St Gregory the Theologian on the Nativity

St Gregory the Theologian here describes some ways in which people should and shouldn’t celebrate the feast of the Nativity of our Lord:

This is our festival, this is the feast we celebrate today, in which God comes to live with human beings, that we may journey toward God, or return—for to speak thus is more exact—that laying aside the old human being we may be clothed with the new, and that as in Adam we have died so we may live in Christ, born with Christ and crucified with Him, buried with Him, and rising with Him. For it is necessary for me to undergo the good turnaround, and as painful things came from more pleasant things, so out of painful things more pleasant things must return. “For where sin abounded, grace superabounded,” and if the taste of forbidden fruit condemned, how much more does the Passion of Christ justify? Therefore we celebrate the feast not like a pagan festival but in a godly manner, not in a worldly way but in a manner above the world. We celebrate not our own concerns but the One who is ours, or rather what concerns our Master, things pertaining not to sickness but to healing, not to the first shaping, but to the reshaping.
 
And how will this be? Let us not put wreaths on our front doors, or assemble troupes of dancers, or decorate the streets. Let us not feast the eyes, or mesmerize the sense of hearing, or pamper the sense of smell, or prostitute the sense of taste, or gratify the sense of touch. These are ready paths to evil, and entrances of sin. Let us not be softened by delicate and extravagant clothing, whose beauty is its inutility, or by the transparency of stones, or the brilliance of gold, or the artificiality of colors that falsify natural beauty and are invented in opposition to the divine image; nor by “revelries and drunkenness,” to which I know “debauchery and licentiousness” are linked, since from bad teachers come bad teachings, or rather from evil seeds come evil harvests. Let us not build high beds of straw, making shelters for the debauchery of the stomach. Let us not assess the bouquet of wines, the concoctions of chefs, the great cost of perfumes. Let earth and sea not bring us as gifts the valued dung, for this is how I know to evaluate luxury. Let us not strive to conquer each other in dissoluteness. For to me all that is superfluous and beyond need is dissoluteness, particularly when others are hungry and in want, who are of the same clay and the same composition as ourselves.
 
But let us leave these things to the pagan Greeks and to Greek pomps and festivals. They name as gods those who enjoy the steam rising from the fat of sacrificial animals and correspondingly serve the divine with their stomachs, and they become evil fashioners and initiators and initiates of evil demons. But if we, for whom the Word is an object of worship, must somehow have luxury, let us have as our luxury the word and the divine law and narratives, especially those that form the basis of the present feast, that our luxury may be akin and not foreign to the One who has called us.

 
Interesting, isn’t it? It sounds as though Constantinopolitans were right up there in Christmas decoration, excess, and luxuriating with any large city today in the Americas and Europe. I know they had credit available, too. I wonder if they ran it up for the latest toys for the kids? The latest chariot for dads? Some cabochon encrusted baubles for moms?
 
It sounds as though not much has changed since December 25, 380 AD, when the above words were spoken. They are excerpted from Festal Oration 38, as found in the nice little editon in the St Vladimir’s Seminary Press Popular Patristics Series, Festal Orations of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, translated by Nonna Harrison (SVS Press, 2008).

More on Fee/Stuart

A very productive comment from my friend Doug has convinced me to post a set of notes I started taking on Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s bestselling little book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Zondervan, 3rd ed: 2003). So, here are the notes, headed by the quotations from the book on which I’m commenting.

15 October 2010 @ home: Notes on Fee & Stuart _How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth_, 3rd ed (Zondervan, 2003) — noting objections for the use of this book by Orthodox Christians.

(I start these notes now after having read through the book into chapter 5 on the OT narratives. Through the course of my reading thus far, I have noted that my reactions have ranged from mildly pleased to slightly objecting (quibbling even) to outright rejection of various statements and even approaches. This body of notes intends to accurately chart these reactions to one of the better-contructed and most popular handbooks on Biblical exegesis (“Bible Study”) in the Protestant worldview. Perhaps, as is my hope, these notes will be useful to myself or to another in the construction of such a work for an Orthodox Christian audience. For this reason, I begin now to read the book again and note things here, with my copy of the book bearing exclamation points in the margin and page numbers for this journal. We’ll see how that goes!)

p. 14:

But we are also concerned about the (sometimes) hidden agenda that suggests that a seminary education or seminary professors are thereby a hindrance to understanding the Bible.

It must be admitted that inasmuch as such seminarians and sem. professors adhere to “historical criticism” they are right to be described as a hindrance to the understanding of the Bible that is valued by the Church and its faithful. If Christ is not the center, then such interpretation is a hindrance.

p. 14:

The great urgency that gave birth to this book is hermeneutics; we wrote especially to help believers wrestle with the questions of application. Many of the urgent problems in the church today are basically struggles with bridging the hermeneutical gap—with moving from the “then and there” of the original text to the “here and now” of our own life settings. But this also means bridging the gap between the scholar and layperson. The concern of the scholar is primarily with what the text meant; the concern of the layperson is usually with what it means. The believing scholar insists that we must have both. Reading the Bible with an eye only to its meaning for us can lead to a great deal of nonsense as well as to every imaginable kind of error—because it lacks controls. Fortunately, most believers are blessed with at least a measure of that most important of all hermeneutical skills—common sense.

Note the focus on “the text”, not on the Church! In a Protestant view, the reader takes the place of the Church, in that the reader is presumed to possess the inherent possibility to approach the text (i.e. Scripture!) alone and with only the meager introduction of some various methods or reading and study. No wonder Protestantism is such a chaos of beliefs! It is the job of the Church to, among other things, provide the framework for every Christian by which all of life, including the reading of the Bible, is comprehended. The Body of Christ, permeated by the Holy Spirit, has had and does have an approach to Scripture that is its own, seen in the Scriptures themselves—that reading which holds our Lor and Saviour Jesus Christ as the central character of all history and of all this present age. And as much as we are members of His Body, we feel nothing otherwise is relevant. All notion of the individual as qualified to interpret the Bible is incorrect and to be avoided and indeed to be warned against.

p. 15:

Our concern, therefore, must be with both dimensions. The believing scholar insists that the biblical texts first of all mean what they meant. That is, we believe that God’s Word for us today is first of all precisely what his Word was to them. Thus we have two tasks: First, our task is to find out what the text originally meant; this is called exegesis. Second, we must learn to hear that same meaning in the variety of new or different contexts of our own day; we call this second task hermeneutics. In its classical usage, the term “hermeneutics” covers both tasks, but in this book we consistently use it only in this narrower sense. To do both tasks well should be the goal of Bible study

—excellent paragraph.

p. 15 (and passim): “Word” is capitalized and used as a synonym for Scripture. For an Orthodox Christian, however, this is unacceptable—the Word, the Logos, of God is Jesus Christ Himself. HE is the ever-living Word, obviously, not a book. Our reverence for and delight in Scripture lies in its origin as inspired by God the Holy Spirit working in the Prophets and Apostles. We do not hold a view of Scripture that it is some kind of Christian Koran, an inviolate and perfect entity which is the copy of some eternal heavenly exemplar. For us, the Word IS God, and Scripture is a record of those who have in this world worshipped God, expected Him, worked with Him, and served Him in very particular and extraordinary ways, expressing and recording their thoughts and deeds through inspiration of God the Holy Spirit. They lived their lives filled with God’s Spirit—they were inspired to record what they recorded and how they recorded it.

p. 17:

Every so often we meet someone who says with great feeling, “You don’t have to interpret the Bible; just read it and do what it says.” Usually, such a remark reflects the layperson’s protest against the “professional” scholar, pastor, teacher, or Sunday school teacher, who by “interpreting” seems to be taking the Bible away from the common man or woman. It is their way of saying that the Bible is not an obscure book. “After all,” it is argued, “any person with half a brain can read it and understand it. The problem with too many preachers and teachers is that they dig around so much they tend to muddy the waters. What was clear to us when we read it isn’t so clear anymore.”

—the great Protestant objection and failure—every individual becomes Pope, rather than rejecting papacy altogether.

p. 18:

Interpretation that aims as, or thrives on, uniqueness can usually be attributed to pride (an attempt to “outclever” the rest of the world), a false understanding of spirituality (wherein the Bible is full of deeply buried truths waiting to be mined by the spiritually sensitive person with special insight), or vested interests (the need to support a theological bias, especially in dealing with texts that seem to go against that bias).

—like Fee’s own peculiar reading of στεναγμοῖς ἀλαλήτοις as glossolalia!

p. 18:

The aim of good interpretation is simple: to get at the “plain meaning of the text.” And the most important ingredient one brings to this task is enlightened common sense. The test of good interpretation is that it makes good sense of the text. Correct interpretation, there, brings relief to the mind as well as a prick or prod to the heart.

—excellent paragraph!

—Fee uses “the church” lowercase to describe whom? All Christians? All charismatics and those approved by him/them? For the Orthodox , there is only one Church, capitalized, which is the Body of Christ—the Eastern Orthodox Church. There are those outside her boundaries whom we regularly refer to (perhaps improperly) as “Christians” just as we refer to members of the Church as Christians. But properly speaking they are not two groups of people in an identical category with regard to Christ. Only in Orthodoxy is the fullness of truth held and guarded and preserved. Those outside the Church are adherents of various heresies. However, it is clear that God in His mercy and wisdom works where He will, without consulting or informing us! In view of this, I would opt for a usage of “Orthodox” or “Orthodox Christian” or even “Christian” for an Eastern Orthodox believer, but “other Christians” or “another Christian” or “non-Orthodox Christian(s)” for the others. Otherwise, lowercase “church” will, as is proper, be used to refer to a building of a local church, not to the Church Universal.

p. 18:

The first readon one needs to learn how to interpret is that, whether one likes it or not, every reader is at the same time an interpreter. That is, most of us assume as we read that we also understand what we read. We also tend to thing that our understanding is the same thing as the Holy Spirit’s or human author’s intent. However, we invariably bring to the text all that we are, with all of our experiences, culture, and prior understandings of words and ideas. Sometimes what we bring to the text, unintentionally to be sure, leads us astray, or else causes us to read all kinds of foreign ideas into the text.

Several points:
1.) Proper exegesis will only be possible for someone who is fully conversant with theology, properly Orthodox theology. Only such a person has the unshakable foundation on which to build a proper reading. And how rare that is! It is why we rely so heavily on those Church Fathers who have left us commentaries, and why we do not arrogate to ouselves the ability to avoid all heresy in the process of constructing a personal reading of Scripture. In fact, there is no such thing as “a personal reading of Scripture”—this does not exist in the Church. One who insists on a personal reading is an heretic, pure and simple. Such a one is also not truly approaching Scripture, but is approaching their idiosyncratic idea of Scripture. Scripture belongs to the Church, through which alone is a correct reading possible.

2.) Nearly all aids to Scripture—lexica, dictionaries, encyclopedias, etc—are, from an Orthodox perspective, tainted by the heresies of others. The vast majority of such works are produced by Protestants (either confessionally active ones or Protestants by intellectual heritage, as is “critical scholarship”). A large number are Romen Catholic. While the latter are in some ways sometimes closer to an Orthodox approach, the subtle difference are perhaps more dangerous for their subtlety. The all-pervasive papism of such works is an abomination and grave heresy, not adiaphora. There are undoubtedly a number of resources available from the Orthodox homelands (Greece, Russia, etc), but these are seldom translated into English. They are insufficiently available, what translations there are, or they are of insufficient quality. There number is dwarfed by the Protestant works, however, as they are also outdone in quality and availability. The sheer preponderance of these works lead many Orthodox (innocently ignorant) to believe any number of peculiar things—things which are not Orthodox—heresies. All this through availability! We need excellent tools of our own, motivated not by a “me too!” or a ghetto mentality, but rather as a natural result of our prayerful desire to save our souls and the souls of our fellow Orthodox, providing them a way to learn about Scripture from which every danger has been removed. The wretched “Orthodox Study Bible” does not count, as it was compiled by theological simpletons, with a hybrid translation of heretical origin, printed in a substandard manner on inferior materials. It will not do, and does not count toward the solution of providing excellent Orthodox Scriptural tools except perhaps as an excellent example of what to avoid doing.

—An idea: provide notes on various popular translations which would describe the problems that exist in the translation for Orthodox. E.g., not the mistranslaions in the NIV of all words relating to “tradition” (παραδιδ-). Various of us Orthodox could take a translation or two and then we’d collect our notes on them—the more involved, the better. This would be primarily for the NT, of course. The MT-based OT should be used only secondarily by Orthodox. Our OT is the LXX, for which NETS (not w/o its problems) is the only full translation of recent years widely available and of excellent quality. But, above all, we need our own approved tools!

p. 21:

The authors of this book labor under no illusions that by reading and following our guidelines everyone will finally agree on the “plain meaning,” our meaning! What we do hope to achieve is to heighten the reader’s sensitivity to specific problems inherent in each genre, to help the reader know why different options exist and how to make commonsense judgments, and especially to enable the reader to discern between good and not-so-good interpretations—and to know what makes them one or the other.

Separation of the contents of Scripture into a variety of genres, each w/ its own exegetical method for recommended results, is ingenious, but ultimately too atomizing. Most books are a mixture of genres, and it is as books that Orthodox readers will encounter Scripture, or isolated stories/pericopes, or psalms. Some core assumptions for Orthodox reading of Scripture:
1.) Christ is the centre of the OT as He is of the NT.
2.) Type-antitype or typological reading requires that we properly understand both the type and the antitype, with each illuminating our understanding of the other.
3.) The ways of reading exemplified by the Apostles in the NT and by the Church Fathers in their writings are not only suggestive for our own approach, but are normative. A properly Orthodox reading will not contradict their readings either in method or conclusion. If a reading does, then it’s a failure, an example of individual interpretation and likely heretical, even if unintentionally so.
4.) The 9 Rules of Orthodox Biblical Interpretation promulgated in 1786 by Metropolitan Platon of Moscow, Rector of the Moscow Ecclesiastic Academy:
1.) Open the literal meaning, and where it is dark because of translation or an ambiguity in the language, explain it in such a way that no passage is left which students cannot understand, apart from the very rare texts which are too complex to comprehend.
2.) Interpret spiritual and mysterious meanings, especially in the Old Testament, in those passages where such meanings are transparently concealed. In doing this, one has to be cautious so as not to do this with force. Thus, one ought not to seek out a secret meaning where there is none (or where one is forced, as is noticeable with many interpreters), but where links and the parallel passages follow directly from the words. Interpret spiritual and mysterious readings in agreement with the best interpreters.
3.) For a better understanding of dark passages, find and link the parallel passages, for this will make comprehension easier, since what is said in one place is often said ambiguously and briefly in another place, and despite the similarity between the two texts, the one differs in terms of a more detailed and clearer account.
4.) In interpreting Scripture, do not forget to conclude with the moral teachings flowing from the text. Formulate it with great regard.
5.) In interpreting the books of the Old Testament Prophets, indicate clearly when and in which circumstances their prophecies were fulfilled in the Old Testament and the New Testament.
6.) Where passages of Holy Scripture seem to contradict each other, explain these texts in agreement with published sources that contain general agreement.
7.) Wherever passages are found from which some false conclusions were drawn and which subsequently led to schisms or heresies, one is obliged to clearly indicate the right and true meaning of these passages, and to invalidate the opinions and arguments of heretics and schismatics.
8.) Where passages of Scripture are found to which human wisdom might make objections, such objections must not be hidden. Instead, allow them to be seen in a clear and satisfactory form.
9.) On the part of the teacher, it is critical to consult the Church Fathers, to read scrupulously the best Church teachers and interpretors, to know Church history well, and, above all, to beseech often and diligently the Father of Light to open the eyes toward understanding the wonders in His Law.
(adapted from Alexander Negrov, _Biblical Interptetation in the Russian Orthodox Church_ [Mohr Siebeck, 2008], pp. 61-62).

To be cont’d
———–

And that’s where I ran out of steam, realizing that the way I was commenting, I’d have 500 pages of notes by the time I got through the Fee & Stuart book!

Sin

Sin is sometimes like a crumb, easily brushed away and forgotten.

Other times, sin is like a fly, buzzing around your head, and only with much waving of your hand is it dismissed.

Sometimes, however, sin is like a lover whose embrace one welcomes and doesn’t want to leave.

The difference in these does not lie in sin itself, but in us, in our Spiritual state.

The Last Orthodox Liturgy in Hagia Sophia

The last truly Orthodox Divine Liturgy in the Great Church, the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, took place December 11, 1452. On December 12, the “Patriarch” Cardinal Isidore (ostensible Patriarch of Kiev and all Russia, though deprived of his see by the Grand Prince of Muscovy, Basil) proclaimed the union of the Eastern Church and the Western described in the document Laetentur caeli, the result of the Council of Florence. All celebration of the Divine Liturgy to follow in Hagia Sophia, to the last celebrated on 29 May 1453 which was interrupted by slaughter of all in the church by the Ottoman Turks, were unionist and not properly Orthodox. It was in fact the opposition of many in Constantinople to the Union of the Council of Florence, initially led by St Mark Eugenikos of Ephesus (spokesman of the Eastern delegation and one of only two participants who refused to sign the council’s proclamation of union), that held off implementation of the union for so long after that non-ecumenical council ended on 6 July 1439.

The acceptance of this council by the Romans, that is the leaders of Constantinople, effected a break in relations with Muscovy, depriving them of badly-needed support in their struggle against the Ottoman Turks. Though the die seems already to have been cast by that time, it might have been the case that the Emperor, in rejecting the union, might have received more help from East than ever he did from West in the final struggle to save what was left of the Roman Emprire. The early modern period in the East might have begun very differently indeed had this been the case.

In this case, Esau sold his birthright for an empty bowl.

But this is only so much wondering over long-spilled milk.

The Trisagion

Ἅγιος ὁ Θεός
Ἅγιος Ἰσχυρός
Ἅγιος Ἀθάνατος
ἐλέησον ἡμᾶς

Holy God
Holy mighty
Holy immortal
Have mercy on us

The above little prayer is one of the great treasures of the ancient Church. It’s called the Trisagion, and appears in the fourth century, after which to the present day it is used in the anaphora of Byzantine Divine Liturgies, and apparently in some Western liturgies as well. The thrice-holy hymn is generally understood to have emerged from the vision granted to the Holy Prophet Isaiah of the heavenly Seraphim, chanting, “Holy, holy, holy” at the throne of God (Isaiah 6), through the mediation of the vision granted to St John the Theologian in the Apocalypse (ch. 4). But real certainty, and much of its history, is not what interests me here. It’s rather an interesting thing that I noticed differs between the way this prayer is understood in the Greek and the English.

I think most people who read the English Trisagion think of this as a prayer addressing God as “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal.” Yet, while this is a possible reading in the English, it is not the case in the Greek. There, instead of a vocative address, we have a series of declarative statements, which are through ellipsis lacking verbs and connective particles: “Holy [is] God, Holy [and] Mighty, Holy [and] Immortal.”

In addition, I think the first phrase bears an implied personalization in the first person plural, following from the final phrase. So, the full prayer should be thus understood:

“Holy is our God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal. Have mercy on us!”

Only in the final phrase are we addressing God with this prayer. Before that, it is a prayer of confession, that our God is holy, mighty, and immortal. Could it be that this prayer emerged out of the martyrdoms? Was it a confession of faith on the part of some being tortured to death for their faith? It’s entirely possible, but we just don’t know. Regardless, it’s beautiful.

(These are some ideas that I had upon waking one day, while clearing my head of the fuzziness of the dream world. Usually my first waking moments are not so productive!)

Patristic Prooftexting

“Theology” is not an end in itself. It is always but a way. Theology, and even the “dogmas,” present no more than an “intellectual contour” of the revealed truth, and a “noetic” testimony to it. Only in the act of faith is this “contour” filled with content. Christological formulas are fully meaningful only for those who have encountered the Living Christ, and have received and acknowledged Him as God and Saviour, and are dwelling by faith in Him, in His body, the Church. In this sense, theology is never a self-explanatory discipline. It is constantly appealing to the vision of faith. “What we have seen and have heard we announce to you.” Apart from this “announcement” theological formulas are empty and of no consequence. For the same reason these formulas can never be taken “abstractly,” that is, out of total context of belief. It is misleading to single out particular statements from the Fathers and to detach them from the total perspective in which they have actually been uttered, just as it is misleading to manipulate with detached quotations from the Scripture. It is a dangerous habit “to quote” the Fathers, that is, their isolated sayings and phrases, outside of that concrete setting in which only they have their full and proper meaning and are truly alive. “To follow” the Fathers does not mean just “to quote” them. “To follow” the Fathers means to acquire their “mind,” their phronema.

Fr Georges Florovsky. Bible, Church, Tradition, 109

Orthodox Rules of Biblical Interpretation

Following are the Nine Rules of Orthodox Biblical Interpretation promulgated in 1786 by Platon, Metropolitan of Moscow, rector of the Moscow Ecclesiastic Academy:

1.) Open the literal meaning, and where it is dark because of translation or an ambiguity in the language, explain it in such a way that no passage is left which students cannot understand, apart from the very rare texts which are too complex to comprehend.

2.) Interpret spiritual and mysterious meanings, especially in the Old Testament, in those passages where such meanings are transparently concealed. In doing this, one has to be cautious so as not to do this with force. Thus, one ought not to seek out a secret meaning where there is none (or where one is forced, as is noticeable with many interpreters), but where links and the parallel passages follow directly from the words. Interpret spiritual and mysterious readings in agreement with the best interpreters.

3.) For a better understanding of dark passages, find and link the parallel passages, for this will make comprehension easier, since what is said in one place is often said ambiguously and briefly in another place, and despite the similarity between the two texts, the one differs in terms of a more detailed and clearer account.

4.) In interpreting Scripture, do not forget to conclude with the moral teachings flowing from the text. Formulate it with great regard.

5.) In interpreting the books of the Old Testament Prophets, indicate clearly when and in which circumstances their prophecies were fulfilled in the Old Testament and the New Testament.

6.) Where passages of Holy Scripture seem to contradict each other, explain these texts in agreement with published sources that contain general agreement.

7.) Wherever passages are found from which some false conclusions were drawn and which subsequently led to schisms or heresies, one is obliged to clearly indicate the right and true meaning of these passages, and to invalidate the opinions and arguments of heretics and schismatics.

8.) Where passages of Scripture are found to which human wisdom might make objections, such objections must not be hidden. Instead, allow them to be seen in a clear and satisfactory form.

9.) On the part of the teacher, it is critical to consult the Church Fathers, to read scrupulously the best Church teachers and interpretors, to know Church history well, and, above all, to beseech often and diligently the Father of Light to open the eyes toward understanding the wonders in His Law.

Adapted from Alexander Negrov, Biblical Interpretation in the Russian Orthodox Church (Mohr Siebeck, 2008), pp 61-62.