or trustworthiness of such writings. Furthermore it is the belief and teaching of the Orthodox Church that they contain no errors appertaining to salvation. And this is the very same authority that gives you the Bible in the first place. The same authority that declares to you that this is the Bible, declares also to you that you may trust these writings, that you may have confidence in what they teach you for your salvation. I want to offer another illustration here. According to the Peshitta, the ancient Aramaic text, in Matthew 19:24 Jesus refers to it being more difficult for a rope to go through the eye of a needle whereas many of us are more familiar with the report that He referred to a camel through the eye of a needle. Whichever word He actually used, the accuracy and truth of the teaching remains.
But what of 2Timothy 3:16 and all scripture being inspired of God? A more literal translation of the Greek word would be that all scripture is God-breathed. Now you may well ask me just what exactly this term means - to which I would have to answer that, exactly and precisely, we don't know! But we can surely say some things about it. It surely tells us that these are not merely human writings on their own, the product of men only - but that God was involved in this process: the scriptures are God-breathed. And that they are God-breathed surely indicates the work of God the Holy Spirit, with that same word for spirit and breath. So what these men were writing was not written of men on their own apart from God but rather together with God even if we do not know the exact understanding. There is something mysterious here. Just as to an Orthodox, the Roman Catholic Church has gone too far and tried to explain (by the theory of transubstantiation) the mystery of holy communion, so here the evangelicals have gone too far with their theories of inspiration and verbal inerrancy. All this is deep and mysterious to an Orthodox. We accept that this is of God as well as man - an example of synergy: God and man working together. But beyond this we are reluctant to say too much. It is yet another holy mystery before which we bow in reverent acceptance rather than seeking to over-explore or dissect scientifically. We do not offer exact, precise explanations - we are content to live with mystery.
Please do not think that we Orthodox think less of the Bible than the evangelicals - just remember how we process in Church with the Gospels, in their silver cover or case, held aloft (and think of the bejewelled silver covers of Byzantine Orthodox Gospels) and think how we venerate the Gospels, how we kiss them, how we love them...
Now another aspect of understanding the Bible as the writings of men seeking (as best as can be) to express their experience of God (as distinct from words virtually dictated by God) means that when the writings refer to God being angry or taking revenge upon a people (or whatever it may be) we can begin to appreciate that the
writer is here seeking to express the inexpressible (or, at any rate, something nearly inexpressible). Such terms as anger or hatred are as much (emotional) metaphor as references to God's right arm or to sheltering under His wings is (physical) metaphor.
Now if you then wonder how you are ever to know how to understand these writings, I would direct you to the same source from which you received these writings: the Apostolic Deposit - the Tradition. The Faith is one.