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Reading the Bible: The Canon of Truth

Updated: Sep 18, 2019

“Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes!” Psalm 119:12

I adore reading Scripture. God’s Word is the oxygen for my life. I’ve been at it for a few decades, but I still find the Bible to be evergreen and astonishing in its majesty. No matter how many times I reflect on the parables of Jesus, they seem new and wonderfully challenging.

Are you looking to start reading the Bible? Have you been reading it, but are getting lost in the narratives and unsure of the meaning? In an age of so many conflicting interpretations, how do we read the Bible?

If you have a treasure map, you need to have a key to the map, pointing the way north and giving you proper distances, or you’ll never get to the treasure. From an Orthodox Christian’s point of view, here are four things I think you can do to bring your Scripture reading to life:

1. Read Fr. John Behr’s book, The Way to Nicea right away.

Fr. John Behr, Orthodox theologian from St. Vladimir’s Seminary, has written a series of books that shakes things back to the foundation. The Way to Nicea (volume 1 in the Formation of Christian Theology series) is indispensable if you really want to understand our faith. This would be a good starting place to understand how to read the Bible.

Here’s what you’ll find

  • An explanation of the dilemma we face interpreting Scripture. In the early Church, the Bible’s message in the marketplace of ideas was as variegated and bewildering as today.

  • Fr. John Behr presents a wonderful layout of the writings and views of the Early Church Fathers and how they articulated the Apostolic faith.

  • St. Irenaeus described the Canon of Truth as the apostolic way to understand the faith and how the Scripture depicts the proper portrait of Jesus Christ. Those who promote false teaching are rearranging the mosaic tiles to depict a false icon of Christ. For Irenaeus, the Κανών, or the Canon of Truth is the straight measuring stick by which we know a crooked line when we see one. St. Irenaeus appealed to canon and tradition to protect the apostolic faith from false teaching.

  • The inspiration of Scripture cannot be separated from Jesus Christ who unlocks it for the reader. Ultimately, the key to reading Scripture is the person of Jesus Christ – crucified and risen. Our starting point for reading and understanding the Bible is the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

  • Without an encounter with this Christ, the scripture is veiled to us. Read Luke's narrative about the road to Emmaus in Luke 24, where Jesus opened the Scripture for the disciples and explained "Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory? And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Then He broke bread with them and their eyes were opened. Luke 24:27-31

Fr. John Behr’s book, The Way to Nicea, offers an invaluable exploration into the Canon of Truth and “sketches the portrait of the Scriptural Christ inscribed in the New Testament,” as the book’s summary says. The authority of Scripture belongs to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, not us holding our Bibles. “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.” Matthew 28:18

The Way to Nicea is a must-read book in my opinion. If reading this book seems too daunting, then try Fr. Behr’s “Reading Scripture” from Public Orthodoxy or watch The Passion of Christ as the Key to Scripture:

2. Prepare yourself. God’s truth is hard to hear.

For those of us who are followers of Christ, reading the Bible is not like reading a novel or a magazine. In order to have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, we must be walking the walk of discipleship. Here are some things it entails:

  • Prayer. Reading scripture is hearing God’s word as a form of prayer.

  • Reverent Silence. We cannot hear God’s message if other things are filling our minds and hearts with distractions. We need to place ourselves in the presence of God when we read the Bible.

  • Humility and repentance. This is a tough one. It isn’t easy to read a message that is a corrective statement, even if it is a message of great love and mercy. My job is to turn my life in the direction of God, and to receive His message that brings salvation. God's saving message is like a parent intervening to keep a child from running out into dangerous traffic. God’s guard rails are put there for our authentic human life, our holy life to happen.

  • Joy. The εὐαγγέλιον, the Good News, is the over-the-top saving news like the moment everyone found out World War II was over. It brings the overwhelming sense of joyous liberation because Jesus has defeated sin and death. “Christ is risen from the dead, by death trampling upon death…” If we aren’t experiencing the joy, we need to ask, why aren't we?

3. Bring your Bible reading to Church!

I hear many Orthodox Christians say they are looking for new ways to learn about the faith. This is like the fish that swam all around the ocean looking for water! The treasures of learning are all around us here in our Church. Our job is to learn the liturgical hermeneutic of the Bible. The liturgy - the place where we participate in heavenly worship - is the biblical hermeneutic par excellence. The canon of truth and our access to it ultimately resides in the Divine services of the Church, as the Body of Christ. Here's how:

  • Learn the hymns of the Church - Vespers, Orthros, the Divine Liturgy, etc. Are the hymns and prayers in your heart and on your lips? These are such a great – and at the same time very neglected – source of the theology of our Church. Don’t know where to start? How about the Nativity Hymns, the Transfiguration, and very especially the Bridegroom Services of Holy Week and the Paschal Canon. I guarantee, if you do chin ups on every syllable of the hymns, you will learn the language of the Orthodox Church and the depth of your understanding when reading Scripture will change. You'll start to understand the grand narrative of God's salvation found in Scriptures far better.

  • Every Divine Liturgy, we encounter Christ speaking to us in the Epistle and Gospel readings. I read them and pray about them before I go to the liturgy. I find it to be a wonderful preparation. Become a close friend of the Church's calendar & lectionary.

  • Bring your questions and discoveries about the Bible to your priest and the parish. By all means read the Bible every day at home, but bring your thoughts to the worshiping community. Can you imagine if at coffee hour after Divine Liturgy, everyone talked with great gusto about the Gospel reading they just heard, or the hymn of the day and how it applies to their lives?

4. Choose your teachers carefully.

There are all kinds of biblical commentaries and videos out there with all kinds of messages. Choose your sources carefully.

Here is a treasure trove of St. John Chrysostom's homilies on Scripture.

Take a look at the great resources on the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America's Bible & Scripture page!

For further reading:

Eugen Pentiuc's The Old Testament in Eastern Orthodox Tradition

Eugen Pentiuc's Jesus the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible

Fr. Ted Stylianopoulos' Sacred Text and Interpretation: Perspectives in Orthodox Biblical Studies

Georges Florovsky's Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View - especially chapter one, "The Lost Scriptural Mind"

Above all, read the Bible and let me know how it is going!

#bible #Scripture #biblestudy #Orthodox

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