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The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible A richly illustrated account of the story of the Bible written by leading scholars.

The Bible and Worship

Museum of Art, Novgorod/Bridgeman Art Library.

Christian history and theology did not start with theological controversies but with worship. The separation between church and synagogue came as a result of the new forms of worship, namely baptism and the Lord's supper; both sacraments contained the seeds of future creeds. Whatever was the complicated history of the development of either sacrament, what is clear from the outline of both in the New Testament and later on is enough to point to the cause of the separation. With the coming of Gentiles to join the new movement, confession of faith became a necessity. The confession that Jesus is Lord was the major element, which brought a new attitude to the Old Testament and a different way of understanding it by the new members. This is reflected in the book of Acts, the Gospel of John, Romans, Galatians, and later on in Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho and other related documents of the second and the third centuries. The divinity of Jesus, his resurrection, and the acceptance of Gentiles in the new faith remained, throughout the period of the formation of the great doctrines of the churches (325–415), the key issues which changed the understanding of the Old Testament and contributed to the formation of the New Testament canon.

Whatever we can say about the origin and the influence of Jewish prayers on the prayers of the new movement, it is apparent from the oldest collection of the prayers of the Didache and later liturgical collections such as the Apostolic Tradition that Christian teaching is centred on the person of Jesus. This shaped the new prayers and reflected the awareness of the new communities that they were related to God the Father of Jesus Christ in a new way that demanded a different mode of understanding the Old Testament. This made all the difference between those who recognized Jesus as the Messiah, and saw in him the fulfilment of the Old Testament's divine promises and prophecies, like Justin Martyr, and others who refused to accept Jesus' messiahship.

The debate is centred on the significance of having mere events or the life of Jesus as the key, which unlocks the meaning of the words of Old Testament. This was expressed in worship, which made all the difference and inspired ancient Christians to read the Old Testament differently and even to decide later on what should be included in the New Testament canon. The debate between Justin and the Jew Trypho is not centred on the meaning of words in a text, but on the meanings of words and texts in the light of the events of the life, the teaching, and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This basic idea must be realized as we read the old documents of the first centuries, especially those which are related to the Christian–Jewish dialogue. In other words we do not encounter a collection of texts which prove this or that of the Christian teaching, but we read a Christian reflection on the Old Testament which is guided and seen in the light of the life of Jesus as the Messiah. This does not weaken or undermine the New Testament, but rather points to more than the basic and primary question among them: how did ancient Christians read and understand the Bible?

Truth for the early Christians was not an idea, but the Son of God Incarnate, that is, the person of Jesus Christ. Thus in relation to the personal understanding and to the personal relationship with the person of Jesus, words and texts must be understood. The reinterpretation of the Old Oracles is desirable and becomes a necessity which is determined by the New Revelation: one whose truth is not the law nor prophetic words but the person of Jesus Christ. In other words it is not by comparing one text with another that truth is revealed, but rather by reading the text in the light of the life of Jesus that the words are understood differently. The dialogue between Christ and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24 , which is given in a summary, betrays the liturgical origin of the whole passage. Those who have faith and can discern the new reality in the shadows of the old Oracles can see Jesus in Moses and the prophetic books. The new reality is the person of Jesus himself. Thus we can see in baptism in the early practice and in the Lord's supper the centrality of the person over the words and oracles. The meanings of any text can be determined by the events. The best example of this is in the writings of Origen of Alexandria. In his commentary on the Gospel of John, book x, he calls our attention to the discrepancy between John and the synoptic gospels:

If the discrepancy between the Gospels is not solved, many dismiss credence in the Gospels as not true, or written by a divine spirit, or not successfully recorded. The composition of these Gospels in fact, is said to have involved both. Let those who accept the four Gospels, and who do not think the apparent discrepancy is to be solved, tell us when the Lord came to Capharnaum in relation to the difficulty we mentioned earlier concerning the forty days of the temptation which can have no place at all in John. For if it occurred six days after the time when he was baptised, since his ministry at the marriage at Cana of Galilee took place on the sixth day, it is then clear he has not been tempted, nor was he in Nazareth, nor had John yet been delivered up. (Commentary on John, x. 10, Eng. trans. The Fathers of the Church, 80, 256)

The words of Origen are clear. Origen does not dismiss the problem and the reliability of the four gospels. His solution will linger throughout centuries of eastern Christianity. He says later on that the ‘spiritual meaning of the events supersedes what is recorded’. He says, ‘On the basis of numerous passages also, if someone should examine the Gospels carefully to check the disagreement so far as the historical sense is concerned—we shall attempt to show this disagreement … as we are able’ (ibid. 257). The solution does not dismiss the problem. Origen says that if God appeared to four different men, each will record the manifestation differently. The analogy is used to explain that, ‘in the case of the four evangelists who made full use of many things done and said in accordance with the prodigious and incredible power of Jesus, in some place they have interwoven in Scripture something made clear to them in purely intellectual manner, with language as though it were something perceptible to the senses’ (ibid. 258). Origen saw the problem and his faith prompted him to say, ‘I do not condemn, I suppose the fact that they have also made some minor changes in what happened so far as history is concerned, with a view to the usefulness of the mystical object of [those matters]’ (ibid.).

The truth is what Origen called ‘spiritual’ which is the faith of the church as embodied in what was called at that time the Rule of Faith and later the creed. The Rule of Faith, which was the oldest form of confession adopted and adapted in most of the ancient Christian communities, preceded the canon of the New Testament. In fact a close examination of the debate with Gnosticism may reveal to us that the Rule of Faith itself was responsible for two things:

  • 1. The exclusion of certain books and defining the understanding of the canon. It is faith in the Creator God, the God of the Old Testament, who is also the Redeemer and the Father of Jesus Christ as was declared in the Rule of Faith that retained the Old Testament books, which confirmed the reading of the selected New Testament and excluded a number of other books such as the Nag Hammadi collection.

  • 2. Even later on, the whole debate with Arianism was about the confession of faith not about particulars of the Old Testament or the New Testament texts. Modern studies on Arianism have been able, after a long period of fascination with the biblical arguments exchanged between the two sides, to discover that soteriology was the guiding hermeneutical principle which divided Orthodoxy from Arianism. In other words the meaning of biblical texts is defined by the practice of the church which in turn is defined by the confession of faith. This remained the same during the debate with Nestorianism. If we exclude all the personal elements and hatred of Cyril and Nestorius, the words of the Creed of Nicea (325) expressed the hermeneutical principle, the understanding and the approach to the biblical texts and to the Christological questions which were raised at that time.

The Bible did not give rise to the church or to Israel, because both had a similar starting-point, the events of their relationship with God. The Bible is certainly what gave birth to the Reformation, but not to the ancient church in both east and west. In other words the Bible was read in the light of the relationship between God and the people of God.

Faith preceded the formation of the canon. This was altered during and after the Reformation because the Reformation had its birth within the church as a movement aiming at renewal and guided by reading the Bible differently from the church of the Middle Ages. Thus the various disciplines of biblical studies which came into existence in the west are in harmony with the origin and the development of Reformed Christianity. The coming of the Catholic Church to this arena and in response to the challenge of the Reformation is also an integral part of common European culture and the historical relationship of both Catholic and Reformed churches.

The eastern churches seem not to be affected by the late western tools and schools of the interpretation of the words and the texts of the Bible. Even in Greece, Russia, and the established Orthodox Theological Institutes in France and the USA, Orthodox theologians remain committed to the above guiding principles, the Creed and the practice of the church. Worship remains the essential school of biblical interpretation. The Bible must be explained according to the Creed, the liturgical life of the church, and the monastic ideal of Christian holiness.

Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow/Bridgeman Art Library.

In the works of Orthodox theologians, the Bible is understood as part of the life and history of the church. Holiness and Christian life in its Orthodox monastic forms are the goal of all interpretation and speculation. St Athanasius of Alexandria gives a fairly defined name to this approach to the Bible, the ‘Ecclesiastical Meaning’, of the Word of God must be according to the ‘Scope of Salvation’. These two terms must not be confused with the anti-Arian apologetic arguments. Arianism has put on the language of the scripture as a garment to deceive the foolish, but the Arian interpretation is ‘foreign’ because it is misinterpretation according to the ‘private sense’. The ecclesiastical sense of the words of the Bible is in the ‘Scope of Salvation’, which is the unity of the Godhead, the divinity of the Son, his death, and resurrection. This is what Athanasius called the biblical ‘double account of the Saviour’ the first of which speaks of his divinity and the second of which speaks of his humanity, ‘This is the Scope of Salvation which is to be found throughout inspired Scripture’. In other words the Bible must be understood according to the confession of faith and the message of salvation.

Modern scholars very often express their surprise that all the Fathers quote John and Paul in the same line. The New Testament like the Old Testament is one book, which must be read according to the faith of the church, not according to the writer. Although some of the Fathers like Origen were aware that some writers have particular words and style, nevertheless they all are witnesses to the faith. Patristic writings contain the seeds of biblical criticism, but they lie there undeveloped because the goal of Christian life is ‘Deification’ or ‘Participation in the divine Nature’.

Victoria & Albert Museum, London/Bridgeman Art Library.

In this sense it is accurate to say that the special place of the Bible in ancient Christianity was and is in eastern Christianity a witness to the faith of the church as declared and experienced in worship. This experience is what gave the books their name: the New Testament. The eastern Fathers never used the expression ‘Authority of the Scriptures’. St Augustine and the Latin Fathers used it in a limited way and it became a common expression with the arrival of St Thomas Aquinas. The differences between ‘Authority’ and ‘Witness’ are important to notice. The witness of the Bible to the faith of the church does not come from the words or the texts but from the events and their interpretation. This interpretation is to be discovered in worship and specially in the experience of salvation. It is also important to remember that the eastern churches, through the writings of the Fathers, never regarded the Old Testament as equal to the New Testament. The earliest reference to this approach is to be found in the Didascalia, the Apostolic Constitutions, and the Homilies of the Fathers especially John Chrysostom. Also two books of the New Testament, Revelation and the letter to Philemon, are not included in the lectionaries of the Coptic and the Byzantine churches.

It was baptism, the eucharist, and other forms of worship that shaped the attitude to the Bible in early Christian worship. The Word of God was read in the gatherings of the church especially on the Lord's day and this remained the obvious attitude to the word of God till the fourth century when the Homilies of the Fathers were written and Commentaries were composed very often to explain the community's participation in the life of Christ. The discourses of the Fathers to the catechumens on baptism such as those of Cyril of Jerusalem or John Chrysostom are full of biblical images that may shock the readers. Most of the biblical texts were selected for instruction and for preparing the candidates for baptism. The Fathers do not apologize for the way they explain the biblical texts because the Bible is the main book for instruction. It has the seeds of all the teaching of the church. It is the church's first book and its proper use was never questioned.

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