Those who wish to be Christians have examples before them, most especially among the apostles of the Lord and the others who wrote the New Testament documents, and numerous later writers of sterling character and excellent ability we usually refer to as the Church Fathers (among whom are included several Church Mothers, as well). While these are fine examples, it has become commonly accepted in certain circles, due to the work of various modern liberal scholars, that their mindset is primitive, and in most cases simply wrong. Their methods of Biblical interpretation, utilizing type-antitype and allegorical exegesis, like the Church Fathers of the following centuries, are decried as misguided, and favor is shown to numerous other schemes which sap the New Testament writings’ foundations in the Old Testament Scriptures, toppling the great walls of traditional exegesis, replacing them with the mismatched hovels of individual scholarly imaginations. It is, in the end, very simple: modern scholars place themselves in apposition to the apostles. They claim to be right and the apostles and Church Fathers wrong. And yet the scholars are wrong, and self-deluded at the same time. Lacking faith, they are unable to enhance the Faith. And avoiding the apostolic and patristic methodology separates them from the very movmement they would claim to be illuminating, rather like taking a cup of water from a river and calling it the river, while denying the river is a river! The River rolls on.
So who would you be like? Do you want to follow the apostles and their followers and those who learned from them down to the present, who approached the Scriptures in a way that resonates down the ages, from within the Old Testament itself into the writings of modern saints today? Or do you want to follow some man or woman or group of no moral or ecclesiastical standing whatsoever advocating a different mindset, promoting contradicting theories, yet always calling those apostles and their descendants wrong in so many different ways? On the one hand you have the saint, the apostle Paul, and on the other hand, a legion of academics cherry-picking his writings for errors or new theories on what he really wrote, writing more on any single phrase of his than they do on the Gospel he proclaimed. Who would you follow? Saint Peter, the greatly faithful, greatly gifted, and on occasion greatly failing, our example as the greatly human leader of the Twelve? Or some infighting German academics with a penchant for Nazism?
Peter, and Paul, and John, and Justin Martyr, and the Desert Fathers, and John Chrysostom, and all the others are clear: it’s all or nothing. That same process by which they were and are conformed to Christ is the very same process for each and every one of us throughout the ages. And that also requires entering into the interpretive world that they inhabited, one in which Scripture, the Word of God, the written image of the Son of God and a mix of the eternal and the timebound, speaks to us still, not just to the ancient Hebrews and the first generations of Christians. Their belief was that such was the way that Scripture was inspired, to retain a multiplicity of meanings until the end of the world. Their methods should be ours. The methods of Paul and the other New Testament writers are indeed truly as valid as they have always been considered in the life of the Church as represented through the ages in the patristic writings, and these methods of interpretation are especially important if one is to remain flowing in that River that is the Church, as these methods have always been in living use therein. The liturgy, hymnography, iconography, homilies, writings, and other products of the Church’s life through the last two millennia are indecipherable without an understanding of those ancient exegetical methods, yet even mere understanding is not enough. It is necessary to personally adopt these methods, to enter into this worldview of the Scriptures as one’s own living worldview with full acceptance and assent, and then the Church’s life suddenly springs into vivid clarity, the connections, the allusions, the majestic, complicated tapestry that we call Tradition all come into a joyous focus. Our recognition of each element is accompanied by a joyous “Yes!” that is expressed in the heart rather than the intellect, in the growth bed of the Spirit rather than the flesh. It is thus necessary to return Biblical study to the theological realm, that of a lived theology, not just a studied one, a life of prayer, not just of the intellect. To quote a passage by Fr Thomas Hopko which is relevant:
The task of theology in the Church is exactly this: to transform the external expressions of truth, and the externality of God Himself, into our own truth, and so to be able to express this truth within the context, conditions and demands of our own life and mission. Thus theology will be first of all our own vision of reality and so, our own salvation. And only then can it be the authentic expression of truth to others as proclamation, witness and defense. In this sense, theology is as much an ascetical and spiritual task as it is an intellectual and academic one. It is the task of faith, prayer and purification as much as the work of investigating the Traditionally accepted and affirmed “intellectual contours” of truth preserved in the Church, together with all affirmations about reality of the philosophers, scientists and artists. Thus theology is the task of attaining and appropriating in the most authentically personal way the Spirit of Truth, the Mind of Christ, the Consensus of Tradition, the Sensus of the Church, the Phronema of the Fathers.
Fr Thomas Hopko, from “Criteria of Truth in Orthodox Theology” (St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 15.3 , 126-9), as quoted in Fr John Chryssavgis, The Way of the Fathers: Exploring the Patristic Mind (Analecta Vlatadon 62. Thessaloniki: Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies, 1991), page 189.
Fr Hopko describes the need to assimilate the Church’s theology, while I describe the need to assimilate its exegetical framework or worldview, which is that of much of Scripture, and a subset of the theology proper of the Church. Even so, we both describe assimilation of the Church’s way as necessary, not accomodation with a secular and antagonistic academic worldview which brings only contradiction, uncertainty, skepticism, and the spectacle of enhancement of individuals at the expense of the corporate, something more and more often seen these days. And this assimilation of the Church’s way enables a proper perspective of other relationships with the world, finding the good and the beautiful everywhere, sometimes even in the academic Scriptural studies mentioned so negatively above. Assimilating the mind of Christ, the mind of the Church, will lead one to more and more focus on the gold rather than the dross in any direction one focuses attention. This is very important, to see the positive around us and encourage it, much more than to criticize the negative. It is, after all, easier for a desert to remain barren. But it can be made to flower with work.
So, who do you want to be like? One who sows faith or one who sows doubt?
God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!