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Revival in Scripture

Fr. John Breck

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There is a persistent notion among ourselves as well as among others that we Orthodox don't read the Bible, at least not outside of liturgical services. However accurate this may have been in past generations, it is gratifying to note that it is less and less the case today. Increasingly our parishes -- perhaps especially but certainly not exclusively small mission communities -- hold regular Bible studies, while priests and teachers emphasize ever more the importance of immersing ourselves in the richness, the beauty and the wisdom of the written Word of God.

Much of this revival of interest in Scripture is due to the efforts of a few dedicated people who have recently published compilations of patristic commentary on both the Old and New Testaments, or have produced commentaries of their own. Among many outstanding resources that we could mention, the following may be of particular interest to Orthodox lay people.

Scholars in Greece and Romania have for many years published technical introductions to both Testaments, and Russian biblicists are quickly catching up. In our own country, we should note the series of introductory and interpretive studies by Fr. Paul Tarazi, published by St. Vladimir's Seminary (SVS Press: 1-800-204-BOOK).

One of the best general introductions to scriptural themes remains George Cronk's The Message of the Bible (SVS 1982). As for individual books of the Bible, SVS just published a fine, deeply pastoral commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, by Archbishop Dmitri Royster. Accessible to those who have no formal biblical training, this work is also valuable for its deeply sacramental presentation of priesthood: the ministry of Christ as High Priest, but also the vocation of those called to exercise their own priestly ministry in Christ's name.

Some recent compilations of patristic commentary are especially useful in guiding any Orthodox study of Scripture. These can be used with profit to complement annotated Bibles such as The Orthodox Study Bible (NT & Psalms: Thomas Nelson, 1993). The most comprehensive is the excellent series, edited by Thomas Oden and currently being published by InterVarsity Press, titled Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. This collection will eventually include summaries of patristic insight into the entire Old and New Testaments. It is not cheap; but it deserves to be on the shelf of every parish library.

Another series, less formal and still more accessible, is the "Treasury of Blessings Series," published by Pericope Press, Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Cross, Belmont, CA, under the direction of Rev. Peter G. Salmas (office@goholycross.org). Much of the material presented here is derived from the numerous collections of patristic commentary made over the years by Johanna Manley (jmanley@best.com). Her tireless labors in this area have produced the well-known Bible and the Holy Fathers, The Psalter and the Holy Fathers, and Isaiah Through the Ages. Perhaps less familiar are her publications on the books of Job and Genesis: Wisdom. Let us Attend: Job, the Fathers and the Old Testament; and The Lament of Eve (all available through SVS Press). The particular value of the "Treasury of Blessings Series," largely drawn from these other works and amplified by some modern commentary, is its format. The commentaries themselves are accompanied by notes and questions, designed to aid the reader in personal or group study. These, too, make the richness of patristic thought readily accessible to those who feel led to "peruse the Scriptures" through the lens of Holy Tradition.

Reading over these popular patristic resources makes clear once again just why Orthodox Christians have always held the Church Fathers in such reverence. Whether their approach is "literalist" or allegorical, whether they stress typological relationships between the two Testaments or the spiritual value of a given biblical passage for the life of the reader, these holy elders hold and convey a vision of God that Christian people, including Orthodox, need urgently to recover today.

The Fathers beheld the presence, power and purpose of God in every event and every personal encounter, without exception. If they stressed so strongly the unity between the two Testaments, it was to proclaim and illustrate the truth that the entire history of Israel prepared for the coming of Christ. Yet they also perceived Christ, the eternal Son of God, to be already present in that history, guiding the people toward fulfillment of their divine vocation to "prepare the way of the Lord."

This christological emphasis, however, is grounded in the unshakeable conviction, common to the Fathers, that the Triune God is Lord of heaven and earth, that He alone creates and sustains all things (ta panta), just as He labors and longs for all things to participate ultimately in His own divine Life.

As the mysteries of black holes (which sing!) and human cells (which remember!) become better understood, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to imagine that the God who reveals Himself in Scripture can be both Creator and Redeemer -- both the cause and the sustaining force behind all reality (including hypothesized parallel universes), and the humble, Crucified One, who lays down His life out of love for every creature that bears His divine image. Yet if the Fathers had known what we know today about the immensity of the universe and the complexity of life, they would have had no difficulty reconciling the two: the image and reality of God as, on the one hand, infinite Power, and on the other, unbounded Love.

So the next time we put down the paper and take up the Bible, we would be both blessed and enriched if we read the Scriptures with the "mind" of the Holy Fathers. Thereby we would allow their wisdom and their perspective to illumine our own minds and hearts, "that we may enter upon a spiritual manner of living, both thinking and doing such things as are well pleasing unto" God.

The Very Rev. John Breck was Professor of New Testament and Ethics at St. Vladimir's Seminary from 1984-1996. He is presently Professor of Biblical Interpretation and Ethics at St. Sergius Theological Institute, Paris, France and with his wife Lynn he directs the St. Silouan Retreat near Charleston, SC.

Read the entire article on the Orthodox Church in America website. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Posted: 11/16/04



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