Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Bible in the Orthodox Church

The primitive Church did not have the Bible as we know it today. And yet the Church lived according to the Divine Revelation which, with the final screening and codification by the Canon, was understood as Sacred Tradition and Holy Scriptures. One cannot overemphasize the biblical character of the Greek Orthodox Church, for, ironically, members of certain Christian denominations often accuse the Greek Orthodox Catholic Church of neglect in making use of the Bible. They usually label her as involved extensively in symbolism and ritual.

Such a notion of the Orthodox is not justified. And as a matter of fact, the contrary is true. The truth is that the Holy Scriptures occupy a prominent place in the life, thought, and worship of the Orthodox Church. For the Greek Orthodox Catholic Church is very much a scriptural Church. She is the biblical Church par excellence. It is not only that her faith is derived from the Holy Scriptures, but also her very life is deeply imbued with ideas, teachings, and the ethos of the Bible. The various forms of worship and liturgical life of the Church bear the seal of the Bible to an admirable degree.

There is no sacrament, liturgy or service in the Orthodox Church that does not include selections from the Scriptures. Both the Old and New Testaments are used often. Since the Old Testament is the "paedagogus" leading to Christ, it is used in such services as Vespers and the Orthros. Passages from Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, Jonah, and other Old Testament books, especially the Psalms, are read in each vesper service as well as the Sunday morning service before the Divine Liturgy. Each Liturgy includes two New Testament selections, one from the Acts or the Epistles, and the second from one of the Gospels. These various "pericopes" from the Psalms, prophecies, Gospels, and Epistles constitute and integral part of each service in the Orthodox Church today.

But the claim for the Orthodox Catholic Church for her scriptural character is not based exclusively on the aforementioned readings. Her prayer life, hymns, and rites, are imbued with, one might almost say, permeated by, scriptural spirituality, verses and elements. Every prayer and hymn of each Liturgy, sacrament, and service includes scriptural material and expresses some biblical event. It is true that some services are more scriptural than others, and that the number and extent of scriptural element vary from service to service, but whatever the ratio may be, it is certain that each service is based on some biblical truth.

There are certain books which enjoy a considerable popularity. The Psalms, Genesis, and Isaiah are more popular than any other Old Testament book. Exodus and the Wisdom of Solomon follow. From the New Testament books, Matthew, Luke, 1 Corinthians, Romans, the Gospel of John, and the Epistle to the Hebrews precede all others in that order.

Hymnology is similarly oriented in Scripture. Most of it has been inspired by some event narrated in the Scriptures or by some truth expressed in them.

There is much evidence that an intense reverence for the Holy Scriptures exists in the Orthodox Church. The study of the Bible has always been encouraged; in fact, even the illiterate in the Orthodox world have committed whole Psalms and other portions of Scripture to memory. The writings not only of the Liturgical authors but of the Fathers, teachers, and doctors of the Church, in general, are impregnated with scriptural verses and expressions.

A practice in the early Church, that persons had to know parts of the Bible by heart, and that candidates for the priesthood were impelled to learn a certain number of Psalms, plus a Gospel and several Epistles before ordination, is not required in the Church today. Nonetheless, scriptural sayings and elements are in the mouths of the faithful in Orthodox lands like proverbs and mottoes.

The Word of God is the inexhaustible source of spiritual instruction and nurture in the Orthodox Catholic Church today. The Orthodox faithful are urged to study the Bible diligently, and to make it the guide of their lives.

Thus, it is emphasized that the Holy Scriptures, which have saturated the liturgical books and the hymnology of the Church, indeed occupy a central place in the Orthodox life and worship today.

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