Sunday, May 10, 2009

Holy Scripture, the Church, and Scholarship, I

Today, on which we mark the tenth anniversary of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Glorification of the New Hieromartyr Hilarion (Troitsky), Archbishop of Verey (+1929) (he had been Glorified among the ranks of the New Martyrs and Confessors by the Russian Church Abroad in 1981), I offer the first installment of my translation of an article by this great saint. This article, which originally appeared in Moskovskie tserkovnye vedomosti (1911, No. 50), has its origin in a lecture given at the theological courses for women created in Moscow in 1910 with the blessing of the New Hieromartyr Vladimir (Bogoiavlensky), who was at that time Metropolitan of Moscow and Kolomena. The author was then a layman and associate professor of New Testament at the Moscow Theological Academy. Other articles by St Hilarion that can be found online in English include A Pascha of Incorruption, Christianity or the Church?, and Christianity and Socialism.
Holy Scripture… yet Christ did not write anything! It is said of Him only once, in the Gospel according to John, that He wrote anything, and in that case He wrote with His finger (c.f., Jn 8:6), and He wrote on the ground. The founders of different religions, the originators of philosophical schools, wrote much, and wrote gladly, but Christ wrote nothing. This is an entirely characteristic circumstance for a Christian. The entire essence of the matter of Christ becomes clear and comprehensible to us if we properly appreciate the fact that Christ wrote nothing. Christ did not write anything… That means that the Son of God came to earth not at all in order to write and give people some sort of book. Could it be that to write a book the Incarnation of the Only-Begotten Son of God was necessary? The Incarnation of the second Person of the Holy Trinity was necessary for people’s salvation. A book, no matter which, could not and cannot save mankind. Christ is not a teacher, but precisely the Savior. Human nature, corrupted by sin, needed to be renewed, and the beginning of this renewal was laid by the very Incarnation of the Son of God. The great theologian of the second century, St Irenaeus of Lyons, writes: “But if a thought of this kind should then suggest itself to you, to say, What then did the Lord bring to us by His advent – know that He brought all [possible] novelty, by bringing Himself Who had been announced. For this very thing was proclaimed beforehand, that a novelty should come to renew and quicken mankind” (Against the Heresies, 4:34:1).

By His Incarnation the Son of God made people communicants of the Divine nature, and therefore became the forefather of a new mankind, in which the previous nature of mankind, ruined by sin, is renewed. Christ Himself called this new mankind the Church. In the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew we read of how the Apostle Peter, on behalf of all the Apostles, confessed Christ as the Only-Begotten Son of God Incarnate. Christ answered Peter: on this rock (that is, His Incarnation), I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Mt 16:16-18). Separating from, and parting with, His disciples, He promised to send them another Comforter: the Holy Spirit, Who will guide them in all things, and Who will abide with them unto the ages (c.f., Jn 14:16-17; 15:26; 14:26; 16:13). Holy Scripture constantly says of this same Holy Spirit that He gives life to the Church, which is called the Body of Christ. The Holy Spirit is the sole Source of all spiritual gifts given to members of the Church (c.f., 1 Cor 12:4-11). The Church lives, thinks, and prospers in perfection, directed by the Holy Spirit. Only in the Church does an individual person receive all the strength necessary for his moral regeneration.

It is precisely in this way that Holy Scripture compels us to conceive of the thought and essence of Christ’s deed. Christ’s deed is the creation of the Church. [For more, see my brochure “Christianity or the Church?”, second edition. Sergiev Posad, 1912.] Proceeding from this foundational thought, we must consider Holy Scripture.

Christ established the Church. The Church was in existence before there was the Holy Scripture of the New Testament. From the very beginning of the Church, Christians used the sacred books of the Old Testament for their edification. The books of the New Testament, however, appeared in the period of over a half-century from the historical beginning of the Church. The holy Apostles wrote these books for the instruction of the already-existing Church; they were written for the Church. If that is the case, then it would not be daring to say that it is not Holy Scripture, as a book, that saves man, but the grace of the Holy Spirit that lives in the Church. The grace-filled power of the Holy Spirit acts through the Church’s Mysteries, and through the rules of Church life; and it acts as the Divinely-inspired word of God through the books of Holy Scripture. By the will of the Holy Spirit, Scripture was written down and given to the Church. It is a precious property, but specifically the property of the Church. Therefore Holy Scripture cannot be separated from the Church. Outside the Church, Scripture is nothing; or, it would be better to say, outside the Church there is no Holy Scripture, nor can there be.

In order to become the follower of a given philosophical school it is necessary to absorb the philosophical works of the founder of this school. But in order to become a true Christian, for salvation, is it enough to know the New Testament? Of course not. One can know the entire New Testament by heart, one can know all New Testament scholarship, and nonetheless be very, very far from salvation. For salvation one must namely be added to the Church, as it is said in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, that those being saved were added to the Church (c.f., Acts 2:47; 5:13-14). Only within the Church of Christ, which alone saves, does Scripture serve to man’s benefit. Scripture is salvific only to those who are in the Church.

Thus Holy Scripture has its meaning and significance only in the Church, with which it is inextricably connected, and for which it came into being. The idea of the Church is therefore the foundational guiding principle for an Orthodox person in his judgments about Scripture and for its use for the actual benefit on his soul.

Above all, the Church and its dogmatic teaching give the key to the proper understanding of Holy Scripture. Nowadays one more and more often comes up against such reasoning: in Holy Scripture we read this and that, but the Church teaches something else; therefore the Church is in error. It is typically sectarians who reason in this manner, but one can also frequently hear such talk from people who, although they relate negatively to the Church, nonetheless call themselves Christians. But all such reasoning is entirely false down to its very root. The Holy Spirit wrote Holy Scripture through the holy apostles for the Church, and this same Spirit guides the very Church, according to the Savior’s true promise, in all truth. The Holy Spirit is one and indivisible, eternal and unchanging. How could He say one thing in Holy Scripture, and something else in Church doctrine and life? To allow for the possibility of contradiction between the Church and Holy Scripture means to speak of the self-contradiction of the Holy Spirit, it means in fact to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. The devil alone can inspire the blasphemous thought of the Holy Spirit contradicting Himself, and we should agree with the strong and sharp, but wise and correct expression of St Vincent of Lerins: “When we find people alleging passages from the Apostles or Prophets against the Catholic Faith, that the devil speaks through their mouths” [Commonitory, 26.68]. No explanation of Holy Scripture should contradict the teaching of the Church. For what is all the teaching of the Church? All the dogmas of the Church? For they are nothing other than an indication of how properly to understand Holy Scripture. At the Ecumenical Councils, before establishing any kind of true Christian doctrine, they first studied the words of the Holy Scripture in detail. Certain passages of Scripture seemed to heretics, particularly to the Arians at the First Ecumenical Council, to be in contradiction to this truth.

Then the Fathers of the Council demonstrated how one is to understand these passages in accordance with Church truth, and this truth was confirmed by the entire Council, that is by the entire Church, by the Holy Spirit, Who lives in the Church and guides it in all truth. Therefore later Church councils began their definitions, like the Council of the Apostles described in the fifteenth chapter of the book of Acts, with the words “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us.” Therefore if anything in Holy Scripture seems to us to contradict Church doctrine, then it remains for us only to try to understand the agreement between Holy Scripture and Church doctrine, and not to reject Church doctrine. This is why we can and should be guided by the works of the Holy Fathers in interpreting Holy Scripture: their authors, in interpreting Holy Scripture, remained steadily and consistently in accord with Church doctrine. Being, according to the expression of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, luminaries in the world, they were also rules of faith.


Phil Sumpter said...

This is very interesting, thank you. I've been wrestling with this issue from a Protestant perspective (inspired by the work of Brevard Childs) on my blog, summarized (though not complete) in my thread Faithful and Critical Scholarship. I've learnt to sympathize with a lot of what is written here, though of course I don't agree with it all. Protestants, however, would certainly benefit from learning from this kind of stuff.

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