The Many and the One: The Interface Between Orthodox and Evangelical Protestant Hermeneutics (1)
The Corporate and the Personal
Orthodox hermeneutics is centered in ecclesiology (the “many”) and pneumatology, while post-Reformation Protestantism is centered in the individual (the “one”) as the focus of God’s redemptive activity. Meyendorff says that the greatest challenge to Orthodox scholars “is to preserve the ‘ecclesial’ character of their theology,” which he defines as “the existence of a ‘catholic’ church, which receives the fullness of divine revelation for the sake of the salvation of all people.”(3) All biblical interpretation is consciously done as part of the past (the Apostles and Fathers(4) of the Church) and present (liturgical celebration) Church. The Bible has its origin as the Book of God’s people, and it is meant today to be read as such. Further, it is the Church that superintends its meaning and protects the Bible from heretical misunderstandings.
Scripture as such is primarily to be celebrated in corporate worship. Florovsky speaks of the principle ut legem credendi statuat lex orandi (“So that the rule of worship should establish the rule of faith”).(5) It is liturgical celebration that bears witness to the power of the Word of God. Breck adds, (6)
In authentic Orthodox experience, the Word comes to its fullest expression within a sacramental context. Whether proclaimed through Scripture reading and preaching, or sung in the form of antiphons (psalms) and dogmatic hymns (festal troparia, the Monogenes and Credo), the Word of God is primarily communicated expressed and received- by the ecclesial act of celebration and, in particular, celebration of the eucharistic mystery.
The Word of God is sacramentally communicated in corporate worship, and this has primacy over individual acts of reading. Through confession and absolution followed by Eucharistic communion, the participant experiences the Word actualized via the nourishing worship of the ecclesial community.
Prokurat says that “Scripture is, and ever has been, liturgical,” and that both the Word and its interpretation are experienced “primarily as a liturgical celebration.”(7) He sees the very origins of both Testaments in the liturgical life of Israel and the early Church. This is anchored in the oral dimension of sacred Scripture in the fact that from the beginning both Israel and the Church read the Word orally in the sacred service more than experienced it as a written word in books or scrolls. “For the Orthodox Christian all of these elements –the salvific events, the experience of the community of the People of God, and the liturgical expression of this experience (the ‘holy words’) in proclamation and teaching- are constitutive to the interpretation of Scripture.”(8) In Orthodox understanding, there is a certain sacramental force in the reading and preaching of the Word in the sacred service, and private reading must grow out of and reflect this primary purpose.
In this sense, all true interpretation must come from within the Church, which is “the only authentic depository of Apostolic kerygma.”(9) Since the Church forms the sacred deposit of truth, and since the Word is proclaimed and preserved in the Church as guided by the Holy Spirit, one cannot look outside the Church for true understanding.(10) For the Orthodox, heresy begins with going outside the “intension” of Scripture in the Church. From Irenaeus and Origen to Chalcedon, the Fathers insisted on a “catholic interpretation of Scripture, as it is offered in the Church.”
Breck believes this is the chief distinction between Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant. Catholics center on the magisterium, and Protestants upon the Word as individually ascertained, while the Orthodox unite Word and liturgy under the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Protestant pneumatology in this sense is “charismatic,” insisting “upon the spiritual illumination of the individual in his personal reading of the Bible.”(12) The loss of the corporate or ecclesial dimension is seen as a devastating loss, for Protestant dogma is situated entirely in the written record of Scripture, without benefit of the interpretive context of the Church. In other words, preaching in Protestantism replaces rather than supplements liturgy and sacraments, The result is the loss of an effective “hermeneutical bridge” from past meaning (authorial intention) to present life. For the Orthodox that bridge is the Holy Spirit working through the Church. (13)
Evangelicals do indeed center on individual interpretation more than ecclesial celebration. For instance, in the recent Introduction to Biblical Interpretation by Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, the “Role of the Interpreter” is entirely discussed in terms of the individual, as in “interpreters are people in the midst of their personal circumstances and situations,” or “no one comes to the task of understanding as an objective observer.”(14) Yet it is too simplistic to conclude from this that the corporate element is entirely missing, for the church still plays a critical role, as in the further quote. “Proper interpretation requires the interpreter’s personal freedom, yet some degree of external, corporate authority appears imperative.”(15) While individual decisions provide the guiding force, most evangelical preaching and teaching occurs within a context of denominational/ecclesial controls. Few evangelical interpreters would ignore the understandings of past giants of the faith in formulating either exegetical or dogmatic conclusions.
It is in the worship service that the differences can primarily be seen. Orthodox worship centers upon liturgy, sacrament, and preaching that consciously follows the legacy of the Church Fathers. Evangelical worship, especially in the low church format that prevails in most churches, is highly individualistic, and a corporate worship atmosphere is all too often difficult to develop or maintain. Freedom all too often replaces the majesty and beauty of true worship. Yet this problem is continually addressed in the literature, and there are several movements within evangelicalism that seek to learn from Orthodox patterns.
1. This paper is an outgrowth of a presentation to the Society for the Study of Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelism at Wheaton College, September 25, 1993. I would like to thank Keith Wells, a member of the Society and reference librarian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, for his invaluable help in researching this paper.
3. John Meyendorff, “Light from the East? ‘Doing Theology’ in Today’s World: Essays in Honor of Kenneth S. Kantzer, ed. John Woodbridge and Thomas E. McComiskey (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 339-58 (esp. 354-55).
4. On terms like Apostle/apostle, Fathers/fathers or Tradition/tradition, I will generally capitalize when presenting the Orthodox position, and use lower case when presenting the evangelical position. Interestingly, this is seen even in the terms for the respective movements, Orthodox and evangelical. On the whole there is no consistency in the literature and it is difficult to sustain such distinctions in any absolute sense. For instance, within the Orthodox Church “Tradition” refers to revelation or the patristic Tradition and “tradition” tends to be used for human customs or culture. However, this article will still utilize capitals and lower-case for the two, for Orthodox scholars frequently capitalize these terms, while evangelicals rarely do so.
5. Georges Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View (Belmont, MA: Nordland Publishing Company, 1972), 84
6. John Breck, The Power of the Word in the Worshiping Church Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1986), 17-18.
7. Michael Prokurat, “Orthodox Interpretation of Scripture,” in The Bible in the Churches: How Various Christians Interpret the Scriptures (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1994), 59-99.
8. Prokurat, “Orthodox Interprιtation,” 63.
9. Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition, 89-90.
10. There is some debate within Orthodoxy as to the extent to which only the Orthodox Church contains “truth”. In this sense Orthodox theology needs clarification. Many of those utilized in this paper (e.g. Breck and Florovsky) would say “no”. On the whole, however, such a position is quite common.
11. Florovsky, 90-91.
12. Breck, The Power of the Word, 31
13. See Breck, The Power of the Word, 31-35.
14. William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L.Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1933), 7-8.
15. Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Biblical Interpretation, 3, quoting from Moises Silva, Has the Church Misread the Bible? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987),37-38.