Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

The Many and the One: The Interface Between Orthodox and Evangelical Protestant Hermeneutics

Grant R.Osborne

  • Print this page
  • Email this page
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Bookmark and Share

In any ecumenical dialogue, a discussion of perspectives toward the Bible as the Word of God is a primary issue. It is the contention of thiw paper that within Protestantism, the evangelical heritage provides the closest parallel to the Orthodox position on Scripture and hermeneutics. Both have a high view of Scripture and inspiration as well as a conservative approach to critical issues. The purpose of this study is to note agreements and differences in the respective hermeneutical approaches of these two Christian traditions and thus to enhance future dialogue. I have chosen key hermeneutical categories and under each will attempt both to describe each tradition's approach and to distinguish the differences and similarities between them. Thus each category chosen below attempts to develop this interface further.

Evangelicalism is a branch of Protestantism that has its roots in the fundamentalist movement bur went in a different direction in the 1940s and 1950s, Marsden notes four stages in the movement from the mid-1800s to the present: 1) From the 1870s to the end of World War I fundamentalism / evangelicalism was both popular and mainstream in American religion, although there were increasing points of tension centering on the mainline denominations and seminaries like Harvard and Yale, all of which were moving in a liberal direction. 2) From 1919 to 1926 the modernists increasingly won every battle, concluding with the Scopes "monkey trial" that effectively humiliated the fundamentalist position. 3) From 1926 to the early 1940s fundamentalism withdrew from mainstream American religious life and regrouped. It became increasingly sectarian, as seen in the doctrine of separatism that became a focal point of large segments of the movement. 4) From the 1940s to the present, a self-conscious "new evangelicalism" emerged and formed a distinct movement along several lines: a desire to dialogue with non-evangelicals, a rejection of radical separatism, a theological openness on non-essential matters (e.g., eschatological views), cooperative evangelism (e.g., Billy Graham crusades), a refusal to align political conservatism with orthodoxy, and a growing social concern. [2] Of course, this is a widely diverse movement, but one can say that there are certain common characteristics: a high view of Scripture as the inerrant/infallible Word of God, the centrality of the "gospel" (euaggelion) of Jesus Christ (including substitutionary atonement and the necessity of a personal faith-decision), and a Trinitarian theology.

The Corporate and the Personal

Orthodox hermeneutics is centered in ecclesiology (the "many") and pneumatology, while post-Reformation Protestantism is centered in the individual (the "one") as the focus of God's redemptive activity. Meyendorff says that the greatest challenge to Orthodox scholars "is to preserve the 'ecclesial' character of their theology," which he defines as "the existence of a 'catholic' church, which receives the fullness of divine revelation for the sake of the salvation of all people."(3) All biblical interpretation is consciously done as part of the past (the Apostles and Fathers(4) of the Church) and present (liturgical celebration) Church. The Bible has its origin as the Book of God's people, and it is meant today to be read as such. Further, it is the Church that superintends its meaning and protects the Bible from heretical misunderstandings.

Scripture as such is primarily to be celebrated in corporate worship. Florovsky speaks of the principle ut legem credendi statuat lex orandi ("So that the rule of worship should establish the rule of faith").(5) It is liturgical celebration that bears witness to the power of the Word of God. Breck adds, (6)

In authentic Orthodox experience, the Word comes to its fullest expression within a sacramental context. Whether proclaimed through Scripture reading and preaching, or sung in the form of antiphons (psalms) and dogmatic hymns (festal troparia, the Monogenes and Credo), the Word of God is primarily communicated expressed and received- by the ecclesial act of celebration and, in particular, celebration of the eucharistic mystery.

The Word of God is sacramentally communicated in corporate worship, and this has primacy over individual acts of reading. Through confession and absolution followed by Eucharistic communion, the participant experiences the Word actualized via the nourishing worship of the ecclesial community.

Prokurat says that "Scripture is, and ever has been, liturgical," and that both the Word and its interpretation are experienced "primarily as a liturgical celebration."(7) He sees the very origins of both Testaments in the liturgical life of Israel and the early Church. This is anchored in the oral dimension of sacred Scripture in the fact that from the beginning both Israel and the Church read the Word orally in the sacred service more than experienced it as a written word in books or scrolls. "For the Orthodox Christian all of these elements --the salvific events, the experience of the community of the People of God, and the liturgical expression of this experience (the 'holy words') in proclamation and teaching- are constitutive to the interpretation of Scripture."(8) In Orthodox understanding, there is a certain sacramental force in the reading and preaching of the Word in the sacred service, and private reading must grow out of and reflect this primary purpose.

In this sense, all true interpretation must come from within the Church, which is "the only authentic depository of Apostolic kerygma."(9) Since the Church forms the sacred deposit of truth, and since the Word is proclaimed and preserved in the Church as guided by the Holy Spirit, one cannot look outside the Church for true understanding.(10) For the Orthodox, heresy begins with going outside the "intension" of Scripture in the Church. From Irenaeus and Origen to Chalcedon, the Fathers insisted on a "catholic interpretation of Scripture, as it is offered in the Church."

Breck believes this is the chief distinction between Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant. Catholics center on the magisterium, and Protestants upon the Word as individually ascertained, while the Orthodox unite Word and liturgy under the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Protestant pneumatology in this sense is "charismatic," insisting "upon the spiritual illumination of the individual in his personal reading of the Bible."(12) The loss of the corporate or ecclesial dimension is seen as a devastating loss, for Protestant dogma is situated entirely in the written record of Scripture, without benefit of the interpretive context of the Church. In other words, preaching in Protestantism replaces rather than supplements liturgy and sacraments, The result is the loss of an effective "hermeneutical bridge" from past meaning (authorial intention) to present life. For the Orthodox that bridge is the Holy Spirit working through the Church.(13)

Evangelicals do indeed center on individual interpretation more than ecclesial celebration. For instance, in the recent Introduction to Biblical Interpretation by Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, the "Role of the Interpreter" is entirely discussed in terms of the individual, as in "interpreters are people in the midst of their personal circumstances and situations," or "no one comes to the task of understanding as an objective observer."(14) Yet it is too simplistic to conclude from this that the corporate element is entirely missing, for the church still plays a critical role, as in the further quote. "Proper interpretation requires the interpreter's personal freedom, yet some degree of external, corporate authority appears imperative."(15) While individual decisions provide the guiding force, most evangelical preaching and teaching occurs within a context of denominational/ecclesial controls. Few evangelical interpreters would ignore the understandings of past giants of the faith in formulating either exegetical or dogmatic conclusions.

It is in the worship service that the differences can primarily be seen. Orthodox worship centers upon liturgy, sacrament, and preaching that consciously follows the legacy of the Church Fathers. Evangelical worship, especially in the low church format that prevails in most churches, is highly individualistic, and a corporate worship atmosphere is all too often difficult to develop or maintain. Freedom all too often replaces the majesty and beauty of true worship. Yet this problem is continually addressed in the literature, and there are several movements within evangelicalism that seek to learn from Orthodox patterns.

The Holy Spirit and Revelation

Within the context of its ecclesiology, Orthodox interpretation of Scripture especially emphasizes pneumatology. As Meyendorff says "the mystery of the Holy Spirit, present in the church, is the fundamental reality of Christian experience... authority, reason, and formal hierarchical and conciliar criteria are meant to protect it, not replace it."(16) While the Word witnesses to the saving acts of God, and the Church as the sacred community actualizes them, it is the Holy Spirit that makes it all possible and becomes the hermeneutical force among God's people. Every element in the mediation of biblical understanding --Scripture, tradition, sacrament, liturgy, Eucharist- stems from the work of the Spirit. The source of all authority in Scripture and Church is the Holy Spirit.

Evangelical interpretation is not as consciously centered upon the Holy Spirit, but nevertheless the Holy Spirit is seen as the basis of both the original writing and the current understanding of Scripture. Calvin spoke of "the internal witness of the Spirit" operative not only in salvation but also in appropriating God's Word. Frame calls this "an intimate participation in God's own self-knowledge," with the Word providing the objective authority and the witness of the Spirit providing the subjective authority in the revelatory power of Scripture.(17) It is indeed the Holy Spirit that superintends the entire process from inscripturation to appropriation, and at every stage it is the Spirit that gives life and meaning to the mediation of the Word in the community.

It is in the areas of revelation and illumination that some differences between Orthodoxy and evangelicalism can be seen. For the Orthodox, divine revelation can be ascertained at three levels. The primary level is the inspiration of the sacred authors of scripture, through whom God acted not only to reveal hiw words but also his saving deeds. The second level is the Church with its locus in the Fathers, the creeds, and the Councils as the inspired interpreters of revelation. The third level is the present Church as the inspired witness to and preserver of the divine truth. "The Church itself is a part of revelation --the story of 'the Whole Christ' (totus Christus: caput et corpus, in the phrase of St Augustine) and of the Holy Ghost." (18) Yet it is important to realize that these levels are not really equal, for Scripture is the final source of faith, and the Tradition of the Church is inspired only as the interpreter of the Holy Tradition found in the Bible. (19) Emmanuel Clapsis has said,

The Church teaches "authoritatively" when she interprets and proclaims authentically the Gospel. Ideally, authoritative teaching will be also authentic teaching. Sometimes there is a tension between authority and authenticity. Teaching proclaimed "authoritatively" by the Church can turn out to be untrue (sometimes even after having been enthusiastically received).(20)

Evangelicals agree that Scripture and Church must be differentiated as the agents of God's inspired message but would restrict revelation and inspiration to the former and use illumination for the work of the Spirit in enabling the Church to understand and apply the Word.(21) The Holy S[pirit has inspired the sacred authors of Scripture but illumines believers as they appropriate it today. Larkin points to 1 Corinthians 2, where Paul switches from inspiration to illumination. In vv. 6-13 Paul uses the first person plural to describe the Spirit imparting the wisdom of God to "us" in proclaiming the divine message, then in verses 14-16 he switches to the third person to describe the Spirit guiding the believer in evaluating the divine truths. "This work of the Spirit illumines, but he illumines the believer's mind and heart to believe, love and guard an already existent inspired Word."(22) The result is that evangelicals see a much greater gulf in the authority levels of Scripture and tradition, as will be developed below.

Scripture and Tradition

Basil the Great stated that Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition are "equal in value, strength, and validity," having the "same power where piety is concerned."(23)Thus Papadopoulos concludes, "Our Church seeks to emphasize that the light of the Holy Tradition is equally indispensable along with the Holy Scriptures for the complete and true comprehension of the Christian truths."(24) As we have already seen, the Orthodox believe that Scripture can only be understood within the context of the Church of the Church, for the Church carries on the Apostolic Kerygma and gives it expression. The heart of the Church is Tradition. Florovsky points out that this was the view of Origen, Irenaeus, and Tertullian: "The appeal to Tradition was actually an appeal to the mind of the Church, her phronema... And the witnesses from the past could appropriately demonstrate the permanence of the Holy Church's faith.(25) Tradition in this sense is the expression of the mind of the Church and forms her very lifeblood. Moreover, the Fathers of the Church have a special place, for it was they who both transmitted and preserved the Apostolic truths, thus providing a core of authoritative teaching in the Church.

Current liturgical celebration is based on the formative work of the Church Fathers, the councils, and the creeds.(26)In fact, many have recently called for a return to patristic studies as part of the resurgence of Orthodoxy theology.(27) Breck describes Scripture and Tradition in terms of the Spirit's activity. Scripture has "revelatory inspiration," as the sacred writers communicated God's revelation to the Church. Tradition has "anamnetic inspiration," the "living memory" by which revelation is authoritatively interpreted and made accessible witness to the "incarnate person of the Word of God."(28)

Papadopoulos describes three phases in the Tradition of the Church: Apostolic Tradition, expressed in the New Testament; Holy Tradition generally, as the Fathers of the Church and the Church as a living organism develop the theological tradition and express it in her ongoing religious life; and the dogmatic Tradition via the Ecumenical Synods, that make authoritative declarations and give a seal of legitimacy to the theological tradition. In the ecumenical councils the Bishops become "the hermeneutical criterion of the consciousness of the Church" and make dogmatic decisions on difficult issues. In all of this, "the Church in the totality of her members, working and reflecting under the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, acts infallibly, and remains the guarantee of the authenticity of the Holy Tradition.(29) The emphasis here is on the whole Church acting as the preserver of truth. Florovsky points out that councils are capable of error: "A large 'general' council may prove itself to be a 'council of robbers' (latrocinium). Or even of apostates.... The opinions of the Fathers are accepted, not as formal subjection to outward authority, but because of the inner evidence of their catholic truth."(30) It is the Church universal that oversees the dogmatic conclusions of the Fathers and of the councils, and it is in "ecumenical consensus" that infallibility resides.

While the Bible and Tradition are both infallible, they are not equal in authority. The Bible provides the content that tradition interprets. Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of the Church, and the apostles are the successors that build on that stone (Heb. 3:10-11). Holy Tradition has validity depending on its relationship to the received teaching transmitted by the Apostles in Holy Writ.

The New Testament is the primary object of the Holy Tradition of the Church and for this reason it cannot be considered a part of it. The Apostolic teaching is not tradition, but the sacred source of Tradition. Holy Tradition possesses and interprets Apostolic teaching.(31)

The stages from revelation to Christian life are Bible, Tradition, Church, with the Church preserving and applying the teachings of Bible and Tradition to the life of the people of God past, present, and future. Yet the Bible oversees all truth and forms a control for both Tradition and Church.

The central place of Scripture in Orthodox theology can be exemplified by the increasing number of Orthodox scholars in every discipline (32) who call for a greater openness to higher criticism. Yet as is the case with evangelical scholarship, (33) this is a cautious call, mandating an optimistic rather than pessimistic attitude toward the historical data. Ford notes several kinds of "false presuppositions" that are unacceptable: that interpreters can be completely objective; an evolutionary view of history that assumes modern interpreters can unlock Jesus' teaching in ways his own disciples could not; a view of radical discontinuity between Jesus and the early Church, between Judaic and Hellenistic sources, and between the prophetic and the legal/cultic.(34) The call is for an informed, positive use of the grammatical-historical and historical-critical methods in developing biblical and dogmatic conclusions.

The primary difference between the Orthodox and Protestant lies in the exact place and understanding of Tradition in the life of the Church. The Orthodox criticize the emphasis on sola scriptura in post-Reformation Protestantism as an over-reaction to the Catholic magisterium. The argument is that without Tradition the true historical message or Scripture cannot be appreciated, for the hermeneutical criterion becomes the Church of the present without the guidance and wisdom of the Church of the past. Scripture can become merely a series of Iiteralistic prepositional statements cut off from Church life.(35)

There is a great deal of truth in this criticism, but it is important to realize that "tradition" plays a complex but definite role in evangelical theology. It is true that many have completely rejected tradition in reaction to the Catholic magisterium. However, it is mere pretence to think that one can "reject" tradition. Since "tradition" means a set of established beliefs inherited from the past leaders of a movement, every denomination and Christian leader inherits a traditional belief system that is in many ways binding. Those who reject any notion of "tradition" are all the more controlled by these inherited views because they are not interacting with these dogmas consciously but are presupposing them unconsciously. Brown states that,

it is neither scientific nor possible to ignore tradition and to attempt to understand theology anew every year or every day.... If the church erred by smothering Scripture in tradition, much contemporary scholarship, especially evangelical scholarship, errs by dissecting the Scripture out of the body of believers and the body of belief, by cutting it out of and away from its place In the life -i.e., the tradition- of the company of believers.(36)

In recent years a growing number have been calling evangelicals to return to their patristic roots. One of the most vocal has been Robert Webber, who calls for a "biblical and historic faith" and states that an overemphasis on personal piety to the neglect of church and sacrament has led evangelicals to forego its past roots in favour of an inward and individualistic religion.(37) The solution is to return to the historic faith in terms of both worship and tradition, and this means to the "rule of faith" (redefined as the creedal tradition ) of Iranaeus and Tertullian. Webber calls for a new reformation: 1) The historic belief and practice of the church must be separated from human systems of theology. 2) Apostolic tradition, not the doctrine of verbal inerrancy, is the actual authoritative basis for Christian truth. 3) The "authoritative substance of Christian truth" stems from Scripture and is found in the early creeds; "it is the key to the interpretation of Scripture." 4) The living church, not individualistic approaches, is the true receiver and preserver of truth; thus "what the church has always believed, taught, and passed down in history" should have primacy. 5) The task of the present church is to formulate the faith so as to remain "faithful to the original deposit."(38) This movement has been quite controversial in evangelical circles but nevertheless remains influential.

A great deal has been written lately on the place of historical theology in theological formulation. I have argued elsewhere for a twofold purpose of historical theology: to show how individual doctrines have developed throughout church history, and to trace the origins and development of one's own confessional tradition.(39) Muller adds two others: awareness of how one's own presuppositions cohere with the assumptions of past ages, and the ability to observe doctrine in its original formative context as a control on present understanding.40 Evangelical scholars have long been aware of the critical role tradition plays in all biblical and theological decisions.

The primary difference is not in the role of tradition but in the binding power of tradition in interpreting Scripture. In tracing the relation of tradition to theology, a continuum may be drawn from Catholicism, in which tradition is a critical, at times binding, interpreter of Scripture in theological decisions; and evangelicalism, in which tradition provides models for theological decisions but is not binding in the final analysis. The extent to which traditional formulations are binding in evangelical groups is difficult to ascertain and differs from group to group. It is true, for instance, that in many Reformed circles Calvin and Augustine are indeed binding, and the same is true for Wesley or Arminius in many Arminian denominations. In other words, in most evangelical groups, as in Orthodoxy, the views of the founding fathers are at times treated as virtually infallible. Yet at the theoretical level, evangelicals try to be aware of the fallibility of all interpreters, past as well as present.

On the whole, evangelicalism gives no more preference to ancient scholars than to present commentators; from Chrysostom to Augustine to Aquinas to Calvin to the scholars of the current age, all are theoretically given equal weight as interpreters to the Biblical data. As Erickson says, tradition does not have legislative authority, establishing a final statement of theological truth, but judicial authority, depending on the extent to which the tradition faithfully utilizes and elucidates the biblical teaching.(41)

Exegesis and Liturgy

As stated above, exegesis in Orthodoxy is grounded in liturgy. The Bible is not so much interpreted (in a purely cognitive sense) as celebrated in liturgy and sacrament. "Orthodox Christians experience Scripture and its interpretation primarily as a liturgical celebration, other than in their private reading and study," based upon "the self-understanding of the Orthodox as being the People of God par excellence when participating in divine service."(42) As one notes from this quote, private reading is encouraged and practiced in Orthodoxy, but the heart of biblical understanding comes via liturgical worship.

Breck speaks of two dimensions to the Orthodox view of liturgy: the horizontal / historical or paschal dimension and the vertical / transcendent or Pentecostal dimension. The paschal (which he calls anamnetic) occurs as the Church actualises and participates in God's redemptive activity past (celebrating the salvific events of the Bible), present (reliving those events in worship) and future (eschatological anticipation of the saving events yet to come) via liturgical worship. "Again and again the Church recalls and relives the past, in order to take part now in the eschatological grace of the future grace of the future" (italics his).(43) The Pentecostal (which he calls epikletic) occurs as the Holy Spirit draws the worshipper into experiencing this redemptive power in liturgical and eucharistic celebration. "We may even affirm that the essence of the Church is 'liturgy,' the 'work of the people' (leitourgia) who act in concert (synergia) with the Holy Trinity to effect the redemption of all things" (italics his).(44)

As stated in the previous section, there is call within Orthodox scholarship for a nuanced use of critical tools. However, that is in response to a deep-seated suspicion in many Orthodox circles regarding "critical" research. Many reason that since God's Word is inscripturated in a past liturgical context, it needs to be experienced in present liturgical celebration rather than in critical study. Orthodox scholars respond that the two are not disjunctive. Florovsky points out that in the patristic church, there was great concern for right exegesis, but this was primarily in counteracting the heretics. (45) In this sense Tradition is the apologetic side of exegesis, and liturgy the worship side of exegesis. "The New Testament itself came into existence, as a 'Scripture,' in the Worshipping Church. As Scripture was read first in the context of worship and meditation."(46)

In this light the sermon in Orthodox worship is doxological and sacramental. Wainwright notes the three points of John Chrysostom: 1) God does not need us, but we need him, and the sermon as thanksgiving brings us into presence (Homily 25[26].3 on Mathew) ; 3) through the Spirit-inspired sermon, the Holy Spirit" equips and arms the congregation" (On I Saw the Lord, Homily 4.1).(47) In this sense the sermon participates and is anchored in the liturgy. In fact, it is an extension of the liturgy and has a liturgical purpose, to lead the congregants into the sacramental experience of the Word in worship.

The purpose of all, however, is the experience of worship exemplified in the life of the believer. Ford calls for the type of biblical research that "alone enables an authentic understanding of the primary kind of knowledge which Scripture intends to communicate (i.e., spiritual knowledge, a direct knowledge of the Risen Christ through the Holy Spirit)" (italics hers).(48) She argues that the current crisis in biblical studies "is largely the result of taking Scripture out of the context in which it was intended to be interpreted: the living Tradition of the Church, which includes the liturgical context, the context of the believing community, and especially the context of living spiritual experience."(49) There is great emphasis on the latter category, for the Word of God is meant to be lived as well as believed, and the daily life of communion with God, a direct knowledge of and relationship with him, is the primary goal of all biblical and theological reflection.

In the evangelical church the order of liturgy and exegesis is reversed from that in Orthodoxy. The Bible is first of all understood, and then it is celebrated in worship. Worship is the outgrowth or result of Bible study, and interpretation is first personal and then corporate. Yet there is a resurgence of interest in liturgy even within the "free" or low church Allen and Borror note several advantages and disadvantages in liturgy: It is advantageous because it pays close attention to the special events of Christianity (e.g.,) Advent, Passion and Easter events, Ascension, Pentecost), provides specific goals for each service, systematically reads the Scriptures from both Testaments, provides participation for the congregants affirms basic dogma the creeds, and utilizes music to enhance truth fellowship, and worship. Yet there can be problems in that the yearly plan can fail to address current needs, he expositional-preaching ministry can be watered down, the prescribed Scripture reading might not be appropriate to the needs of the particular service, the. liturgical participation can become little more than rote memory or empty repetition without true worship, and the music can be too formal and not from the heart. Still, they conclude that overall high worship has distinct value for free Churches, in that they have replaced planning with too great a freedom in worship and too little true participation from the people.(50)

Overall, most evangelicals feel that there is a great deal to learn from the liturgical churches. The trend today is to seek a middle ground and to utilize liturgy without being controlled by it, that is, to stress the creeds and liturgical prayers more, but to maintain freedom and a needs-oriented, expository style in worship. In other words, many pastors vary high and low worship styles depending upon the theme and worship emphasis in a given service. There is a great deal of optimism that worship patterns for the next century will be able to blend the strengths of both high and low worship and thereby to minimize the weaknesses of each.

At the same time, a growing number of evangelicals realize the danger of a low priority on liturgy in the life and worship of the Christian. It is indeed true that for the early Church Christian worship preceded the process of inscriptureting the sacred credal truths. The worshipping church to some extent did provide the context within which the New Testament was written. In this sense there should be a dynamic relationship between scripture and liturgy. The danger from the standpoint of evangelical concern is to give liturgy the same status as scripture. The danger from the standpoint of Orthodox concerns is to reduce worship to the level of individual or even congregational needs and interests. Liturgy for St Basil the Great provided an apologetic and hermeneutical grid against the Arian heresy, and for nearly 2,000 years liturgy has summed up the entire history, doctrine, worship,. and spirituality of Christian experience. The primary objection to evangelical approaches is the casual selective approach normally taken to liturgy, i.e., choosing this or that portion merely to satisfy some existential need.(51) What is needed is a balance between liturgy and scripture, with the word of God the final arbiter of truth and liturgy a critical control for theological development from Word to life and worship. In short, evangelical and Orthodox have a great deal to learn from one another.

History and Theoria

Prokurat points out that the liturgical celebration in Orthodoxy "gives revelatory and historical, salvific events by God a mysteriological or 'poetic-mythic' expression.(52) This is because in the Orthodox service liturgy becomes a mystical participation in the saving events, themselves. This does not mean that the participants recreate or rewrite those biblical occurrences but rather that they participate in a salvation-historical sense. Prokurat calls this a "trans-historical" celebration that does not obviate the importance of the actual historical event but places as great an emphasis on the present worship of God in the event as on the event itself.(53)

The hermeneutical key for uniting the historical and transhistorical aspects of Scripture, according to Orthodox theologians John Breck and Bradley Nassif, is the Antiochene principle of theoria. The School of Antioch in the fourth century (Diodore of Tarsus Theodore of Mopsuestia John Chrysostom et al.) stood against the allegorical method of the School of Alexandria by stressing the literal and spiritual (or theoria) sense of the text. The literal sense did the sacred author intend the meaning, and the spiritual sense was the significance of the event for later interpreters (either NT interpreters of the OT or current interpreters). Breck links the hermeneutic with typology, that is, the view that the events behind the OT text are linked in a "promise-fulfilment" sense with later NT events, e.g., the Christ event, the early Church, or the final Advent of the Kingdom yet to come. It is the event behind the text that is the object of theoria, and the prior biblical event (the type) finds realization or fulfilment in the later event (the antitype). He also links this with sensus plenior, which discerns a "double" or "deeper meaning" behind the literal meaning of the author. This spiritual or deeper meaning is perceived by the later interpreter.(54)

Although Breck and Nassif have proposed theoria as hermeneutical link for both ancient and modern interpreters, they differ on its exact meaning. For Breck it is the "intuitive perception" by the sacred author and by the later interpreter that defines theoria. In this sense the literal and spiritual senses are linked; in fact, the latter is based upon the former, for it is God who is behind both. As stated above, this is the sense in which inspiration for the Orthodox scholar extends to the, modern interpreter. "From the point of view of theoria, exegesis does indeed investigate the facts of history.... But it does so with the express aim of uncovering and laying bare the meaning of those events for the spiritual life of the believing community.(55) In fact, Breck would argue that this current appropriation of meaning in the worshipping community is primary, while the intended meaning is secondary. Nassif, however, allows room for reversing the order in keeping with the diversity of the Antiochene Fathers. According to Breck_ the Holy Spirit is behind the original meaning of the OT text, its later typological meaning in the NT, and its further celebration in the Church today. Thus theoria represents two constitutive moments in the history of.salvation, a history in which we find ourselves directly and personally involved.... TO Orthodox Christianity.... this experience becomes actual within the liturgical life of the Church" (italics his).(56)

Breck and Nassif argue that theoria brings together meaning and significance, the literal and the contemplative aspects of interpretation. The literal and the spiritual dimensions of interpretation both stem from the activity of the Spirit and have as their goal the life of the people of God. Through spiritual contemplation the present Church enters into the original event of the biblical text and relives it. While Breck and Nassif concur that the literal and spiritual senses are linked in theoria,.Nassif differs in identifying not a single model but at least three distinguishable ways in which the Antiochene Fathers utilized theoria: at times it was "a literal method of messianic exegesis," at times "a typological or mystical type of textual meaning," and at times "a spiritual illumination in the mind of the biblical author, prophet, or later exegete" In fact, "in many cases the spiritual sense was the historical sense, but sometimes it was not."(57)

Building upon John Chrysostom, Nassif notes some Of the lasting values of theoria that are relevant today:

A conviction that history is the vehicle of divine revelation, belief in the theological unity between the OT and NT and their total (truthfulness in all that they record, fidelity to the literal meaning of the biblical text (including literary style and figures of speech, reverence for the Bible's divine plenary inspiration, a vital attempt to make the Word of God relevant to contemporary life, and a Spirit-filed heart that enables one to understand both the letter and Spirit of the Holy Scriptures.(58)

As in the other categories studied above, the differences between Orthodox and evangelical hermeneutics are not so much in the essence as in the emphasis of the approach. Evangelicals would agree that both intended meaning and current appropriation is essential to true interpretation. If they follow Breck's line of reasoning, however, they would not receive equal weight. But if they follow Nassif and the Antiochene School of biblical exegesis, then there are grounds for a common conviction about the primacy of authorial intent in biblical exegesis. The divinely inspired (again, evangelicals would restrict the term to the sacred authors) message of the sacred text is the basis for all current application and worship. Theoria is a valid tool, but there are levels of authority, with the intended meaning

having the greatest authority, while both tradition and current interpretation are authoritative only (to the extent to which they are coherent with the original meaning of Scripture.

Moreover, evangelicals see a distinction between literal meaning, typology and sensus plenior. The literal meaning of an OT passage would be the sense it had for the original author Sensus plenior would see a double meaning in the passage, one the literal meaning and the other a "deeper" or divinely understood meaning that the author did not realize. Typology sees an analogous relationship between the original text/event (the type) and the later New Testament text/event (the antitype). With this approach there is no need to posit more than one meaning. for the relationship is recognized by the NT writer, not the OT.(59) There are evangelical scholars behind each of these positions regarding the NT use of the OT, and the issue occasions great debate. Yet for all three positions the controlling factor is the literal, intended meaning of both the OT and the NT texts. Furthermore, not all evangelicals would extend theoria or typology to current interpretation unless the former is used synonymously with "illumination" or the method of messianic exegesis some call "double fulfilment prophecy" (see fn. 53 above). These concepts would be restricted to the NT use of the OT. In such cases Orthodox and evangelical hermeneutics intersect since the differences are often terminological, and current research into biblical meaning would be labelled hermeneutics or exegesis. In other words, with many Antiochene Fathers evangelicals separate modern interpretation from what occurred within the inscripturation process.

The ultimate question that is implicit in this whole discussion, but thus far has not been asked, is, "Which of the many diverse exegetical traditions in the Orthodox Church are to be compared with evangelical hermeneutics?" Would it be Antiochene theoria with its three different possible usages, or Alexandrian allegory with its emphasis on multiple meanings in a single text, or both schools of exegesis including all the diversity of the various writers? The historically informed

answer is not likely to come from simply appealing to theoria as if it were the only representative hermeneutical principle of the Orthodox tradition. The history of exegesis in Byzantium will not permit this, since it is clear that there is no uniform pattern of hermeneutics that can lay claim to universality in Orthodoxy.(60) Theoria is no doubt one of the chief hermeneutical principles with which evangelicals must deal. But by no means can it authentically claim to represent an entire tradition of exegesis in either the patristic or modern periods unless theoria is seen to be synonymous with the concept of "Illumination," with the intended meaning of the text as the control. In that case evangelicals and Orthodox can agree. What remains of critical importance, however, is the need for a greater understanding of how each tradition envisions illumination as part of the work of the Spirit through the Church. An analysis that compares how the two communities conceive of the relationship between intended meaning, theoria, pneumatology, and ecclesiology appears to be a key issue needed to advance us to the next stage of the Orthodox/evangelical dialogue.(61)


It is the thesis of this paper that Orthodox and evangelical hermeneutics have a great deal in common. In each category, the similarities outweigh, the differences. The high view of Scripture, the acceptance of the historical veracity of the biblical texts, the emphasis on the inspiration of the sacred authors and the divine origin of biblical revelation-all these demonstrate that Orthodoxy and evangelicalism possibly have more in common than any other two groups in Christendom. Brown speaks of an experience at Harvard in which the only ones who understood the concept "initiated into the mysteries of the faith" were the Orthodox scholar Fr Georges Florovsky and the evangelicals among the student body.(62) This would also be true in most of the categories discussed in this paper (especially between Orthodoxy and the high church segments of evangelicalism).

This is not to minimize the differences. Both sides have strengths that could be of value to the other. Both sides have much to learn from the other. The desire of this paper is to stimulate further ecumenical dialogue so that the Church of Christ might be enriched and strengthened. Truly the goal of all dialogue as well as all hermeneutics is that the Church might grow in the knowledge and the love of our Lord. This can best be accomplished when "iron sharpens iron" and those who worship and serve the Lord begin to challenge and learn from one another.


1. This paper is an outgrowth of a presentation to the Society for the Study of Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelism at Wheaton College, September 25, 1993. I would like to thank Keith Wells, a member of the Society and reference librarian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, for his invaluable help in researching this paper.

2. George M. Marsden, "From Fundamentalism to Evangelicalism: A Historical Analysis," in The Evangelicals: What they believe, Who They Are, Where They Are Changing, ed. David F. Wells and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975), 142-62 (esp. pp. 144-49). See also Grant R. Osborne, "Evangelical Interpretation of Scripture," in The Bible in the Churches: How Various Christians Interpret the Scriptures (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1994), 129-159.

3. John Meyendorff, "Light from the East? 'Doing Theology' in Today's World: Essays in Honor of Kenneth S. Kantzer, ed. John Woodbridge and Thomas E. McComiskey (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 339-58 (esp. 354-55).

4. On terms like Apostle/apostle, Fathers/fathers or Tradition/tradition, I will generally capitalize when presenting the Orthodox position, and use lower case when presenting the evangelical position. Interestingly, this is seen even in the terms for the respective movements, Orthodox and evangelical. On the whole there is no consistency in the literature and it is difficult to sustain such distinctions in any absolute sense. For instance, within the Orthodox Church "Tradition" refers to revelation or the patristic Tradition and "tradition" tends to be used for human customs or culture. However, this article will still utilize capitals and lower-case for the two, for Orthodox scholars frequently capitalize these terms, while evangelicals rarely do so.

5. Georges Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View (Belmont, MA: Nordland Publishing Company, 1972), 84

6. John Breck, The Power of the Word in the Worshiping Church Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1986), 17-18.

7. Michael Prokurat, "Orthodox Interpretation of Scripture," in The Bible in the Churches: How Various Christians Interpret the Scriptures (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1994), 59-99.

8. Prokurat, "Orthodox Interpretation," 63.

9. Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition, 89-90.

10. There is some debate within Orthodoxy as to the extent to which only the Orthodox Church contains "truth". In this sense Orthodox theology needs clarification. Many of those utilized in this paper (e.g. Breck and Florovsky) would say "no". On the whole, however, such a position is quite common.

11. Florovsky, 90-91.

12. Breck, The Power of the Word, 31

13. See Breck, The Power of the Word, 31-35.

14. William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L.Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1933), 7-8.

15. Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Biblical Interpretation, 3, quoting from Moises Silva, Has the Church Misread the Bible? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987),37-38.

16. Meyendorff, "Light from the East," 353

17. John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, I, 93-95; John M. Frame, "The Spirit and the Scriptures," in Hermeneutics, Authority, and the Canon, ed. D.A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 23-24.

18. Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition, 26 (cf.21-26).

19. See Gerasimos Papadopoulos, "The Revelatory Character of the New Testament and Holy Tradition in the Orthodox Church," The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 2/1 (1956), 41-55.

20.Emmanuel Clapsis, "Scripture, Tradition, and Authority: Conceptions of Orthodoxy," unpublished paper read to the Society for the Study of Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism at Wheaton College, September 25, 1993.

21. See Elliot E. Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 273-74, 284-85.

22. William J. Larkin, Culture and Biblical Hermeneutics: Interpreting and Applying the Authoritative Word in a Relativistic Age (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), 291 (cf. 287-92).

23. Concerning the Holy Spirit, 27,66, as quoted in Papadopoulos, "Holy Tradition." 41.

24. Papadopoulos, "Holy Tradition," 41 Tradition, creed, and sacrament all partake of this. Breck, The Power of the Word, 13, states, "From the perspective of Orthodox Christianity, the relationship between Word and Sacrament, proclamation and celebration, must be explained in such a way as to stress the fundamental unity between the two... to preserve and affirm what we may call the 'kerygmatic' character of the Sacrament and 'sacramental' character of the Word."

25. Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition, 98. It is important to realize that for the Orthodox, Tradition does not constitute a "magisterium" or "Rule of Faith" similar to Catholic dogma. Rather, it is part of the life and voice of the Church. As Meyendorff ("Light from the East," 348) says, "One of the consequences of the absence in the Orthodox Church of permanently infallible magisterium is that universally accepted formal definitions of faith are brief and rare." The purpose of dogmatic formulations is protection from heresy, and therefore concerns the "essentials" of the faith.

26. On the history, character, and sources of Orthodox liturgy, see Robert F.Taft, The Byzantine Rite (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992); Hans-Joachim Schulz, The Byzantine Liturgy, tr. Matthew J. O'Connell (New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1986).

27. See P. Chrestou, "Neohellenic Theology at the Crossroads," Greek Theological Review 28 (1983), 39-54.

28. Breck, The Power of the Word, 106-107. For a good brief discussion on the development of the creeds, see Geoffrey Wainwright, "The Sermon and the Liturgy," Greek Orthodox Theological Review 28 (1983), 337-49 (esp. 340-42).

29. Papadopoulos, "Holy Tradition," 44 (cf. 44-46).

30. Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition, 52-53 9 (cf. also 96-97). Prokurat discusses infallibility in terms of both the Fathers of the Church and the councils "in retrospect" produce infallible doctrine. See also Meyendorff, "Light from the East." 346-48, who notes the seven councils that fully express the tradition of the Orthodox Church: Nicea I (325), Constantinople I (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (680), and Nicea II (787). In addition, local councils have given expression to universal truths (1341, 1351, 1675, 1872). At every stage it was the consensus of the Church and not just the council that produced the authoritative dogma.

31. Papadopoulos, "Holy Tradition," 53-54 (cf. also 41,49). Clapsis, "Scripture, Tradition, and Authority," states that the "relation between Christ and Apostles makes the latter the norm and origin of all later proclamation and binding for the church's identity." However, it is debated whether or not Scripture is part of Tradition. Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 197 (cf. pp. 195-99), states, "But in reality there is only one source, since Scripture exists within Tradition. To separate and contrast the two in to impoverish the idea of both alike" (italics his). See also Nikos Nissiotis, "The Unity of Scripture and Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox Contribution to the Prolegomena of Hermeneutics," The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 11 (1966), 183-208.

32. In Old Testament studies, see Paul Tarazi, Introduction to the Old Testament, Vol. 1 (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1991); and George Barrois, "The Notion of Historicity and the Critical Study of the Old Testament," Greek Orthodox Theological Review 19 (1974), 7-22; in New Testament Studies, see Veselin Kesich, The Gospel Image of Christ Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1992); and Mary Ford, "Seeing But not Perceiving; Crisis and Context in Biblical Studies, "St Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 35 (1991), 107-25; and in theology see Petros Vassiliadis, "Greek Theology in the Making: Trends and Facts in the 80siVision for the 90s," St Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 35 (1991), 33-52.

33. For a recent example, see David Alan Black and David S. Dockery, New Testament Criticism and Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991).

34. Ford, "Biblical Studies." 110-113.

35. See Breck, The Power of the Word, 32-36; and Meyendorff "Light from the East," 346.

36. Harold O.J. Brown, "On Method and Means in Theology," in Doing Theology in Today's World: Essays in Honour of Keneth S. Kantzer (Grand Rapids: Zonderban, 1991), 147-69 (esp. 167-68).

37 Robert E. Webber, Common Roots: A call to Evangelical Maturity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 13-17

38. Webber, Common Roots, 248-49 (cf. pp. 117-30).

39. Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1991), 265.

40. Richard A. Muller, "The Role of Church History in the Study of Systematic Theology," in Doing Theology in Today's World: Essays in Honour of Kenneth S. Kantzer (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 77-97 (esp. 87-88).

41. Erickson, Christian Theology, 258. See also Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 146, who says "the Fathers in general appeal to an ongoing community-testimony to apostolic faith and practise which is both public and testable in the light of truth-criteria of coherence, continuity, and performative endorsement of the common faith." See also his discussion of the differences between Origen and Chrysostom on pp. 167-73. For a fascinating treatment of the non-legal, "charismatic" nature of the Ecumenical Councils, see Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition, 96-97, 103.

42. Prokurat, "Orthodox Interpretation of Scripture," 60-61.

43. Breck, The Power of the Word, 128 (cf. 125-30).

44. Breck, The Power of the Word, 131 (cf. 131-36).

45. Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition, 75-77.

46. Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition, 85.

47. Wainwright, "The sermon and the Liturgy," 337-49 (esp. 344-45). Wainwri8ght also stresses the eschatological import of the sermon (pp. 346-47), as the sermon is an urgent call to participate in "the eternal God's project and design for humanity as part of his own kingdom."

48. Ford, "Biblical Studies," 124

49. Ibid.

50. Ronald Allen and Gordon Borror, Worship: Rediscovering the Missing Jewel (Portland, Oregon: Multnomah Press, 1982), 65-66.

51. Conversation with Brad Nassif, January 20, 1994.

52. Prokurat, "Orthodox Interpretation of Scripture,"61.

53. Prokurat, "Orthodox Interpretation of Scripture," 61-62. It is critical to realize that this in no way denies the centrality of history. Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition, 24-25, adds, "Historic events are the course and the basis of all Christian faith and hope... Of course, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Ascension are historical facts not quite in the same sense... as the happenings of our own daily life. But they are no less historical for that, no less factual. On the contrary, they are more historical -- they are ultimately eventful. They cannot obviously be fully ascertained except by faith," (italics his)

54. Breck, The Power of the Word, 38-40, 75-77, 84-85. See Bradley Nassif, " 'The Spiritual Exegesis' of Scripture: The School of Antioch Revisited," Anglican Theological Review 75/4 (1993), 437-70 (esp. 459-65) for a survey of views on the differences between theoria and allegory, typology, and sensus plenior. Many evangelicals have followed the school of messianic exegesis exemplified by Walter Kaiser, who maintains that the "double fulfilment" principle "is very close to the concept of theoria posed by the Antiochene school of interpretation," in The Uses of the Old Testament in the New (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985), 71, as quoted by Nassif, 451.

55. Breck, The Power of the Word, 99 (cf.95-99).

56. Breck, op.cit. 104.(cf. 102-105). Breck qualifies his use of inspiration by noting that the primary authority is that of the biblical author and that Tradition and the current interpreter have only a secondary or derived authority (cf. pp.105-106). See also his "Theoria and Orthodox Hermeneutics," Power of the Word, 91-113 (reprinted from SVTQ 20 [1976], 195-219.

57. Nassif, "Spiritual Exegesis,468 (emphasis his).

58. Nassif, "Spiritual Exegesis,"467 (cf. pp. 465-68, where he expands this latter point), His attempt to appropriate the implication of theoria to structuralism, genre criticism, and canonical criticism can be seen in his unpublished dissertation, "Antiochene Theoria in John Chrysostom's Exegesis" (Fordham University, New York 1991), 301-306,315-319. See also Breck, Power of the Word, 110-113.

59. See Grant R. Osborne, "Type, Typology," in The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, ed. Geoffrey W.Bromiley (4 vols; Grand Rapids:Eerdmans,. 1979-1988), IV, 930-32; and Douglas J.Moo. "The Problem of Sensus Plenior," in Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon, eds.D.A. Carson and John D. Woodridge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 179-211.

60. Nor does any one system describe all evangelical hermeneutics. Although the majority today would utilize a meaning-significance type of format centring on the author's intended meaning, there are representatives within the evangelical camp of each Orthodox hermeneutic mentioned here.

61. I am indebted to a conversation with Bradley Nassif for many of the ideas in this paragraph.

62. Brown, "On Method and Means in Theology," 14-48.

The article can be found on the Orthodox Church of Greece website.

Copyright 2001-2020 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. Follow copyright link for details.
Copyright 2001-2020 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. See OrthodoxyToday.org for details.

Article link: