Eastern Orthodox churches have long remained fervently committed to the organic interrelationship between scripture and ecclesial tradition (Florovsky 1972; Bulgakov 1988, pp. 9–26; Staniloae 1994, pp. 37–78; Vassiliadis 2005; Stylianopoulos 2008). From its inception, they believe, the church relied both on a canon of Holy Scripture (taken over from Judaism and eventually expanded with a “New” Testament) and on a “canon of truth” or rule of faith based at once in scripture itself and in the sanctified intuition of the church (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.9.4; 1.10.1–3). The Christian biblical canon and the theological canons of its legitimate interpretation developed in tandem, in a necessary but fruitful circularity. Theology, for the Orthodox, is the interpretation of scripture because scripture, though diversified in its contents, is intrinsically theological, giving the church access to the sacred mysteries of the Trinity, the person of Jesus Christ, and the means to salvation and deification.

Biblical interpretation in the Orthodox traditions has its formative roots in five principal sources: (1) the hermeneutical and exegetical legacies of the Greek and Byzantine church fathers; (2) the major doctrinal controversies of the age of the ecumenical councils (300–800 C.E.), in which theological interpretation of scripture played a vital role; (3) the religious use of the Bible in the context of liturgy and devotion; (4) the monastic engagement of scripture, especially as represented in the Philokalia; and (5) the response of contemporary Orthodox theologians to the challenges posed by biblical higher criticism.

Legacies of Greek and Byzantine Patristic Interpretation.

Rather than a mere directory to methods of interpretation, the Orthodox tradition assumed from its patristic authorities a broad theological and christocentric vision of the economy (oikonomia) or “strategy” of divine revelation. Irenaeus’s doctrine of “recapitulation” (cf. Eph 1:10), whereby all of cosmic history had its focus and climax in the divine incarnation in Jesus Christ (Against Heresies, Books 4—5), was extended by Byzantine theologians (e.g., Athanasius, On the Incarnation; Gregory of Nyssa, Catechetical Oration; Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John; Maximus the Confessor, To Thalassius 60) and became a mainstay of Orthodox hermeneutics. While certain of his theological speculations had been condemned by an ecumenical council in 553, elements of Origen’s teaching on the economy of scripture (see Daley 1998) also endured in Eastern Christianity. His notion of the “embodiment” of the Word in the scriptural text paralleling the Word’s gracious accommodation to humanity in the incarnation, and his assertion that the Holy Spirit had providentially crafted and even problematized the biblical text in order to spur readers to greater spiritual maturity (On First Principles, Book 4), found fresh expressions in the Cappadocian fathers, in Eastern monastic writers, in Dionysius the Areopagite, and in Maximus the Confessor. From Origen, too, stemmed the principle of the inexhaustibility and polyvalence of the Word, which Greek and Byzantine patristic interpreters largely took for granted. Christ himself was the embedded “author” of scripture and so also constituted its “fuller sense” (sensus plenior), its ever richer spiritual meaning for the church. As one modern Orthodox theologian puts it, “for the Fathers the Bible is Christ, because his every word brings us into the presence of the one who spoke it” (Evdokimov 2011, p. 194).

Eastern Orthodoxy has thoroughly embraced the patristic distinction between “literal” and “spiritual” interpretation, but less as a science of fixed “senses” of scripture than as dynamic “reading strategies” (Young 1997, pp. 117, 212, 247, 299) for discerning the trinitarian and christocentric “scope” of biblical texts—what Athanasius called the “skopos of faith” (Orations against the Arians 3.35). Largely through the Cappadocian fathers, Gregory of Nyssa in particular, Orthodoxy learned to trust theologically disciplined use of spiritual (figurative, allegorical, etc.) interpretation in relation to the literal meaning (historia) of texts. Gregory demonstrated in his Life of Moses, for example, how spiritual interpretation could amplify rather than subvert the literal. An event like the Sinai theophany (Exod 19—34), he proposed, was already “literally” less about Israel’s reception of the Torah than about God’s people being initiated in the ineffable mystery of the triune God, with Moses as a mediator. The “spiritual” or “visionary” interpretation, or theôria, in turn explored the deeper nuances of this sublime mystagogical adventure in ways edifying to the church in the present.

From the so-called “Antiochene school” of patristic exegesis (Diodore of Tarsus, John Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrus et al.), Orthodoxy inherited a healthy skepticism toward unconstrained allegorism and respect for a mode of figural exegesis that enhanced typologies and symbolism already warranted in biblical historia. Antiochene theôria sought to recover the “spiritual” horizon of the biblical authors themselves and their overarching perception of sacred revelation. John Breck, reclaiming theôria for contemporary Orthodox hermeneutics, calls it “an inspired vision or contemplation of divinely revealed Truth, granted both to the [prophetic and] apostolic writer and to future interpreters by the Holy Spirit,” thus aligning it with the sensus plenior (Breck, pp. 36–37). Maximus the Confessor called this “the power of the literal meaning (historia) in the Spirit, which is constantly being realized and abounding into its fullness” (To Thalassius, 17).

Through influential Byzantine interpreters like Cyril of Alexandria, Dionysius the Areopagite, and Maximus, the “anagogical” theôria of the Alexandrians, aiming at sublime contemplation of all things in God, and the tempered theôria of the Antiochene heritage effectively converged. The “fullness” of scripture to be envisioned was the height, depth, and breadth of the incarnational mystery of Jesus Christ, who mediated to humanity both knowledge of the Trinity and deifying grace. Cyril opens his Glaphyra on Genesis: “We will explain what happened historically, such that, transposing the narrative through figure (typos) and shadow (skia), we will render a clear account, our explanation disposing us toward the mystery of Christ, with Christ himself as the projected goal, since it is true that Christ himself is the end (telos) of the Law and Prophets” (cf. Rom 10:11). Cyril holds true to form in his New Testament exegesis as well. His Commentary on John explores the individual pericopae of Jesus’s ministry each as a montage of intimations of the mystery of divine incarnation.

Dionysius, in his treatise On the Divine Names, imagines all of scripture as a magnificent hierarchy of figures and symbols that serve paradoxically to conceal the incomprehensible Trinity from the faithful, and, through appropriate anagogical interpretation, graciously to disclose God’s truth, beauty, and goodness according to creatures’ receptive capacity. Maximus, in his hermeneutical synthesis, uses many forms of spiritual and anagogical interpretation to unearth the deeper christocentric riches of scripture (Blowers 1991, pp. 196–228). His exegesis, often directed toward ambiguities or “difficulties” (aporiae) in the biblical text, puts into practice his conviction that the divine Logos is always working through the logoi (semantically pregnant “words”) of scripture to educate and transform the Christian and the church. Overall, Byzantine patristic hermeneutics bequeathed on later Orthodoxy a careful distinction between—but also interweaving of—theologia and oikonomia, the mystery of the triune God and the “economy” of his self-revelation in sacred history and in the ongoing life of the church.

The legacy of the great patristic commentators enshrined itself in Orthodox tradition through various media, not only through the transmitted commentaries and homilies themselves but also the compilation of catena (“chain”) commentaries stringing together the comments of respected authorities on biblical books, and florilegia, or anthologies of statements from the fathers on exegetical and theological issues. In Russia, Maximus the Greek (1470–1555) played an important, albeit controversial, role in referencing patristic interpretation while also introducing proto-critical hermeneutical principles for the study of the Bible in the church (Negrov 2008, pp. 51–54).

The Refiner’s Fire of Doctrinal Controversy.

The biblical commentaries and homilies of the Greek fathers frequently had a polemical as well as didactic and pastoral orientation, since many were composed amid doctrinal debates where precise interpretations of scripture were decisive. Very early, for example, Greek patristic commentary on Genesis targeted pagan cosmology as well as those gnostic and Marcionite interpretations that forced a wedge between the Hebrew scriptures and the emerging New Testament. From Theophilus of Antioch (To Autolycus) in the second century to the Cappadocians Basil of Caesarea (Homilies on the Hexaemeron) and Gregory of Nyssa (Apologia on the Hexaemeron) in the fourth, Greek patristic exegetes elaborated sophisticated theological interpretations of the Genesis creation account that claimed that Jesus Christ was the true “beginning” (Gen 1:1; John 1:1) of the world, and that the whole history of salvation was already latent in the six-day creation narrative. In doing so they relied not on pure allegorization but on something more akin to Augustine’s theologically “literal” interpretation in his commentaries on Genesis, which actually admitted multiple exegetical approaches to the creation story so as to expose its metaphysical and theological complexities. Such is exactly what freed later Orthodox hermeneutics from polarizing spiritual and literal exegeses, in the interest of holistic interpretations that aspired first and foremost to doctrinal coherence, or what Gregory of Nyssa called the “logos of truth.”

The interrelation between theologia and oikonomia so crucial to Eastern Orthodox hermeneutics was sharpened in the fourth-century trinitarian controversy. Defending the full divinity of the Son of God against Arian opponents who used the Gospels’ depictions of Jesus’s weakness and ignorance to prove he was a creature, Athanasius’s famous “double account” of the incarnation ascribed the miracles and supernatural deeds to the divine Son and the frailties to Jesus’s human constitution. This exegetical axiom in turn funded the doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum, the mutual communication of divine and human attributes in Christ, and ultimately also the Chalcedonian Definition (451) of Christ as “one person in two (unconfused) natures.” Gregory of Nazianzus, in his Theological Orations, mastered the art of rhetorically interweaving theologia and oikonomia, drawing together a wide array of biblical texts and allusions to convey the union in Christ of the eternally-generated Son of God and the created human nature of Jesus the child of Mary (Orations 29–30; see McGuckin 2005).

Also amid controversy over the Trinity, Gregory of Nyssa modeled a form of theological and mystical exegesis based on painstaking analysis of the nature of biblical language itself. Against Arian rationalists who allegedly settled for theologically superficial and baldly literalistic readings of sensitive biblical texts to support their unitarian teaching, Gregory ruled that “following the suggestions of scripture, [we] have learned that the [divine] nature is unnamable and unspeakable, and we say that every term either invented by human custom or handed down to us by the scriptures is indeed explanatory of our conceptions of the divine nature but does not include the signification of that nature itself” (To Ablabius). Trinitarian orthodoxy relied at once on the apophatic denial of any pretention to capture God’s mystery through scripture’s own language and on assiduous exegesis of its testimonies to the relations between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the economy of creation and redemption. Eastern Orthodox trinitarian dogma has never moved beyond this rule of theological interpretation.

The extended Eastern christological controversies of the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries also proved to be an important testing ground for the theologically reasoned “literal” interpretation of scripture. There are many examples, but an especially extraordinary one is Maximus the Confessor’s exegesis of Jesus’s prayer in Gethsemane (Matt 26:39 and parallels). Maximus’s seventh-century Monothelite opponents insisted that, lest there be an opposition of divine and human wills in Christ, his singular divine will must have already preempted any human volition. Integrating careful exegesis of Jesus’s prayer with the precedential logic of the Chalcedonian Definition, Maximus argued (Opusculum 6) that the literal meaning of the Gethsemane prayer was Jesus’s handing over of his human will to the will of the Father. The two wills were different but not intrinsically opposed. The agony of Gethsemane demonstrated precisely the consonance of divine and human wills for the sake of human salvation. This teaching was vindicated at the Council of Constantinople of 681 and became standard in Orthodox (Chalcedonian) Christology.

The Bible in Orthodox Liturgy and Devotion.

Christian liturgy, from its inception, has been an instrumental mode of “performative” interpretation, an embodied participation in the living Word. A presupposition of liturgy in the Eastern Orthodox tradition is that the worshipping congregation here and now, in the long wake of Christ’s incarnation, already stands at the threshold of the eschatological age, and that it sacramentally rehearses, through ritual action and anamnesis, the drama of sacred history (the economy of salvation) that continues to play out to its consummation. In the Divine Liturgy, Orthodox Christians hear scripture read, chanted, prayed, and preached (Lash 2008; Theokritoff 2005). Visually, they behold the Gospel Book in procession through the congregation, the so-called Little Entrance. The Eucharistic Prayer (anaphora) and the liturgy as a whole—its prayers, litanies, hymns, etc.—are saturated with scriptural language and allusions, in an ambiance intended to convey the spatial convergence of heaven and earth. Icons of Christ, the Theotokos (Virgin Mother), biblical saints and events, and the historic saints of the Christian East, are venerated in liturgy and in private devotion, drawing the faithful into a perduring communion of saints. As in the West, biblical readings in the liturgies are regulated according to the major feasts of the liturgical calendar, providing rhythms and sequences that frame Christian identification with—and in—scripture’s salvific narrative. Baptismal and eucharistic practices are shot through with biblical typologies. As in the ancient Greek church (see Daniélou 1956, pp. 70–113), baptism simulates not only new creation, a saving deluge, a new exodus through water, a reentry into paradise, but also, most importantly, death, burial, and resurrection with Christ (Rom 6:3–5). The Eucharist abounds in Paschal symbols that bridge the ancient Passover with the new Pascha of Christ in the church’s defining sacred meal (Daniélou, pp. 127–176).

Already the early Byzantine commentators on the Divine Liturgy like Dionysius the Areopagite and Maximus the Confessor reflected less on the biblical meaning disclosed in the liturgy than on the significance of the very action of reading scripture publicly in the assembly (synaxis). Promulgating sacred history and scriptural admonitions prepared believers morally to be worthy of sacramental grace (Dionysius, Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 3; Maximus, Mystagogia 10), while the reading of the Gospel text was a virtual epiphany of the Logos as High Priest descending from the heavenly sanctuary to lead the faithful to “the vision of spiritual principles and realities” (Maximus, Mystagogia 13).

And yet the broader liturgy, notably the hymns coming into use in the Divine Office, did indeed carry typological and allegorical interpretations of biblical texts to help the faithful to identify with the texts morally and spiritually (Theokritoff). The kontakia, or sermonic hymns, of Romanos the Melodist (ca. 485–ca. 560), the most celebrated Byzantine hymn writer (see Lash 1995), exhibited an imaginative interpretive poetics designed to engross audiences in the biblical story. Like an ancient counterpart to “reader-response,” they prompted audiences to appropriate the meaning of the narrative existentially, sometimes using the reinforcing refrains between a kontakion’s strophes. The Syrian-born Romanos, who provided a living link to the richly poetic hermeneutics of Ephrem the Syrian and the Syriac Christian exegetical tradition, implemented a number of consistent interpretive techniques (see Trigg 2001). Like Ephrem, he favored collapsing together biblical types, as in his first kontakion On the Nativity, in which he parallels the “unwatered root” (cf. Isa 11:1), the “undug well” from which David desired to drink (cf. 2 Sam 23:15–17), and the Virgin’s womb destined to satisfy the thirst of Adam and David alike. Romanos also used amplified paraphrase of biblical stories, inventing exchanges between characters to evoke the full spiritual force of a narrative, as when he stages intimate conversation between Mary and Christ on his way to crucifixion (On the Lament of the Theotokos), and a dialogue between Christ, just before his ascension, and the apostles struggling with separation anxiety at his imminent departure (On the Ascension). Generally, Romanos seeks to elicit all the latent dramatic elements (irony, suspense, etc.) in biblical stories to enhance the audience’s identification in them.

Also noteworthy in this hymnological tradition is the Great Canon composed by Andrew of Crete (seventh century) and used in Great Lent, which employs the model of closely identifying its audience directly with individual biblical personages to solicit earnest penitential response: “Having rivaled the first-created Adam by my transgression, I realize that I am stripped naked of God and of the everlasting kingdom and bliss through my sins.” “Like Cain, we too, O wretched soul, have likewise offered, to the Creator of all, foul deeds, defective sacrifice, and a useless life. Therefore, we too are condemned.”

On the whole, Orthodox liturgy, iconography, and music communicate and interpret scripture narratively, rhetorically, didactically, symbolically, and not least aesthetically and dramatically, shaping the identity of Orthodox Christians over and beyond a merely cerebral reception of the sacred texts. As God’s own Word, scripture is understood to be sacramental in its nature and power, and in its use in connection with worship, preaching, and the sacraments its pastoral significance is also made manifest (Bathrellos 2005).

Biblical Interpretation in the Eastern Christian Monastic Tradition.

Interpretation of the Bible in the monastic context cannot be segregated from the larger developmental streams of Eastern Orthodox hermeneutics. Historically, many of the prolific Orthodox theologians and biblical interpreters have been ascetics, monks, or monk-bishops, and monastic influence has permeated the liturgical and devotional use of the Bible in Orthodox churches. The strongly pragmatic orientation of early Eastern monastic interpretation took shape in the primarily oral culture of desert anchoritism in the fourth and fifth centuries, well documented in the collections of Apophthegmata patrum [et matrum] (Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers) that eventually took written form (see Burton-Christie 1993). These traditions tell the stories of “conferences” between younger monks and their sage elders, who discouraged formal questions about the theological meaning of scripture and pointed their disciples toward the urgent ascetical and ethical exigencies of obedience to the Word. Discouraging the private reading of scripture, since it could render monks too curious, they encouraged the memorization of scriptures heard in worship and in teaching, which could help fortify the soul against demonic assault and keep monks focused. The Apophthegmata also contain abundant instructions using biblical exempla, the profiles of biblical saints who modeled for monks (and for all Christian faithful) the virtues integral to godly living.

The most pronounced influence of monastic biblical interpretation, however, obtained through the writings of great monastic sages of the fourth to fifteenth centuries compiled in the eighteenth-century Philokalia, now the spiritual handbook of the Eastern churches translated into a number of languages. Among its many constituent authors are venerable figures in Orthodox tradition like John Cassian, Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus, Symeon the New Theologian, and Gregory Palamas. Maximus and Symeon are especially exemplary, as both of them bridged the hermeneutical pragmatism of the desert tradition with the contemplative and anagogical approach to scripture inherited from Origen. Maximus composed a treatise on The Ascetic Life that mimicked the pattern of the “conference” in the Apophthegmata, with an elder monk instructing a younger monk on fulfilling the evangelical commandments of Christ. Some of Maximus’s ascetical Chapters (Capita), which included not only practical teaching from scripture but figural and allegorical interpretations to encourage spiritual growth, were included in the Philokalia and thus reached a wider public.

Much later, Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022), an eminent monk of Constantinople, emulated Maximus’s hermeneutics, proposing that all of scripture teemed with spiritual verities waiting to be mined. Literal, allegorical, and mystical interpretations all appear in Symeon’s ascetical and catechetical writings as means to advance the soul toward greater intimacy with God (Alfeyev 2000, pp. 43–72). This deeper understanding, however, was available only to the worthy, and granted incrementally. In one of his dicta included in the Philokalia, Symeon warns: “Many read the Holy Scriptures and hear them read. But few can grasp their meaning and import. For some what is said in the Scriptures is impossible, for others it is altogether beyond belief. Some again interpret them wrongly: they apply things said about the present to the future, and things said about the future to the past or else to what happens daily. In this way they reveal a lack of true judgment and discernment in things both human and divine” (Practical and Theological Texts 60; Palmer 1995, p. 36). Symeon’s disciple and eventual biographer, Nicetas Stethatos, doubtless echoes his teacher when he claims that “the reading of the scriptures means one thing for those who have but recently embraced the life of holiness, another for those who have attained the middle state, and another for those who are moving rapidly toward perfection” (On the Inner Nature of Things, and on the Perfection of the Intellect; Palmer 1995, pp. 133–134). Symeon and other Philokalia authors cherished John 5:39 (“Search the scriptures”), considering it Christ’s injunction to penetrate the inexhaustible depths of the Bible. For the twelfth-century writer Peter of Damascus, it was an invitation to the diligent to pursue the sensus plenior, since the texts continuously conveyed fresh meanings to those growing in grace and truth. Remarkably, within this context of spiritual reading (i.e., lectio divina in Western monastic tradition), Peter affirms the relative utility of “secular knowledge” in aiding understanding of the biblical texts, but only on condition that it “acts as a vehicle for the higher wisdom of the Spirit” (Discourses 28; Palmer 1984, pp. 263–268). For these and other witnesses in the Philokalia, the process of searching the scriptures, and not alone the discernment of its spiritual riches, is saving and deifying (see Burton-Christie 2012).

Again, largely because of the Philokalia, this tradition is not restricted exclusively to monastic settings, and at least one contemporary Orthodox biblical scholar, John Breck, has commended the cultivation of such a lectio divina for Orthodox laity (Breck, pp. 67–86).

Contemporary Orthodox Interpretation and the “Neo-Patristic” Synthesis.

Among Orthodox churches, the rise of biblical higher criticism did not ignite the same profound sensation experienced in Roman Catholic and Protestant contexts, and thus, not surprisingly, far fewer critical biblical exegetes and higher-critical studies of scripture have emerged from Orthodox circles. In the twentieth century, certain prominent Orthodox theologians, like the late Romanian theologian Dumitru Staniloae, issued strong censures of the “demythologizing” tendencies of Protestant biblical criticism (Staniloae 1980, pp. 109–154). Staniloae and the Russian émigré theologian Georges Florovsky both challenged radical historicism and called for an approach to the Bible that attended to its character as sacred or covenantal history, a history “thick” with internal typologies, images, and symbolisms, as well as narratives (Staniloae 1980, pp. 109–180; Staniloae 1994, 15–36; Florovsky, pp. 17–36). But they also rejected the Protestant fundamentalism that treated the Bible as a virtual scientific textbook. “The Bible is no authority on social science, as it is no authority on astronomy” (Florovsky, p. 34). Meanwhile some Orthodox theologians recognized real utility in the new methods of biblical criticism. Sergius Bulgakov, another eminent Russian émigré theologian, affirmed the relative value of tradition-historical and literary approaches to the Bible, suggesting that they were already being incorporated into dogmatic and religious interpretation and could operate constructively within the organic stream of ecclesial tradition (Bulgakov, pp. 16–25).

Protestantism in the twentieth century witnessed the emergence of neoorthodoxy, which provided a vitally important constructive criticism of the scientific study of the Bible and helped renew theological interpretation. Roman Catholicism saw the rise of “La Nouvelle Théologie” in France, attempting critically and constructively to deal with the effects of modernism and secularism and to generate a ressourcement that would bring patristic theology and hermeneutics to bear on contemporary concerns of the church’s faith. Meanwhile, Orthodox thinkers undertook their own “Neo-Patristic Synthesis” to revitalize theology and biblical interpretation. In some respects this is a misnomer, for the vital patristic element in Orthodox hermeneutics had never been lost. What was new was the proactive application of patristic insights to a situation where, especially for Orthodoxy in the West, the churches encountered an intellectual culture in which biblical studies was increasingly being secularized. Theologians like Staniloae, Florovsky, and Paul Evdokimov recurred to the patristic consensus, wherein the church was the primary matrix of biblical interpretation because only in the church was available a time-tested rule or skopos of faith to understand scripture in its christocentric wholeness (Florovsky, pp. 72–120; Williams 1993; Evdokimov, pp. 194–199). Their point was rather simple. Interpreting the Bible, for the church fathers, was not ultimately about rendering sacred revelation transparent to the conditions of history and culture; it was about achieving communion with Christ the Word. As Staniloae puts it, “The words of scripture are the inevitable occasion for us to enter through the work of the Spirit into relation with the authentic person of Christ who transcends them.…” (1994, p. 44).

Orthodox biblical scholars have taken this “Neo-Patristic Synthesis” to heart in defining the science of exegesis in an Orthodox context. Breck’s appeal to contemplative interpretation (theôria) is but one example. Theodore Stylianopoulos has reclaimed nine operative interpretive principles from patristic tradition: (1) respect for the authority, primacy, and unity of scripture under divine inspiration; (2) the mystery of Jesus Christ as preeminent interpretive criterion; (3) interdependence between scripture and ecclesial tradition; (4) coherence between theology and spirituality; (5) deference to the “rule of faith” and theological tradition; (6) use of various available methods with a focus on “spiritual” interpretation; (7) interpretation in the light of the context, skopos, and “narrative coherence” (akolouthia) of scripture; and (8) accessibility of scripture to all Christians for their pastoral benefit; and (9) the role of “ongoing living tradition as normative interpretive agent” (Stylianopoulos 2008, pp. 30–31). For the Orthodox, this represents not antiquarianism but a deep trust in the integrity of the church’s patristic heritage and its capacity for being translated across times and cultures.



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Paul M. Blowers