How the Orthodox Read Scripture


The following quote is from the Christian history website maintained by Christianity Today (an evangelical source).  It describes the crucial teaching role of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, an early Bishop of the Church and later a martyr, and perhaps the most articulate spokesman of Orthodox theology in the 2nd century. The article discusses Irenaeus’ refutation of the Gnostic heretics, particularly their misuse of Scripture. It sheds light on how the Church rightly divides the Word of Truth.

As he wrote these words, Irenaeus had in mind Jesus’ warning in Matthew 7:15 about false prophets who come in sheep’s clothing but are inwardly ravenous wolves. The Gnostics sounded, and frequently acted, just like orthodox Christians. They read the Bible, used the Bible, and cited the Bible. But the way they understood the Bible, the way they put its pieces together, differed dramatically from the perspectives of Irenaeus, Pothinus, Polycarp, and John.

Irenaeus believed there was an unbroken line of tradition from the apostles, to those they mentored, and eventually down to himself and other Christian leaders. The Gnostics interpreted the Scriptures according to their own tradition. “In doing so, however,” Irenaeus warned, “they disregard the order and connection of the Scriptures and … dismember and destroy the truth.” So while their biblical theology may at first appear to be the precious jewel of orthodoxy, it was actually an imitation in glass. Put together properly, Irenaeus said, the parts of Scripture were like a mosaic in which the gems or tiles form the portrait of a king. But the Gnostics rearranged the tiles into the form of a dog or fox.

As a pastor, then, Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies in order to describe the heresies that were threatening his congregation and to present the apostolic interpretation of the Scriptures. He revealed the cloaked deception for what it was and displayed the apostolic tradition as a saving reminder to the faithful.

What is clear in Irenaeus’ teaching is that there was what he called the “Apostolic Hypothesis,” a framework of basic doctrine by which Scripture (first the Old Testament, later the New) should be interpreted. This consensus fidelium, or rule of faith, guided the Church century after century into its life, continually enlivened by the Holy Spirit. Though expressed in different ways at different times, the central goal was always the same: that the Church would teach the same Christ as it had received, and proclaim the same salvation it had always known.

Now Irenaeus’ description of the process of interpretation is deeply insightful. He recognizes that Scripture can easily be broken into pieces (we do it all the time when we pull verses here and there). By itself this is not a problem. It’s how you put them back together that matters. Do you reassemble the portrait of a king? or do you make it look like a fox or a dog?

The answer goes to the heart of the matter. What is the matrix by which you seek to interpret Scripture and by what authority do you use it? Anyone who says he just reads the Scripture and that there is no matrix by which he interprets is deceiving himself and his listeners and not admitting that he has already accepted a matrix and on its basis he selects Scripture to fit his point. There really is no other way to read.

Orthodoxy has never denied this. Instead, like Irenaeus, it points to that which it has received. Irenaeus called it the “Apostolic Hypothesis.” It has also been called the “rule of faith,” and various other names. But if you have not accepted this “matrix” you cannot interpret Scripture in the form of the Apostles or their successors or the Church that Christ founded.

Others accept as their matrix a statement of faith written 1500 years later, constructed on a matrix invented by medieval scholastics who sought to reform the Church. They had no command from God, no conversation with the Apostles, nothing but their own ideas and rationality from which to construct new matrixes. From Germany Luther gave us his “salvation by grace through faith,” and read the Scriptures accordingly. Calvin gave us his matrix of the sovereignty of God. Neither could speak with authority or true assurance and neither would have succeeded in their reform had the state not conveniently enforced it with the sword (read the history). The Reformation never succeeded without the state’s cooperation and frequently suceeded by drastically destroying property and torturing its opposition. Not that this was not followed by a war from Catholic authorities. All of these things happened apart from Holy Orthodoxy. But the myth of a popular uprising cleansing the Church of false doctrine, fostered for years by Protestant historians is simply a fabrication.

More to the point of this post – the matrix of Protestant interpretation, though frequently seeking for something like the Apostolic Hyposthesis, in many places failed to adhere to that primitive standard.

The doctrine of predestination to damnation, discussed in the previous article on the Pontificator Writes Again, is an excellent example of a modern (i.e. Reformation) doctrine that had never been accepted by the Orthodox Church as a proper reading of Scripture. Verses assembled to support this teaching are like the verses of Gnostics, gathered from a shattered mosaic. Instead of a king, they assemble the picture of a wolf.

God has not created any man and preordained him to perdition. To say that He has is heretical. This is not the faith of the Church. It is contrary to the Apostolic Hypothesis and how we have received the understanding of salvation. If a man is lost he has resisted the will of God, “For God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance…” (2 Peter 3:9). At the end of almost every Orthodox service, the words of dismissal affirm, “For He is a good God and loves mankind.”

This is fundamental to the Christian faith. Any other presentation of God, whether under the cloak of sovereignty or the like, is a distortion and falsification of the Christian religion. There is no God who wills the damnation of human beings. To proclaim otherwise is to proclaim another gospel.

The difficulty in proclaiming this, of course, is the number of well-meaning Protestants who will want to quote various Scriptures affirming otherwise. Arius quoted Scripture as did the Gnostics. Either you stand with the Apostles or you do not. If you use the Scriptures in a manner that the Church has not used them, then you stand against the Apostles.

Christian doctrine is not a battle over the Scriptures. Sola Scriptura has not worked and never did. Such an approach simply leads to endless argument and confusion. Either we embrace the faith of the Apostles, once and for all delivered to the saints, or else we exile ourselves to confusion or, worse yet, to the false guidance of those who never sat in the seat of the Apostles.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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33 responses to “How the Orthodox Read Scripture”

  1. pistolpete Avatar

    In theory, a Presbyterian (I am one) places Scripture as top authority (“sole” in the sense that we check other authorities by it). Tradition actually comes second, mostly as expressed in our “Book of Confessions” (statements which range from the Nicene Creed onward). Then, the faith community’s interpretation and finally, personal interpretation. The problem we run into is when we apply “sola Scriptura” to be our own personal encounter with the Bible. To allow the Scriptures to truly be authoritative, we certainly need to read them individually, but also in partnership with believers past and present.

  2. Reader John Avatar
    Reader John

    Clear and forthright. Both this and the Pontificator’s comments are “keepers.”

    But do the Orthodox in principle distinguish – other than as a sort of defining deviancy down (in the great phrasing of the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan) to achieve a modus vivendi with the heterodox around us – greater and lesser degrees of deviation from the Apostolic Faith?

    I think, for instance, of Richard John Neuhaus musing on the relative defectiveness of Mormonism (which accepts the Christology of not a single Council of the Church, not even Nicea) versus that of the typical Reformation-rooted Protestant (whose theologians if not laity more or less understand and accept Chalcedonian Christology and what went before then). When I hear Orthodox Priests say “Mormonism is not Christian,” I wonder why we don’t say that of, say, Calvinism if “there is no God who wills the damnation of human beings. To proclaim otherwise is to proclaim another gospel.” Is it because Mormons make their mosaic of substantially different tiles (additional “scriptures”)?

    I know how the Protestant world loves the reductionism of common “essentials” rather than “the fullness of the faith, and I kind of hate to risk comforting them with locution that suggests that they’re okay where they are because “at least you’re not Mormon.”

  3. Ezekiel Avatar

    Father, you’ve done an excellent summary here!

    The paragraph on Luther and the Reformers is accurate. It took me years to discover that, but when I did, it was an eye opener.

    As an example, Deacon Gregory Roeiber at the Faith of our Fathers Colloquium for the Lutherans describes how Luther guts the Western Liturgy, and how the Lutherans abandon their confessed roots.

    Thanks for the post!

  4. fr. benedict Avatar
    fr. benedict

    I love the elegance of that paragraph on Luther and Calvin. Very well and succinctly put. What is difficult is (a) convincing folks that there does, indeed, exist such an interpretive matrix as the apostolic tradition, and (b) convincing those who should know about it to actually sit down and read enough to become personally familiar with it.
    Thank you, too, for the link to the Pontificator’s excellent post the other day.
    – Fr. Benedict (of B’ham, AL)

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Reader John,

    If someone accepts Orthodox Christology at least in its basics, fully God and fully man without confusion, two natures, one person, that goes a long way don’t you think? There at least is the chance to know Jesus Christ and Him Crucified that Mormans do not possess and Calvinists have thrown away.

    We all hold heretical ideas of one kind and another, i.e, ideas that depart from the truth of the faith. While the Morman teaching is nothing more that a mish-mash of various heretical beliefs wholly bereft of truth, one cannot say that about Protestantism. I have however heard and read many Orthodox bishops and priests unapologetically point out Protestant errors (on this blog for one). From a human perspective, there are degees that need to be discerned but the ultimate discernment is not ours to make.

  6. Ron Drummond Avatar
    Ron Drummond

    Amen! Amen! Amen!

    I take Christian History and Biography, from which this quote is taken. The whole current issue is about Gnosticism, and most of the articles are written by Protestant writers. It is an encouraging trend, I think, to see more Christians outside of the Orthodox Church recovering a sense of the need to read the Scriptures according to the Rule of Faith. Touchstone magazine is an example of an enterprise of separated brethren thinking and writing together on the basis of this common inheritance, even while charitably sustaining their divisions. I also think of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, and various other evangelical publications which seek to draw from the well of the Fathers. While arresting barriers to union remain, and this recovery of the Fathers does not always lead to a recovery of the fullness of the Fathers’ faith, I think these trends can only bring Christians closer together on the only basis we have for real unity: One Lord, One faith, One baptism.

  7. neil Avatar

    Hello Father,

    Thanks for the posts, and for all of your though-provoking, life-inspiring posts.

    You’ve mentioned history in the last few days, either in posts or comments. Can you suggest a good Church history read for the layman? I think you made a Pelikan reference; is that an author or publisher? I am getting really interested in early Church history (apostolic succession, etc) but the Reformation history which you referenced sounds intriguing, as well. My Protestant education has been pretty shallow that way.

    Thanks in advance!


  8. Ron Drummond Avatar
    Ron Drummond


    I don’t want to rush to answer a question you addressed to Fr. Stephen, but Williston Walker’s “A History of the Christian Church” remains a good source. It is quite dated but still useful as a one-volume general history of Christianity. I read it in seminary (I’m currently an Anglican) and am reading it again as part of the St. Stephen’s Course in Orthodox Theology. So apparently there are some Orthodox who still find it useful.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar


    You have said before that “we all have heresies of one sort…etc.” I disagree. Though we are not called to judge one another, an Orthodox Christian should hold nothing in his heart that he knows to be heretical. We renounce all heresy. If in any way, I err, I beg to be corrected. One of the stories of the desert fathers, one of the fathers would submit to be called a thief, a murderer, and every sort of calumny. But when called a heretic, he took exception. That is to separate oneself from Christ, which none of us should do willingly. If you know yourself to be a heretic, then we should rush to confession and renounce it. Nor should we be much given to holding opinions.

    Part of the reason for the narrowness of the concerns and questions addressed on this blog is because of my limitations rather than my predelictions. I have limited myself to writing what I know, and what I enjoy (else it won’t be written well). Which is why I often cannot respond to questions that are of the “ask Father” variety. Though I must strive to do this in my parish, to do this for thousands of readers world-wide is a responsibility I cannot accept for my incompetence.

    But I would differ with you and say that an Orthodox Christian should not use the word heresy of themselves or of others lightly. I rarely use it here, on only used it with regard to double predestination because less than that might fail to make the point sufficiently. See the Pontificator’s note in the comments on my previous article.


    I would add to Ron’s suggestion, Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, as well as Ware’s The Orthodox Church.

    I think reading about American Church history is also useful for Americans. On that topic, no one compares to George Marsden, who is now at Notre Dame (formerly of Duke). His Religion and American Culture is an outstanding read, though out of print and expensive usually when you can find it.

    On the Reformation, Eamon Duffy’s works (his a British Roman Catholic) can hardly be beat, especially since there is such an imbalance in the usually Protestant written histories. Most Protestant histories deal with the Reformation as if it were a college debate when in fact it was highly political, economic, and driven by the State as much as anything. This has been too neglected. Some historians, like Duffy, have done much to correct some of this imbalance and write, if you will, “from the ground up,” in which the history is seen from the life of the average man or woman, rather than from the view of academics and royalty. Having lived through one reformation myself (the post 60’s Anglican), I realize that academics and bureaucrats care nothing for the people in the pews and would gladly ram all kinds of nonsense down their throat. It made me much more willing to see Duffy’s points. But, a very solid, well done history with excellent use of primary sources.

  10. D. S. Avatar
    D. S.

    Strange to read “from Germany Luther gave us *his* ‘salvation by grace through faith,’ when that phrase is about a close a rewording of the Apostle Paul’s in Ephesians 2:8 as one can get (my emphasis). Your larger point is made well and one to which I fully agree. But let’s not judge too harshly our brothers who had to deal with a muddled theological situation in the late middle-ages. And Heiko Oberman’s point that Luther did not consider himself to be a ‘reformer’ needs to be remembered as well.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar


    Granted. Luther was is a tough place. My reference to “his” “salvation by grace through faith” was making of it its own “Apostolic Hypothesis” if you will, which is more than that doctrine should bear. But I don’t dislike Luther. On my list of 5 favorite people I’d like to have a beer with – he’s on the list. 🙂

  12. neil Avatar

    Thanks for the suggestions, Father. I’ve read Ware’s book and I’ve been wanting to read some of Schmeman’s writing, so I’ll start there next, and move on to Duffy and Marsden.

    On another note, you mentioned in the last comment you made a list of 5 people you’d love to have a beer with. You’ve done so much caring (through your writing here) for so many who read this, I’m sure many of us would like to get to know you a little better, as a friend. I’m glad you don’t post lists of your favorite things that then become trivial ground for discussions that pull readers away from real living, but risking that, I for one would love to hear the other 4 on that list. My list used to comprise actors, musicians and painters, but I think I might be growing out of that, Lord have mercy.

  13. Matt Avatar

    Regarding the “we all have heresies” comment, it’s my understanding that there’s a difference in misunderstanding the doctrine of the Church and being a heretic. For instance, as one who has only been Orthodox for 7 months or so, and I feel that I understand so little as is (which is why I try not say, “The Orthodox Church teaches…”, instead preferring to preface it with “as I understand it” when I must speak at all), I’m still learning what the true doctrines of the Church are.

    As I understand it, where I do believe something that is not in line with the Apostolic Faith, so long as I will rectify that when that mistaken belief is revealed, I am not a heretic. However, if I were to insist on my mistaken belief despite correction, then I would prove myself to be a heretic.

    So, in other words, I could say “we hall have heresies” without calling myself a heretic, so long as, by saying that, I mean that I’m sure there are things I believe that I am not yet aware are wrong (but, when those things are brought to light, I will accept the correction). Perhaps it’s a poorly-worded statement; ‘heresy’ seems too serious a word to use flippantly. It is a problem, though, if one uses such a statement to excuse heresy.

    Would you say this is a proper understanding?

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Fr., I renounced all heresy when I entered the Church, that does not mean that all my heretical beliefs instantly disapeared. There is a vast difference between holding, more or less unconsciously, to beliefs that are not in accord with the truth (in essence, heretical), and consciously assenting to beliefs that are clearly at odds with the Church (heresy). It is even a further step yet to actually becoming a heretic-a state of unrepentance in the face of truth.

    I came from a group that at one time or another professed most of the major heresies. Even after coming to the Church and willingly renouncing all of them with great relief, it took quite some time before the deeper tendrils of some of those beliefs were killed. I had been emotionally, psychologically and spiritually shaped by heresy in ways I did not even recognize.

    On a larger scale, all of us converts grew up in a theological milleau shaped by largely Protestant ideas that were often mutually exclusive. A good many of these ideas are heretical in nature. We are still shaped by those ideas in many subtle ways, i.e., we unknowingly harbor heretical ideas that prevent us from realizing the fullness of what the Church offers.

    I see it not only in myself, but also in parish life. Our unexamined but nonetheless tightly held theological ideas derived not from from the Church or the Fathers or even genuine Protestant or Catholic theology skew the way we act, how we treat the sacraments, our clergy and each other as well as how we present the faith to others.

    Less directly we all bear the scars of the nihilism of our culture that more than anything denies the reality of what it means to be human. To the extent that we participate in these beliefs, we are accepting heretical ideas. It is part of our particualar spiritual warfare in our age that so many heretical ideas abound with which we must struggle.

    It has been my experience that heretical ideas foster sin, exacerbate the passions and divide us from one another. IMO the clearest, and least examined heretical idea that we all struggle with is that we are autonomous beings whose highest attribute is our rational mind. The bifurcation of the human soul which you so eloquently described in your series on the two-story approach to creation is one aspect of that heretical idea.

    Part of the grace of the Church for me is that as I live in her, more or less obediently (usually less), the more the untruth that resides in my heart and mind is revealed. The more I surrender those beliefs, the more free I become. I obviously have a great treasure of untruth, passion and pride to which I am still enslaved becuase I have not yet surrendered to Jesus Christ in the Church but the process still goes on often in spite of me.

    I can quite easily echo the cry of the father of the child possessed of the demon: “I believe, help thou my unbelief” with he added piece, help thou my wrong belief.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar


    Good points. I’ll concede on this. You’re right.

    I read a quote today from W.H.Auden (actually delivered in a sermon) in which he said that the God he believed in was just like the traditional God in every aspect except existence.” That’s a very honest statement from the two-storey universe. I will give much more thought along the lines you’ve suggested. Seems a fruitful mediation for personal examination of conscience.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar


    I would add to my list, Fr. Al Kimel (the Pontificator) because I have actually had the dinner and the drink more than once and never been disappointed in my company.

    I would add Fr. Tom Hopko, though I don’t think he drinks. He could have a coke. The conversation, though, is among the most engaging I’ve ever enjoyed.

    And to give a little gender balance, I might want to include Xenia Pokrovsky, the iconographer. I had the chance of snacks and drinks after hours with friends and Madame Pokrovsky earlier this year and her conversation was profound and full of wonderful insight.

    As a lark, I might include Thomas Cranmer, just so that all the rest of us could spend our time trying to figure out what he meant by anything he said! 🙂

    Tomorrow I might have a different list, depending. Luther has always been on the list, though. His Tischenreden (Table Talk) which originally was just that, is fascinating reading. Sorry for posting so far afield of conversation. But a light moment is useful, from time to time.

  17. nichole3 Avatar

    Thank you for this –what a help it is!

  18. Damaris Avatar

    Father Stephen —

    Could you explain the Auden quote? I haven’t read it and can’t figure out exactly what he means out of context. I like his poetry very much and have wondered what his beliefs were.

    Thank you.

    PS Surely Isaac the Syrian didn’t drink beer, but how fascinating it would be to talk with him!

  19. fatherstephen Avatar

    Auden was very upfront about his faith and it’s found in his poetry. But he admits that most of his struggle was simple to believe that there was a God, and yet he struggled to believe rather than to just proclaim himself and atheist. He was, apparently, a very complex character.

    Yes, St. Isaac would be a good conversation. With him, I’d have tea.

  20. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, thank you for allowing me to clarify my thought. I can see how the phrase could be confusing and misleading absent a more complete context. I have the tendancy to assume too great a similarity of context sometimes when I write.

  21. neil Avatar

    Thanks for indulging me the rest of your list, Father. I love that you picked some folks you know already (friends, even?); it shows your heart as well as your mind.

  22. Mary Lowell Avatar
    Mary Lowell

    Fr. Thomas Hopko enjoys a good wine. Ksenia Pokrovskaya drinks only tea, lots of it. Both are profound conversationalists!

  23. fatherstephen Avatar


    Of course, I’ll let everyone order their beverage of choice.

  24. Mary Lowell Avatar
    Mary Lowell

    My name is Mary; I’m your server.

  25. Pontificator Avatar

    Fr Stephen, I am honored to find myself included in your list. This time I think I’ll order a Guiness. 🙂

  26. David Avatar

    It must be that I would waste any such opportunities, which is probably why I am not granted them.

  27. Mary Lowell Avatar
    Mary Lowell

    Will that be Guiness dark, sir?

  28. fatherstephen Avatar


    Patience. The service is slow – but if I’m invited to your table I’d be glad to join you.

  29. Mary Lowell Avatar
    Mary Lowell

    Slow to speak, I pray, Dear Fr. Stephen, but I will be handy with libation to serve all your guests, in moderation, of course.

  30. neil Avatar


    I forgot to thank you for the suggestion for histroy reading, so I want to do that here. Thanks! I’ll check that out!


  31. the hobbit Avatar

    Looks like I am late for the party!

    I found Fr. John Breck’s Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and Its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church very encouraging and helpful. It has been several years since I have read it and have become more Orthodox and less Protestant (hopefully), so my opinion may have changed somewhat. However, tonight I skimmed through it and it still appeared worth a re-reading.

  32. […] probably wouldn’t have even noticed it, except the exact quote was already fresh in my mind from Glory to God for All Things, a blog I read by an Orthodox priest in Knoxville. He was using it in an argument against […]

  33. Andrew Avatar

    Nesterov is a master Fr. Steve – thank you for posting this!

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