Saturday, August 19, 2017

Stump the Priest: Converts and Culture

Question: "How can someone best assimilate into the ‘culture’ of Orthodoxy even picking up other national customs without losing their own nationality (being of the USA for example)? How do we find that middle balance of taking the good and leaving the bad from our own culture?"

There is no such thing as a generic Orthodoxy. Our faith is handed to us by particular people, who come from particular cultural expressions of the faith. Consequently I think a convert can only embrace the particular expression of the faith as they receive it, in the context that they have converted in.  Some converts have gone so far as to actually try to adopt the ethnic identity of whatever Orthodox Jurisdiction they convert into -- I have even heard of cases in which people Russified their surname. This is of course ridiculous, and is neither necessary, nor helpful.

When I first encountered the Orthodox Faith, it was in the Russian Orthodox context. I was never under any illusions that I could become a Russian, nor did I have any great desire to do so. When the Orthodox Faith was brought to the Slavs, they embraced many aspects of the Orthodox Byzantine culture that brought them the Faith, but they remained Slavs, and with time, they in turn made the Faith their own, and a new Orthodox culture developed. You could go back one step further and talk about the Jewish culture of the Apostles, and the interaction that the Greek converts had with it, which ultimately developed into the Byzantine Greek culture. So while I am not a Russian, nor could I ever become a Russian, my experience of Orthodoxy came in a Russian package, and so I am Russian Orthodox, and love and appreciate the best aspects of Russian culture. 

Anything in any culture that is contrary to the Orthodox Christian Faith has to go. But anything that is good or virtuous in a culture can be embraced. The Greeks certainly did not give up the best aspects of their culture when they embraced the Christian Faith, and the Church has been enriched by the Greek Christian culture that came out of that. The same is true of Americans. Anything that is good in the culture that you have when you enter the Church you get to keep.

And while we have to embrace the expression of Orthodoxy as we receive it, since we live in a context were were have many other cultural expressions of Orthodoxy, we should resist the temptation to look down on other practices that are no less authentic, but nevertheless different than what we are familiar with.

Someday, God willing, we will see a distinctly American Orthodox culture, but attempts to force that into existence prematurely have met with bad results, and I think this fails to understand how Orthodoxy changes a culture. The Russians did not decide one day that they were going to toss out Greek culture, and concoct a Russian version of it. It happened naturally, as their national Church matured. The American Church has a very long way to go.

However, none of this means that those of us whose language is English need to have the services in a foreign language. The texts of the services have all been translated into English, and so there is no reason why we should not use them.

What a convert should do is try to learn what they can from the most pious and mature Orthodox Christians they encounter in their parish, and emulate them. You will inevitably find some faults in such people, and so those things you should not follow. And you certainly should not emulate the bad habits of those who have grown up on the Church. For example, many Orthodox Christians have a bad a habit of coming to Church late, or coming to Church inconsistently. Ignore the bad example of those people, and imitate the ones that are doing what they should be doing.

One temptation for any convert is to take things to extremes, and so finding the balance is something that you have to work towards. For example, while we can and should learn from monasticism, unless and until you go to a monastery, you should not try to live like you are an Athonite monk. For one thing, it's not going to work, and you are likely to have the wheels of your faith come off at some point. Keep your focus on trying to live like a normal pious layman, and if God leads you to a monastery eventually, you will be a lot more likely to work out your salvation there, if you have learned how to work it out in a balanced way, while living in the world.. We should always remember the wise words of St. Poemen the Great: 
"Everything that goes to excess comes from the demons" (Benedicta Ward, translator, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Alphabetical Collection (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975, 1984 revised edition), p. 185.).
For More Information:

 Renewing the Mind: Acquiring an Orthodox outlook

Acquiring an Orthodox Mindset (a section of articles from

Friday, August 11, 2017

St. Gregory the Theologian and the Literal Interpretation of Scripture

George Demacopoulos gave another lecture at the Eagle River Institute which was recently posted on Ancient Faith Radio, and in the course of that lecture he made the following statement:
"St. Gregory the Theologian actually wrote, in one of his most famous orations on the Trinity, that a Christian who insists on a literal interpretation of Scripture, does so to mask his lack of genuine faith. Let me repeat that... St. Gregory says, quote: "a Christian who insists upon a literal interpretation of Scripture, does so to mask his lack of genuine faith"" ("Was Byzantine Christianity the Normative Orthodox Experience?: Part 2," beginning at about the 12:20 mark).
The first time he referenced the alleged quoted, it could have been taken as if  he was giving the gist of the quote, rather than an exact quote: "St. Gregory... wrote... that..." But he then repeated it, and prefaced it by saying "Quote," which would normally only be used to preface a precise quotation. However, the actual quote bears very little resemblance to what he referenced in this lecture.

Here it is, at least as it is translated in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers translation:
"They then who are angry with us on the ground that we are bringing in a strange or interpolated God, viz.:—the Holy Ghost, and who fight so very hard for the letter, should know that they are afraid where no fear is; and I would have them clearly understand that their love for the letter is but a cloak for their impiety, as shall be shown later on, when we refute their objections to the utmost of our power" ("Oration 31, A Selected Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, series 2, vol. 7, eds. Henry Wace and Philip Schaff (New York: Christian, 1887-1900), p. 318).
For comparison, here is a more recent translation:
"Certain people, then, thinking that we have introduced the Holy Spirit as a strange or counterfeit god; are angry at us and fight very hard to defend “the letter”. But they should know that they are afraid where there is nothing to fear; 6 and I would have them clearly understand that their love for “the letter” is but a cloak for their impiety, as we shall see later on when we refute their objections to the utmost of our power" (Gregory of Nazianzus: Five Theological Orations, Translated with an introduction and notes by Dr. Stephen Reynolds, 2011, p. 98, <> )
This translation provides an interesting footnote to the phrase "the letter":
“the letter”. I.e. of the Scriptures. Gregory does not say “the letter of the Scriptures,” because he will not concede to the opponents he now has in view that they are, in truth, faithfully interpreting the Scriptures. Cf. Oration 4, § 1 (page 71), where Gregory spoke of “difficulties and objections which were ripped from the holy Scriptures by those who profane the Bible and pervert the sense of its texts in order to win the mob to their side and confuse the way of truth.” 
When you look at the actual quote, it is clear that Dr. George Demacopoulos has not even accurately presented the gist of the actual quote. St. Gregory was not attacking those "who insist on literal interpretations," he was attacking those who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, who insisted on exclusively literal interpretations as a cloak for their impiety -- and their impiety was not that they interpreted Scripture literally, but that they denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

It may be that when he was writing the notes to this lecture, he was referencing this by memory, and so we may charitably assume that he did not intentionally misquote the text, but the fact is, he has misquoted it, for whatever reason, and the actual quote does not even come close to justifying the assertion he made based on it.

If he had loosely said that St. Gregory the Theologian attacked those who insisted on an exclusively literal interpretation of Scripture, that would at least be a plausible take on what he is saying, but in the actual context of the quote, even that is a stretch, because he is not attacking the idea of interpreting the Scriptures literally. He is attacking their pretense of doing so, which he makes clear later on in the oration, when he says:
"But since you hold so very close to the letter (although you are contending against the letter)..." (NPNF2, Vol. 7, p. 323). 
So in actual fact, St. Gregory is saying that these heretics are not even getting their literal interpretation of Scripture correct. If his point had been to attack literal interpretations per se, he would have spent a good bit of time arguing that point, and showing why a non-literal interpretation was preferable. But that is not what you find in this text.

The Fathers do not deny the legitimacy of literal interpretations of Scripture (at least ones that are no more literal than the texts are intended to be taken in), though they certainly do affirm other senses of Scripture as well. But here he is not arguing, for example, that you have to take an allegorical interpretation of Scripture to defend the Trinity -- you just have to take a non-willfully-stupid interpretation of the Scriptures:
"But now the swarm of testimonies shall burst upon you from which the Deity of the Holy Ghost shall be shown to all who are not excessively stupid, or else altogether enemies to the Spirit, to be most clearly recognized in Scripture" (NPNF2, Vol. &, p. 327).
Also, when it comes to St. Gregory the Theologian's view of Scripture, one should consider the following statement:
“We however, who extend the accuracy of the Spirit to the merest stroke and tittle, will never admit the impious assertion that even the smallest matters were dealt with haphazard by those who have recorded them, and have thus been borne in mind down to the present day: on the contrary, their purpose has been to supply memorials and instructions for our consideration under similar circumstances, should such befall us, and that the examples of the past might serve as rules and models, for our warning and imitation” (NPNF2-07 St. Gregory Nazianzen, Oration II: In Defence of His Flight to Pontus, and His Return, After His Ordination to the Priesthood, with an Exposition of the Character of the Priestly Office , ch. 105, p.225).
Here St. Gregory references the words of the Lord: "And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail" (Luke 16:17, c.f. Matthew 5:18). St. Gregory not only affirms the verbal inerrancy Scripture, but in fact affirms every jot and tittle inerrancy (jots and tittles being the smallest strokes of a pen).

What is not obvious is what exactly is it about taking the literal sense of Scripture seriously that George Demacopoulos is objecting to? I "insist" on a literal interpretation of "Thou shalt not murder," for example, but I also accept the more spiritual interpretations that Christ gives the commandment, and I think the Fathers of the Church would back me up both counts.

As I discussed in "Fundamental Errors: A Response to "Tradition Without Fundamentalism" by George Demacopoulos," I suspect the issue behind this, is the question of the Church's teachings on the subject of homosexuality (for the reasons stated in that article), though if George Demacopoulos wishes to dispute that, he need only clearly state what he believes to be the teaching of the Church on that subject. I would be happy to be corrected, if he simply affirmed that he believed that homosexual sex was inherently sinful, as opposed to arguing that somehow the literal sense of the Scriptures and canons on that subject should be reinterpreted to mean something else.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Beginning to Read and Understand the Bible, Part 3: In Context

For Part 1, see: Beginning to Read and Understand the Bible: First Steps

For Part 2, see: Beginning to Read and Understand the Bible, Part 2: Staying on Track

Types of Literature in the Bible (Genres)

To understand the Bible we need to understand how the different kinds of literature in the Bible actually work. We have different kinds of literature in own our culture, and we understand how they work. For example, when we read George Orwell's novel 1984, we know we are not reading a history of the the 1980's. There is truth in that book, but it does not function in the same way that a history book functions. We know what to expect when we read a comic book, and we know it works differently then a how-to guide. The various types of literature we find in the Bible have some features that are different from what we know from our own culture, and so we have to make some effort to try to understand how they work.

For example, we need to know that the patriarchal narratives are not intended to be taken as direct instructions on how we should live our lives. Sometimes we read about very admirable behavior, but in other cases the examples we find are negative, and are not there for us to "go and do likewise."

The proverbs we find in the Bible are wise saying that will generally prove to be true, but are not legal commandments -- you would generally be foolish to ignore them, but that's their point. The Ten Commandments, on the other hand, are not merely helpful hints for hopeful Hebrews -- they are moral laws that apply to us, and are not there for us to take or leave as we might wish.

This video does a good job of introducing the basics of the major literary types you find in the Bible:

You will also find some information on how various literary types work in a particular book of the Bible if you look up that book in a good Bible dictionary, and read what it says. You find much more detail in a good commentary or a Biblical Introduction, but for starters, your Bible dictionary should be sufficient to point you in the right direction.

We will come back to this in more detail in a subsequent series.

Levels of Meaning

Sometimes people ask whether or not we should take the Bible literally. The answer is that we should take it as literally as it is intended to be taken. There are many things in Scripture that clearly were not intended to be taken literally. For example, in the apocalyptic visions of the book of Revelation, read about a "fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads" (Revelation 12:3), but we are not expecting to encounter such a literal beast in the future. This is a symbolic vision, and we have to try to understand what the symbols mean to properly understand the text. But "Thou shalt not commit adultery" has a literal meaning, and we don't get to dismiss that literal meaning by interpreting it figuratively.

It is also true, however, that the same text can often be understood on more than one level. The fact that there can be more than one level of meaning does not negate the more obvious meanings of the passage -- it just means that can be additional meanings found in the same text.

There are traditionally four senses of Scripture, and you can read about those in more detail in these articles:
Sword in the Fire: 4 Senses of Scripture
OrthodoxWiki: Typology
But to simplify things a bit, just keep in mind that there is the level of meaning that is clearly intended by the text, but often there is a less obvious spiritual meaning of a text that you will find brought out in the services of the Church, and in the writings of the saints. You in fact see New Testament writers reading the Old Testament in precisely this way as well, and so this is not something that the Church made up, but comes from Christ and the Apostles (for example, in Galatians 4, St. Paul uses an allegorical interpretation of the story of Sarah and Hagar (which begins in Genesis 16 and ends in Genesis 21).

Becoming familiar with the more obvious meanings of Scripture will enable you to better grasp the deeper meanings you will find in the services and the Fathers.

Reading contextually

When reading Scripture, it is important to read particular parts of Scripture in their proper context.

There are three broad levels of context to keep in mind:
1. The immediate context of a passage within a book.
2. The context within the book as a whole. 
3. The context within the entirety of Scripture. 
Chapters, Verses, and Pericopes

With the exception of the Psalms, the chapter and verse divisions we have in our Bibles today are not original, or really all that ancient. Chapter divisions go back to the 13th century, and the verse divisions who know today were in place by the 16th century. These divisions usually make sense, but sometimes they actually can be deceptive, because they seem to mark a break between one chapter (or even one verse) and the next, when the break may not really be there in the text itself.

The Church has an older system of dividing the Gospels and Epistles into shorter readings that are read liturgically on a given day, and in a particular service. These divisions is called "pericopes," which literally means "a cutting-out" [you can hear how it is properly pronounced by clicking here]. "Pericope" is a Greek word. The word in Church Slavonic is "зача́ло" (zachalo).

Biblical scholars also speak of pericopes, but while the idea is very similar, there is a bit of a difference. Liturgical pericopes can vary. The same passage of Scripture might be divided up differently, for different liturgical occasions, because different aspects of the passage are being emphasized. When we speak of an interpretive (or exegetical) pericope, these do not change, though sometimes there may be some debate about where the lines should be drawn.

Interpretive pericopes are smaller sections of a book that represent a complete unit of the whole (for example, a distinct story, or parable). Sometimes these will follow chapter divisions, but often they will not. Usually, a given chapter of the Bible will have more than one of these subsections.

To see what we are talking about here, let's take a look at the Sermon on the Mount. Where does it begin? The sermon itself begins in Matthew chapter 5, but actually the end of chapter 4 is really the introduction. So you have sort of a preface that begins in Matthew 4:23 and ends in Matthew 5:2. In verse 3 the sermon begins, and does not conclude until chapter 7, verse 27, and then you have an afterword in 7:28-29 that sums up the response of the hearers to the sermon. But between Matthew 5:2 and 7:27 there are a number of interpretative pericopes that make up the total sermon, and should be examined both as distinct sections, but also in their broader context within the sermon. So for example, you would want to look at the Beatitudes as a distinct pericope (Matthew 5:3-12). Christ's discussion of how we are to be salt and light (5:13-16) is another pericope, etc.

You can see verbal ques and shifts of though that will mark were one section begins and ends. Sometimes it is not always so clear where one section ends and another begins, because one section is closely linked with the next. It is not crucial that you always get these divisions precisely right, you just want to keep them in mind, because the most immediate context of a verse is crucial to understanding what is being said. Fortunately, most contemporary bibles actually provide section headings that usually will tell you at least where the editors think these sections begin and end, and in the Orthodox Study Bible, for example, I think you will generally find these divisions to be accurate and helpful. See, for example, the NKJV's headings in the Sermon on the Mount.

You should also keep in mind, that it is often the cases that several pericopes in a row have a collective function in a book. That is certainly true of the Sermon on the Mount, but you see it in many other places as well. For example, in the Gospel of Luke, you have the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son all grouped together, and they all have similar points, but they are also distinct units.

And when we speak of interpreting a passage in the light of its context in the entirety of Scripture, this works in two ways. On the one hand, other passages of Scripture often shed light on a passage. But on the other, we do not believe that Scripture contradicts itself, and so if you interpret a passage in a way that contradicts what the Scriptures as a whole teach, you are reading it wrong.

Reading with the Church

One of the most important ways that we must read the Scriptures in the proper context is by reading them in the context of the Church.

We have already talked about one way that we do this, and that is by ensuring that we interpret the Scriptures in a way that is consistent with the teachings of the Church. And we have also talked a bit about how to use the commentaries of the Fathers as we are able, and have access to them. But beyond that, while it is important for us to read the Scriptures on our own, we also need to study them together with others in the Church. We do this in the context of our immediate families -- every home being a little Church. We should also do this in our parishes. If there is a Bible study that you can participate in, this should be helpful. You also do this by attending the services, hearing the Scriptures read in the services, and also hearing them interpreted in the services of the Church, and by your priest or bishop when he preaches on them.

In St. John Chrysostom's time, people had multiple opportunities to hear sermons. The local bishop would often preach, and any of the priests might preach as well. St. John often preached sermons every day, as is evident from his homilies on the book of Genesis. Few today would have any opportunities remotely close to that. However, with the printing press and the internet, we have access to collections of sermons like that, and a lot more. Not only can you read the sermons of many Fathers and saints of the Church online or in books, but you can read and listen to sermons from contemporary clergy. Also many clergy podcast verse by verse Bible commentaries and Bible studies that they conduct in their parishes.

The opportunities are vast, in fact so vast that you could allow the vastness to overwhelm you. But if you are not sure where to start with such things, you can speak to your parish priest, and ask for pointers, and then go from there.

And again, don't try to do too much all at once. Focus on doing something, and doing it consistently.

In the future, there will be a follow-up series of posts that will talk about how to dig deeper into the Scriptures.

For More Information:

A Guide to Biblical Reference Texts

The Inerrancy of Scripture