Reading the Bible from the Orthodox Church Perspective

By Vassiliadis, Petros | The Ecumenical Review, January 1999 | Go to article overview

Reading the Bible from the Orthodox Church Perspective


Vassiliadis, Petros, The Ecumenical Review


While the title of this presentation may seem at first glance quite straightforward, it is not in fact easy in an ecumenical setting to address the issue of reading the Bible -- or any issue for that matter -- "from the Orthodox church perspective".

In the first place, whenever an Orthodox person is asked to speak about the "Orthodox" or the "Orthodox church" perspective, he or she is thrown into a very strange and difficult situation. For what can really be an "Orthodox perspective" at a time when the very attribute "orthodox" is widely understood as having more or less negative connotations?

Second, in ecumenical contexts the Orthodox find it perplexing, even unacceptable, to be considered and dealt with time and again alongside "women", "youth" and people from certain geographical regions. Why not, for example, "Reading the Bible from the Roman Catholic perspective", or from the "Anglican", or the "mainstream Protestant", or even the "evangelical" one? Is it because Orthodoxy, largely unknown to the non-Orthodox, is normally approached as something "exotic", an interesting "Eastern phenomenon" vis-a-vis the "Western mentality", provoking the curiosity and enriching the knowledge of Western believers and theologians? If this is the case, it would be better that it stop being presented at all. According to an eminent Orthodox theologian, we have played this role for long enough. Orthodoxy means the wholeness of the people of God who share the fight conviction (orthe doxa) concerning the event of God's salvation in Christ and his church and the right expression (orthopraxia) of this faith. Everyone is invited by Orthodoxy to transcend confessions and inflexible institutions without necessarily denying them. Orthodoxy is not to be identified only with those of us who are Orthodox in the historical sense, with all our limitations and shortcomings. The term is given to the church as a whole over against the heretics who, of their own choice, split from the main body of the church. The term "Orthodoxy" excludes all those who willingly fall away from the historical stream of life of the one church, but it includes all those who profess their spiritual belonging to that stream. Orthodoxy, in other words, has ecclesial rather than confessional connotations.

A third more important obstacle is that it is almost impossible to deal with Orthodoxy, even in the conventional sense. On what ground and from what sources can one really establish an Orthodox perspective? The Roman Catholics have Vatican II to draw from; the Orthodox do not. The Lutherans have an Augsburg Confession of their own; the Orthodox do not. The Africans, the Asians, the Latin Americans have their emerging theologies to refer to. This is lacking for the Orthodox, whose only ambition is to witness authentically to the traditional apostolic faith. Thus, the only authoritative sources the Orthodox possess are in fact common to the rest of the Christians: the Bible and tradition. How can one establish a distinctly Orthodox church perspective on a basis which is common to non-Orthodox as well?

Despite these obstacles, the Orthodox have sometimes joined delegates from other churches in signing agreed doctrinal statements concerning the Bible, which under certain theological conditions can lend authority to any Orthodox reading of the Bible. One such joint statement, from the Moscow conference held in 1976 between the Orthodox and the Anglicans, forms an excellent summary of the Orthodox view:

   The scriptures constitute a coherent whole. They are at once divinely
   inspired and humanly expressed. They bear authoritative witness to God's
   revelation of himself in creation, in the incarnation of the Word and in
   the whole history of salvation, and as such express the word of God in
   human language. We know, receive and interpret scripture through the church
   and in the church.

However, the essence of Orthodoxy vis-a-vis Western Christianity in its entirety -- that is, Roman Catholic, Anglican and Protestant -- goes even beyond such theological affirmations.

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