The Apostle Paul urges us to “hold fast the pattern on sound words which you have heard” (2 Tim 1:13). St Basil the Great, in the first chapter of On the Holy Spirit, writes: “those who are idle in the pursuit of righteousness count theological terminology as secondary, together with attempts to search out the hidden meaning in this phrase or that syllable.” Indeed, “instruction begins with the proper use of speech, and syllables and words are the elements of speech.” The Orthodox Study Bible, as I will attempt to demonstrate, does not “hold fast the pattern on sound words” in its attempt to explain the dogma of the Holy Trinity.
The OSB's first study article (online here) is dedicated to the doctrine of Creation. There we read that the Orthodox Church has “dogmatically proclaimed that the One Triune God created everything that exists.” This Church, in fact, has proclaimed no such thing. Nowhere in the Scriptures, the Fathers, the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, or the liturgical texts does one find reference to the “One Triune God.” What one does find is the term “Tri-hypostatic Divinity/Godhead (theotis/bozhestvo)”– which is not at all the same as “Triune God,” which is distinctly modalist, as if the one God appeared in three forms. Furthermore, the very term “Triune God” is difficult if not impossible to construct in either Greek or Slavonic.
I here reproduce in full the study notes on the first page of the Biblical text (which can also be read online here):
1:1 God the Father made heaven and earth. “I believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth” (Creed).A very simply question arises: Who, then, made heaven and earth? First we are told that the Father made the heaven and earth; then that the Holy Spirit is the Father’s Coworker; then that Christ is the Father’s Coworker; then that the Father made heaven and earth through the Son and in the Holy Spirit; then that the Holy Trinity made heaven and earth; then that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit made heaven and earth and everything else. The result, needless to say, is mystifying. Let us examine each note carefully.
1:2 The Spirit of God is the Holy Spirit (BasilG; EphS). He proceeds from the Father, and is “the Lord and Giver of Life” (Creed). Since He is Lord, He is coequal with the Father, and is His Coworker in making heaven and earth.
1:3 God the Father spoke to His Word and Only-begotten Son, through whom He made the light (AthanG). Since the Son, too, is Lord, He is coequal with the Father, and is His Coworker in making heaven and earth.
The Holy Fathers teach that the Father made heaven and earth through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Holy Trinity made heaven and earth, and the Church sings, “We glorify the Father, we exalt the Son, and we worship the Holy Spirit – the indivisible Trinity who exists as One – the Light and Lights, the Life and Lives, who grants light and life to the ends of the world” (CanonAnd).
1:4-25 Since the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit made heaven and earth, They also made everything mentioned in these verses.
1: 1 One simply cannot put a period after the first sentence, nor quote the first verse of the Creed in isolation, ignoring that we confess in the same Creed that through Christ were all things made. To say that the Father made heaven and earth, full stop, is simply wrong. One cannot thus isolate the activity of any one Person of the Trinity, attributing Divine acts to particular Divine Persons. God accomplishes all His activities through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. God always works with His “two hands,” as St Irenaeus puts it.
1:2 The first statement is, of course, true. But here, as throughout the OSB, the Patristic reference is simply useless. Yes, we can be quite confident that St Basil the Great and St Ephraim the Syrian did in fact affirm this – but where? Given that the OSB has no bibliography of any kind, it’s simply impossible to locate the texts the compilers of the OSB had in mind. The second sentence is also true. But the third sentence is again confusing: Since the Holy Spirit is Lord, the Holy Spirit is coequal and Coworker with the Father. Why the causal conjunction? In other words, what is the causal relationship between the Holy Spirit being Lord (which, in fact, in not cited in Gen 1;2) and Him being coequal and Coworker with the Father? Is “Lord” simply equated with “God”? This is left unexplained.
1:3 (first paragraph) “God the Father spoke to His Word”? Genesis 1 doesn't describe something like a physical conversation, but an ineffable event beyond the limits of descriptive language. It is precisely the language used – "God said...," in Genesis 1 – that indicates that the Father creates through the Word Himself. It's this understanding that lies behind John 1 and all Patristic commentary on the Word as Creator. St Gregory of Nyssa, in his Answer to Eunomius' Second Book, the whole of which is necessary and relevant, writes: "Still we take a very low view of God, and drag down the Divine to our own grovelling standard, if we suppose the Father speaking with His mouth, and the Son’s ear listening to His words." He continues that there is no need of speech with God, and that it is ridiculous to posit that the Father has lungs, vocal cords, mouth, and tongue; or that the Son has ears, and that there is air that carries the sound between them. These anthropomorphisms (God said, saw, smelled, etc) point toward Divine perception that is entirely different than our own. Again, in the note's transition from the first sentence to the second, we have the same problems as above: a useless Patristic reference and an unsupported causal relationship between the Word’s attributes.
1:3 (second paragraph) The first sentence for the first time establishes what should have been stated from the very beginning, rather than being divided into discrete assertions about individual Persons of the Trinity. But the second sentence simply does not follow from the first: the action of each Person of the Trinity within creation cannot be collapsed into a single Trinitarian action. That is, to say “the Father made heaven and earth through the Son and in the Holy Spirit” is not the same thing as to say “the Holy Trinity made heaven and earth,” because the distinctive activity of each Person is thus overshadowed by a single, as it were, Trinitarian action. The verse from the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete does not in fact state “the Holy Trinity made heaven and earth,” but instead glorifies each Person of the Trinity, who exist as One: “We glorify the Father, we exalt the Son, and we worship the Holy Spirit – the indivisible Trinity who exists as One – the Light and Lights, the Life and Lives, who grants light and life to the ends of the world.”
1:4-25 Here, again, the language has reverted from the affirmation that “the Father made heaven and earth through the Son and in the Holy Spirit” to a new affirmation: “the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit made heaven and earth.” And then, once again, a causal relationship is made without being established. The first note on the next page again changes formulas: the “Holy Trinity also made man.” Again, confusion.
It might be charitably suggested that since each of the first three study notes is directed to a single verse of Scripture, and therefore no single note should be taken in isolation. Unfortunately, however, the very points to which I have objected are then systematized in the second study article, dedicated to the Holy Trinity (online here). There we read of the Persons of the Trinity: "They [sic!] are One God because They [sic!] are one in essence in nature.” This is in direct contradiction to Greek Fathers' consistent emphasis that there is one God because there is one Father. The source of unity in the Trinity is the Father, not the consubstantial essence. (These two points are central to the Greek Fathers' insistence on the "monarchy" of the Father.) How the OSB could refer to the Persons of the Trinity as "They" is quite beyond comprehension. How is this not tritheism? Consider the words of St Basil the Great in On the Holy Spirit (18:45):
For we do not count by way of addition, gradually making increase from unity to multitude, and saying one, two, and three,-nor yet first, second, and third. For "I," God, "am the first, and I am the last." And hitherto we have never, even at the present time, heard of a second God. Worshipping as we do God of God, we both confess the distinction of the Persons, and at the same time abide by the Monarchy. We do not fritter away the theology in a divided plurality,because one Form, so to say, united in the invariableness of the Godhead, is beheld in God the Father, and in God the Only begotten. For the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son; since such as is the latter, such is the former, and such as is the former, such is the latter; and herein is the Unity. So that according to the distinction of Persons, both are one and one, and according to the community of Nature, one. How, then, if one and one, are there not two Gods? Because we speak of a king, and of the king's image, and not of two kings.Four bold and capitalized statements follow, the first two of which read: “THE HOLY TRINITY CREATED THE WORLD” and “THE HOLY TRINITY SAVES THE WORLD.” Again, this is not the language of Scripture, of the Fathers, or of the liturgical texts. Both of these affirmations are then followed by a series of proof texts, several of which, once again, make affirmations about each of the Persons of the Trinity that cannot stand alone. We read, for instance: “Isaiah 63:16 – The Father is our Redeemer. He not only created the world but redeems it as well.” The verse cited from Isaiah in fact reads: “You are our Father, although Abraham did not know us, and Israel did not acknowledge us; but You, O Lord, are our Father. You delivered us, and from the beginning Your name was upon us.” The OSB, then, would seem to claim that the “Father” here is God the Father alone, and the Father’s “deliverance” means our Redemption by God the Father, all of which is intended to support the assertion that “the Holy Trinity saves the World.” Furthermore, it's interesting to note that the proof text here employed in fact follows the Masoretic text, not the LXX. The NKJV reads: "You, O Lord, are our Father; Our Redeemer from Everlasting is Your name." Note the present tense. Here is the same verse in the OSB: "[B]ut You, O Lord, are our Father. You delivered us, and from the beginning Your name was upon us." Not both the past tense and the wording. One can only conclude that the study notes were compiled without reference to the OSB's own text.
One could continue to work through the study page on the Holy Trinity, but it would simply involve more of the same. All the problematic statements we have looked at come from the first three pages of text alone.
All of this points to the OSB's fundamental methodological problem. Christian dogma does not exist in a metaphysical void. To understand a given doctrine one is obliged to study how its articulation was developed, defined, and defended in the Church's ongoing engagement with Scripture. Christ Himself, as understood within the Church, is the criterion of all Scripture. Therefore one is to read and interpret Scripture through the prism the Church's canon or rule of truth, which gives us the key to Scripture. The OSB has, so to speak, put the donkey in front of the cart, taking ecclesiastically-defined doctrine and then choosing, at its own whim, proof-texts to support these dogmas. This approach reduces Scripture to little more than an extended set of proof-texts, rather than the thesaurus (i.e., treasure) of all that pertains to Christ. Let us take St Irenaeus's words as a corrective and warning:
If anyone, therefore, reads the Scriptures [i.e., the Old Testament] this way, he will find in them the Word concerning Christ, and a foreshadowing of the new calling. For Christ is the “treasure which was hid in the field” (Mt 13:44), that is, in this world – for "the field is the world" (Mt 13:38) – [a treasure] hidden in the Scriptures, for He was indicated by means of types and parables, which could not be understood by men prior to the consummation of those things which had been predicted, that is, the advent of the Lord. And therefore it was said to Daniel the Prophet, “Shut up the words, and seal the book, until the time of the consummation, until many learn and knowledge abounds. For, when the dispensation shall be accomplished, they shall know all these things” (Dan 12:4,7). And Jeremiah also says, “In the last days they shall understand these things” (Jer 23:20). For every prophecy, before its fulfillment, is nothing but an enigma and ambiguity to men; but when the time has arrived, and the prediction has come to pass, then it has an exact exposition [exegesis]. And for this reason, when at this present time the Law is read by the Jews, it is like a myth, for they do not possess the explanation [exegesis] of all things which pertain to the human advent of the Son of God; but when it is read by Christians, it is a treasure, hid in a field, but brought to light by the Cross of Christ, and explained, both enriching the understanding of men, and showing forth the wisdom of God, and making known His dispensations with regard to man, and prefiguring the Kingdom of Christ, and preaching in anticipation the good news of the inheritance of the holy Jerusalem, and proclaiming beforehand that the man who loves God shall advance so far as even to see God, and hear His Word, and be glorified, from hearing His speech, to such an extent, that others will not be able to behold his glorious countenance (cf. 2 Cor 3:7), as was said by Daniel, “Those who understand shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and many of the righteous as the stars for ever and ever” (Dan 12:3). In this manner, then, I have shown it to be, if anyone read the Scriptures. (AH 4.26.1)One comes from reading the OSB knowing less about the dogma of the Holy Trinity than he did when he began. Indeed, what little the reader may have learned does not correspond to the Church's exacting Trinitarian language – and is therefore dangerous. What one has learned has exactly nothing to do with how the Church has historically defined the doctrine of the Trinity.
Bearing all this in mind should help explain why I reject the argument that the OSB, for all its failings, is somehow better than nothing.