Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth


Nothing has greater importance in the Christian life than the place of Holy Scripture. On this, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant can agree. Even if one places emphasis on the role of Holy Tradition, they still have to admit that the most prominent manifestation of Holy Tradition in the Church are the Scriptures themselves.

But, of course, having said a few kind words about the Holy Scriptures is not to have said very much. For the trouble begins not with the Scriptures, but with what we do with them. Invariably, they must be read and understood – and to be understood, they must be interpreted. This is where the trouble begins, and where it has always begun.

The earliest heresies that challenged the Christian faith quoted the Scriptures, and had yet more Scriptures of their own. The Church’s response to these heresies (most particularly the Gnostics) is probably the best demonstration of how the Scriptures are to be handled at all times.

I have recently been enjoying Fr. John Behr’s latest offering, The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death. I have been reading it with frequent accompanying sighs of relief. Not that I expected anything other than excellence from Fr. John, but with a great relief that says, “At last!” There has been a great need for precisely such a treatment by an Orthodox author. Fr. John takes the reader into the realm of Biblical interpretation within the context of the early Church and masterfully demonstrates both how Scripture was used, and how it should be used by those living in the Orthodox Christian Tradition.

With ample quotations from the early Fathers, with particular attention to St. Irenaeus of Lyons (2nd century), we see the framework understood by the Church and a framework in which we can both live and flourish. My own opinion is that the modern Church has lived for far too long under the yoke of various historical methods, none of which are inherent parts of classic Christian Tradition, and some of which have led to their own sad history of Scriptural abuse. The modern world exalted the historical reading of Scripture above all others giving us both fundamentalism, with its historical literalism, and liberalism, with its historical-critical method. Both are opposite sides of the same coin and have their own set of errors and problems.

Fr. John is careful to note that, for the Church, the Scriptures are read “backwards,” to use an image. All of the New Testament presumes the experience of the Crucified and Risen Christ. No one was taking notes during Jesus’ ministry and keeping a careful historical record. The writings of the New Testament, which were long enough in coming, were the writings of a community that saw something in a radically new way in the Crucified and Risen Christ. The Gospels themselves make it quite clear that no one understood Christ during the course of His ministry. In the synoptic gospels all the disciples ran away at the Crucifixion. In John’s Gospel, Mary, the Beloved Disciple, and Mary the wife of Cleopas, remain.

But it isn’t until the risen Lord begins to appear to His disciples that we hear such phrases as, “Did not our hearts burn within us as He opened the Scriptures!” Jesus’ most radical claim, “You search the Scriptures for in them you think you have eternal life; but these are they which testify of me” (John 5:30), provide a key for Christians in understanding God’s word. Here Jesus plainly states that the Scriptures (the Old Testament) are about Him. It means that when we read those writings correctly, what we are looking for is not arguments of evolution and creation (to use a local Tennessee favorite) but Christ. The opening chapters of Genesis are about Christ. Indeed, those particular chapters scream of Christ if we have the ears to hear.

On occasion (such as the Vesperal Liturgies of Holy Saturday, or the Eve of Theophany or Christmas Eve) the service will have as many as 15 readings from the Old Testament. This is a marvelous liturgical example of the very process of interpretation that Fr. John describes so masterfully. Why, on Holy Saturday, is the entire book of Jonah read in the service as one of 15 readings? It is because the book is, in Christian terms, profoundly about Christ and His descent into Hades. Jonah in the belly of the whale prays:

I called to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and thou didst hear my voice. For thou didst cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood was round about me; all thy waves and thy billows passed over me. Then I said, `I am cast out from thy presence; how shall I again look upon thy holy temple?’ The waters closed in over me, the deep was round about me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever; yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God.

Is this a prayer from the belly of a fish, or from the depths of Hades? For Christian ears, the prayer is the prayer of Christ and the setting is given by the Liturgy: the day of Christ’s descent into Hades. The book, for us, is not about a big fish. It is wasted energy for a Christian to argue with someone over whether there was a prophet Jonah swallowed by a big fish. It simply is not our concern. It is Christ whom we seek and we find Him where He said we would.

The History of Biblical interpretation has had its sad occasions. Some of those occurred in our own land where the descendents of Puritans (and others), welcomed a quasi-historical interpretation of the Old Testament where America gets to be the promised land and we (Europeans) get to be the Israelites. The natives who dwelt here, of course, got to play the role of Canaanites and Philistines. And with careful historical accuracy, Christians who were commanded to love their enemies, justified an American holocaust. Similar exegetical skill helped support the practice of American slavery. Bad exegesis is more than just heretical – it’s dangerous.

Christ is the revelation to us of God. We cannot get behind Him or around Him in our quest to know God. “No one comes to the Father except by me,” Christ says (John 14:6). We could also add to that passage Matthew 11:27 and Luke 10:22. They make the same point. Thus we do not move from an Old Testament presentation of God the Father to a New Testament presentation of God the Son. We do not read the Old Testament except through the Son and He is the object of our reading.

Thus a Christian will not use the Old Testament as a justification to act contrary to the commandments of Christ. For example, Orthodox canon law certainly envisions Christians taking the life of someone in defensive situations, but even then will offer penance. The taking of a human life is contrary to the commandments of Christ and always entangles us in the web of sin. Careful reading of the canons would readily reveal that such defensive actions are not treated in the same manner that murder is treated and I am not trying to make such an equation here.

Rather, rightly reading Scripture, the Orthodox Church never gave its blessing to a Crusade, i.e., promising spiritual blessings for actions that are contrary to the teachings of Christ. There can be no Christian jihad.

The reading of Scripture is as important for the Church today as it has ever been. But it is vitally important that Scripture be read within the Tradition of the Church and not within the grips of those who would wrest it to some other use. The bottom line of both strains of historical methodology, is a claim that the Scriptures can be read by anyone as they would any historical document. This is not the claim of the Fathers. The Scriptures, of course, can be read in such a manner and will yield any amount of information – but they will not yield Christ in such a manner.

I heartily commend Fr. John’s newest book and apologize for any failings in my short article to do his work justice (I have my own issues that may or may not be the same as his). I have made many of the same points for years in my own teaching as a priest and rejoice that someone with the competency and learning of Fr. Behr has given us such a useful work. May God bless it and may it yield much fruit in our lives!


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





19 responses to “Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth”

  1. Jack Avatar

    I love Father Behr’s work. I unlearn something I thought I knew about Christianity every time I read him.

  2. Mark Avatar

    Jack’s comment about having to “unlearn something” whenever reading Fr John’s work has been my experience as well. I’ve often been guilty of the odd mixture of metaphysics and mythology he deftly exposes.

    The two figures he sketches in his postscript were especially helpful to me; through them, I realized how often I’ve uncritically assumed the very modern notion of a linear “history of God” in which the Incarnation is but one episode. For a long time, I was profoundly frustrated at why the Fathers didn’t read the OT the way I thought they should be reading the OT. Fr John’s very radically patristic insistence that the “history” of salvation begins with the Passion of Christ, and from that vantage point looks backwards and forwards to see everything in that light, has been both challenging and liberating. I almost fell out of my chair when I came across the line about creation (together with salvation) being effected when Christ offered himself for the life of the world on March 25, AD 33.

    And yet, how magnificently re-orienting that perspective has been!

  3. Don Bradley Avatar
    Don Bradley

    St. Vincent of Lerins wrote an excellent work entitled “The Commonitory” in the 5th century. It is a work worthy of reading if one is interested in why we follow this historical method for interpretation.


    It only takes a few hours to read, but in it he lays out a rule for what is to be believed; and most importantly, why. Here is but a small excerpt from chapter 2:

    “Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense “Catholic,” which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.”

    He goes into great detail in expounding the above paragraph in the course of his treatise, and he is not difficult to read. When I consider a doctrine or a passage now, my first consideration is, “How has this been expounded on in the past?” Not, “What do I feel?” or “What do I think it means?”

    Fr. Behr rocks. I had the privilege of sitting in his Harvard class for a day 2 years ago. He was teaching on St. Athanasius’s “On the Incarnation”. I thought I knew it pretty well before the class, but I left understanding why he teaches at Harvard and St. Vladimir’s and I drive a truck.

  4. Michael Avatar

    Dear Mark,

    I am slow on the uptake. How does Fr. Behr see creation and salvation being effected on March 25, 33 A.D.? I guess I’ve always presumed our Lord didn’t “come down from heaven” to a people who didn’t know Him, but to a people who *did* know Him — albeit they didn’t recognize Him — because of His mighty works of old, like the Exodus….

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Obviously some “knew” Him and some didn’t. The March 25, 33 A.D., was anciently believed to be the actual date of the Crucifixion.

    Fr. Behr’s work is, I think, one of the most important Orthodox works in recent times, precisely because he offers an alternative to what has been going on in much Biblical Studies for years. He show the true character of early Christian theology and how it is a way out of the morass we’ve created today in much Biblical study.

    It reminds me of a statement Stanley Hauerwas once made in a lecture to the Bible faculty at Princeton. He said (in typical Hauerwas fashion) “I believe it is the job of theologians to put you Bible boys out of business.”

    What he meant was that much Biblical study has hidden behind “pseudo science, or even pseudo “historical studies,” and refused to see that the Christian study of Scripture has, from the beginning, been an essentially theological exercise.

    The Apostles accept the Risen Lord, as Lord and Christ, and as the “fulfillment of Scripture.” That immediately means a new way of reading Scripture, examples of which abound throughout the New Testament. There is hardly a “historical” use anywhere to be found. Instead, Christ is seen to be the meaning of everything.

    This same assumption runs throughout Orthodox liturgical works. To a large extent some would see this as “typology,” which it is, but Behr also notes that it is alive. Christ is “the coming one,” and we must still be engaging the Coming One for the Spirit to lead us into all truth. There’s nothing static about this.

    Interesting, for our Roman Catholic readers, (perhaps I’ll blog on this for tomorrow), Fr. Behr takes a nice dig at the notion of the Development of Doctrine, while working in St. Irenaeus. This he got from Irenaeus.

  6. Mark Avatar


    No could be slower than I am when it comes to understanding these things! My head is sometimes even harder than may heart, and God has graciously broken both many times…

    Fr John makes the case (following Saints Irenaeus and Athanasius) that the Cross stands eternally as “the axis of the world,” the “instrument with which Christ brought order to the universe and created the cosmos.” Nothing that happened before the Passion (or since the Passion) can be understood independently from the Passion: hence, the creation “ex nihilo” is precisely the creation of the Word, who is the crucified and risen Christ, who is the Coming One.

    All of this becomes somewhat mind-bending to be sure…

    BTW, Fr Stephen, regarding Fr John on Development – have you seen Fr Andrew Louth’s essay in the collection honoring Jaroslav Pelikan? Fr Andrew resonates profoundly with Fr John’s position on the matter — I found it very helpful.

  7. Jack Avatar


    As I understand it, the statement means that only a cosmos-an ordered whole-is truly created. For a created thing to be ordered is for it to be ordered according to its cause. What is not ordered to the Word of God is, to the degree that it is not so ordered, actually chaos, literally “no-thing.” Only Christ is so ordered because he is the enfleshment according to the Father’s Word by the power of His Spirit. And, it is only by the crucifixion and exaltation of Jesus Christ that the created world is restored to order, pulled out of the depths of chaos toward which it was flowing. “It is finished.”

    However, lest we create a shrunken historicized “Christology” we must also remember that the Church is the Body of Christ. In other words, only the Body of Christ is truly the Cosmos created by God because only it is ordered to the Father by his Spirit and through his Word. But, this isn’t limited to the “historical Jesus” but also includes his Body the Church.


    Father Behr also has some great things to say about divine personhood, and being in commuion, and the filioque that pays retelling. His stuff on the Trinity in his history of doctrine is mindblowing as well.

  8. Jack Avatar

    I should have said “by His Spirit through His Word.” This is the key to Behr’s criticism of immanent and economic trinitarianism as well as the filioque. I can’t wait for the next installment in his series. I just wish he was a little better stylist.

  9. Mark Avatar


    I hope I didn’t misrepresent his point. Forgive me if I did.

    Your comment about the inseparability of Christology and ecclesiology seems especially important — referring again to the two figures in his postscript, I believe Fr John insists that the salvation history of the cosmos continues beyond the narrative of the Scriptures, extending into the realms of liturgy, iconography, and hagiography (the life of the Church).

    All of which, of course, is illumined by the Lifegiving Cross.

  10. Jonathan Avatar

    Fr. John does indeed rock. I had the privilege to sit in on a workshop at the recent OCF College Conference. He blew me away with his ability to seem to wander way off topic (not unlike some of us 🙂 ) for ten, twenty minutes and then put everything in complete perspective with one or two sentences.
    I and some other students were treated to a very enlightening and almost humorously enthusiastic presentation of his argument for history being seen through Christ.
    I left the room wanting desperately to go to St. Vlad and be in his calssroom.

    In the course of his workshop (which was on the letter of St. Ignatius to the Romans), he raised the question, “If we were living in 25 AD, sitting in Starbucks enjoying our coffee, would we have recognized Christ if He had walked right by us?”
    I said, in my typical over obvious style, “Probably not.”
    He smiled and said, pointing at me in response, “Absolutely not, unless you were demonic.”
    So, not only is he incredibly bright and insightful, he also has a very good wit, even while illustrating a point. 🙂

  11. Benjamin Avatar

    I really enjoyed this book – so much in so few pages! His treatment of Scripture/Canon/Tradition as well as his treatment of the Church as Virgin Mother and all the Marian typology that lies therein.

    It is true what he has written, that we did not know our fallenness, nor did we know that we needed a cosmic savior until after Christ. We did not know what type of enemy death and sin really was until after Christ. We did not know that we needed union with God until after Christ. All this is made evident in the New Testament, but if you read the Old Testament as merely a historical account, you really get a mixed bag in regards to the fall/salvation/death/eternal life. Christ is the only thing to found in Scripture if the Scriptures are to have any salvific meaning.

  12. handmaidleah Avatar

    Hello everybody!
    I asked a profssor of statisics, William H. Jefferys, at the University of Austin, who has a webpage about figuring out dates and days of the week, about the traditional date of our Lord’s crucifixion and he says that, March 25, 33 AD was a Wednesday.
    So I guess the question is, if the Julian calendar wasn’t in use at that time, what calendar was?
    Interesting and maybe useless information…
    Christ is in our midst!
    the handmaid,

  13. Jack Avatar


    I’m not sure we are saying different things. It is mind-bending stuff.

  14. Jack Avatar

    Holy Friday as a Wednesday is interesting. Good question with regard to whose calendar. One thing is sure, though, regardless of whose calendar, and that is that the crucifixion is the Sixth Day of Genesis. The Seventh Day is the Sabbath-union of God and man. The eighth day is the day of the Lord, the endless day.

  15. Fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m waiting to discuss this with a deceased statistician who may have access to records no longer available. If I let you know what I find it, it’ll be worth writing about. But it gives me one more thing I’m being patient for. 🙂

  16. handmaidleah Avatar

    I have an update from the professor! Here is his email to me:

    I think my spreadsheet may be in error. When I calculate using the
    rules for the Julian Calendar on my Doomsday page:


    I do indeed find Friday; but this is a hand calculation, so it might
    also be wrong! I will look into it further and try to find out what
    the source of the discrepancy is.

    So there are further developements on the way!
    I also wrote to another Hebrew calendar guy but no response yet, this kinda neat! However, ultimately it like the date of Christ’s birth this doesn’t impact the faith that each of us has in what He accomplished for us.
    the handmaid,

  17. handmaidleah Avatar

    Well, he got back to me fast, here are the results:
    Sorry, I am wrong. The Doomsday rule also gives Wednesday:
    Here’s the calculation.
    From the section on the Julian Calendar on my Doomsday web page:
    For 33 AD, which is 0033 so cc=0 and xx=33, we have:
    33/12 = 2 Remainder 9
    9/2 = 2 Remainder 1
    Discard the 1, add the other three numbers and subtract cc from Sunday:
    Get Doomsday = Sunday+2+9+2-0=Sunday+13=Saturday. So Doomsday for 33
    AD is Saturday.
    That means (see part 1 of that page) that March 0 (that is, February
    28) of that year was a Saturday.
    That means that March 21 was a Saturday.
    That means that March 25 was a Wednesday.
    So, that verifies that the spreadsheet is correct, and March 25, 33
    AD (Julian) was a Wednesday, as it calculated.
    These calculations are completely independent, and use completely
    unrelated algorithms (except that they are supposed to give the same
    day of week as an answer). Since they give the same answers, they are
    most likely correct.
    Sorry to raise your hopes!
    Are you sure that the March 25 date is actually on the Julian
    calendar and not some other calendar?
    He is a very nice man and very funny with the “doomsday” stuff.
    So who actually put forth this Tradition and what calendar was in use? Anybody know? Did they extrapolate this date from the Hebrew Calendar on to the Julian? Ideas?
    the handmaid,

  18. Michael Avatar

    Hi fr. Stephen,

    would you (or anyone for that matter) happen to know of any books out there on “silence?” Or more specifically quiet time. Sitting with oneself.

    I prefer if it would be an orthodox source.

    Thank you,


  19. […] Behr has probably written as well on this in recent years as anyone. I have made reference to his work earlier and continue to commend […]

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