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The Untamed Textbook and Its House-Trained Handouts: An Orthodox Biblical Scholar Musing at the Crisscross of Scripture and Tradition

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Dec 9, 2013

Rev. Dr. Eugen J. Pentiuc

Title Footnote: [1]

"The Bible is a scented garden, delightful, and beautiful.... Let us seek in the fountain of this garden 'a spring of water welling up to eternal life.' We shall taste a joy that will never dry up, because the grace of the Bible garden is inexhaustible." – St. John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 4.17

The fourth century exegete and theologian St Gregory of Nyssa urged passionately his audience, "Let the inspired Scriptures be our umpire, and the vote of truth will be given to those whose dogmas are found to agree with the divine words" (On the Holy Trinity, And of the Godhead of the Holy Spirit). This is a powerful statement on the centrality of Scripture as an arbiter and criterion of truth of the Church's doctrinal fabric.

Several centuries before Gregory, Papias, a "hearer" of the Apostle John, speaks rather differently: "For I did not think that the information from books would help me as much as that from a living and surviving voice" (in Eusebius, Church History 3. 39). Papias' statement is a clear testimony to the importance of the oral teaching in the transmission and interpretation of the apostolic kerygma (proclamation) throughout the centuries – that same kerygma that would eventually develop into the Church's Holy Tradition. As Paul D. Hanson notices, "The most appropriate context for the theological interpretation of the Bible is the living community of faith, which for Christians is of course the church." [2]

How is this centrality of Scripture to be reconciled with the guidance of Holy Tradition? Unlike those post-Reformation Western theologies which have resorted either to the binomial formula of "Scripture and Tradition" (i.e., Roman-Catholic view in the period from the Council of Trent to the Second Vatican Council II) or to the plain reductionism inscribed in the formula of sola scriptura (i.e., the classical Reformation view), Eastern Orthodox theological discourse is dominated by an integrative model: "Scripture within Tradition."

A caveat is warranted at this point: to assert the "centrality" – even "sufficiency" – of Scripture does not mean a self-sufficiency. As Father Georges Florovsky writes, "We cannot assert that Scripture is self-sufficient; and this not because it is incomplete, or inexact, or has any defects, but because Scripture in its very essence does not lay claim to self-sufficiency. We can say that Scripture is a God-inspired scheme or image (eikon) of truth, but not truth itself. . . . If we declare Scripture to be self-sufficient, we only expose it to subjective, arbitrary interpretation, thus cutting it away from its sacred source." [3]

If it is true that Tradition is, in the view of more than one Orthodox theologian, the very life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, then Scripture might be imaged as the Church's pulsating heart, the center, always radiating life and sustenance to other facets of the body, giving concrete content to the textual, aural, and visual manifestations of Tradition.

For a better understanding of the Orthodox view on the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, consider the following analogy: Scripture may be likened to a textbook; Tradition may be compared to a set of explanatory handouts.

Scripture, most especially the Old Testament, is an untamable textbook. Holy Tradition in all its avatars – conciliar statements, writings of Church Fathers, liturgy, iconography, ascetic teaching, etc. – functions as its guiding handouts. Following this analogy, one may note a certain complementarity. Handouts summarize and explain the salient points of a textbook. Similarly, Tradition, based on Scripture, complements the latter by condensing and illuminating its content. Nevertheless, the handouts, however complete they may appear, will never be able to exhaustively elucidate all the angles of scriptural trove or provide an all-encompassing summary of Holy Writ. The handouts do necessarily depend on a textbook. If the latter can stand by itself, the handouts always need the textbook as their irreducible point of departure and reference.

Hence, one may speak, as St Gregory of Nyssa did, of the centrality of Scripture. Scripture is central not only because it is the basis for all the further handouts, i.e., the manifestations of Tradition. The centrality of Scripture consists in its very nature – namely, its "untamable" character. The "handouts" of Tradition are counterparts to an unbridled textbook. Of course, there are "sections" of the Tradition that come closer to Scripture in their untamable depths. For instance, in some contrast with the discursive vein of conciliar statements and most patristic commentaries, iconography and hymnography may be regarded the most flexible, creative, and poetical expressions of Church Tradition. Yet the truth remains that there are two rhetorical modes, one of Scripture and one of Tradition. The rhetorical mode of Scripture is based on ambiguities, apparent contrasting statements, and anecdotic language, whereas the rhetoric of Tradition has often tended towards reductive organizational schemes and precise definitions.

In contrast with Tradition's greater tendency to define, Scripture has invariably remained always the same untamed, and untamable, source of wonder. It does not explain so much as it offers a lavish array of ways of thinking and doing. Scripture is an open textbook, an endless reservoir of wisdom in the making. But above all, Scripture is a living and ever-refreshing means of communication with God, its primus auctor. According to St. Paul's statement, the "whole Scripture is God-breathing." The verbal adjective theopneustos usually rendered "inspired" has an active meaning, hence my translation "God-breathing." Scripture is not, nor does it claim to be, a complete "recording" of God's mind. Rather, it is a means through which God re-creates us each time when we approach the Scripture, as he did on the sixth day when he breathed his breathing of life on the dust and the dust became a "living breath" of God (Gen 2:7). The Lord re-creates each reader of Scripture as a partner in dialogue with him, the source of life.

Let us consider an example of this untamable character of Scripture and its relation to the guidance offered by Tradition. The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo has always been a central part of Christian theological discourse. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed states, regarding God the Father, that he is the creator of "all things, visible and invisible." Creatio ex nihilo is implied by the use of Hebrew verb bāra' "to create" (always referring to God as the subject of creation) in Gen 1:1, "In the beginning God created (bāra) the heavens and the earth." Clearly stated, this idea appears later on in the second book of Maccabees (dated second century B.C). In 2 Macc 7:28, a mother urges her son facing persecution, "I implore you, my child, look at the earth and sky and everything in them, and consider how God made them out of what did not exist (ouk ex ontōn), and that human beings come into being in the same way." In fact, the phrase ex nihilo originates here, being drawn from Jerome's rendition of the Greek phrase ouk ex ontōn in his Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate.

Creatio ex nihilo, a good example of biblical interpretation in the form of a long-lasting and influential theological idea, presents God as the omnipotent being who created everything out of nothingness, as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan proclaims it. Nevertheless, this is only one dimension of the teaching on creation found in the Old Testament.

Just prior to the first powerful fiat (Gen 1:3), we are informed rather abruptly of some enigmatic realities whose origin are unexplained. "Now the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep, with God's Spirit hovering over the waters" (Gen 1:2). According to the Priestly author, "darkness," "deep," and "water" were neither created by God nor had any existence of themselves. The conspicuous absence of the verb "to be" in both preeminent versions, Hebrew and Greek, points to the "non-existent" character of these ghostly yet menacing realities. This chaotic state of things before the starting moment of creation was kept under control only by God's Spirit. The primordial chaos of Gen 1:2 is almost impossible to describe in words. It is not created and it has no existence by itself. Then how could one express its "attending" status in the eve of the first day of creation?

If this chaos cannot be described, nonetheless Gen 1:2 generated a number of interpretations within the Old Testament itself. Thus, Yahweh declares through the exilic prophet labeled Deutero-Isaiah, "I form the light and I create the darkness (chōshek), I make well-being, and I create evil (rā'), I, Yahweh, do all these things" (Is 45:7). Before the clear statement of 2 Mac 7:28 and its Christian interpretation in the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, the first attempt to reduce the biblical polyphony to one voice may be found in Is 45. Yahweh's emphatic statement was intended as an explicative gloss on the difficult and ambiguous locus of Gen 1:2. The use of participial forms in this text allows one to render the statements regarding the darkness and evil as, "I can create darkness...I can create evil." As one may notice, the text does not state that God created the primordial darkness. It says only that God can create, namely, he has the absolute power over things whose origin is explained or unexplained (as with the "darkness" in Gen 1:2). Isaiah 45:7 is also an illustration of what biblical scholars consider as "the Bible interpreting itself."

Even this piece of "inner biblical exegesis" is unable to tame the untamable, however, and other biblical writings give alternative answers to the problems raised by the same Gen 1:2. As time passed, this crux interpretum was debated within a wider and more intricate context of questions regarding the origin of evil and suffering of the just (theodicy; note Jer 12:1-3 as a locus classicus). With the primordial watery deep wrapped in a mysterious darkness (Gen 1:2), two sea-beasts were associated, the Behemoth and Leviathan. These sea-beasts, or rather aquatic monsters, were considered as the very personification of evil and the primary source or cause of all the trials and sufferings human beings can bear.

In keeping with God's mastery or lordship, theologically expressed in the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, Yahweh dominated the "flood dragon" (mabbûl; Ps 29:10). Ps 68:22-23 praises God who is victorious over the "deep sea" and the "serpent." Ps 74:13-14 informs us that Yahweh defeated the "sea-beasts" (tannînîm) and the Leviathan. In Is 27:1, the Leviathan is depicted as a "sea-beast" (tannîn) and a fleeing and twisting serpent. Yet the clearest testimony of God's prowess over the primordial hostile powers is the hymn of Is 51:9-11: Yahweh is the one who "split Rahab," "pierced the sea-beast (tannîn)," and "dried up the "Great Deep (tĕhôm rabbâ)." The basic idea of these texts is that Yahweh is the one who defeated the primordial sea-beasts associated with chaos and established in place of them the order of creation.

Still, there are biblical writers who are not satisfied with such a quick fix to man's cry of inquiry regarding suffering and evil. For instance, the author of Job 40-41 suggests that God himself created these monstrous creatures that are to be blamed for all sufferings because he wanted to be challenged so that his power might be eventually made manifest. This is God's puzzling answer to the lengthy complaints of a suffering Job who struggles to solve the fundamental question: "Why do the just suffer and the unjust prosper?" God's answer underscores the cruel reality of evil in this world, responsible for both social and personal trials. Nevertheless, God who allowed himself to be challenged by the two monsters (Behemoth and Leviathan) is more powerful than them.

Here precisely, we begin to plumb the "untamable" depths. We learn that, unlike some conclusions that might be drawn from certain doctrinal developments in both Judaism and Christianity, Scripture testifies to a continuous and dramatic situation where God's mastery is not a simple and happy-ended show but rather a dynamic process. One can discern the final victory, but only through a complicated thicket of daily troubles, in which we hope always in the final victory as a reliable companion. Jon D. Levenson [4] argues that the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is not about God's "omnipotence as a static attribute" but rather about "omnipotence as a dramatic enactment: the absolute power of God realizing itself in achievement and relationship." Emphasizing the static omnipotence translates in a downplaying of creation's "vulnerability to chaos." In contrast, in the very realization that creation is in jeopardy, the believer can find a serious and genuine pastoral resource. As Walter Brueggemann remarks, such a recognition "is not, moreover, a diminishment of Yahweh. To the contrary, it is an assertion of how urgently indispensable Yahweh is to a viable life in the world." [5]

Finally, another biblical author (Ps 104:26) looks at Leviathan as to a mere toy that God created to sport with. Here, creatio ex nihilo turns the source of evil and suffering into a caricature whose raison d'être is to entertain its Maker. But alas, with what great cost!

Now one question may still bother some readers of this beautiful, rich, and untamable textbook that is the Bible: "Why do we need the handouts if they are reductionist in nature?" That is: why do we need the doctrinal encapsulations of Holy Tradition? We need them because they are simple, quick guides for busy travelers in a world filled with temptations, sorrows and fleeting joys. The Church reminds us through these handouts about God's presence in this world and his final victory over what is wrong and unjust.

A similar question may be raised by those faithful to the Holy Tradition: "Why do we need a Scripture when everything important for salvation might be condensed in Tradition?" The answer to this pertinent question lies with the complexity and changeability of human life, in terms of challenges, priorities or trials. Only such an untamable and multi-facet textbook is able to alleviate the unanswered "Why?" nailed on the cross on a Friday afternoon as a perennial testimony of human frailty and divine power.

Scripture's polyphony is a pastorally more efficient way to cope with the tough questions of the suffering of the just and the silence of God than any flat statement such as creatio ex nihilo. When Tradition fails to give an adequate explanation, untamable Scripture through its ambiguous, enigmatic language and imagery offers us alternative routes of inquiry and further meditation that may at least provide an authorized word on the reality of evil.

With R.W.L. Moberly, we may characterize the relationship between Scripture and Tradition observed here in these ruminations in terms of a "hermeneutical dialectic of biblical text and post-biblical faith." [6] Tradition, notices Moberly, is moribund unless vitalized by a frequent return to Scripture. The Church has been formed and informed by the Scripture since her inception. It is the continuous responsibility of the Church to interact with the sacred text in order to keep the Tradition alive.

Perhaps ironically, it is precisely such deep engagement with Scripture – never a mere drone-like parroting of doctrinal formulas – that we find as the model provided to us by the greatest Fathers of the Church, whose exempla deserve to be imitated even more than they are quoted. That is to say: Orthodox Tradition itself urges us to give central place to the reading and interpretation Scripture. To conclude, we may take to heart the following insightful words of Father Theodore Stylianopoulos:

The Church does not possess the Bible in such a way that it can do whatever it pleases with it, for example through virtual neglect or excessive allegorisation…. In its canonical status, scripture occupies the primacy among the Church's traditions…. The Bible as the supreme record of revelation is the indisputable norm of the Church's faith and practice….. The neglect of the Bible and the silencing of its prophetic witness are inimical to the Church's evangelical vibrancy and sense of mission in the world…. The Church in every generation is called to maintain the primacy and centrality of the Bible in its life, always attentive, repentant and obedient to God's word. [7]

Rev. Dr. Eugen J. Pentiuc is Tenured Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. He is Senior Fulbright Scholar and Lilly Faculty Fellow. He published several books and numerous articles in the areas of biblical studies and Near Eastern languages and civilizations.

 


[1] This presentation is a summary of chapter 4 "Tradition," from E. J. Pentiuc, The Old Testament in Eastern Orthodox Tradition. Oxford University Press, February 2014.

[2] "Biblical Authority Reconsidered," Horizons in Biblical Theology 11/1 (January, 1989): 76.

[3] Bible, Church, Tradition. An Eastern Orthodox View (Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1972), 48.

[4] Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton University Press, 1994), xvi, xxix.

[5] Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Fortress Press, 1997), 537.

[6] The Bible, Theology, and Faith: A Study of Abraham and Jesus (Cambridge University Press, 2004), 6-7.

[7] "Scripture and Tradition in the Church," in The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology. Edited by M. M. Cunningham and E. Theokritoff (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 25.

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