Scripture, the Gospel and Orthodoxy

Venerable Hilarion the Great

Venerable Hilarion the Great

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,

By Fr. John Behr

The relationship between Scripture, the Gospel and Orthodoxy is a huge topic, but is indisputably important. In fact, speaking accurately about these topics is perhaps the most important task for Christians today. As "Scripture" and "Gospel" are seemingly more obvious in their meaning, it is with "orthodox" that I will begin. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church has two entries under "orthodox". First, "The Orthodox Church, "which it describes as a family of Churches, situated mainly in Eastern Europe, each member Church being independent in its internal administration, but all sharing in the same faith, in communion with one another, and all acknowledging the honorary primacy of the Patriarch of Constantinople. This is a fairly bald, though not inaccurate, description, which is followed by a couple of pages describing the history of these Churches. The second entry, "Orthodoxy," is much more interesting and provocative, derived from the word's etymology: "Right belief, as contrasted with heresy". However, the Dictionary only devotes a few lines which since ancient times have been collectively described as "the Holy, Orthodox, Catholic, Apostolic Church" to distinguish them from other separated Eastern Churches. Not giving much prominence to the more important meaning of "right belief", it deprives the term of significance for the Church, which claims to be orthodox. It is with the meaning of "orthodox" as "right belief," however, that I am going to be concerned here. If one cannot defend the principle of orthodoxy, as right belief, in Christianity (that which the orthodox Churches claim for themselves), then the other issues, concerning ecclesial self-designation and relationship to other ecclesial bodies, become arbitrary and meaningless. But what is this "orthodoxy" as right belief? Where does it come from?

The classical picture, as it was presented for instance by the book of Acts and Eusebius of Caesarea in the fourth century, in his Ecclesiastical History, of an originally pure orthodoxy, manifest in exemplary Christian communities, from which various heresies developed and split off, has become increasing difficult to maintain, especially since the work of Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (1934)--and rightly so. The earliest Christian writings that we have, the letters of Saint Paul, are addressed to Churches that are already falling away from the Gospel, which he had delivered to them. Walter Bauer, after examining all the various first and second century material, concluded that orthodoxy itself only appeared at the end of the second century, emerging victorious out of a conflict with other traditions, and that in some locations what came to be the orthodox position was originally in the minority...

The writers of the second century were sensitive to the intertextual relationship between Scriptures and the Gospel: not only does Scripture speak of Christ, but everything that is said in the apostolic writings is found already in Scripture. For instance, Justin Martyr asserts categorically:

In these books, then, of the prophets, we found Jesus our Christ foretold as coming, born of a virgin, growing up to man's estate, and healing every disease and every sickness and raising the dead, and being hated and unrecognized, and crucified and dying, and rising again and ascending into heaven, being called the Son of God, and certain persons being sent by Him to every race of men proclaiming these things, and men from among the Gentiles, rather [than the Jews] believe in Him.

The point of importance for Justin is clearly not the "historical Christ," in our modern sense of the word "history," but rather to demonstrate the scriptural texture of what is said of Christ, and the scriptural texture of Christ Himself, the Word of God.

There is a two-fold process at work in the relationship between Scripture and the Gospel. On the one hand, the earliest Christian attempts to explain Christ are largely exegetical in character: what is said of Christ is rooted in the details of Scripture. Yet, on the other hand, it is God's work in Christ that gives the form and direction to this exegesis. It is in this sense that Christ, as is often said, is the key to Scripture--He is the latent sense of that which was written, the Word in the words.

One of the most interesting examples of how the relationship between Christ, the Gospel and Scripture was understood is found in Ignatius. When he passed through Philadelphia on his way to Rome, Ignatius exhorted the Philadelphians to do everything according to Jesus Christ. Some of the Christians there stated that "If I do not find [it] in the archives, I do not believe [it to be] in the Gospel." That is, they would only accept the proclamation about Christ insofar as it accorded with the "archives," that is, with what has already been authoritatively written, Scripture. When he later wrote a letter to the Philadelphians, Ignatius picks up this debate and attempts to clarify his position:

For me the archives are Jesus Christ, the inviolate archives are His Cross and death and His resurrection and the faith which is through Him--in these I desire to be justified by your prayers. The priests are noble, but greater is the High Priest, entrusted with the Holy of Holies, who alone is entrusted with the secret things of God, since He is the door of the Father, through which enter Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and the prophets and the apostles and the Church--all these, into the unity of God. But the Gospel has something distinctive: the advent of the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, His passion and the resurrection: for the beloved prophets made their announcement with Him in view, but the Gospel is the completion of incorruption.

For Ignatius, Jesus Christ is the sole locus of God's revelation; He is the "mouth which cannot lie, by which the Father has spoken truly" (Romans 8:2). As such, all the prophets looked to Him and spoke of Him; s he says elsewhere, "they lived according to Jesus Christ" and "were inspired by His grace" to proclaim "that there is only one God, who has manifested Himself through Jesus Christ His Son, Who is His Word proceeding from silence" (Magnesians, 8:2). Jesus Christ, His passion and resurrection, alone is salvific. Hence it is only through this door that the patriarchs, the prophets, the apostles, and all those who have harkened to their call, enter to the Father. For Ignatius, the archives when understood correctly speak of Jesus Christ, more, they are Jesus Christ, in the sense that He is the embodiment of Scripture--the Word (Logos) made flesh.

The Gospel, in turn, contains no new word or revelation. Its distinctiveness lies in the fact that it contains, and so represents, what had only been announced (cf., Philadelphians, 5:2): the advent of Christ, His passion and resurrection. Elsewhere Ignatius exhorts us to give heed to the prophets and especially the Gospel "in which the passion has been revealed to us and the resurrection has been accomplished" (Smyrneans, 7:2)--in the Gospel is accomplished what had previously only been intimated. The inseparability, for Ignatius, of Christ and the Gospel is also shown clearly when he asserts elsewhere that "Jesus Christ, being now in the Father, is more plainly visible (Romans 3:2). That is, it is in the Gospel, the apostolic preaching of the crucified and risen Christ, according to the Scripture, that we see and understand Jesus Christ, rather than through establishing what were the bare, uninterpreted historical facts.

The analysis of the relationship between Scripture, the Gospel and Christ, is furthered by Irenaeus in various ways. For instance, if what is said of Christ is rooted in the image and details of Scripture (Old Testament), such that a typological relationship is established between what is said of Christ in the New Testament and what is said in the Old Testament, then Christ can be said to be present in Scripture--hidden as a treasure in a field...

"...If our faith is one and the same as that of the apostles, then, as Irenaeus claimed, it is equally immune from improvement by articulate or speculative thinkers, as well as diminution by inarticulate believers. We must take seriously the famous saying of Vincent of Lerins, "We must hold what has been believed everywhere, always and by all" at least by those who have adhered to one and the same Gospel that was delivered by the apostles at the beginning. From an Orthodox perspective there is therefore no such thing as dogmatic development. What there is, of course, is ever new, more detailed and comprehensive explanations elaborated in defense of one and the same faith, responding each time to a particular context or controversy. But it is one and the same faith which has been believed from the beginning -- the Gospel according to Scripture.



The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.


Glory Be To GOD For All Things!


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George