Now therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Eph. 2:19-22).
There are a number of statements in the New Testament that deeply contradict the near “fetish” that some attach to the Bible. One of these is found in an admonition St. Paul offers to the young Timothy. He describes the Church as “the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” Were most people in the Protestant South in which I live asked what is the “pillar and ground of the truth,” they would answer, “the Bible.” And they would be wrong.
Another example is the quote from Ephesians offered above. Though St. Paul describes Christ Himself as the foundation of the Church (in 1 Corinthians), here he expands that metaphor, describing Christ as the “cornerstone,” with the Apostles and Prophets being the Church’s foundation. In neither case does he describe the Bible as a foundation, though, in popular Evangelical culture, it would not be unusual to hear the Scripture described as our foundation.
What would be lacking in these misperceptions of the Scripture, is proper regard for the Church as a “living” temple. Christ did not come into the world to deliver a book. Such notions, sometimes enshrined in the concept that once the New Testament was complete, the task of the early Church was complete as well, are but Christianized versions of Islam. Christians are not a “people of the Book.” Such a thought is deeply distorting of the Christian gospel.
St. Paul’s vision (and the reality given by God) is of a Church that is composed of a living community of persons (the whole communion of saints). That whole living community of persons is the pillar and ground of truth. Its foundation is composed of a living body of persons (the apostles and the prophets) just as Christ himself, its cornerstone, is alive. This is the Church that reads the Scriptures and is itself “our epistle written in the fleshy tables of the heart” (2 Cor. 3:3).
Those who make a sharp contrast between the Scriptures and the fathers, as though everything was simply a text and the fathers a very inferior text, fail to understand the character of a Church that is truly alive. Were someone to ask if I believe the fathers are “inspired,” I would answer, “Of course.” How can the fathers be fathers and not be inspired? If what they wrote and said is not by the Holy Spirit then it is useless. Is their writing to be held as equal to the Scriptures? They themselves would immediately cry, “No!” Just as the mouth of a river cannot be compared to the source of a river – though they be the same river. But if someone cannot discern that the waters are the same, then something is deeply lacking.
Oddly, the Apostles themselves very likely did not regard their own writings to be comparable to the writings of what they called the “Scriptures” (grammata). But without the writings of the Apostles and the Gospels given to us, we would not know how to read the Scriptures of the Old Testament. When the Old is read through the New, then the Old itself becomes the New. Those who continue to read the Old Testament as though it were somehow not the New Testament, do not know how to read the Scriptures. They are drinking from a foreign river.
But even as we have to learn to read the Scriptures, so we have to learn to read the fathers. Not all fathers are of equal importance, and not everything written by a single father is as important as everything else he wrote. The nightmare of a loose canon!
The simple fact is that we are indeed built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets as a living temple. There is no substitute for the life of that temple. Only in the context and community of the living Church of God can we learn how to read, whether Apostles or Prophets or the fathers. Those who have wrenched the Scriptures out of the context of the living, Orthodox Church, have only wrested for themselves error and delusion. They are like the sorcerer’s apprentice – able to read the words of the spells but knowing nothing of their magic. They conjure up a wrathful God and fearful visions of the world’s end. The results of their faulty readings are all around us.
Oddly (not really) most of the content of the Apostles’ writings, deal with how to be the true and living Church of God. It is full of admonitions towards humility and forgiveness, patience and forbearance. It warns about those who do not obey their leaders and of the many false prophets and leaders to arise. There is no instant key to understanding the Scriptures, but whoever begins to read them in their proper and living context begins the journey on the path for which they were written.
And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name (John 20:30-31).
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