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Understanding the Bible Through the Fathers, Part 2

Dr. Jeannie Constantinou

See Part 1

Continuing the Ancient Faith Radio podcast series on understanding the Bible through the fathers, Dr. Jeannie Constantinou talks more about the benefits of reading the Bible as expounded by the holy fathers of the Church, and explains just how we should read them.

In our last podcast we talked about how the Fathers were all influenced by the Bible, how they encouraged all Christians to read the Bible, about some of the excuses that St. John Chrysostom’s community gave him when they wouldn’t read the Bible, and what he had to say in response to that. Now let’s continue today by talking about some of the spiritual benefits of reading the Bible, which the Fathers had to tell us, and also some advice they gave us from a both a practical and a spiritual perspective on how to read the Bible. Well, St. John Chrysostom was convinced that the Bible helps us to obtain our salvation. He said this in the 53rd homily on St. John’s Gospel: “Now if we are willing to examine the Scriptures in this way, carefully and systematically, we shall be able to obtain our salvation. If we increasingly are preoccupied with them, we shall learn correctness of doctrine and an upright way of life.” I already told you in an earlier podcast that St. John Chrysostom believed that Scripture reading sanctifies the reader. I’d like to share that quotation with you again, and the sentence that precedes it this time, from homily 32 on the Gospel of John. “Moreover, if the devil does not dare to enter into the house where the Gospel lies, much less will he ever cease upon the soul which contains such thoughts as these, and no evil spirit will approach it, nor will the nature of sin come near. Well then, sanctify your soul; sanctify your body by having these thoughts always in your heart and on your tongue. For if foul language is defiling and evokes evil spirits, it is evident, that spiritual reading sanctifies the reader and attracts the grace of the Spirit.”

Chrysostom believed that the Scriptures are a treasure, and neglect of reading the Scriptures causes great harm. This is because knowledge of the Bible protects us, and ignorance of the Bible results in great evils. He saw Christians living in the world especially as engaged in a kind of spiritual warfare every day. The Scriptures were a protection and without knowledge of them it was like going into battle without arms. One of his favorite metaphors for the Bible was to call it a medicine chest. He said it contained the remedies for all grief and all troubles.

Here’s what he said in homily 9 on Paul’s epistle to the Colossians: “If grief befalls you, dive into the Scriptures as into a chest of medicines. Take from their comfort for your troublebe it loss, or death, or bereavement of relations. Or rather, do not merely dive into them, but take them wholly to yourself, keeping them in your mind.” Chrysostom believed that the Bible is a kind of medicine and could give great profit, and he also compared it not only to a medicine chest, but also to a treasure chest, and said that the profit derived from reading the Sacred Scriptures is great and its assistance is sufficient for every need. He said that knowledge of the Scriptures allows us to bear difficulties that we face in our lives. Here is another quotation from his 9th homily on Colossians: “For as the rich in money can bear fines and damages, so he that is rich in the doctrines of philosophy,” (by which he meant Christianity), “will bear not poverty only, but all calamities also easily, more easily than the rich man.”

Chrysostom believed that ignorance of the Scriptures by Christians is a terrible disgrace. He also believed that Christians were responsible for the fact that more pagans had not converted to Christianity. And in fact, Christians were responsible for blasphemies that pagans said about Christ. Here’s what he had to say about that: “It is ridiculous if he who professes to be a Christian is unable to utter a word in defense of his own faith. It is this that prevents the pagans from quickly realizing the absurdity of their error. Inasmuch as they are relying on falsehood, they make every effort to obscure the baseness of their teachings, while we, who are the guardians of truth, cannot even open our mouth. What will prevent them from despising the great weakness of our doctrine? Will they not get the idea that our teaching is deceitful and foolish? Will they not blaspheme Christ as a dissembler and deceiver who makes of us of the stupidity of the majority to advance his deceit? And we are responsible for this blasphemy if we are not willing to be on the alert to speak in defense of righteousness, but rate such matters as superfluous and concern ourselves about the things of the earth.”

How wise he was. Chrysostom was convinced that the Scriptures existed for a purpose, and that purpose is our salvation. If then the Scriptures were given for the purpose of our salvation, to be ignorant of them is a terrible evil and an insult to God who gave them to us. Here is what St. John Chrysostom said in his introductory homily on Romans: “From this it is that countless evils have arisen: from ignorance of the scriptures. From this it is that the plague of heresies has broken out. From this it is that there are negligent lives. From this that there are labors without advantage. For as men deprived of this daylight would not walk aright, so they that look not to the gleaming of the Holy Scriptures must be frequently and constantly sinning, in that they are walking in the worst darkness.” Not only was it important for adults to study the Scriptures, but Chrysostom believed that it was very important that children also be instructed in the Holy Scriptures, beginning with the learning of psalms and hymns. Children, he said, are like plants, which given the proper nourishment in the soil grow to be wise and rich in their knowledge in their faith. They should start with simple things such as psalms and little by little be let on to the knowledge of higher things. It was important to instruct Christian children in the knowledge of the Holy Scriptures and not simply focus on their worldly education. Chrysostom was not opposed to them being educated in a trade or other worldly things; but their knowledge of the Scriptures should not be neglected. He told parents that it is not simply monks who stand in need of lessons from the Scriptures, but among all other people, children, just about to enter the world, especially stand in need of the Scriptures.

Now all of the Fathers valued the Bible and encouraged Christians to read it regularly. We already talked about that. Not only were they of one mind with regard to doctrine, they were also remarkably likeminded with regard to how Christians ought to read and interpret the Scriptures, and they gave some very common practical advice. I’d like to share that with you. Now the first thing might surprise you, and their first piece of advice was that we pay attention in Church. Now of course one reason why they gave this advice was because most Christians did not own a copy of a single book of the Bible back during the Golden Age of the Fathers in the fourth century. That was because Bibles were very expensive. Even a copy of one book of the Bible, like a Gospel, was expensive because all books were hand-copied and trained scribes were usually necessary to make those kinds of copies. So the Fathers advised Christians to at least pay careful attention to Scripture readings in Church. Chrysostom was convinced that a Christian should do whatever was necessary to acquire his own copy of at least one book of the Bible, but he advised that if they did not read the Bible at home, Christians would still obtain much benefit if they would at least pay attention in Church.

This is why the priest intones, “Wisdom! Let us be attentive!” Here’s what he had to say about attentiveness to the readings in Church: “If a man should come here with earnestness, even though he does not read the Scriptures at home, and if he pays attention to what is said here, within the space of even one year he will be able to obtain a considerable acquaintance with them, for we do not read these Scriptures today, and tomorrow others that are quite different, but always the same section and consecutively. However, in spite of this, many have such an apathetic attitude that after such reading they do not even know the names of the books, and they are not ashamed. Nor do they shudder with dread because they have come so carelessly to the hearing of the Word of God. On the other hand, if a musician or a dancer or anyone else connected with the theater should summon them to the city, they all hurry eagerly and thank the one who invited them and spend an entire half day with their attention fixed on the performer exclusively. Yet when God addresses us through the Prophets and Apostles, we yawn, we are bored, we become drowsy.” That was St. John Chrysostom from his homilies on the Gospel of John.

The Fathers also advised us uniformly to be persistent in our reading and study of the Bible. They advised that we continue to read even if we don’t understand everything. The more you study, the easier it will be for you to understand. Read the whole thing and retain what you can. There are many parts that are understandable to everyone. As a matter of fact, they frequently said that the Bible was written on a rather low level in common, ordinary language, so that everyone could understand something of what they read. What is incomprehensible, you should read over and over, and if still don’t understand it, you should go to a teacher of the Scriptures for help. St. John of Damascus wrote this. He compared the study of the Bible, the reading of the Bible with a door, the door of the Scriptures. Here is what he said: “Let us not knock casually, but with earnestness and persistence, and let us not lose heart while knocking, for so it will be opened to us. Should we read once and then a second time, and still not understand what we are reading, let us not be discouraged. Rather, let us persist. Let us meditate and inquire, for it is written: Ask your father, and he will declare to you; your elders, and they will tell you (Deut 32:7).” St. Augustine also agreed with this idea. Here is what he said: “But above all things remember this: not to be disturbed by the Scriptures which you do not yet understand, nor be puffed up by what you do understand. But what you do not understand, with submission wait for, and what you do understand, holdfast with charity”.

Thirdly, the Fathers advised that we meditate on what we read. We should think about the Scriptures that we read. God does not want us merely to listen to the words in Church, or just read the phrases in the Scriptures, but to reflect on them as well. The Fathers advised Christians to commit to memory as much Scripture as possible, that they might be able to meditate on these Scriptures frequently and benefit from this. St. Simeon the New Theologian said: “For the soul who has chosen to meditate day and night on the law of God, nothing can be more beneficial than to search the Holy Scriptures. The design of the grace of the Spirit to be found therein overwhelms the senses of the mind with fulfilment by removing it completely from earthly realities and visible things, taking the mind to the level of the angels and associating it with the life of the angels themselves.”

The Fathers also advised everyone to learn about and study the Biblenot just study the words of the Bible themselves, but read books that talk to you about the Bible itself. The Scriptures are not only to be read, but to be studied. Chrysostom frequently echoed the Lord’s command to Search the Scriptures from John 5:39. He interpreted this statement to mean that we are to study carefully and with accuracy. He said: “We must study it diligently, not on the surface or superficially, because their meaning is not expressed superficially, but like a treasure it lies buried at great depth.” Now, the scholarly study of the Bible is not something new that was invented in the twentieth century in the universities. The scholarly, serious, academic study of the Bible was practiced by the Fathers themselves. You see, this is the Orthodox tradition. Many Orthodox think that all we need to do is read the Fathers and repeat what they had to say about the Bible, and that serious study of the Bible from a scientific, academic or scholarly perspective is not Orthodox. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. The Fathers did not tell us just to read them, but to study the Scriptures in other forms outside of Holy Tradition. That is, to read books about the Bible, not simply to parrot what had already been said about the Bible. As a matter of fact, St. John Chrysostom became extremely annoyed with his congregation that they were not helping him by studying about the Bible themselves. He said, “You have me here talking to you week after week after week, and I’m doing all of the work!” Can you imagine that? Can you imagine having St. John Chrysostom preaching to you every week, having him as your teacher, and him telling you that listening to him is not enough, but that you should take the initiative on your own to study the Bible? That’s what he said to his congregation.

Specifically, the Fathers told us to pay attention to such matters as the point of view of the author, the historical setting, the audience, the literary genre and other literary elements in the text, or the context of a book or passage. All of these things are very important in the study of the Bible, and St. John Chrysostom said that if we do not know and study such details, when we go to read the Bible, it’s as though we have been give the tools to mine for gold, but we’ve neglected them. We’ve left those tools; we don’t know how to use them, so all we dig up is dirt. St. Athanasios agreed with this. He said the following: “It is right and necessary with all Holy Scripture to faithfully take count of the time of which the Apostle wrote, and the person, and the point, lest the reader, missing either of these or any other particular through ignorance be lead away from the true meaning.” So what St. Athanasios is saying is that it is important that we study the context in which the Scriptures were written; and each book individually has its own historical context, and purpose, author and audience. This is something that we learn about separate from studying the Fathers. Of course they mention this too, but that doesn’t absolve us from studying these things on our own.

Of course, all of the Fathers are in agreement also that to avoid heresy when reading the Bible, one must interpret the Scriptures according to Holy Traditionthat is, according to what was taught by the Lord, preached by the Apostles, and passed on through the Church from generation to generation. St. Athanasios confirmed that Holy Tradition is the most faithful and ancient witness to the Lord and the Apostles, and he said this: “Let us note, that the very Tradition, teaching and faith of the Church from the beginning was given by the Lord, preached by the Apostles and preserved by the Fathers”. All of the Fathers agreed of course that the importance of Holy Tradition was that it guided us in the right type of interpretation. St. Vincent of Lerins said that the depth of the Scriptures is such, that they are not interpreted in the same sense by everyone. One person understands the text to mean one thing and someone else thinks it means something else, and because there are as many interpretations as there are interpreters, we must understand the writings in accordance with Orthodox tradition. He lived a very, very long time ago, and imagine how many more interpretations we have today, because now we have the Catholic church, and the Protestant churches, and many, many different kinds of interpretation. So, the fact is that the Scriptures are not self-interpretivelet’s put it that way. We need to interpret them and we have to interpret them with great care. Theological knowledge and exegetical technique alone are never enough as far as the Fathers were concerned. You could have the right knowledge, you could have the right technique, but the proper spiritual disposition and spiritual maturity were also indispensable for a correct interpretation if the Bible.

Now here are some suggestions from the Fathers for the proper disposition for reading the Bible. First of all, one should observe silence. Chrysostom said that silence of the lips and of the mind is required to grasp the mysteries of the Scriptures. Secondly, he said that one must acquire a pure soul. The soul must be purified and purged of anger and worldly cares or no great profit will result from hearing or reading the Scriptures. St. Gregory the Theologian agreed with thisthat one’s spiritual health directly affects one’s ability to interpret Scripture correctly. As a matter of fact, this is frequently repeated by the Fathers. We must pray. That’s the third component. Wakefulness and prayer are needed to understand the passage, Chrysostom told his congregation. And again, all of the Fathers agreed on the importance of prayer for the proper understanding of the Scriptures.

Now the fourth component might be something that surprises you, which is that we have to live a virtuous life. The matter in which we live our life helps us or hinders our understanding of the Scriptures. Good conduct and the acquisition of virtue are necessary to understand the Scriptures, and the most important virtue is humility. St. Augustine said something very beautiful about that and I’d like to quote it for you: “I was deluded in the past when while still in my childhood I tried to start by applying to the Divine Scriptures critical discussion, rather than pious research. Through my lax morals, I closed off my own access to the Lord. In my pride I dared to seek that which no one can find unless he practices humility.”

By emphasizing Bible study and reading, the Fathers were not trying to create congregations of Bible scholars. They were not interested in the study of the Bible for its own sake. Scripture study is never simply an academic pursuit for the Orthodox Christian. Increased knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures have virtually no value if Christians do not derive spiritual benefit from reading the Bible. When we read the Scriptures our behavior and lives should change as a result. Chrysostom warned his congregation that correct doctrine and thorough knowledge of the Scriptures are useless if Christians do not exemplify the Scriptures by their deeds. And I’d like to quote from him on this matter. Listen carefully: “Even if we should have faith in its entirety and a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures, if we should be empty and destitute of the protection derived from a good life, there would be nothing preventing us from being cast into the fire of hell and from being consumed forever by the inextinguishable flame.” That’s a very sobering thought. So knowledge is not enough, we must have also a good life.

The holy Fathers, dear brothers and sisters, devoted themselves to Bible reading, and encouraged the same in us. They’re unanimous in their advice to us. First, to make the Scriptures an integral part of our lives, secondly to apply what we learn, and thirdly, to spiritually improve ourselves from these Bible lessons, that we might attain the Heavenly Kingdom. All of the Fathers knew from their own personal experience the value of Scripture study by any Christian who reads the Bible and studies it humbly, prayerfully and knowledgeably. And I’d like to quote St. John Chrysostom one more time. A very brief quotation: “Let them hear, as many of us as neglect the reading of the Scriptures, to what harm we are subjecting ourselves and to what poverty”. So there you have it dear brothers and sisters. I hope this study of the Fathers on the importance of reading the Bible, their patristic and practical advice, will motivate you during the Lenten season and throughout the year to search the Scriptures.

Presbytera and Dr. Jeannie Constantinou’s podcasts can be found here.

See Part 3

Dr. Jeannie Constantinou

17 / 03 / 2017

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