Is Bible Reading, Bible Study Orthodox?

Bishop Seraphim : Article
Is Bible Reading, Bible Study, Orthodox ?
[Published in the “Canadian Orthodox Messenger”, Spring 1999]

In these days, in some parts of our archdiocese at least, we are seeing more often that believers are gathering together to study the Bible. Some of the groups are large ; some are of only a few persons. Sometimes the study is used catechetically, to help prepare those converting, sometimes it is for the deepening of the faith of lifelong believers.

This is not a phenomenon to which our Orthodox world is lately accustomed. Sometimes believers fear what is apparently new. Often enough, simply because Protestants are so well known for this exercise, the practice may be accused of not being Orthodox. Some may say that it is dangerous ; and that although studying history, theology, Christology, ecclesiology, iconography, the Fathers, is acceptable under certain circumstances, studying the Bible is not.

I have often encountered such controversies. It is usual enough for us to debate matters in this way (we have had almost two millennia of practice). Of course I am writing because I have some comments to make.

If we look at the state of affairs in modern Church life, two words could be used to describe the state of awareness of Sacred Scripture by the vast majority of Orthodox believers : abysmal ignorance. Most have only the thinnest awareness of the New Testament, and an almost complete lack of it for the Old Testament. If it be thin for us, then it is the strikingly more the case in the secular world. It used to be that even unbelievers knew very much about the Bible although they treated it simply as literature. This is no more the case. Our language (and other languages) used to be thoroughly laced with proverbial expressions related to the Bible. This is no more the case. Everywhere, there seems to have been a great emptying of language, in both oral and literary use, of any Christian (and by extension, of course Old Testament) references. What is significant is that there is such a great change in just a generation. In my own childhood, many people in their daily speech used these very scriptural quotations, allusions and proverbs. Now it is rare ; and where these references do exist, they are most often completely lost on the younger people.

Looking back to the time of the great Fathers whom we admire (whose words we love to study and quote as Orthodox), we see that their speech and their writing were liberally salted with scriptural references, allusions and ancillary proverbs. As it were, they “bathed” in the Scriptures. Were our ancestors to see the present state of affairs, they would surely lament the great loss (in any language) of Christian expression and awareness as compared to the time of the great Fathers.

Because I am deeply concerned about this slippage (even in myself), I am anxious to encourage the daily reading and study of the Bible by all the faithful. I believe firmly that it is vital, an absolute necessity of life. This is so, not only for the feeding of the hearts and souls of all believers, but also for forming those entering the Body of Christ. After all, if we do not know Christ thoroughly through His words ; if we do not encounter Him in the Gospels, and in the experience of the apostles ; if we do not know about God’s saving acts in human history, then how can we call ourselves Christians, let alone call ourselves Orthodox Christians ?

Our ancestors (from the earliest times up to the very recent past) understood the need for daily reading of the Scriptures, and particularly the New Testament. They did read it daily. Some would simply follow the regular course of prescribed Epistle and Gospel readings for every day. Many memorised some of the passages. Not many years ago, I met an old couple who still lived in a pioneer-style house in the country. They told me that reading the Bible was their favourite evening activity. After all their work was done, one would sit or recline, and the other would read the Bible aloud. They greatly enjoyed doing this. Clearly, they were reading at least chapters at a time, not just a few paragraphs. It seems that they had done this all their life together. I knew a pious widow who read the Scriptures regularly of an evening. Then she would further read the Fathers, their scriptural comments, and their theological works. I am told about our beloved Archimandrite Vasily of blessed memory (of Saint Tikhon’s Monastery), that he regularly had the New Testament read to him. Once, on coming to the end of the Apocalypse, he is said to have remarked : “That was very good to hear. Now, why not start again ?”

Paul Evdokimov, in his worthy book Ages of the Spiritual Life (Crestwood, NY : SVS Press, 1998), devotes a chapter to this matter. He reminds us of the seriousness of this habit. Not only did Evagrius exhort us to awake, Bible in hand ; the Council in Trullo also exhorted priests to cultivate in the faithful the greatest intimacy with the Bible. Paul Evdokimov gives us the following extract from Saint John Chrysostom, which reveals to me that humans are just the same now as 1500 years ago : "‘I am not a monk’, some of you say. [...] But your mistake is in believing that the reading of the Scriptures concerns only monks, because for you it is even more necessary since you are in the midst of the world. There is something worse than not reading the Scriptures, and that is to believe that this reading is useless [...] a satanic practice".

We are told that Saint John encouraged the home-study of the passages of the Scriptures which were to be read in Church, in order to accustom the children to daily reading and discussion of what is the core of their parents’ lives. It is this daily exposure that makes the Scriptures an organic part of our whole life. This exposure helps to keep Christ in the forefront of our consciousness. It helps to keep us aware of His presence. It helps us to remember who we are, to Whom we belong, and to Whom we can turn at all times. It is a saving study, a nourishing study. Paul Evdokimov says that this is because the reading presupposes the state of prayer which is its environment, and which “brings the words to maturity”. Thus, Christ Himself speaks to us as we prayerfully, daily read and reread the Sacred Scriptures. Before reading, we should customarily, consciously, ask Him to reveal Himself to us, and to lay ourselves open to Him. In this way, like the Fathers, we can come to live the Bible, much as the Bible permeates the words of all our services. The elders amongst Romanian monks are firm in recommending to all that they daily read from the Psalter. They remind us that the devil definitely does not appreciate it, and that this is therefore all the greater reason for us to do it.

Paul Evdokimov adds a warning : that making the Scriptures the object of simple speculative knowledge, simply studying the Bible as if it were mere literature, trying to reduce it only to some sort of science, is to profane the Scriptures and to profane the Word, Himself. That is not to say that there may be no careful analysis of the text. From the earliest times, even the Fathers used such discernment. However, this process must always be in the context of prayer, of being nourished in the bosom of the Church, in the tradition of the Fathers, in the heritage passed to us from apostolic times. As they did, so we, says Paul Evdokimov, must see that the whole of the Scriptures are together “a verbal icon of Christ”.

What, then, about group Bible study ? Well, group study has its own importance, in my opinion, particularly in our unsupportive environment. It certainly has its catechetical application, as I said before. I have, myself, seen much good fruit appear when participants learn about the links between passages, and between the Old and New Testaments. The scriptural texts allow links to patristic comments and even to the Councils, and the whole linkage helps to develop the ecclesial “mind” in a person. This is particularly so when led by a priest, deacon, or some other person with a theological education.

Sometimes, however (perhaps even without such leadership), the faithful might gather in groups for studying the scriptures, simply for feeding the soul. Especially in our environment of personal opinions, variable truths, and so-called individuality, there is great danger in personalising stray ideas. Nevertheless, when a group of faithful gather together to read the Scriptures, it is crucial that they invariably begin with the Trisagion Prayers at the least. Then, after prayer, when all read the Scriptures and also the complementary literature, and when they together reflect on the Scriptural passages, then the honest, mutual reflection on the Bible helps not only to keep any one person from drifting away, but also nourishes each one with the encouragement of the experience of others. This is particularly so when the passages read lead to talking about how the Lord has blessed each one recently. All this not only helps us to deepen our understanding of the Bible itself, but it also helps to keep a general consciousness of the presence of the Lord in our life more active and immediate. The group study supplements the private study, enriches it, deepens it, broadens it. It helps also to check any misinterpretations that tend to insinuate themselves into our thinking.

I want to share a little from Dostoevsky’s great novel, The Brothers Karamazov. These are words from the dying Starets Zosima (no doubt based on an Optina father) on the Bible. The Starets has just reflected on his love from childhood for the story of Job, and he continues : "‘Oh, what a great book it is and how much we learn from it! What a miraculous book is the Holy Bible and what strength it gives to man! It is like a sculpted model of the world, of mankind, and of the characters of men; everything is there and it contains guidance for us for all ages. How many mysteries are solved in it, how many revealed! Everyday I bless the rising sun and my heart sings to it as it did before; but now I love the sunset even more, and its long, slanting rays bring back to me quiet, touching, tender memories, dear faces, and images from my long and blessed life. Over everything here hovers the Lord’s truth and justice that moves our hearts, reconciles everything, and is all forgiving!’"

The elder then exhorts parish priests (no matter how poor they be) to spend an hour a week reading Bible passages to children, and to explain the passages from the heart. He rightly says, moreover, that when a priest shares from the depths of his heart, with tears even, the stories from the Old and New Testaments, the faithful people (especially children) will readily understand, and they will receive it all with the same love. What he says is simple and straightforward and correct. He emphasises the need for this loving sharing of the love of Christ, for : “‘Only the masses of simple, humble people and their growing spiritual power will be able to convert the atheists, who have been uprooted from our native soil. And what good is the Word of Christ without an example ? A nation is lost without the Word of God, for every human soul thirsts for His Word and for the good and the beautiful’”.

Joining these thoughts with his biblical awareness that God’s love permeates all creation, the Elder Zosima relates an example he once shared with a youth (similar to those about Saint Seraphim of Sarov) : ‘”Take, for instance, the fierce, formidable, frightening bear, roaming through the forest”. [...] And I went on to tell him about the bear which once came to the hut of a great saint who was seeking salvation in the forest. The saint, feeling great tenderness for the beast, came out fearlessly, gave it a loaf of bread, and said: “There, go along now, and may Christ be with you.” And the fierce bear went off obediently and meekly without hurting the saint. The boy was deeply moved by the story, because the beast had not hurt the saint and because Christ was with him, too. “Ah”, he said, “how wonderful it is; how everything of God’s is good and beautiful!”’

This is what I perceive to be the result of such an immersion in the Scriptures. Our country, our nations, are lost without it.