Orthodox Christians have always known theirs to be a “biblical Church.” The Bible play a key role in virtually every aspect of our life, from personal meditation to the public Liturgy and mission outreach.
Yet it is true that we more often venerate the Bible than read it. We hear it in church, we encourage our children to peruse and even memorize select passages, and we bow before and kiss it when it is processed at Matins. We would immediately miss its countless quotations if they were extracted from our services of worship, and we would be scandalized if someone casually tossed it onto the floor. Yet in many ways we treat it more as an icon than as a book, more as a sacred object than as a living Word.
St. Augustine heard a child’s voice summon him to “Take up and read!” He obeyed, took up Holy Scripture, and became a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ. That same voice speaks to each of us, calling us to take up the Word of God and to read.
Scripture is not like a newspaper or a novel that we scan for information or entertainment. It is an inexhaustible wellspring of wisdom and illumination that both reveals God to us and enables us to commune with Him. Therefore we need to ask just how we are to read His Word.
The Holy Fathers prescribe for us a certain approach to Scripture, one which is neither a method nor a “technique.” It is a “vision” (theôria), a perception of God’s presence and activity in history and in our personal life. That vision includes certain convictions about the nature of Scripture and its place within God’s work of salvation. Here are perhaps the most important of those convictions.
First, the entire Bible is “inspired” by the Holy Spirit. Although it is written in human language, with human limitations, it is God’s Word in the sense that the biblical authors were guided in their writing to convey all that is necessary for us to “know” God and to enter into eternal communion with Him.
Second, the Old Testament, as much as the New, is a “Christian book.” Its persons, events and institutions are “types” or prophetic images that point forward to Christ and are fulfilled by Him. Christ is the “new Moses”; as the Bread of Life (John 6) Christ is the true Manna come down from heaven. Similarly, the temple of the Old Covenant is a type of the Church, as the burning bush of Exodus 3 is of the Virgin Mary (who bore divine fire within her womb, yet was not consumed).
Third, Holy Scripture contains both a “literal” meaning and a “spiritual” meaning. The former refers to the author’s intended message. The spiritual sense, on the other hand, refers to the message God speaks to us today, through the text of Scripture. This is the “higher” sense that relates the biblical story to our own story, our own personal life.
How do we move from the literal meaning of a biblical passage to its spiritual meaning? God Himself creates this movement within us, through the inspirational activity of the Holy Spirit. For the Spirit inspires not only the writing of biblical books. He also inspires their interpretation throughout the life of the Church.
To take up and read, in order to hear in Scripture God’s Word for us today, is to open both heart and mind to God in prayer. “We do not know how to pray as we ought,” St Paul tells us. True prayer is the fruit of the Spirit within us (Rom 8). The same is true with our reading of Scripture. We hear God’s Word in Scripture as the Spirit guides our reading and fills it with ever new meaning.
To come to know God and to commune with Him through the Scriptures, then, is to submit ourselves, in prayer, to the work of the Spirit within us. Taking up the Word of God, we truly read by the power and grace of God Himself, who desires all of us to hear His voice and respond to it with faith and with love.
The Bible, then, is indeed an “icon” or sacred image. This is true of the Gospels, but it is true as well of the entire canon. Yet it is more than an image, insofar as it is God’s living Word addressed personally to each of us. To appreciate it as such, and to be nourished by it as we can be, we need to take it off the shelf or coffee table, dust it off, open it up, and read. Every time we do, we can experience God Himself speaking to us: in our own language but with His power, wisdom and healing grace.