Scripture and Traditon

We might consider the way in which the idea of the complementarity of Scripture and tradition makes ready sense of what we know of the formation of the Old Testament. For here too historical criticism has had the odd effect of both advancing our understanding and denying us that understanding. The notion of ‘original meaning’ is here very complicated: do we mean what was intended by the one who first uttered a prophetic oracle, for example, or the one who first wrote it down and regarded it as a significant oracle, or the one—or more likely the many—who edited it and gave it its place in the context of the whole prophetic book as we have it? Or take the psalms, particularly their use in Christian worship: what is the meaning of these poems that we recite, and continue to recite after three thousand years or so? Is it what the original writer intended, or what whoever it was who introduced the psalm into the worship of the Temple thought, or what? Clearly too restrictive an understanding of the meaning of a psalm will make nonsense of the recitation of the psalms and deny the basis of the spiritual experience of generations of Christians. And what about those who collected the books together and formed them into a canon? And which canon anyway? It makes a good deal of difference, it seems to me, whether the Prophets come at the end of the Old Testament or somewhere in the middle of the Hebrew Scriptures. The tendency of the historical-critical method has been to concentrate on originality and regard what is not original as secondary: but if we see here a process of inspired utterance and reflection on—comment on—inspired utterance within the tradition, itself regarded as inspired, then we have a more complicated, but, I suggest, truer picture. The formation of the Hebrew Scriptures is an object lesson in the kind of complementarity of Scripture and tradition—or inspired utterance and tradition—that I have outlined. The art of understanding is more complicated, and richer, than an attempt to isolate the earliest fragments and to seek to understand them in a conjectured ‘original’ context: we hear the voice and the echoes and re-echoes, and it is as we hear that harmony that we come to understanding.

Fr Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery, p 108

I highly recommend Sister Macrina’s blog, A Vow of Conversation, as she and I are both reading this same very good book by Fr Louth. She provides thoughtful insights on her selections, as well, unlike the slothful author of this blog, though in this instance I shake off the torpor.

It has been a commonplace that the “Old Man of Biblical Studies,” the historical-critical method, is passé, on the way out, defunct, shot, kaput, shuffling off this mortal coil, giving up the ghost, and, one might say, moving on. Entire books have been written about this, like the not-so-cryptically named The End of the Historical-Critical Method, and scores of articles. Some would like to think its mantle picked up by postmodern literary criticism, or some knock-off form thereof, suitable to use and abuse by biblical studies people. So be it. None of this is really of interest to Fr Louth here, as this would require the recognition of the almost contractual exclusivity of engagement with the text (a Bible thick or thin, of testaments old or new or both) granted to the historical-critical method, which recognition has indeed been denied it by the Church, to tell the truth. Historically (aha!) historicism has not been of more than passing interest to the writing saints, commonly called the Church Fathers (and Mothers, few though they be), or with more hauteur, the Patristic authors. The Church calls them Saints. And their concern was for the souls of their readers and hearers, not the perpetuation of footnotes and the expansion of bibliographies. What is the method that Fr Louth advocates, drawing on this Patristic propensity? A hint: the chapter from which the above selection comes is titled Return to Allegory. Yes, indeed, our old maligned friend allegory. Its long and distinguished usage is making a comeback of sorts in studies of what is being called “reception history,” which focus on how various texts have been interpreted down through the centuries. And Origen’s connection with allegory, and his taking it to extremes, has been a constant source of dissertative amusement for many years. Yet, as a living thing, a tradition, even, allegory lives and breathes in the Eastern Orthodox Church, quite vivaciously, in fact, and has never experienced rejection in that context. Every liturgy is full of Scriptural imagery, all of it placed according to allegorical understanding, rooted in Apostolic and earlier usage.

A fine time to experience some of that will be this coming Holy Week, the week of April 20th this year, at any Orthodox Church near you. Nearly all of them will be having evening services throughout the week. Everyone is welcome to attend. (Communion, however, is for Orthodox Chrisitans only, and of them, only those who’ve prepared for it through fasting and confession.) I particularly recommend the Holy Saturday services and especially the Vigil of Pascha, a liturgy leading up to the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ at midnight on Sunday, with the lighting of candles, the singing of Christos anesti, and, if you’re lucky, the triumph of your egg in the smashing of red-dyed eggs together! Come and see. Check Google for an Orthodox Church in your city, or look in the phone book. Check their website for service times or give them a call. I’d recommend it just to make sure you don’t end up visiting a church to hear some allegory in action and instead find that the services are all incomprehensible in Byzantine Greek or Old Church Slavonic!