Behr, The Mystery of Christ

Fr John Behr is the incoming dean of Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, an Eastern Orthodox seminary in Crestwood, New York. In The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death (Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2006), Fr Behr brings to the fore the importance of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ as the central interpretive/exegetical axis for the apostolic and patristic Church. It’s a short book, 181 pages, with four pages of an index, and several color plates, surprisingly. After a preface, the five chapters are Through the Cross, Search the Scriptures, For This We Were Created, The Virgin Mother, Glorify God in Your Body. These are followed by Postscript: A Premodern Faith for a Postmodern Era.

Fr Behr’s main theme is that it is the recognition of Christ as God in the Passion and Resurrection which led the apostles to find more about Christ in the Scriptures, that is, the Old Testament. It’s this exegetical perspective that underlies, that is the foundation for, the New Testament writings, and is the standard method in the sub-apostolic and patristic period, as well. Fr Behr focuses on the importance of this interpretative aspect of the reaction to the Passion and Resurrection with an explicit rejection of placing the focus on the “historical” events per se, as these were not recognized as important, but only after the fact.

While I find the call for a return to the apostolic and patristic method of Scriptural interpretation, particularly of the Old Testament, important and necessary, particularly in the face of any number of academic approaches to the Scriptures that have not produced anything even remotely as interesting as the New Testament is, I think this book could have been better done. There are a number of regrettable typographic errors, and Fr Behr could have used an editor to help eliminate some of the more discursive tendencies of his writing style, which reads much like informal speech, but which makes for not very communicative reading. A pet peeve: there is “postmodern” literary interpretation, but there is no “postmodern era.” Likewise, his preference to focus on the interpretive aspect of response to the Passion and Resurrection in opposition to the “historical” is very “postmodern,” but ultimately unconvincing. As it is historical occurrences in historical (i.e., not mythic or legendary) time that have prompted the responses in combing the Scriptures, initiated by the resurrected Lord Himself with His disciples on the road to Emmaus, and these events in historical time are enshrined even in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (“…under Pontius Pilate…”), it appears that the attachment to the historical, to the perceived reality the apostles experienced and their believed reality of the past as depicted in the Scriptures was more important than simply an exegetical tactic. Perhaps I read too much into Fr Behr’s very contemporary postmodernism, and his rejection of the historical is only an unfortunate mistaken emphasis. But there are other questions that can be posed: Why did the apostles turn to the Old Testament to find in the ancient prophecies and other writings sayings about Christ? Was it not that these writings were considered the authoritative record of the past, particularly of God’s past dealings with Israel? Is it not to be expected that those familiar with this archive would examine it more closely in order to find the present depicted therein in the past as the coming future, ordained by God?

I find the call for a return to apostolic/patristic exegesis more clearly presented in Fr Georges Florovsky Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, Fr John Chryssavgis The Way of the Fathers: Exploring the Patristic Mind, and Fr John Breck Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church, and a series of various articles touching on various aspects of Orthodox/Patristic hermeutics and exegesis: Georges Barrois, “Critical exegesis and traditional hermeneutics: a methodological inquiry on the basis of the book of Isaiah” (St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, 16/3 [1972], 107-127), John Breck, “Exegesis and interpretation: Orthodox reflections on the ‘hermeneutic problem'” (St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, 27/2 [1983], 75-92), Veselin Kesich “The Orthodox Church and Biblical Interpretation” (St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, 37/4 [1993], 343-351), among many others, Orthodox and not. Crystallizing even a description of patristic methods of interpretation, much less examples of them, is something that is still in process, and is fortunately becoming more and more popular. These higher level works are few and far between. Fr Behr’s work in this regard in The Mystery of Christ should not be missed. For all my quibbling above, I have still gained from this book, and appreciate its input. I would recommend it to those who are already very familiar with patristics, but not as an introductory text, to be sure. The discursive nature of Fr Behr’s style could be unintentionally misleading to novices, something particularly dangerous in such a tricky subject, and the postmodernism so lightly brandished can be, or rather will be, off-putting to the more traditional-minded, which is the vast majority of his audience among the Orthodox. Nonetheless, it’s a fine book. If anything, it’s the first attempt I’ve seen at laying out in detail a proposition on the development of apostolic exegesis prior to the production of the New Testament documents. That I’m not entirely supportive of Fr Behr’s particular approach doesn’t mean I don’t think he’s on the right track, but rather only slightly off. And it’s a particularly timely read with this book’s focus on the Passion and Resurrecton, our having just experienced Pascha.

Anyhow, it’s time to pick out my next reading material.

5 Replies to “Behr, The Mystery of Christ”

  1. I found the book very good and exciting and actually very helpful. That being said, I think your criticisms- which did not come into my mind while I read the book- are well-reasoned. I am very glad, however, that he is the incoming dean. I’ve found his talks and his insights to be deep and biblical and he seems to be a man full of joy. He preached a short homily at the parish I attend last year and he seemed to radiate with happiness in preaching the Scriptures. At any rate, thanks for your thoughts.

    (long time lurker)

  2. Thank you for your input, Benjamin. Fr Behr is unquestionably full of love for the Scriptures, as is demonstrated by various articles he’s written on patristic interpretation. I haven’t had the pleasure of hearing him speak in person, though I’m not surprised at all that he radiates that love. In fact, I would expect it! Thinking over things with that in mind, the book falls clearly more in the realm of devotional than scholarly reading. Devotional writing and reading is often given a bit of leeway in technical language, so perhaps that’s the issue here. I’ll keep that in mind the next time I read it, which I plan to do in a few months, once the initial reading’s impression has faded. Books can often surprise in their second (or third, or fourth…) reading, through how much we change in the meantime, and formerly rough passages are found to have become sublime.

    Thanks again for your comments, and please do write more often. There’s no reason to be shy.

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