A fruitless quest and a fruitful one

“I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” Jesus declares to his disciples in the Upper Room. “When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak…. He will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16.12-15).

The crucial matter, then, is not the historical question: Which words did Jesus actually speak prior to his crucifixion? The crucial matter is rather the canonical authority invested in the entire biblical witness by God himself. For even among the ipsissima verba Jesu, the words Jesus actually spoke during his earthly ministry, the biblical authors were selective, guided in their choice by both the needs of local communities and the living memory of the Church. And we take it as an article of faith that the process of selecting and recasting those teachings, to provide the basis for the apostolic writings, was an inspired process, one guided precisely by the risen Lord acting through the Spirit of Truth.

A quest for the ipsissima verba Jesu, as we should have learned with the original “Quest for the Historical Jesus,” is ultimately fruitless. It may be of interest from a strictly historical point of view, but it has no bearing on the matter of salvation. Whether spoken before his crucifixion or after his resurrection and exaltation, the words of Jesus are authoritative—they are words of eternal life—only because they are invested with saving power by God himself. In other words, neither their authority nor their saving power depends on their historicity—i.e., whether Jesus actually pronounced them prior to his crucifixion. They depend, rather, on their canonicity, their divinely established normative character.

Fr John Breck, Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church, pp 20-21

Note further that “canonicity” is not connoting here the idea of list of books of the Bible, but rather divinely established rule of faith. This is the rule of faith, the divinely established body of belief and way of life that enables us to properly give glory to God: precisely orthodoxia or Orthodoxy. Within that system, those beliefs and practices which are known guarantors of purification, illumination, and deification are those which are recognized as canonical, as pertaining to the rule of faith. Scripture is only one of such things. This recognition is characteristic particularly for those who have experienced theoria, the ineffable “divine vision” which is a grace of God, for they have been purified of their passions (though they are still sinners), have been illumined (though still fighting the darkness), and are living in theosis (though still human). But even those along the way are able to glimpse at least some small portion of the great interlocking wonder, the holistic beauty of a system of ethical, physical, psychological therapies, but especially and primarily spiritual therapies for the true healing of the soul, the most precious part of any of us. The Church, it is often said, is a hospital for the healing of souls. It is true. Healthy roots raise up a healthy and mighty tree, even if a poaching woodsman comes along to lob off branches for firewood and mar the tree’s beauty. But the tree will grow stronger and taller, and eventually the woodsman will no longer find branches to hack off as they’ll have grown out of his reach. So it can be with us, with the proper Physician, the Lover of Mankind.

I had forgotten how much I enjoyed this book by Fr Breck. Nearly every page bears a thought-provoking passage.

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