Here follows the second installment of my translation of an article by the New Hieromartyr Hilarion (Troitsky), Archbishop of Verey (+1929). Part one is here. Two or three more installments are forthcoming. It should be noted that the title of this article could also be translated “Holy Scripture, the Church, and Science.” I have elected to translate the Russian наука in the title as “scholarship” rather than “science,” inasmuch as the latter in contemporary English usage is very often taken as a synonym of “natural science.” In the body of the article I translate it sometimes as “scholarship” and sometimes as “science,” depending on context. Readers should bear in mind that they translate one and the same Russian word.
Thus, the Church is the guide to the interpretation of Holy Scripture.
The necessity of precisely this guidance becomes especially clear when one considers to the end the great lie that Protestantism drew on its flag, and after it every imaginable sectarianism and human frivolousness and free-thinking generally. Protestantism rejected the necessity of Church norms and principles for the interpretation of Scripture. But then, obviously, everyone has to be directed in the interpretation of Scripture by his own so-called common sense [literally, sound mind]. There is no need to mention that people’s common sense can very often judge the very same phenomenon, the very same fact, differently; but I think, and this is indisputable, that our minds, in the understanding of Holy Scripture, left to themselves, cannot at all be sound. To speak frankly, how often it happens that we go astray in our lives, that our reason does little more than justify our (fallen) will through sophistries.
Normally we agree with one another very easily about questions that do not affect our lives, that do not concern the direction of our wills. That is why in questions of natural science, and particularly in mathematics, there are so many universally accepted and unquestioned truths. Why, in fact, should I not accept that the sum of the angles of a triangle is always equal to that of two right angles? Or that the sum of the areas of the squares on the cathedi is equal to the area of the square on the hypotenuse, as the Pythagorean theorem affirms? Why should I not accept these mathematical truths? Their recognition binds me to absolutely nothing. I think one can, and even should, agree with the brilliant philosopher Leibniz, who said: “If geometry conflicted with our passions and our present concerns as much as morality does, we would dispute it and transgress it almost as much – in spite of all Euclid’s and Archimedes’ demonstrations, which would be treated as fantasies and deemed to be full of fallacies – and Joseph Scaliger, Hobbes and others who have written against Euclid and Archimedes would not find so few supporters as they do in fact” [New Essays on Human Understanding, 1.2.96]. Yes, when the matter concerns life itself, then immediately fierce, often passionate debates flare up, debates without end. That is why there are so many debates about philosophical truths, and even more about religious truths. Theological sciences are the most vitally important sciences, and therefore their tenets attract such a mass of debates.
But how does all of this relate to our question? Namely that, if the interpretation of Holy Scripture is left to each individual person, then one will find as many understandings of the word of God as there are people, that is, one will not find Holy Scripture at all. St Vincent of Lerins spoke of just the same thing back in the fifth century: “Owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation” [Commonitorium, 2.5].
Scholarship, with all its methods, is powerless to establish any sort of unanimity. There are many scholarly interpretations. One can probably say that there is a shelf of books written on every verse, but not only have doubts not been settled, or differences of opinion smoothed over, but just the opposite – these doubts and differences of opinion grow more and more.
The individual person will also constantly go back and forth in his understanding of Holy Scripture if he is not guided by the authority of the Church. The intellect, left to itself, can go even further in abusing Scripture, justifying the wise words of Clement of Alexandria: “others, giving themselves up to pleasures, wrest Scripture, in accordance with their lusts” (Stromata, 7.16; [c.f., 2 Pet 3:16]). The books of Holy Scripture give particularly wide scope for unlimited and arbitrary self-judgment. Indeed, philosophers and founders of other religions left behind them whole volumes of their works, expressing everything more or less fully and definitely, and therefore there is not limitless room for arbitrary reinterpretation. But Christ Himself wrote nothing: other people wrote about Christ, even those who were not witnesses of His deeds or immediate hearers of His teaching. From the perspective of autonomous reason it is perfectly legitimate to ask whether Christ’s teaching was conveyed properly, and if His life and deeds were related correctly by the writers of the books of the New Testament. Even if we grant that these books are authentic, does that mean that everything written in them corresponds to reality? The authenticity of the books does not yet guarantee their accuracy. It is undeniable that authentic reports even from eyewitnesses are often false: the author either saw the events poorly, or misunderstood them, or remembered wrongly if he wrote decades after the events. If one begins from such a perspective, then there open limitless possibilities for one’s judgment to affirm whatever it likes, and one will found a “Christianity” in accordance with one’s own personal tastes and one’s own personal desires. I am not talking about alleged possibilities only, but about real historical facts. Already in the second century, as St Irenaeus of Lyons relates, there were people who prided themselves in correcting the apostles and in being wiser not only than the bishops, but even than the apostles (Against Heresies 3.1.1; 1.2.2).
A century ago the rationalists Eichorn and Paulus, recognizing the authenticity of the entire New Testament, nonetheless “corrected” it with their astonishing, and at times outrageous, interpretations, so that not a single miracle was left in the entire New Testament. Marcion, a heretic of the second century, said that only Paul properly understood Christ’s teaching, and that the other apostles distorted it with Jewish insertions, and Leo Tolstoy affirmed that even the Apostle Paul, “not understanding Christ’s teaching very well” (a literal quotation), did much to distort it. To whom should one listen? It is unclear, and it seems that only one thing is beyond doubt: without the authority of the Church, a person quickly places himself above the apostles, above Christ Himself, and will begin to replace Christ’s teaching with the fanciful images of his own idle fantasy. If one interprets Holy Scripture with his reason alone, then soon he will be left without Scripture. Without the Church there will be no Scripture! Even if the books of Holy Scripture remain, in words and letters, even then each person will place his own content into these forms.
It does not stop there. Reason does not stop even at the destruction of the very books of Holy Scripture. Questions about the authenticity and generally about the origin of the sacred books are the subject of the field of isagogy. At the present time isagogical studies have so expanded that they appear as nothing less than a mysterious labyrinth, from which no exit is at all visible. Every year newer and newer questions are posed, old solutions to old questions are rejected, and hypotheses are piled one on top of another. It sometimes seems that people are simply engaging in scholarly sports, writing learned books only to have something to write. Scholarly literature on isagogical questions has been growing for over a century. It is not surprising that a mountain of books has been written, but one cannot help but be astonished by the fact that there are almost no sold and indisputable results. How many self-sacrificing scholarly efforts have been dedicated to researching the origins of the New Testament alone! It would seem that scholars should long ago have come to agree about something! However, to this day, alongside the most orthodox works appear books that refute them in virtuoso fashion. Almost every day brings its own “last word of scholarship.” What is the cause of this phenomenon? The cause lies in the properties of scholarship itself, namely that it cannot be independent and free in deciding the most important questions that relate to our very lives. It gives people the very answers for which they were looking. Once again we return to the same conclusion: man, left to his intellect alone, will soon lose Holy Scripture, soon lose the very books of Holy Scripture, explaining them away as forgeries of the second century unworthy of special attention. Only the Church can give one an entirely satisfactory foundation for the recognition of the authenticity and Divine-inspiration of the well-known books of Holy Scripture.
There are two kind of knowledge: external or scientific knowledge, and inner and immediate knowledge, or self-consciousness. Science draws its knowledge either from the investigation of certain facts or, in historical questions, from their written monuments. It judges all phenomena by their external evidence, by the external traces these phenomena have left behind. But do all phenomena leave behind them sufficient external traces? How many facts from our personal lives pass noticed only by ourselves! If someone set out to confirm some event from our lives wholly scientifically, he would meet with great difficulty: not having sufficient scientific data, and interpreting the existing data in his own way, he would most like describe this event to us in such a way that we would not recognize it at all. Nonetheless, all the most brilliant scientific reasoning could not force us to change our knowledge of the events of our lives. When a known fact is in our consciousness we cannot perceive it other than how it appears to our immediate consciousness.
Let us take the “juridical error” as an example. All the existing evidence, all the data of the preliminary investigation demonstrates the guilt of the defendant. The prosecutor’s brilliant speech conclusively demonstrates his guilt. The defendant himself and his counsel cannot say anything in defense. The jury brings in a guilty verdict. The public leaves with the thought that justice reigns in the courts and that the defendant was sentenced justly. But the defendant himself knows that he is innocent, and no one can prove the contrary to him. Recall the brilliant trial so ingeniously portrayed by our great Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov. Could the swan song of the old prosecutor, in which there was so much about the “psychology that cuts both ways” and the “psychology at full steam,” have convinced Karamazov himself that he was guilty of killing his father? Or could the trial in The Living Corpse [aka Regeneration, a play by Tolstoy] have convinced the Karenins of their guilt? Is it not obvious that our self-consciousness is, for us, more reliable than all scientific knowledge?
It is precisely in the Church’s self-consciousness that knowledge of the authenticity of the books of Holy Scripture is given. These books were written for the Church, they were bestowed to the Church; the Church has preserved them, and expressed at the Councils its knowledge that the given books are authentic, apostolic, Divinely-inspired Scriptures. In the definitions of the Councils we hear the voice of the Church, which can be viewed as one “person,” because the one, personal Spirit of God enlivens it.
Scholarship has put the Church on trial; it has made its preliminary investigation. Reason has spoken with the effective and persuasive speech of the prosecutor. But the Church knows what it knows, and it cannot change its knowledge. The task of the Church’s theological scholarship is that of the speech of the defendant. For if a defendant, conscious of his own innocence, refuses any defense, then he will be convicted. If the Church refuses any defense, then the audience will leave the halls of the scientific court judging the Church. This is a temptation that the Church must prevent. Theological scholarship should review all the charges made against the Church, investigating all the documents and giving them a proper interpretation. The Church’s witness about its own self-consciousness should direct the fundamental solution to the question. The Church’s witness is not only a fully sufficient foundation for the recognition of the authenticity of the sacred books, but the only reliable basis for this recognition. The Blessed Augustine expressed this truth beautifully when he said: “I would not believe in the Gospels myself if the authority of the Catholic Church did not move me to do so” [Against the Letter of Mani Called ‘The Foundation’ 4.5]. In fact, Protestants or sectarians who reject the Church appear to recognize Holy Scripture. But this recognition of theirs is built on air. Let them try to consider this question to the end: why do they consider precisely these books, and none others, as Divinely-inspired Holy Scripture, as authentically apostolic works? One cannot cite scholarship, because a hopeless debate about the authenticity of a large part of the sacred books is still ongoing. One cannot cite one’s personal opinion, for this would mean to refuse to give a reasonable answer. To the question of why one or another books is authentic, apostolic Holy Scripture, all those who reject the Church remain and will remain without an answer or else will engage in different sorts of “rhetorical guile.”
From everything that has been said, we hope that it is obvious that it follows that only in the Church does Holy Scripture have its defined volume and its defined content. Faith in the Church is the true compass by which everyone seeking enlightenment of mind and knowledge of truth in Scripture can, without fear of destruction and ruin, direct one’s boat, whether one is an unlettered simpleton or an enlightened man of science.
It follows, in conclusion, that everything is determined by faith. It is altogether important to establish a principled attitude towards all the so-called negative sciences. Above all one needs to note that the most perverse conceptions about the state of modern scholarship about Holy Scripture reigns among us. If scientific knowledge in general is not widespread among us, then this can be said with special emphasis about scholarly knowledge of Holy Scripture. One often meets with such reasoning: contemporary scholarship has “conclusively demonstrated” that the books of the New Testament were written neither by the apostles nor in the first century. This is said in a tone of self-confidence that does not permit any objections, spoken in the name of science. After all, it is well known that it is the people who are least engaged in science, and who stand furthest from science, that like to allude to science and are particularly inclined either to degrade or to extol it.