Rethinking Reading


Someone commented on the last post that “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” This, of course, the the formal teaching of the seventh ecumenical council. I offer a reprint of an earlier article I wrote entitled “How to Read the Church,” which understands the Church as the interpretation of Scripture. It’s another way of saying some of the same things I’ve been suggesting about Scripture and the Old Testament. I hope readers will find it of interest.

If, as I have wrtten, the Orthodox Church itself is the proper interpretation of Scripture – then one might ask, “How am I supposed to read the Scriptures if their interpretation is the Church?” It is a good, even an obvious question, but one which points us to the very thing at hand: the nature of interpretation.

In general usage, to speak of interpreting something is to speak of explaining and commenting and seeking questions of meaning. Of course, this presupposes that the answer to the question is something that can be spoken, explained, commented, etc. Thus, interpretation is seen as essentially a literary question.

I have taken my lead from two verses of Scripture – both of which illustrate how I am re-presenting interpretation. The first is St. Paul’s statement to the Christians in Corinth:

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart (2 Cor. 3:2-3).

And St. John’s description of Christ as the exegesis of the Father [John 1:18]:

No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared (exegato) him.

(Exegesis is the technical term that theologians use when they speak of explaining a passage of Scripture.)

Thus the question can be pushed back and asked, “How are the Corinthians an epistle?” and “What does it mean that Christ exegetes the Father?”

In both cases the answer is not a literary event, but a matter of a life lived. Christ so exegetes the Father that He can say, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father,” (John 14:9). God did not make Himself known by giving us words about Himself. Those who think the Scriptures are the revelation of God are sadly mistaken. Christians are not Muslims. Christ Himself is the Word of the Father and it is through Christ that we know God, not through the Bible. The Scriptures have their place of great importance and are an essential part of the life of the Church, but that place is precisely that of which I am writing.

The revelation of God to the people of Corinth is not to be found in St. Paul’s two epistles written to the young Church in that city, but in the Church itself. They are God’s revelation to Corinth, “written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the Living God; not in tables of stone but in the fleshy tables of the heart.”

If the people of Corinth do not see and come to know Christ in and through the Church, His Body, which has been established in that place, then Corinth will not know God.

Some of this goes to the very heart of the Church’s existence. It has become a commonplace in modern Christianity to reduce the Church to a fellowship of convenience, existing only to encourage and strengthen individual Christians (this is particularly true in Evangelical Christianity but has spread as a larger cultural understanding as well). Whereas the Scriptures speak quite differently of the Church.

The Church:

Is the Pillar and Ground of Truth (1 Timothy 3:15);

Is the Fullness of Him that filleth all in all (Eph. 1:23).

Is the very Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12 and other places).

Is the Bride of Christ (Rev. 21:2 and elsewhere).

Such descriptions in no way fit an organization whose purpose is to encourage and strengthen individual Christians. The modern understanding of the Church is blasphemous in its denial of God’s own description of His Bride, His Fullness, His Body, the Pillar and Ground of Truth.

The Church is an epistle just as Christ exegetes the Father. Christ said, “For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself” (John 5:26). In the same manner, Christ is the life of the Church. The Church does not exist merely to speak words about Christ but to manifest the very life of Christ among mankind. The Church has no other life.

“Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory” (Col. 2:2-4).

Thus we do not “read” the Church as though we were reading a book. We “read” the Church as its life impacts and informs our own life. If we are part of the Church, then our life itself is to be increasingly the life of Christ, an epistle written on the fleshy tables of the heart. But this is not for us to do as individuals, for we cannot do this outside the Church and without the life that is lived by the whole Church. We do not Baptize ourselves.

The great challenge to the Orthodox Church in the modern world is to remain the Church, to be God’s faithful epistle to the world and not simply an exotic brand of modernized Christianity. For we are an epistle, written by the Spirit of the Living God, not an organization whose programs entertain the interested.

Let the dead bury the dead. The Church has to be about living a Life.

Please forgive me if the force of my writing in this post is in any way scandalous. I do not mean to cause someone to stumble, but rather to point the way to the truth of God’s Church and the place of Scripture within it.

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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18 responses to “Rethinking Reading”

  1. David Avatar

    If there is any scandal, it’s just that I don’t know how one comes to know this, if it’s they are not told explicitly and continually reminded thereafter.

    I feel like I should know this and don’t. More frightening is that I don’t understand the implications of my lack of experience in this matter.

  2. fatherstephen Avatar


    Actually this is not well known or understood.

  3. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    Dear Father, bless! Thank you for posting this again. I think the place where people get hung up, especially those of us with Protestant backgrounds, is that we get that Jesus is the exegesis of the Father–the testimony of the Scriptures is that He was sinless after all. It is more difficult to understand exactly how the visible Church (the “Church Militant”), and in particular, the Orthodox Church, can be His fullness, His Bride and His very Body, the pillar and ground of the truth, since She is full of people who fail, sometimes in spectacular and very public ways. Her earthly history is very checkered from a human perspective! We, with Protestant backgrounds can have a very Donatist spirit where we want the true Church to manifest a holiness that can be judged from man looking at the appearance. We don’t want to own the “traitors” in our midst, even provisionally until the Final Judgment separates the wheat from the tares, the true sheep from the goats, and so the concept of the “true Church” as only the “invisible Church” becomes very attractive to those turned off by an obvious sectarian triumphalism, even though this is not Scriptural. The Scripture is clear; it was one of the most troubled congregations of the NT Church–the Corinthians–who were fully owned as members of the Church said to be “the epistle of Christ.” This is both a bit of a conundrum (from a human vantage point) and a very humbling reality when we see with the eyes of faith.

    Would it be correct to say that it is only through the visible Church that the fullness of Christ’s life is always available, but that this fullness is not made manifest except through faith (and won’t be made manifest to everyone until the consummation of history)? Perhaps you could write a bit more about this again (since I know you have done so before) to clarify further.

    A corollary to the reality that the Scriptures’ exegesis takes place only through the Church it seems to me is also that what qualifies someone to teach and lead and have authority in the Church is not mere charisma, nor oratory brilliance, nor the ability to correctly rationally articulate its dogmas, nor visionary or administrative acumen, nor academic credentials, nor a particular pedigree (ethnic or otherwise), but rather faithfulness and proven character–lives and relationships that reflect the fruit of the Holy Spirit and true spiritual maturity in godliness.

    For myself when I think of the Church, I think of her life as being made manifest in her Saints and in her dogmas, liturgy, and mysteries, and in every Spirit-filled movement, word, or action of her members but not (obviously) in every single thing that takes place under her institutional auspices. Another common way of talking about this is when we say that one can be visibly in the Church (even in her hierarchy) but not genuinely of her, just as being in a garage doesn’t make you a car. . . .

  4. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    The first Person to say, “Let the dead bury their dead” also said that “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” So I’d guess that this post puts you in some pretty good company, know what I mean?? 😉

  5. Duke Avatar

    Karen C says: We, with Protestant backgrounds can have a very Donatist spirit where we want the true Church to manifest a holiness that can be judged from man looking at the appearance. We don’t want to own the “traitors” in our midst…

    Very well put, Karen. Your comment got me thinking about Christ and His apostles, specifically how Christ never excluded Judas Iscariot. Judas was the one who wanted “the group” to look and act a particular way–recall his rebuke of Jesus (!) over the jar of costly perfume. Judas remained an apostle until he hanged himself; he wasn’t removed from their number because of the betrayal, because even Peter betrayed the Lord. It was Peter’s repentance that revealed something about God, that He forgives and loves and calls us back to Him–a real life prodigal son story. Peter’s repentance is the “revelation of God,” so to speak–the Bible truthfully bears witness to it.

  6. Gene B Avatar
    Gene B

    Father Stephen,
    Thank you for your wonderful blog. You can a way of describing the many facets of our Orthodox Church in ways that we can understand, revealing its beauty and its mysteries for us.

    I would add that, according to a Sunday school book I received when I was young, that “The Bible Lives in the Church”. So much of our Theology is revealed in the full cycle of services, where intimate connections are made with our saints, prophets, holy days and of course our history. In our modern world we have a tendency to want understanding and knowledge NOW, but God is much more patient. He knows that fullness can only be revealed over time. This is why its so important to go to as many services as possible, particularly the evening “forefeast” services where the theology is revealed in the selected bible readings and in the lengthy prayers. One reason I sing in the choir is so that I can read these passages as I sing them. I am constantly amazed at the richness there. One cannot make these connections on their own.

    In the old country people didn’t read the bible – most didn’t read. Sometimes I think people complicate matters by looking into the Bible for answers when they should be looking to Christ. The two are not always the same. Maybe we should let the Church reveal the truth to us in its own time, as we are ready.

  7. Steve Avatar

    There are many instances in holy scripture that mitigate towards a fuller interpretation of John 1:18.

    Our Lord Himself declares most emphatically in Matthew 5:8, that the pure in heart will see God. On the island of Patmos, John himself sees the Living One and falls at His feet as though dead.

    Could the epistle of John be referring to man in his fallen, unregenerate state?

  8. Chris Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Your blog is obviously helpful, challenging, and enlightening to many. Having only been following it for less than a year, I know little of its history beyond that. I’m curious how this ministry of yours began and took off as it did. Did you have a clear “mission statement” or did it develop over time and kinda catch on? I think I would like to hear that story. Perhaps it is covered in a missed post. If you prefer to stick to the issues you are already addressing in your recent post, I understand.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar


    I began through an invitation of a dear friend, Fr. Al Kimel, to write an occasional guest piece on his blog “Pontifications” which he began in the year or two before he converted to Roman Catholicism. Fr. Al, like myself, is a former Anglican priest. We’ve been friends since the late 80’s and he has my highest regard – though we came to different conclusions in our conversions.

    My postings there (as a “guest Orthodox”) had some following, and helped me think about the tone and content of what I should write about in such a venue. In time, Fr. Al made the suggestion that I ought to try creating a blog (not to get rid of me). He taught me how to get started. He and a few others were kind enough to give a small push to the start and steered some readership my way.

    Since then, the blog has grown on its own. I feel like a learn a lot through writing – it helps me focus my thoughts better. Working to keep myself and the blog in the position of kindness and generosity towards others, has also been good for my soul, I think.

    Not too long after I started I received my Archbishop’s blessing as well as a link posted on the Diocesan web site, something I deeply honor.

    As far as mission – God alone knows that. I believe that I should write about what I know, or know best (which greatly limits my postings). I do not put myself forward as any specially anointed spokesman – just a parish priest who is able to write some simple things in a way that seems helpful to others.

    Thanks for the asking – I hope that was helpful.

  10. Chris Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Yes that was helpful, and thank you. You need not explain that you do not fancy yourself an “anointed spokesman”. Your humility is evident in the kindness and absolute lack of presumption in your writing. Indeed it is helpful. Thank you for the time and effort you put in to your many postings and please pray for this catechumen.

  11. Steve Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I would think that in some quarters, Rethinking Reading would be a 10.0 on the Richter scale.

    May God continue to bless you in all you do!

  12. Cheryl Avatar

    Thank you, Father.

    I cannot express in words what I have learned and am continuing to learn from your posts.

    May God bless you,


  13. luciasclay Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I have read that passage from corintians many times. Today for the first time a light went on. The apostle, speaking of them as an epistle literally meant just that. That their lives as part of the body of the Church were the preservation and passing on of the revelation of Christ. In the same manner as the epistle the apostle wrote with ink.

    Thanks for your continued blogging God is using you.



  14. zoe Avatar

    Another wonderful Blog, Father, thank you.

  15. Michael Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, Bless you.
    I have recently been the recipient of God’s great favor in revealing to me the Eastern Orthodox Church. I’m so thankful!!! because I now feel like the subdued tones of the Protestant picture I was given, in my youth, is being filled with the richest colors and hues. However, the closest Orthodox Church is a two hour drive and that distance presents a great challenge for my family to become involved in the process toward conversion. I’m not ultimately concerned about simply ‘getting to be Orthodox’ but rather deeply concerned with the concept you presented in this entry: that only in the true expression of the Church does the believer become a true, complete living epistle. The gravity of this weighs heavy on me as the leader of my family.

    Now to my question(s). How, if a Church is ‘out of reach’, do the non Orthodox become Orthodox? How do we come to the fullness of being a part of the Body – the living epistle, without the Orthodox Church? Granted two hours is nothing when compared to the jungle tribes or desert dwellers who may have to travel days or weeks to find an Orthodox Church. However, whatever the challenge to ‘involvement’ is, the question remains. I very much believe in the sovereignty of God and His plan for all mankind, that he never will leave or forsake, that He will take care of us in ways we can not see or understand. So that is not in question. I am just contemplating the throngs of people who do not have access to the Eastern tradition but who wholly desire the fullness that is described within the Eastern Orthodox faith.

    I deeply appreciate and look forward to reading your blog. This may not be the forum to discuss my questions, however, as of now, this is one of my few places to interact with Orthodoxy. I look forward to reading, learning, and living ever closer to my precious and ever merciful, loving Savior. Feel free to email me directly, if you prefer.


  16. fatherstephen Avatar


    Make contact with your closest Orthodox priest and get to know him and let him know you and your family. He can give you instruction on how to begin to keep an Orthodox home and some of the things you can do at such a distance. I will be praying for you. You’re right. It’s worth the trouble.

  17. SarahSarah Avatar

    As an Anglican for the past 4 years, having come (rather turbulently) out of Seventh-Day Adventism (having previously spent 21 years in this faith) and currently studying theology at a Catholic university, having had a little contact here and there with those who are either Orthodox or who have spent time felloshipping in Orthodox circles, I have found your blog fascinating; especially articles upon Icons and Iconoclasm. Many thanks for your easy to understand explainations.



  18. Kevin Avatar

    I for one find much of this essay to be problematic. Modern Christianity and by that you could mean post-Apostolic, or post Nicene, depending upon your perspective, seems intent on reducing or better yet distorting the Church as a fellowship of convenience for the heirarchy.

    In all my years of worshipping in Holy Orthodox Temples, (Yes it is a practice I still do and wholeheartedly reommend) I can honestly say encouraging or strengthening the faithful has never once, been over done, by those who sit upon the throne or act in their behalf.

    You genuinely believe attempts (even excessive) to encourage and strengthen those who comprise the body of Christ is somehow a modern mis-understanding of the Church and a blasphemous denial of God’s description of His Bride? Who are the living stones that comprise this Church?

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