Today I wish to direct your attention to a post by Fr. Stephen Freeman on the nature of Scripture. Freeman is an Orthodox priest; as such he writes from an Eastern Orthodox perspective which has a significantly different understanding of the proper relation between Scripture and tradition than evangelicals and others of a Reformation mindset are accustomed to. It should be expected, then, that some of what he has to say will rub you the wrong way. But on the whole, he offers a refreshingly different perspective on Scripture which serves as a desperately needed corrective to the naked biblicism which is so prevalent in evangelicalism.
It is commonplace in evangelicalism for pastors to emphasize the importance of Bible study by saying things such as “God gave us a Book“. Many of you can probably report having heard this or similar things along the way. But think about it: It is only within the past five centuries that such a phrase would have made any sense at all.
For the entirety of the Church’s history we have had Words from God, whether passed down orally as in the very early stages of church history, or in written form. But it is only in the past five hundred years that we have had one Word from God, with all these words gathered together in one place and readily available to all believers. This was a result of the printing press, an invention that went hand in hand with the Reformation and was largely driven by the Reformation to facilitate getting all the Scriptures together in one place and out there in the hands of all believers.
But with this development, Freeman contends that there was a radical shift in how people thought of the Scriptures. Now people began to think of Scripture as a unified whole, with all parts being equally inspired and equally important to the life of the believer. This shift also had implications for discipleship. Living as a disciple changed from being an apprentice of Jesus Christ to being a student of the Bible, from living in vital community with the Church to maintaining a “personal relationship with Jesus” through what he says to you by way of personal Bible study.
It is common in evangelical preaching to draw applications from Scripture and speak of them as things which its authors are saying to us. In reality, the authors of Scripture, and especially of the New Testament, never had us in view when they were writing the things they wrote. Paul, James, Peter, John, Jude, etc. never had any idea that they were sitting down to write the New Testament. Instead, they were writing letters that were intended to speak to specific situations in specific church communities where they ministered. They never had a clue that their writings would make it out of the churches to which they were addressed, much less make it out of first century Rome, much less make it into what we now know as the Bible. We get to listen in on the conversations which the New Testament writers were having with their respective church communities because those writings were preserved for us by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Fr. Freeman is rector of St. Anne’s Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. His blog, Glory to God for all Things, is one of the most widely read Orthodox sites on the web.