(published in J.-M. Poffet,L' autorité de l' Écriture,Paris 2002, pp. 113-35)

To address any issue, “from an Orthodox perspective,” is an extremely difficult enterprise. What can really be an “Orthodox perspective”, at a time when the very attribute (“orthodox”) is widely understood as having more or less negative connotations? In fact, it is almost impossible to speak on any subject from an Orthodox perspective, even in the conventional confessional, or denominational, sense. On what ground and from what sources can one really establish an Orthodox perspective. The Roman Catholics have Vatican II to draw from; the Orthodox do not. The Lutherans have an Augsburg Confession of their own; the Orthodox do not. The only authoritative so-called sourcesthe Orthodox possess are in fact common to the rest of the Christians: the Bible and the Tradition. How can one establish a distinctly Orthodox perspective on a basis which is common to non-Orthodox as well? And even more: the width of these so-called “sources” is nowadays strongly debated, at least within the scholarly community; not to mention that sometimes they are differently interpreted.

On top of that, Orthodoxy always appears as something “exotic”, an interesting “eastern phenomenon” vis-à-vis the “western” individualistic mentality, provoking the curiosity and enriching the knowledge of Western believers and theologians. According to an eminent Orthodox theologian (J. Zizioulas), this role has been played enough up to now. There are modern Orthodox theologians who define Orthodoxy as meaning the wholeness of the people of God who share the right conviction (orthe doxa=right opinion) concerning the event of God's salvation in Christ and his Church, and the right expression (orthopraxia) of this faith. Everyone is, therefore, invited by Orthodoxy to transcend confessions and inflexible institutions without necessarily denying them. Orthodoxy is not to be identified only with us Orthodox in the historical sense and with all our limitations and shortcomings. The term was originally given to the  Church as a whole over against the heretics who, of their own choice, split from the main body of the Church. The term is, thus, exclusive for all those, who willingly fall away from the historical stream of life of the One Church, but it is inclusive for those who profess their spiritual belonging to that stream. Orthodoxy, in other words, has ecclesial rather than confessional or even historical connotations. And it is from this angle that I propose to tackle the subject.


What I am going to present in this article as “personal reflection for further discussion” is the way we Orthodox, and by extension all Christians, should address specific questions pertinent to the canon of the Bible (why a canon, what canon, and how etc.); namely the whole issue of the Bible. After all, the canon is an issue closely related to the way the Bible is viewed in the Church.

    Despite all these, the Orthodox have from time to time issued official doctrinal statements concerning the Bible, which under certain theological conditions can lend authority to the Orthodox perspective of the Canon of the Bible. These are the canons of certain local synods (Laodicea, Carthage etc.) and of some Fathers (Athanasios, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzos., Amphilochios of Iconion), whose canonical status became universal (ecumenical) through the decisions of the famous Penthekti Council in Troullos (691/2 ce.). But all these canons leave the issue of the number of the canonical books of the Bible (especially of the O.T., but in some way [e.g. Apocalypse] of the N.T. too) unsettled. It may not be an exaggeration to state that the undivided Church has not solved the issue of, and therefore not imposed upon her members, a canon of the Bible.

     The whole problem in a more rigid and authoritarian way was brought to the attention of the Orthodox only after the tension between the Catholic Church and the Protestants. After the model of the western “confessions”, a number of omologiai (Confessions of the Orthodox Faith) from the 17th century c.e. onwards (Cyril, Mitrophanis, Mogila, Dositheos, etc.),  started to come out, including statements concerning the canon of the Bible. But these statements, all coming from the period of their indirect engagement to the polemics between Catholics and Protestants, are no longer considered as representing the Orthodox tradition (Florovsky). In addition, some of them incline toward the wider canon of the O.T. (49 books), whereas others seem to support its smaller canon (39 books), depending on their Catholic or Protestant source, or the “enemy” they wished to combat.

In short, the Orthodox – having to respond to the burning issue  of their fellow Christians in the West – seem to have settled and accepted as canonical:

    (a) With regard to the N.T. – together with the Catholics and the Protestants – the 27 books canon of the N.T. in their usual order. It is to be noted, however, that the Apocalypse is still enjoying a special status, having yet to enter into the liturgical usage. The only remaining problem is the text the various autocephali Churches use in their liturgical services. The Greek speaking ones use the so-called Patriarchal text, a Greek edition similar to the textus receptus, prepared by a synodical committee in 1904, whereas the slavic Churches the Old Slavonic translation. The Romanian Orthodox Church use an old Romanian translation. Only the so-called diaspora (better western Orthodox) and the new missionary (Asian and African) Churches, plus the autonomous Finnish Orthodox Church, use modern translations, based on the critical text. It is a hopeful sign that with the modern inter-confessional development in the Bible Societies movement, and the ecumenical cooperation with Catholics and Protestants, most Orthodox Churches are in the process of new common language translations. On a university and scholarly level, of course, the vast majority use the critical editions, despite their shortcomings.

    (b) With regard to the O.T. – together with the Catholics the Protestants and the Jews – for sure the 38 books of the tanakh (the Hebrew Scriptures), separating Esra and Nehemiah and making a total of 39. The only difference from all the above is that the official version in the Orthodox Church is not the Hebrew original, called the Masoretic text, but the Septuaginta. In addition to those – together with the Catholics – the Orthodox Church, following the tradition of the Early Church, has added 10 more books in the canon, which are called Anagignoskomena (i.e. Readable, namely worthy of reading). As in the Catholic Church, these are neither of secondary authority (i.e. Deuterocanonical, a term invented in the 16th century by Sixtus of Siena), nor Apocrypha (i.e. non canonical, as in the Protestant Churches), a term which in the ancient Christian tradition was given to other books (the Book of Jubilees, the Assumption of Moses, the Martyrdom of Isaiah, etc.) whose authority was rejected by the Church. Those are the books the Protestants normally call Pseudepigrapha. Some Orthodox scholars, under the influence of modern scholarship and terminology, apply to them alternately the term (wrongly in my view) Deuterocanonical. In view, however, of their wide use in the liturgy their authority can hardly be differentiated from the so-called canonical books of the Bible. It is also to be noted in addition that the Orthodox Anagignoskomena do not exactly coincide with the Deuterocanonical books (only seven) of the Catholic Bible.

     In short, (a) with regard to the text the Orthodox accept the authenticity (some like Oikonomos ex Oikonomon even their inspiration!) of the Greek translation of the Septuaginta; (b) with regard to the number of the Anagignoskomena, these are the Catholic Deuterocanonical, plus Maccabees 3 and Esdras, and dividing Baruch from the Epistle of Jeremiah. There are some additional texts that are normally taken up in the Orthodox Bibles, and are either accorded some value (like the Prayer of Manasses and Psalm 151) or added as appendices (like Maccabees 4 in the Greek version alone, or (the Deuterocanonical) Esdras 2 in the Slavonic version alone); (c) with regard to the sequence, as well as the naming, of the 49 books these are as follows: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (=Pentateuch), Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Vasileion (Regnorum) 1 and 2 (=Samuel 1 and 2), Vasileion (Regnorum) 3 and 4 (=Kings 1 and 2), Paralipomenon 1 and 2 (Chronicles 1 and 2), Esdras 1 (=Deuterocanonical), Esdras 2 and Nehemiah (=the canonical Esra), Esther (together with the Deuterocanonical additions), Judith (=Deuterocanonical), Tobit (=Deuterocanonical), [some editions (e.g. the 1928 Bratsiotis edition) follow the order cod. B and A, i.e. Tobit, Judith, Esther], Maccabees 1 and 2 (=Deuterocanonical), and 3,Psalms (in some editions plus Psalm 151 and the 9 Odes and the Prayer of Manasses), Job [in some editions after the Song of Songs], Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom of Solomon (=Deuterocanonical), Wisdom of Siracides (=Deuterocanonical), 12 Minor Prophets (starting with Hosea and ending with Malachias), Isaiah, Jeremiah, Baruch (=Deuterocanonical), Lamentations, Epistle of Jeremiah (=Deuterocanonical), Ezekiel, Daniel (together with the Deuterocanonical additions, i.e. Susana, the Prayer of Azariah and the Songs of the Three Youths, and the story of Bel and Dragon), and Maccabees 4 (as an appendix in the Greek versions only, whereas the Slavonic version, probably under western influence, contains also the 2nd  Deuterocanonical Esdras).                                                                                   


    What has so far been presented is the “canon” of the Bible according to the accepted and blessed by Orthodox ecclesiastical authorities editions of the Bible. There is neither conciliar, nor official canonical or doctrinal authority attached to it as yet. Not to mention, of course, that with the so-called Oriental Orthodox Church the problem of the canon is still more complex even for the N.T., ranging from a shorter canon to a much wider one (37 books in the Ethiopian Church). It was for this reason that in the agenda of the forthcoming Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church the canon of the Bible was originally added for a final settlement. But such an event is not expected in the foreseeable future, unless a truly ecumenical Synod can ever take place. Until that time, when the entire Church of God can definitely decide about her criteria and her canonical documents, if any, the Orthodox perspective in dealing with all issues pertinent to the Bible has to bear into consideration the following parameters:

1.     The Liturgical Background.

The essence of Orthodoxy, vis-à-vis  Western Christianity in its entirety, i.e. Catholic, Anglican and Protestant, is beyond any theological statements or affirmations: I would dare say it is a way of life; hence the importance of its liturgical tradition. It is exactly for this reason that the Orthodox have placed the Liturgy on such a prominent place in their theology. The Church, according to a historic statement by the late G. Florovsky, is first of all a worshipping community. Worship comes first, doctrine and discipline second. The lex orandi has a privileged priority in the life of the Christian Church. The lex credendi  depends on the devotional experience and vision of the Church. Any doctrinal statement, therefore, concerning the Bibleand more specifically the Canon of the Bibleshould come only as the natural consequence of the liturgical, i.e. eucharistic, communion experience of the Christian community, of the Church.

Postmodernity has challenged the priority of the texts over the experience, a syndrome still dominant to modern scholarship. It has even challenged the priority of theology over ecclesiology. I would even dare state that it has challenged the priority of faith over the communion experience of the Kingdom of God. The dogma, imposed after the Enlightenment and the Reformation over all scholarly theological outlook, that the basis of our Christian faith cannot be extracted but from a certain depositum fidei,  most notably from the Bible (to which usually Tradition was added), can no longer be sustained; more careful attention is now paid, and more serious reference is now given to the eucharistic communion experience that has been responsible and produced this depositum fidei.

Recent scholarship is moving away from the old affirmation that the Christian community was originally initiated as a faith community”. More and more scholars are now inclined to believe that it started as a communion fellowship gathered on certain times around a Table in order to foreshadow the Kingdom of God. Of course this eucharistic Table was not lived¾at least by all¾ as a Mystery cult, but as a foretaste of the coming Kingdom of God, a proleptic manifestation within the tragic realities of history of an authentic life of communion, unity, justice and equality, with no practical differentiation (soteriological and beyond) between Jews and gentiles, slaves and free people, men and women (cf. Gal 3:28). This was, after all, the profound meaning of the johannine term aionios zoe (eternal life), or the pauline one kaine ktisis (new creation), or even St. Ignatius’ controversial expression pharmakon athanasias (medicine of immortality).

2.   The Concept of Tradition.

In the Orthodox Church closely connected to the liturgical background in dealing with the Bible is the concept of tradition. Tradition (in Greek παράδοσις=paradosis), according to modern sociological definition, is the entire set of historical facts, beliefs, experiences, social and religious practices, and even philosophical doctrines or aesthetic conceptions, which form an entity transmitted from one generation to another either orally or in a written and even in artistic form. Thus, tradition constitutes a fundamental element for the existence, coherence and advancement of human culture in any given context.

In the wider religious spheretaking into consideration that culture is in some way connected with cult tradition has to do more or less with the religious practices, i.e. with the liturgy of a given religious system, rather than with the religious beliefs that theoretically express or presuppose these practices, without of course excluding them.

   In Christianity, paradoxically, tradition was for quite an extensive period of time confined only to the oral form of Christian faith, or more precisely the non-biblical part of it, both written in later Christian literature or transmitted in various ways from one generation to another. Thus, tradition has come to be determined by the post-reformation and post-Trentine dialectic opposition to the Bible, which has taken the oversimplified form: Bible and/or (even versus) Tradition. Only recently, from the beginning of the ecumenical era, has tradition acquired a new wider sense and understanding, which nevertheless has always been the authentic understanding in the ancient Church. Tradition no longer has a fragmented meaning connected to one only segment of Christian faith; it refers to the whole of Christian faith: not only to the Christian doctrine but also to worship.

It is not a coincidence that the two main references in the N.T. of the term in the sense of receiving(in Gr. parelavon) and transmitting(in Gr. paredoka), as recorded by St. Paul  in his 1st epistle to Corinthians (ch.11 and 15), cover both the kerygma  (doctrine in the wider sense) and the Eucharist  (the heart of Christian worship).

Thus, the importance of tradition in Christianity underlines a sense of a living continuity with the Church of the ancient times, of the apostolic period. Behind it lies the same determination that kept the unity of the two Testaments against the Gnostic (Marcion) attempt to reject the O.T.  Tradition in this sense is not viewed as something in addition to, or over against, the Bible. Scripture and Tradition are not treated as two different things, two distinct sources of the Christian faith. Scripture exists within Tradition, which  although it gives a unique pre-eminence to the Bible, it also includes further developments of course in the form of clarification and explication,  not of addition   of the apostolic faith.

Of course, at first glance the very concept of tradition seems to be a contradiction, since the Holy Spirit who guides the Church to all truth (Jn 16:13), cannot be limited by traditional values only, for the pneuma blows wherever he wishes(Jn 3:8). If we take the trinitarian and eschatological principles of Christian faith seriously into account, the Church as a koinonia proleptically manifesting the glory of the coming Kingdom of God, i.e. as a movement forward, toward the eschata, a movement of continuous renewal, can hardly be conditioned by what has been set in the past, with the exception of course of the living continuity and of the communion with all humanity in fact with all the created world both in space and in time. The consequences of such an affirmation for reconsidering and reassessing the notion of the canon of the Bible are inescapable.

Thus, tradition can hardly be considered as a static entity; it is rather a  dynamic reality, it is not a dead acceptance of the past, but  a living experience of the Holy Spirit in the present. In other words it is a relational principle, completely incompatible with all kinds of individualism and with the absolute and strict sense of objectivism. In G. Florovsky' s words, “Tradition is the witness of the Spirit; the Spirit’s unceasing revelation and preaching of the Good news...It is not only a protective, conservative principle, but primarily the principle of growth and renewal”.

3. The Eucharistic Criterion.

It is not an exaggeration, therefore, to state that the liturgicalmore precisely the eucharisticdimension is perhaps the only safe criterion, in ascertaining the way in which the Orthodox approach any issue pertinent to the Bible; the way they read the Bible; the way they know, receive, and interpret the Bible; the way they are inspired and nourished by the Bible. Those who regularly attend the Eucharist according to the Eastern Orthodox Rite, realizesome perhaps are astonished, or even shocked by the factthat in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy the Bible normally is not read but sung, as if the Bible readings were designed not so much in order that the faithful understand and appropriate the word of God, but as if they were designed to glorify an event or a person. The event is the eschatological Kingdom, and the person the center of that Kingdom, Christ. Perhaps, this is the reason why the Orthodox, while always traditionally in favor of translating the Bible (and not only) into a language people can understand (cf. the dispute in the Photian period between Rome and Constantinople over the use in the Church’s mission to Moravia of the Cyrillic language, i.e. a language beyond the sacredthree: Hebrew, Greek, Latin), they are most reluctant in introducing common language translations of the Bible readings in their Divine Liturgy. For in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy it is not only Jesus Christ in His first coming, who speaks through Scripture; it is also the word of the glorified Lord in His second coming which is supposed to be proclaimed.

Any particular issue, therefore, like the canon of the Bible, cannot be detached from the framework of the ecclesial eucharistic community. Without denying the legitimacy of its autonomous status within the world literature, the historical process of development of the individual books, their historical collection, as well as the authority attached at a quite late stage to the Bible as a closed composition (canon), but also the famous patristiceven conciliar (ecumenical)statements, the Orthodox have always believed that the Bible acquires its fullness only within this ecclesial eucharistic community.

All the functions within the life of the Church pertinent to expressing the faith, determining the truth, and authoritatively preserving it, are related to the eucharistic identity of the Church, and therefore are the responsibility of the eucharistic community as a whole. Even synodality, the ultimate criterion of the truth, is mutually inter-related with the Eucharist. Last century (1848) the Patriarchs of the East turned down Pope Pius’ IX invitation to participate in Vatican I by saying: “after all, in our tradition neither patriarchs nor synods have ever been able to introduce new elements, because what safeguards our faith is the very body of the Church, i.e. the people themselves”.  Thus, they consciously underlined that the ultimate authority of the Church lies neither on doctrinal magisteria, nor on any clerical (even conciliar) structure, but to the entire people of God. The only limitation is that this “communal” magisterium, the “many” in the Church’s life, cannot function in isolation from the “one” who is imaging  Christ, i.e.  the presiding in love over the local (bishop), regional (protos or primate), or universal Church (Pope or Patriarch). And this “one” is the only visible expression of the Church.

All that has been said so far, being the result of the “eucharistic ecclesiology”, is neither an “excessive generality”, nor a kind of “liturgicalism” and/or “eucharisticism”, a quasi-hermeneutical key to solve all questions (cf. Th. Stylianopoulos’ admonition to some Orthodox theologians). It is rather a conscious shift of the center of gravity from a verbal/written authority to a communal and eschatological one.

4. The Ecclesial Perspective.

The Orthodox perspective, therefore, of dealing with the Bible is first and foremost ecclesial. The eucharistic and trinitarianapproach to all aspects of theology is the approach most widely used by Orthodox in modern times. Eucharistic theology gives preeminence to the local communities andbelieve it or notto the contextual character of Christian life. Trinitarian theology, on the other hand, points to the fact that God is in God’s own self a life of communion and that God’s involvement in history aims at drawing humanity and creation in general into this communion with God’s very life. The implications of these affirmations for the proper way of dealing with the Bible are extremely important: the Bible is not primarily read in order to appropriate theological truths or doctrinal convictions, or to follow  moral commands, and social or ethical norms, but in order to experience the life of communion, that exists in God. And historically this was the way the Bible was approached by certain groups in the Orthodox tradition (monastics, ascetics, nyptic women and men etc.): as a means for personal spiritual edification; as a companion to achieve holistic personal growth, to reach theosis (deification), in other words to share the communion that exists in God. This means that the Orthodox Church’s attitude to the reading of Scripture is personal. The faithful consider the Bible as God' s personal letter sent specifically to each person. It is self-evident that the hermeneutic that is based on the model of the charismatic saint, illumined and glorified through the ascetic life according to the eastern tradition, which has been developed quite recently (Romanidis), is a hermeneutic that goes to a rather unacceptable extreme. 

    Nevertheless, the words of Scripture, while addressed to us human beings personally, they are at the same time addressed to us as members of a community. Book and ecclesial community, or Bible and Church, are not to be separated. In the West the authority of the Bible was imposed or rediscovered (as it is the case in the Protestant and Roman Catholic tradition respectively) in order to counterbalance the excesses of their hierarchical leadership, the authority of the institutional Church. In the East this task – not always without problems I must confess – was entrusted to the charismatic, the spiritual, the starets. In the West, where more emphasis was given to the historical dimension of the Church, this solution was inevitable; in the East, where the Orthodox theology has developed a more eschatological understanding of the Church, it is the people, the members of the eucharistic communities, that are the guardians of the faith. To relate again to the above mentioned charismatic hermeneutic, one should argue with Th. Stylianopoulos that “charismatic claims must be tested out by the communal tradition and the life of the Church as the final criterion. Experience of God belongs to the whole Church and not only to an elite group, which would smack of gnosticism”.

     It was these considerations, among others, that makes us believe that a dynamic encounter of the East with the West will not only enrich both approaches to the Bible; it will also enhance and broaden the different understandings of catholicity.

This interdependence of Church and Bible is evident in at least two ways: (i) First, the Christians receive Scripture through and in the Church. The Church told them what was Scripture. In the first three centuries of Christian history a lengthy process of testing was needed in order to distinguish between those books which were authentically canonicalScripture, bearing authoritative witness to the Church’s self-understanding,  and above all to Christ's person and message; and those which were apocryphal,” useful perhaps for teaching, but not a normative source of doctrine. Thus, it was the Church that had decided which books would form the Canon of the New Testament. A book is part of Holy Scripture not because of any particular theory about its date and authorship, but because the Church had treated it as canonical; It is debatable whether that treatment was juridical, i.e. through a proper conciliar process, or experiential, i.e. eucharisticin the above mentioned sense.

(ii) Secondly, the Christians also interpret the Bible through and in the Church. If it was the Church that told them what was Scripture, equally it was the Church that told them how Scripture was to be understood. Going deep into the history of the liturgical life of the Church one immediately realizes that the Bible might be read personally, but not by isolated individuals. It was read by members of a family, the family of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. It was read in communion with all the other members of the Body of Christ in all parts of the world and in all generations of time. Orthodox Christianity believes that God did indeed speak directly to the heart of each person during the Scripture readings, but all need guidance, a point of reference. And this point of reference is the Church.

Because Scripture is the word of God expressed in human language, there is of course a place for an honest critical inquiry in dealing with the Bible. The Orthodox Church has never officially rejected the critical inquiry of the Bible. In theory she makes full use of biblical commentaries and of the findings of modern research. In her attempt to grasp the deeper meaning of the word of God she even makes use of a wide range of methodologies. In her struggle to make it relevant to the world it is quite legitimate to even accept the contextual approach to the Bible. Taking for granted that every text has a context,” which is not merely something external to the text that simply modifies it, but constitutes an integral part of it, Orthodoxy is in fact even prepared to accept a kind of hermeneutics of suspicion”: certain biblical sayings, clearly influenced by the cultural and social environment of the time of their production (e.g. those referring to women, slavery etc.), can be legitimately valued according to, and measured over against, the ultimate reality of the Gospel, the inauguration of the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven(Mt 6:10). Even an “inclusive language” can be legitimated, as long as it does not disaffirm the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Of course, any idea of rewriting the Bible cannot (and will not) be accepted. These suggestions are the inevitable consequences of placing the authority of the Bible over the eucharistic community, exactly as the concept of “Canon within the Canon” was developed by honest Protestant scholars (cf. Käsemann) in an attempt to set up an ultimate criterion to match with the Christian doctrine. It is important to note that the Orthodox Church in her long tradition has never allowed any doctrinal statement not clearly rooted in the Bible.

In short, all critical suggestions in the biblical field are legitimate and can easily be expressed and even proposed for adoption to the Christian community. However, all individual opinions, whether coming from members within the Christian communities or from any expert outside them, are to be finally submitted to the Church; not in the form of a juridical or scholarly magisterium, but always in view of the eschatological character of the Church as a glimpse and foretaste of the coming Kingdom. In other words in the Orthodox Church objectivity and the individual interest are always placed at the service of the community and of the ultimate reality of God’s Kingdom. It is of fundamental importance that the Orthodox approach the Bible, as the inspired word of God, always in a spirit of obedience, with a sense of wonder and an attitude of listening, but never as a closed (canonical?) issue.

5.     The Hermeneutical Concept of Theoria: Pneumatology.

The way the Orthodox interpret the Bible is related to the perennial issue of hermeneutics and the important and peculiar concept of theoria or theoptia; a concept that goes back, according to most Orthodox scholars, to the Early Christian community. The words of Jesus recorded in the Gospel tradition no matter whether authentic of not while very similar both in form and sometimes in content with those of contemporary rabbis, were in fact very different in their profound perspective, at least with regard to the authority of Scripture. To the contemporary Judaism the supreme authority of every single word of the Bible was unquestionable. There could be no question of its inspiration or authenticity. This hermeneutical idea is clearly expressed in the tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud:

“He who says ‘The Torah is not from God’, or even if he says ‘The whole Torah is from God with the exception of this or that verse which not God but Moses spoke from his own mouth’, shall be rooted up” (99a).

The historical Jesus on the other hand did not hesitate to critically re-interpret the Scriptures in a very radical way. It was not only that he regarded the whole Bible in the light of the two great commandments (love of God and love of neighbor), or that he established in the six antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount a new Law; one can even argue that Jesus’ messianic interpretation of Scripturenamely the fulfillment of the prophesies in his mission was not novel, since similar messianic interpretations have been found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. What is novel and pioneer, is Jesus’ revolutionary proclamation, and the early Church's assured conviction, that the reign of God was at hand; in fact it was inaugurated in Jesus’ own work. And this was also the main feature of the early Christian hermeneutics: namely its christocentric character.

The question which arises is whether Jesus (and his Church thereafter) undermined the authority of the existing at that time Scripture by replacing in its place another authority contained in certain written documents. At the beginning of the second century the answer was certainly No”. Bishop Ignatius of Antioch although he knew some of the N.T. bookscertainly 1 Cor and other Pauline letters, probably John and possibly the Synoptic Gospels, at least some of themhe never appealed to them; nor did he make extensive use of the O.T. His only authority was Jesus Christ and his saving work and the faith that comes through him («emoi ta archeia Christos»: to me the “charters” are Jesus Christ).

This new understanding of scriptural authority, which began to show up in the N.T. writings, was the result of the early Christian Pneumatology. The doctrine, of course, of the Holy Spirit in the N.T. and the early Fathers cannot be easily reduced to a system of concepts; actually this systematization did not happen until the 4th century c.e. However, with this doctrine Christianity opened up new dimensions in the understanding of the mystery of the divine revelation. Nevertheless, this new pneumatological perspective in Patristic theology did not replace the normative christocentric one. This new development was in fact a radical reinterpretation of Christology through Pneumatology. By placing the Holy Spirit to an equal status in the trinitarian dogma with the Father and the Son, the Christian theology of the early undivided Church broke the chains of dependence on the past authorities. The conciliar declaration of the divinity of the Holy Spirit was undoubtedly one of the most radical considerations of the mystery of deityto our view certainly of equal importance with the dogmatic definition of the homoousion of the Logos to the Father.

It is a common place that the first Christian method to interpret the Old Testament, used by the N.T. writers was generally that of typology. However, this method's real meaning and profound significance has been lost or at least concealed by the conflict which arose a hundred years or so later between the exegetical schools of Alexandria and Antioch. The typological method apart from the affirmation of the historical reality of the biblical revelationa concept which was lacking from the allegorical methodwas in fact based on the presupposition that the authority of the Law and the Prophets was somehow limited; for the entire Old Testament looks beyond itself for its interpretation. It was along those lines that the famous antiochean principle of theoria was later developed by some ecclesiastical writers. This term was especially used in eastern hermeneutical tradition for a sense of Scripture higher or deeper than the literal or historical meaning, based of course firmly on the latter. Its meaning, however, was not exhausted simply on that; it had some further very significant connotation. Acknowledging that in the Church every Christian, and the saint in particular, possesses under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the privilege and the opportunity of seeing (theorein) and experiencing the truth, later Byzantine theologians developed (or presupposed) a concept of revelation substantially different from that held in the West under the influence of Aristotle. Because the concept of theologia in cappadocian and antiochean thinking was inseparable from theoria (i.e. contemplation), theology could not beas it was at least in high scholasticisma rational deduction from revealedpremises, i.e. from Scripture or from the statements of an ecclesiastical magisterium; rather it was a vision experienced by the faithful, whose authenticity was of course to be checked against the witness of Scripture and Tradition. True theologian in later Byzantine thinking was to a considerable extent the one who saw and experienced the content of theology; and this experience was considered to belong not to the intellect alone (the intellect of course is not excluded from its perception), but to the “eyes of the Spirit”, which place the whole human beingintellect, emotions and even sensesin contact with the divine existence. According to J. Meyendorff, this was the initial content of the debate between Gregory Palamas and Barlaam the Calabrian, which started the theological controversies of the fourteenth century (1337 -1340).  

Defining, therefore, revelation as a living truth, accessible to a human experience of God's presence in His Church without the absolute limitations of certain scriptural documents, and in later ecclesiastical theology even of conciliar definitions, the Orthodox pneumatology in some sense seems to reject the idea of any canonical authority. According to an ancient Byzantine hymn from the feast of Pentecost, still used in the Orthodox liturgy, “the Holy Spirit is the source of all donations” (panta horigei to pneuma to hagion).

6. The Christological Perspective

In addition to the ecclesial perspective in dealing with the Bible, and despite the hermeneutics of theoria and the pneumatological novelty in Orthodoxy, the christological perspective is also affirmed in the Orthodox Church. In a joint statement by the Orthodox and the Anglicans, issued in a Conference held in Moscow (1976), it was rightly stated that the Scriptures constitute a coherent whole.” Its wholeness and coherence lies in the person of Christ. He is the unifying thread that runs through the entirety of the Bible from the first sentence to the last. It is Jesus who meets his people on every page. “In Him all things hold together” (Col.1:17). Without neglecting the analytical approach, breaking up each book into what are seen as its original sources, the Orthodox traditionally used to pay greater attention to the way in which these primary units had come to be joined together. The unity of the Scripture, as well as its diversity, are equally affirmed; Its all-embracing end, as well as its scattered beginnings, are both taken into consideration. But in general the Orthodox prefer for the most part a "synthetic" style of hermeneutics, seeing the Bible as an integrated whole, with Christ everywhere as the bond of union. This christocentrism, however, has never developed into a christomonism, which led Christian mission early this century to a kind of christocentric universalism”. As I underlined above, in the Orthodox Church, with few exceptions, Christology was always interpreted through Pneumatology. This “trinitarian” understanding of the divine reality was what actually prevented the Church from intolerant behavior, allowing her to embrace the entire “oikoumene” as the one household of life.

This christological, and therefore incarnational, perspective in dealing with Scripture ― in other word in reading, understanding, interpreting, and of course determining the extent of, the Bible ­― has given rise within the Orthodox world, to the legitimacy of a pictorial presentation of the Bible, and at the same time to a witnessing to the Gospel through the icons. Such a witness to the Gospel through the icons, especially those of the Byzantine art and technique, has been found exceptionally efficient and effective for the dissemination of the profound meaning of the Christian message, by stressing its transfigurative and eschatological dimension. For in the Orthodox Church the icons are not only the book of the illiterate,” but also a window to the heavens.” What the icons actually express is not a de-materialization, but a transfiguration of the world. For in the icons the material and cosmic elements which surround the holy figures (divine and holy alike) are also shown transformed and flooded by grace. The Byzantine icon in particular reveals how matter, in fact the whole of creation, human beings and nature alike, can be transformed: not just to the original harmony and beauty they possessed before the Fall, but to a much greater glory they will acquire in the Kingdom to come. Although depicting worldly schemes, the icons are not concerned with the world we live in, but foreshadow the world to come. As in the Eucharist, so also in the icons, the same interaction of past, present and future is manifest, and the same anticipation by this world of the world to come is present. 


If any conclusion is to be drawn from the above short and very sketchy reflection, this is in fact a questioning of the ultimate authority given to the canon in the West. By certainly relativizing the authority of the canon as an issue of cardinal importance and of binding significance for the life of the Church I do not claim to have offered the final solution to the problem. My views, deliberately emphasizing the peculiarities of my tradition, are to be synthesized with the widely held among Catholics ecclesiological views, which underline a more centralized authority.

Lit.: Kallistos WARE, How to Read the Bible,” The Orthodox Study Bible, Thomas Nelson Publishers Nashville 1992, pp. 762-770; idem., Tradition”, in (Nicolas LOSSKY  and others eds.), Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement;  Georges FLOROVSKY Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, Belmont 1972; John MEYENDORFF, Byzantine Theology. Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes, New York 1974, pp. 5ff.; Savas AGOURIDIS, The Hermeneutics of the Holy Scriptures, Athens 19791,20002 (in Greek); Nikos NISSIOTIS,  “The Unity of Scripture and Tradition,” GOTR 11 (1965/66), pp. 183-208; Dumitru STANILOAE, “La Lecture de la Bible dans l’ Eglise Orthodoxe,” Contacts 30 No 104 (1978), pp. 349-353; John ZIZIOULAS, Being as Communion. Studies in Personhood and the Church, SVS Press, Crestwood New York 1985; Theodore STYLIANOPOULOS, The New Testament: An Orthodox Perspective, vol. I, HCO Press, Massachusetts 1997; John ROMANIDIS, “Critical Examination of the Applications of Theology,” in S. AGOURIDIS (ed.), Procès-Verbaux du deuxième Congrès de Théologie Orthodoxe, Athens 1978, pp. 413-441; Petros VASSILIADIS, Eucharist and Witness. Orthodox Perspectives on the Unity and Witness of the Church, WCC Publications/HCO Press Geneva/Massachusetts 1998); idem, “The Reading of the Bible from the Orthodox Church Perspective,” Ecumenical Review 51 (1999), pp. 25-30; idem, Issues of Biblical Hermeneutics,  Thessaloniki, 1985 (in Greek).