When I first studied Orthodoxy, I had long been studying contemporary Biblical scholarship.
The history of the Church was foreign to me, and the revelation that the canon of Scripture emerged out of the history of that same Church (thus making Sola Scriptura self-contradictory)—along with the revelation that Patristic theology resembled Catholic and Orthodox theology far more than Protestant theology of any variety—convinced me very early on that Protestantism was untenable. Thus began a long struggle with Catholicism and Orthodoxy which I won’t go into here. Soon after I became convinced that the Orthodox Church was the way to go, I returned to the pages of Scripture.
I had absolutely no idea what it meant. And it was enormously difficult to ever begin reading it in an Orthodox manner.
From personal experience, I have discovered that this state of mind remains the norm for many Orthodox Christians, even studied converts, who are better versed in liturgics and the history of the Church. Studying the commentaries of the Fathers can be enormously helpful, but the Fathers generally preached and wrote from a pastoral perspective rather than exegetical. This means that they will often spend little time arguing in-depth for their perspective against other points of view—especially since Protestantism, which we confront most often today, would not exist for centuries.
Furthermore, most Patristic commentaries on the books of the Old Testament are lost. When Orthodox Christians approach the Old Testament, I’ve found that they either ignore it, declare it ahistorical and allegorical (which is a distortion of the Patristic approach), or shrink back in despair.
So I started my journey back into the world of Biblical scholarship.
When I began, I was overwhelmed and confused. There are a great variety of different perspectives present today in the academic world, most of them secular or Protestant. At the same time, especially in New Testament studies, there is fruit that can be gleaned from an academic study of Scripture, made to serve Christ from within the Orthodox Church.
One example, especially relevant today, is the movement called the “New Perspective on Paul.” This movement represents a seismic shift in the way modern scholars read the Pauline corpus. It began with a lecture of E. P. Sanders arguing that Protestant scholars had misread Paul in light of the Reformation instead of in light of Second Temple Judaism. Even though the movement began with Sanders, it has been expanded and argued further by scholars such as James D. G. Dunn, N. T. Wright, Richard Hays, and Michael Gorman. Each of these scholars has their own approach to Paul, so that some have suggested referring to New Perspective(s) in the plural, rather than simply the New Perspective.
Gorman’s work is the closest to Orthodox teaching. He argues, without even referring to the Fathers or the teaching of the Orthodox Church, that Paul, when speaking of justification by faith, means participation in the life of the Christ-God, crucified and risen. He calls this what all Orthodox Christians call it: theosis. In short, Gorman argues—with precedent from Church History (particularly Ambrosiaster)—that God’s “righteousness” refers to His covenant obligations to fulfill His promises to Israel. God’s covenant faithfulness is displayed in the faithfulness of Christ, which means Christ’s faithfulness in suffering and dying unto resurrection. Our faith, then, is called such because it embodies the faithfulness of Christ. If we “suffer with Him” says the Apostle, “we also shall be glorified with Him” (Rom. 8:17).
This is but one example of how serious, careful study of the Scriptures from an academic perspective can produce readings entirely congruent with the teaching of the Church. This is not to advocate Sola Scriptura, but rather to say that the Church’s interpretation of Scripture is the right interpretation.
The reasons why modern Biblical scholarship can be useful to and should be critically appropriated by Orthodox Christians today are multiple.
First, from the standpoint of apologetics, it can break down significant barriers for a Protestant seeking to understand Orthodoxy. If Sola Scriptura is impossible, yet the Orthodox exegesis of Scripture is also impossible, then perhaps no Christian group is true and Christianity is either false or in need of a divine restoration? Even if a Protestant becomes convinced logically that Sola Scriptura is unworkable, he may well set that aside if he is convinced that Orthodoxy cannot reconcile its teachings with the Holy Scriptures.
Second, the results of scholarly study can confirm, in specific ways, that the Church is led by the Holy Spirit. Some of the findings of modern scholarship demonstrate Orthodox teaching conclusively, with information from the Ancient Near East that could not have been known to the Fathers. For example, the Church teaches that the creation is a temple, and mankind is its priesthood. Studies from the Ancient Near Eastern world have confirmed that Genesis 1 takes the pattern for temple-building in the ancient world and paints creation as God’s Temple—with humankind as the image, the bearers of the Divine Presence.
Third, the Scriptures belong to the Orthodox Church. It has been a great displeasure of mine to watch Orthodox Christians declare proudly that the Old Testament has been historically annihilated and therefore must be interpreted allegorically. Brothers, this should not be! The Old Testament, like the New, is the sacred history of the birth of the Church and must be treated reverently. An allegorical reading of Israel’s story depends on its historicity. The Scriptures are typological because history is typological, and the one who assumed flesh from the womb of the Virgin is the author of history. If the Scriptures are truly the property of the Church, then Orthodox Christians must be at the forefront of their defense.
Fourth, due to the printing press, Orthodox Christians have better access to the Scriptures than they ever have in the history of the Church. This enables us to more thoroughly fulfill the words of St. Innocent of Alaska:
First of all, a Christian must thoroughly study the foundations of the Christian faith. To that end, you must read and reread the Holy Scriptures on a regular basis, especially the books of the New Testament. You must not only learn their contents but also develop an interest in their origin, who wrote them and when, how they were preserved and have been handed down to us, and why they are called Divine and Sacred.
Fifth, studying the Scriptures from an academic perspective is enjoyable. While we must always remember that the purpose of reading Scripture is growth in holiness, we can develop our love for the inspired words by studying it in its ancient context and personally working to appropriate these insights within an Orthodox world-view. This can be used to develop a habit of immersing yourself in the Scriptures—Moses, the Prophets, the Psalms, and the New Testament—which will inspire you to awe-full worship of the One who blessed the world in Abraham’s seed, who is the true Messiah of Israel.
Orthodox Christians can study Biblical scholarship both carefully and critically.
Ideally, it should be done once a person has developed a thorough Orthodox world-view. Orthodoxy, in the words of Fr. Andrew Phillips, must be “in your bones and blood.” Do not remain a neophyte. Truly become Orthodox before critically appropriating the work of non-Orthodox scholarship. Even as academic study must be undertaken critically and in a spirit of obedience to the Church, such study can be of great benefit—both for ourselves and for others.