The Right Reading of Scripture

Fr. John Behr, dean of St. Vladimir’s Academy, is visiting Serbia where he delivered a lecture earlier this week which you can read about here. Pictured above is Fr. John visiting with His Holiness Patriarch Irinej together with Bishop Atanasije (Rakita), vicar to the Patriarch and Bishop Maxim of Western America.

The following is taken from his book Formation of Christian Theology. Volume 1: The Way to Nicea, which, by the way, you can read more from here:

“…The picture of an originally pure orthodoxy, manifest in exemplary Christian communities, from which various heresies developed and split off, as it was presented for instance in the book of Acts and, in the fourth century, in the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius of Ceasarea, has become increasingly difficult to maintain, especially since the work of Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. And rightly so: the earliest Christian writings that we have, the letters of Paul, are addressed to churches already falling away from the Gospel which he had delivered to them.

….Debates certainly raged from the beginning about the correct interpretation of this Gospel; it is a mistake to look back to the early Church hoping to find a lost golden age of theological or ecclesiastical purity – whether in the apostolic times as narrated in the book of Acts, or the early Church, as recorded by Eusebius, or the age of the Fathers of the Church Councils, or the Empire of Byzantium. Nevertheless, the Gospel was delivered, once for all. However, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the Gospel of the Coming One and accordingly the citizenship of Christians is not on earth but in heaven, from which they await their Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. In life manner the Gospel is not located in a specific text; what came to be recognized as “canonical” Gospels are always described as “The Gospel according to…” The Gospel is not fixed in a particular text, but, as we will see, in an interpretative relationship to the Scriptures – the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets.

Inseparable from the debates about which works were to count as Scripture,was the issue of the correct interpretation of Scripture. Not only was there a commitment to a body of Scripture, but there was also the affirmation that there is a correct reading of Scripture, or more exactly, that there is a correct canon for reading Scripture, a canon expressing the hypothesis of Scripture itself. Even if it was expressed in many different ways and its articulation continued to be refined, a process which continues today, nevertheless there was a conviction that there is one right faith; and this conviction that there is one right faith, one right reading of the one Scripture, is intimately tied to the confession that there is one Jesus Christ, the only Son of the one Father, who alone has made know (…”exegeted”, Jn 1:18) the Father. The assertion that there is such a thing as right faith came to be expressed, by the end of the second century, in terms of the canon (rule) of faith or truth, where canon does not mean an ultimately arbitrary list of articles of belief which must be adhered to, or a list of authoritative books which must be accepted, but is rather a crystallization of the hypothesis of Scripture itself. The canon is this sense is the presupposition for reading Scripture on its own terms – it is the canon of truth, where Scripture is the body of truth. “

8 thoughts on “The Right Reading of Scripture

  1. Isaac,
    Nema problema.

    I apologize if I came off as caustic!

    I am still not following what you mean by the “SVS approach”?

    I threw in all those names because they are all different approaches. I do not follow your idea of a monolithic SVS approach. Speaking of Florovsky, who read, absorbed, and appreciated a lot of nonOrthodox scholarship and even employed some, I dont believe he is any where near a Tarazi.

    Also, Behr is not following the Ehrman line (which is incidentaly Bauer’s line who Ehrman follows) by becoming agnostic about the claims of the apostolic church. The claim remains, as I said in the earlier post: There was the faith once delivered, but it has always been contested! This does make sense of the NT presence of heresy as also the continual battle of interpretation. How is this controversial?

  2. While reading today the intense comments to your blog post about the Right Reading of Scripture, the irony of your affiliation with Google Ads hit me: Appearing right after your post was the following:

    Ads by Google
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    Further irony: I happen to know and respect an elderly Serb who is a Protestant pastor (& PhD) affiliated with that church.

  3. Fr Milovan, I need say no more than that it was exactly how I felt… “what attracted me to it was his explanation of the criterion for the true Church which is not in the mere possessing of the book but its correct reading.”

    I really was quite impressed by the entire passage that you excerpted, so much so that I also posted it on my blog:

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

  4. My apologies, Maximus, for my arrogance and impatience– no satire here. Did not mean to offend if I did, my friend. I think I could have expressed myself more diplomatically and regret not having done so.

    I just worry sometimes about the “tone” of writing from our modern ecclesiastical writers, and wonder what they’re trying to accomplish thereby. I am glad you highlighted what you did of Fr. John’s composition. I’ve got no beef with scholarship in this area, but I am concerned when writers follow the paradigms of people like Bart Ehrman and his ideas of the “proto-orthodox.”

    Fr. John Behr very graciously dialogued with me over emails awhile back. It was a good dialogue but it left me with the feeling that he was firmly allied with SVS overall approach. The one characterized by Frs. Thomas Hopko, Alexander Schmemann, and Paul Tarazi. Not so much Fr. Georges Florovsky, who, if I am not mistaken, was fired from his position as Dean of St. Vladimir’s in 1955 and who disavowed the excesses of the ecumenistic branch theory.

  5. I suppose everyone can read the quote their own way. Personally, what attracted me to it was his explanation of the criterion for the true Church which is not in the mere possessing of the book but its correct reading. I am always amazed by people who read something, an explanation of a certain text from Scripture, from an Orthodox point of view and they are blown away. This is that correct reading which the Church has in the writings of the holy fathers.

  6. Isaac,

    I dont believe Fr Behr is in any way suggesting a survival of the fittest. He is simply saying that we cannot say there was a pristine “Orthodoxy” that dropped from the sky without the human element of reception involved. As with any human, or group of humans, (even the Apostles in the Gospel accounts), the full ramifications of the Incarnation, Death, Resurrection of Christ as the key to the Old Testament took a while to fully sink in and this process means a lot of debates (even amongst those we consider Saints (i.e. St. John Chrysostom and St. Cyril:

    I do believe you are right about Fr Behr’s audience. They are those who are interested in the debates Patristic scholars must have with the rise of Late Antique Roman scholarship and its challenges to the simplified stories sometimes told about the exegetical debates of the first few centuries. (I do believe what I understand of Schmemanns narrative is lacking, especially considering his specific concerns/anxieties).

    My question to you Isaac is where does he say that the empire won? Especially considering these statements: “Nevertheless, the Gospel was delivered, once for all. ” “…nevertheless there was a conviction that there is one right faith”.

    Also, how is Fr. Behr an “SVS” disciple? What would that even entail? Considering the many folks associated with that institution (Schmemman, Florovsky, Meyendorff, Tarazi, etc).

    You may enjoy less scholarly forms of writing and communication, but to denigrate those who are attempting to articulate the basic truths of Orthodoxy to those who do not share the same assumptions is to me slightly arrogant and definitely impatient.


  7. Maybe this stuff is alright for the academy, but the “increasingly difficult to maintain” language is interesting… who has ever said– including St. Luke in Acts– that the early Church was full of perfect people? The paradigm, however, of an “emerging orthodoxy”, as though our Faith which has established the Universe was simply the fortunate winner of a survival of the fittest, darwinistic competition of interpretations smacks, to me, of Schmemannistic modernism.

    Is Orthodoxy the faith “once and for all delivered to the saints” or is it simply the one that won out with the Empire and the people?

    I guess what I’m saying is, it kinda grates on me, the more I read him, about Fr. John’s “tone” when describing Orthodoxy. Maybe I’m just an ignorant serf, or maybe I’m just misunderstanding the audience. I just don’t get it. Give me people like Met. Antony (Khrapovitsky) or Fr. Michael Pomazansky over the SVS disciples any day of the week.

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