More on an Orthodox Hermeneutic

It is the common witness of the gospels that the disciples seemed to have no clue when it came to the death and resurrection of Christ – until after the resurrection. The classic story of this is to be found in St. Luke’s gospel:

Now behold, two of them were traveling that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was seven miles from Jerusalem. And they talked together of all these things which had happened. So it was, while they conversed and reasoned, that Jesus Himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were restrained, so that they did not know Him. And He said to them, “What kind of conversation is this that you have with one another as you walk and are sad?” Then the one whose name was Cleopas answered and said to Him, “Are You the only stranger in Jerusalem, and have You not known the things which happened there in these days?” And He said to them, “What things?” So they said to Him, “The things concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a Prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, “and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to be condemned to death, and crucified Him. “But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, today is the third day since these things happened. “Yes, and certain women of our company, who arrived at the tomb early, astonished us. “When they did not find His body, they came saying that they had also seen a vision of angels who said He was alive. “And certain of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but Him they did not see.” Then He said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! “Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?” And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. Then they drew near to the village where they were going, and He indicated that He would have gone farther. But they constrained Him, saying, “Abide with us, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.” And He went in to stay with them. Now it came to pass, as He sat at the table with them, that He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him; and He vanished from their sight. And they said to one another, “Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:13-32).

Other gospel accounts of the resurrection echo this same phenomenon. The Church did not arrive at its understanding of Christ through its reading of Scripture. The Church learned to read Scripture by having its eyes opened to Christ and seeing the Scriptures through His life, death and resurrection. Christianity is a radical re-reading of the traditional Hebrew Scriptures brought about through Christ Himself. Of all the claims to messiahship made by Christ this one is by far the greatest and most clear. To be Himself the exegesis, the meaning of everything in the Old Testament, can only mean that He is the Son of the Father. Only God could be the meaning of Scripture and His claim is to be nothing less.

But it is key to think carefully about what it means for Christ to be the interpretation of Scripture. It does not mean that He is words about Scripture, but is Himself  the meaning of Scripture. It is a different claim to say that a Person is the meaning of something, rather than just more words about words.

Thus it is that the Scriptures can have layers of meaning and depth upon depth. For only a Person can offer the limitless possibilities of such meaning. Were the meaning of the words of Scripture just more words, its meaning and depth would be quite finite. This is where I criticize literalism as being flat. This means that. Such a model cannot represent or in any way give us the meaning of a Person, least of all the Person of Christ. Personhood inherently brings an infinite level to bear. For to be a Person entails an infinite quality – indeed qualities – both of love and of freedom. Thus, for the Scriptures to rightly present Christ to us, they must be themselves capable of depth – of bearing the good news of both freedom and love.

And on the level that reaches beyond that – the Scriptures bear witness to the Church, the Body of Christ, the Pillar and Ground of Truth. Of nothing else do we say that it is destined to obtain the fullness of the stature of Christ, but this is said of the Church (Ephesians 4). The Church is that which is being saved, and in the fullness of that word, it is that which is being conformed to the image of Christ. Thus, as His image, the Church is the interpretation of Scripture living among us now, made manifest by the Spirit of God who dwells in her.

In speaking this way of the Church, I refer to the Orthodox Church, which is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. The disruption of the Church that has occurred through schism and heresy has created a situation in which many use the word “Church” to mean many things – some despairing of the Church Christ gave us and instead choosing to believe in an “invisible” Church, to which no epistle was ever written.

I do not mean to speak in triumphalist terms of the Orthodox Church – for to be that which she claims is only to be given the task of keeping the faith “once and for all delivered to the saints” and doing so by embracing the Cross of Christ. But she has maintained that which was delivered to her and borne the Cross placed upon her and given every generation the blood of martyrs who have faithfully carried the witness of the crucified Christ.

I would not “unchurch” all others who name Christ as Lord, but would say that they are Church only in a way that is related to the Orthodox Church – inasmuch as they confess some part of the same faith, etc.

If this is not true of the Orthodox Church, then there is no meaning of Scripture, no interpretation that is not just words about words. Christianity would have been reduced to philosophy or to a “people of the book” (God forbid). As it is, she remains the pillar and ground of truth – the Body of Christ – His epistle written in the fleshy tables of the heart.

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.


8 responses to “More on an Orthodox Hermeneutic”

  1. Discipulus Avatar

    These posts on the interpretation of Scripture are so valuable. Very, very helpful reading. Somehow, I’d like to learn how to read the bible like this. I have a lifetime of bad habits to overcome.

  2. fatherstephen Avatar


    I think a key is listening carefully to the Scriptures in the feasts and the hymnography surrounding them, particularly at Matins and Vespers where most of the Scripture and hymnography occur. And hearing them in the context of the living Church, where we at the same time live the life of the Church to the fullest – in prayer, in fasting, in repentance, in communion, in almsgiving, etc. “Straining forward for the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” as St. Paul would say.

    It is less that we grasp an idea (more words about words) but that we live into what we hear, by grace becoming what we hear. I think this is a slow, process (I think grace tends to work slowly) one that we do with patience and perserverance, avoiding discouragement through thanksgiving for all things. Trusting that God is indeed making us an “exegesis” of Scripture, living epistles. I don’t know how much self-awareness there is in this, probably the less the better. I have encountered “living epistles” and communities where the life of the Church was manifest in great depth. I think immediately of the Monastery of St. John in Essex, England as such a place – of course there are many more. And moments and persons in our parishes where the fullness breaks through and we can but marvel.

  3. Robert Avatar

    Dear Discipulus,

    To build on Father’s post, if I may, approach the Bible not as a textbook to be dissected so as to gain knowledge or as a prooftext to prop up a particular wordlview. The true Faith is not sophistry, and much more than a compilation of correct ideas; this is as Father says “words about words”. The Christian worldview after all is not a philosophy – it is Life itself. And He can only be rightly experienced within the context of the Church, the Eklessia – “the called out ones” – His Body.

    The Divine invitation is one of communion: “come and dine with Me”.

  4. wordsmyth Avatar

    “If this is not true of the Orthodox Church, then there is no meaning of Scripture, no interpretation that is not just words about words. Christianity would have been reduced to philosophy or to a “people of the book” (God forbid). As it is, she remains the pillar and ground of truth – the Body of Christ … ”

    Father, I’m not sure what you mean here. No meaning of Scripture if the Orthodox Church is not the Body of Christ? What about the Roman Catholics, the Oriental Orthodox, the Old-Calendar believers out of communion with the EO? I can never really grasp the concept of the “invisible” church because even as a protestant, I never thought of it that way. If someone is nominally Orthodox, attends liturgy, etc. but they don’t really believe … is that person a member of the Body of Christ?
    I’ve heard Orthodox say something like “we know where the Church is, but we do not know where she is not.” Well, if they don’t know where she is not, then isn’t that area “invisible”?

    I think the Body of Christ is always visible, I just not even close to knowing whether it’s the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox Church, or everybody who believes that Jesus is the Christ. It’s frustrating because people who honestly believe they are receiving guidance from the Holy Spirit believe contradicting things.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes, that is problematic. The relationship with Rome is one of schism (at the least) and doctrine (theoretically) and schism with the OO. But to say where the Church is (somethings God only knows in its fullness), is not to refrain from saying what the Scripture has implied of the Church. If she is the Pillar and Ground of Truth (I would say this of the EO), then what I have written stands. If this is true of the EO’s, then Rome and the OO’s are problematic. I left the door open with “inasmucn as they confess some part of the faith.” With regard to Rome and the OO’s there is much in common. But I believe the EO to be what she says she is. Problematic for instance: is the papacy a proper interpretation of Scripture? I do not believe so.

    In the affirmations required (OCA service booklet) before being received into the Church, we are asked, “Do you confess that this same Church [the Orthodox Church] is the Bride of Christ and that in her is true salvation?”

    If this is so, then the Orthodox Church, as the Bride of Christ, is the proper exegesis of the Scripture (may God have mercy on our souls).

  6. Robert Avatar

    Dear Wordsmyth & Fr Stephen,

    I believe Fr John Meyendorff’s insights on the nature of the Orthodox Church and by relation the meaning of Scripture, possibly may be of help:

    “The witness of the Apostles would have been valueless without the miracle of Pentecost, unless the Spirit had come not merely to the Twelve but to the entire Church. The Church is thus founded not only by the Apostles but on them, as well as in the Holy Spirit . . . . It is the Spirit who defines the canon of Scripture in the Church and preserves the Church through the centuries in truth and faithfulness to its Head. . . . Scripture includes the totality of the apostolic witness and nothing can be added by way of completing our knowledge of the person of Jesus, his work, and the salvation which he brought us; but this written witness regarding Christ was not launched in a void . . . it was given to a community which had been founded by these Apostles and which had received the same Spirit. This community is the Church, which has received the Scripture and acknowledges in it the Truth . . . and interprets this corpus of writings with the help of the Spirit.” – from his book titled The Orthodox Church.

    It is thus then, dear Wordsmyth, that we hold the Orthodox Church to be the Pillar and Ground of Truth.

  7. kolelm Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    In regards to scripture, what is the Greek text the EO site as the NT scrpitures?

    I am doing a study of the transmission of the NT and it appears from my research the EO see the Textus Receptus as the NT Greek text. Would this be an accurate statement?


    Louis Kole

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    The textus receptus is cited in such a way because it is closest to the Byzantine Liturgical texts – those collections used for reading in the Church – these are probably considered the most authoritative.

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