Friday, July 28, 2017

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

Hearing the Scriptures

Most Christians for most of Church history did not own their own copy of the Scriptures (either in whole or in part). They heard the Scriptures read in Church. While sitting down and reading the text of the Bible is important, we certainly can listen to the Bible being read, and gain great benefit from it. With modern technology, you can listen to recordings on your phone or home computer, and these recordings are available for free. If you are strapped for free time, are a mother with small children that keep you busy, or spend a lot time on the road, this might be the best way for you to study the Scriptures. 

The King James Version was in fact translated with how it would appeal to the hearer in mind (not just the reader), and if you have difficulty reading the KJV, chances are good you will have an easier time listening to it.

And when you feel too tired to read, or are going through sections of Scripture that can seem tedious (like long lists of names in the book of Numbers), you may find listening much easier than reading.

The Journey of a Thousand Miles

The Chinese philosopher Laozi famously wrote: "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" (Dao De Jing 64). One of the points of this saying is that we should not be overwhelmed with the length of the journey, but simply begin it, taking one step at a time. A more contemporary saying begins with the question "How do you eat an elephant?" with the answering being "One bite at a time." This is also true of reading the Scriptures. The Bible is a very large book (or more precisely, a large collection of many books), and depending on how diligently you read it, it can take a long time to make your way through it. But if you read 3 chapters a day, you will have read most of the Bible in a year.

However, a better way to look at this is not that reading the Bible is a very long journey that will be difficult to complete, but rather that it is a lifelong journey. It is an important part of living the Christian life, and so it should be something you do every day. You don't really get through the Bible; rather, by regularly reading the Bible, you allow it to get through you. St. Poemen illustrates this point:
“The nature of water is soft, that of the stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone. So it is with the word of God; it is soft and our heart is hard, but the man who hears the word of God often, opens his heart to the fear of God” (Benedicta Ward, translator, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Alphabetical Collection (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975, 1984 revised edition), p. 192f.).
No matter how many times we may have read through the Bible, we need to continue to read it, because we need it to constantly soften our hearts, and open ourselves up to God's grace. I have been reading the Bible regularly since I was a boy, and I still learn new things every time I read it. I am also reminded of things that I have forgotten, that I needed to be reminded of. And I don't doubt that this will continue to be true until my last breath.

It is helpful to read something from both the Old and the New Testaments. I suggest a system for doing so in "A Simple Approach to Reading the Entire Bible," but if you simply read one chapter a day from the Old Testament, and one from the New, this would provide for some balance in your reading. Some part of the Old Testament can be especially difficult, and so reading that along with portions from the New Testament can keep you from getting bogged down.

Reading the Scriptures in Accordance with the Fathers

According to Canon 19 of the 6th Ecumenical Council, we are told that the Scriptures must be interpreted in a way that does not deviate from the teachings of the Fathers. When converts are received from other Christian group, they are asked (among many other things):
Dost thou acknowledge that the Holy Scriptures must be accepted and interpreted in accordance with the belief which hath been handed down by the Holy Fathers, and which the Holy Orthodox Church, our Mother, hath always held and still doth hold?
The answer the convert is to give is: "I do." But how do we practically go about doing that?

There are many commentaries on Scripture from the Fathers. I have gotten my hands on most of what is currently available in English, but the average person probably could not afford to gather such a collection, and reading through them is a massive undertaking unto itself. But even with all of those commentaries, there are many passages of Scripture for which there is no patristic commentary at all. So what do you do when you're reading the Bible, and you don't have patristic commentary to explain what you are reading to you?

St. Augustine wrote "On Christian Doctrine" in order to teach people how to properly read Scripture, but he has an interesting comment about someone who might not get it right. First he explains what the purpose of the Scriptures is for us to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, and then says:
"Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought. If, on the other hand, a man draws a meaning from them that may be used for the building up of love, even though he does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express in that place, his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of deception. For there is involved in deception the intention to say what is false; and we find plenty of people who intend to deceive, but nobody who wishes to be deceived. Since, then, the man who knows practices deceit, and the ignorant man is practiced upon, it is quite clear that in any particular case the man who is deceived is a better man than he who deceives, seeing that it is better to suffer than to commit injustice. Now every man who lies commits an injustice; and if any man thinks that a lie is ever useful, he must think that injustice is sometimes useful. For no liar keeps faith in the matter about which he lies. He wishes, of course, that the man to whom he lies should place confidence in him; and yet he betrays his confidence by lying to him.  Now every man who breaks faith is unjust. Either, then, injustice is sometimes useful (which is impossible), or a lie is never useful. Whoever takes another meaning out of Scripture than the writer intended, goes astray, but not through any falsehood in Scripture. Nevertheless, as I was going to say, if his mistaken interpretation tends to build up love, which is the end of the commandment, he goes astray in much the same way as a man who by mistake quits the high road, but yet reaches through the fields the same place to which the road leads. He is to be corrected, however, and to be shown how much better it is not to quit the straight road, lest, if he get into a habit of going astray, he may sometimes take cross roads, or even go in the wrong direction altogether" (On Christian Doctrine 1:36).
We learn what it means to love God and our neighbor in the teachings of the Church. If we interpret the Scriptures in accordance with the teachings of the Church, we may get some things wrong, but we will never be too far off track.

Because we may not understanding something in Scripture we should of course always be open to being corrected by the Church. If we have questions about something, there are many people in the Church we can ask for guidance. But we should not allow the fear of our misunderstanding something in Scripture to prevent us from trying to understand it.

There are many sources we can turn to to help us better understand the Scriptures. There are books like Johanna Manley's "The Bible and the Holy Fathers," which provide some commentary on the passages of Scripture that are appointed to be read liturgically. All of St. John Chrysostom's commentaries on the books of the New Testament are available online, as are many other Patristic commentaries. So I would encourage you to make use of what is available, and try to get you hands on useful resources, but as long as you continue to try to understand the Orthodox Faith properly, you will be able to read the Scriptures with benefit, and will keep from getting too far off track in how you understand it.

Continued in Part 3: In Context

For more Information:

A Simple Approach to Reading the Entire Bible

A Guide to Biblical Reference Texts

Computer Based Bible Study... for Free