How to Read the Bible
by Bishop Kallistos Ware
WE BELIEVE THAT THE SCRIPTURES constitute a coherent
whole. They are at once divinely inspired and humanly expressed. They bear
authoritative witness to God's revelation of Himselfin creation, in the
Incarnation of the Word, and the whole history of salvation. And as such they
express the word of God in human language. We know, receive, and
interpret Scripture through the Church and in the Church. Our approach to the
Bible is one of obedience.
We may distinguish four key qualities that mark an Orthodox
reading of Scripture, namely
Reading the Bible with Obedience
FIRST OF ALL, when reading Scripture, we are to listen in a
spirit of obedience. The Orthodox Church believes in divine
inspiration of the Bible. Scripture is a "letter" from God, where Christ
Himself is speaking. The Scriptures are God's authoritative witness of Himself.
They express the Word of God in our human language. Since God Himself is
speaking to us in the Bible, our response is rightly one of obedience, of
receptivity, and listening. As we read, we wait on the Spirit.
But, while divinely inspired, the Bible is also humanly
expressed. It is a whole library of different books written at varying times
by distinct persons. Each book of the Bible reflects the outlook of the age in
which it was written and the particular viewpoint of the author. For God does
nothing in isolation, divine grace cooperates with human freedom. God does not
abolish our individuality but enhances it. And so it is in the writing of
inspired Scripture. The authors were not just a passive instrument, a dictation
machine recording a message. Each writer of Scripture contributes his particular
personal gifts. Alongside the divine aspect, there is also a human element in
Scripture. We are to value both.
Each of the four Gospels, for example, has its own particular
approach. Matthew presents more particularly a Jewish understanding of Christ,
with an emphasis on the kingdom of heaven. Mark contains specific, picturesque
details of Christ's ministry not given elsewhere. Luke expresses the
universality of Christ's love, His all-embracing compassion that extends equally
to Jew and to Gentile. In John there is a more inward and more mystical approach
to Christ, with an emphasis on divine light and divine indwelling. We are to
enjoy and explore to the full this life-giving variety within the Bible.
Because Scripture is in this way the word of God expressed in
human language, there is room for honest and exacting inquiry when studying the
Bible. Exploring the human aspect of the Bible, we are to use to the full our
God-given human reason. The Orthodox Church does not exclude scholarly research
into the origin, dates, and authorship of books of the Bible.
Alongside this human element, however, we see always the divine
element. These are not simply books written by individual human writers. We hear
in Scripture not just human words, marked by a greater or lesser skill and
perceptiveness, but the eternal, uncreated Word of God Himself, the divine Word
of salvation. When we come to the Bible, then, we come not simply out of
curiosity, to gain information. We come to the Bible with a specific question, a
personal question about ourselves: "How can I be saved?"
As God's divine word of salvation in human language, Scripture
should evoke in us a sense of wonder. Do you ever feel, as you read or listen,
that it has all become too familiar? Has the Bible grown rather boring?
Continually we need to cleanse the doors of our perception and to look in
amazement with new eyes at what the Lord sets before us.
We are to feel toward the Bible with a sense of wonder, and
sense of expectation and surprise. There are so many rooms in Scripture that we
have yet to enter. There is so much depth and majesty for us to
discover. If obedience means wonder, it also means listening.
We are better at talking than listening. We hear the sound of
our own voice, but often we don't pause to hear the voice of the other person
who is speaking to us. So the first requirement, as we read Scripture, is to
stop talking and to listento listen with obedience.
When we enter an Orthodox Church, decorated in the traditional
manner, and look up toward the sanctuary at the east end, we see there, in the
apse, an icon of the Virgin Mary with her hands raised to heaventhe ancient
Scriptural manner of praying that many still use today. This icon symbolizes the
attitude we are to assume as we read Scripturean attitude of
receptivity, of hands invisibly raised to heaven. Reading the Bible, we
are to model ourselves on the Blessed Virgin Mary, for she is supremely the one
who listens. At the Annunciation she listens with obedience and responds to the
angel, "Be it unto me according to thy word" (Luke 1:38). She could not
have borne the Word of God in her body if she had not first, listened to the
Word of God in her heart. After the shepherds have adored the newborn Christ, it
is said of her: "Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart"
(Luke 2:19). Again, when Mary finds Jesus in the temple, we are told:
"His mother kept all these things in her heart" (Luke 2:5l). The same
need for listening is emphasized in the last words attributed to the Mother of
God in Scripture, at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee: "Whatsoever He
saith unto you, do it" (John 2:5), she says to the servantsand to all of
In all this the Blessed Virgin Mary serves as a mirror, as a
living icon of the Biblical Christian. We are to be like her as we hear the Word
of God: pondering, keeping all these things in our hearts, doing whatever He
tells us. We are to listen in obedience as God speaks.
Understanding the Bible Through the Church
IN THE SECOND PLACE, we should receive and interpret Scripture
through the Church and in the Church. Our approach to the Bible is not only
obedient but ecclesial.
It is the Church that tells us what is Scripture. A book is
not part of Scripture because of any particular theory about its dating and
authorship. Even if it could be proved, for example, that the Fourth Gospel was
not actually written by John the beloved disciple of Christ, this would not
alter the fact that we Orthodox accept the Fourth Gospel as Holy Scripture. Why?
Because the Gospel of John is accepted by the Church and in the Church.
It is the Church that tells us what is Scripture, and it is
also the Church that tells us how Scripture is to be understood. Coming upon the
Ethiopian as he read the Old Testament in his chariot, Philip the Apostle asked
him, "Understandest thou what thou readest?" And the Ethiopian
answered, "How can I, unless some man should guide me?" (Acts 8:30-31).
We are all in the position of the Ethiopian. The words of Scripture are not
always self-explanatory. God speaks directly to the heart of each one of us as
we read our Bible. Scripture reading is a personal dialogue between each one of
us and Christbut we also need guidance. And our guide is the Church.
We make full use of our own personal understanding, assisted by the Spirit, we
make full use of the findings of modern Biblical research, but always we submit
private opinionwhether our own or that of the scholarsto the total
experience of the Church throughout the ages.
The Orthodox standpoint here is summed up in the question asked
of a convert at the reception service used by the Russian Church: "Do you
acknowledge that the Holy Scripture must be accepted and interpreted in
accordance with the belief which has been handed down by the Holy Fathers, and
which the Holy Orthodox Church, our Mother, has always held and still does
We read the Bible personally, but not as isolated individuals.
We read as the members of a family, the family of the Orthodox Catholic Church.
When reading Scripture, we say not "I" but "We." We 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. The decisive test and criterion for our
understanding of what the Scripture means is the mind of the Church. The
Bible is the book of the Church.
To discover this "mind of the Church," where do we begin? Our
first step is to see how Scripture is used in worship. How, in particular, are
Biblical lessons chosen for reading at the different feasts? We should also
consult the writings of the Church Fathers, and consider how they interpret the
Bible. Our Orthodox manner of reading Scripture is in this way both liturgical
and patristic. And this, as we all realize, is far from easy to do in practice,
because we have at our disposal so few Orthodox commentaries on Scripture
available in English, and most of the Western commentaries do not employ this
liturgical and Patristic approach.
As an example of what it means to interpret Scripture in a
liturgical way, guided by the use made of it at Church feasts, let us look at
the Old Testament lessons appointed for Vespers on the Feast of the
Annunciation. They are three in number: Genesis 28:10-17; Jacob's dream of a
ladder set up from earth to heaven; Ezekiel 43:27-44:4; the prophet's vision of
the Jerusalem sanctuary, with the closed gate through which none but the Prince
may pass; Proverbs 9:1-11: one of the great Sophianic passages in the Old
Testament, beginning "Wisdom has built her house."
These texts in the Old Testament, then, as their selection for
the feast of the Virgin Mary indicates, are all to be understood as prophecies
concerning the Incarnation from the Virgin. Mary is Jacob's ladder, supplying
the flesh that God incarnate takes upon entering our human world. Mary is the
closed gate who alone among women bore a child while still remaining inviolate.
Mary provides the house which Christ the Wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24) takes as
his dwelling. Exploring in this manner the choice of lessons for the various
feasts, we discover layers of Biblical interpretation that are by no means
obvious on a first reading.
Take as another example Vespers on Holy Saturday, the first
part of the ancient Paschal Vigil. Here we have no less than fifteen Old
Testament lessons. This sequence of lessons sets before us the whole scheme of
sacred history, while at the same time underlining the deeper meaning of
Christ's Resurrection. First among the lessons is Genesis 1:1-13, the account of
Creation: Christ's Resurrection is a new Creation. The fourth lesson is the book
of Jonah in its entirety, with the prophet's three days in the belly of the
whale foreshadowing Christ's Resurrection after three days in the tomb (cf.
Matthew 12:40). The sixth lesson recounts the crossing of the Red Sea by the
Israelites (Exodus 13:20-15:19), which anticipates the new Passover of Pascha
whereby Christ passes over from death to life (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7; 10:1-4).
The final lesson is the story of the three Holy Children in the fiery furnace
(Daniel 3), once more a "type" or prophecy of Christ's rising from the
Such is the effect of reading Scripture ecclesially, in the
Church and with the Church. Studying the Old Testament in this liturgical way
and using the Fathers to help us, everywhere we uncover signposts pointing
forward to the mystery of Christ and of His Mother. Reading the Old Testament in
the light of the New, and the New in the light of the Oldas the Church's
calendar encourages us to dowe discover the unity of Holy Scripture. One of
the best ways of identifying correspondences between the Old and New Testaments
is to use a good Biblical concordance. This can often tell us more about the
meaning of Scripture than any commentary.
In Bible study groups within our parishes, it is helpful to
give one person the special task of noting whenever a particular passage in the
Old or New Testament is used for a festival or a saint's day. We can then
discuss together the reasons why each specific passage has been so chosen.
Others in the group can be assigned to do homework among the Fathers, using for
example the Biblical homilies of Saint John Chrysostom (which have been
translated into English). Christians need to acquire a patristic mind.
Christ, the Heart of the Bible
THE THIRD ELEMENT in our reading of Scripture is that it should
be Christ-centered. The Scriptures constitute a coherent whole
because they all are Christ-centered. Salvation through the Messiah is their
central and unifying topic. He is as a "thread" that runs through all of Holy
Scripture, from the first sentence to the last. We have already mentioned the
way in which Christ may be seen foreshadowed on the pages of the Old
Much modern critical study of Scripture in the West has adopted
an analytical approach, breaking up each book into different sources. The
connecting links are unraveled, and the Bible is reduced to a series of bare
primary units. There is certainly value in this. But we need to see the unity as
well as the diversity of Scripture, the all-embracing end as well as the
scattered beginnings. Orthodoxy prefers on the whole a synthetic rather
than an analytical approach, seeing Scripture as an integrated whole,
with Christ everywhere as the bond of union.
Always we seek for the point of convergence between the Old
Testament and the New, and this we find in Jesus Christ. Orthodoxy assigns
particular significance to the "typological" method of interpretation, whereby
"types" of Christ, signs and symbols of His work, are discerned
throughout the Old Testament. A notable example of this is Melchizedek, the
priest-king of Salem, who offered bread and wine to Abraham (Genesis 14:18), and
who is seen as a type of Christ not only by the Fathers but even in the New
Testament itself (Hebrews 5:6; 7:l). Another instance is the way in which, as we
have seen, the Old Passover foreshadows the New; Israel's deliverance from
Pharaoh at the Red Sea anticipates our deliverance from sin through the death
and Resurrection of the Savior. This is the method of interpretation that we are
to apply throughout the Bible. Why, for instance, in the second half of Lent are
the Old Testament readings from Genesis dominated by the figure of Joseph? Why
in Holy Week do we read from the book of Job? Because Joseph and Job are
innocent sufferers, and as such they are types or foreshadowings of Jesus
Christ, whose innocent suffering upon the Cross the Church is at the point of
celebrating. It all ties up.
A Biblical Christian is the one who, wherever he looks, on
every page of Scripture, finds everywhere Christ.
The Bible as Personal
IN THE WORDS of an early ascetic writer in the Christian East,
Saint Mark the Monk: "He who is humble in his thoughts and engaged in spiritual
work, when he reads the Holy Scriptures, will apply everything to himself and
not to his neighbor." As Orthodox Christians we are to look everywhere in
Scripture for a personal application. We are to ask not just "What does
it mean?" but "What does it mean to me?" Scripture is a personal dialogue
between the Savior and myselfChrist speaking to me, and me answering. That is
the fourth criterion in our Bible reading.
I am to see all the stories in Scripture as part of my own
personal story. Who is Adam? The name Adam means "man," "human," and so the
Genesis account of Adam's fall is also a story about me. I am Adam. It is to me
that God speaks when He says to Adam, "Where art thou?" (Genesis 3:9). "Where is
God?" we often ask. But the real question is what God asks the Adam in each of
us: "Where art thou?"
When, in the story of Cain and Abel, we read God's words to
Cain, "Where is Abel thy brother?" (Genesis 4:9), these words, too, are
addressed to each of us. Who is Cain? It is myself. And God asks the Cain in
each of us, "Where is thy brother?" The way to God lies through love of other
people, and there is no other way. Disowning my brother, I replace the image of
God with the mark of Cain, and deny my own vital humanity.
In reading Scripture, we may take three steps. First, what we
have in Scripture is sacred history: the history of the world from the Creation,
the history of the chosen people, the history of God Incarnate in Palestine, and
the "mighty works" after Pentecost. The Christianity that we find in the Bible
is not an ideology, not a philosophical theory, but a historical faith.
Then we are to take a second step. The history presented in the
Bible is a personal history. We see God intervening at specific times and in
specific places, as He enters into dialogue with individual persons. He
addresses each one by name. We see set before us the specific calls issued by
God to Abraham, Moses and David, to Rebekah and Ruth, to Isaiah and the
prophets, and then to Mary and the Apostles. We see the selectivity of the
divine action in history, not as a scandal but as a blessing. God's love is
universal in scope, but He chooses to become Incarnate in a particular corner of
the earth, at a particular time and from a particular Mother. We are in this
manner to savor all the uniqueness of God's action as recorded in Scripture. The
person who loves the Bible loves details of dating and geography. Orthodoxy has
an intense devotion to the Holy Land, to the exact places where Christ lived and
taught, died and rose again. An excellent way to enter more deeply into our
Scripture reading is to undertake a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Galilee. Walk
where Christ walked. Go down to the Dead Sea, sit alone on the rocks, feel how
Christ felt during the forty days of His temptation in the wilderness. Drink
from the well where He spoke with the Samaritan woman. Go at night to the Garden
of Gethsemane, sit in the dark under the ancient olives and look across the
valley to the lights of the city. Experience to the full the reality of the
historical setting, and take that experience back with you to your daily
Then we are to take a third step. Reliving Biblical history in
all its particularity, we are to apply it directly to ourselves. We are to say
to ourselves, "All these places and events are not just far away and long ago,
but are also part of my own personal encounter with Christ. The stories include
Betrayal, for example, is part of the personal story of
everyone. Have we not all betrayed others at some time in our life, and have we
not all known what it is to be betrayed, and does not the memory of these
moments leave continuing scars on our psyche? Reading, then, the account of
Saint Peter's betrayal of Christ and of his restoration after the Resurrection,
we can see ourselves as actors in the story. Imagining what both Peter and Jesus
must have experienced at the moment immediately after the betrayal, we enter
into their feelings and make them our own. I am Peter; in this situation can I
also be Christ? Reflecting likewise on the process of reconciliationseeing
how the Risen Christ with a love utterly devoid of sentimentality restored the
fallen Peter to fellowship, seeing how Peter on his side had the courage to
accept this restorationwe ask ourselves: How Christ-like am I to those who
have betrayed me? And, after my own acts of betrayal, am I able to accept the
forgiveness of othersam I able to forgive myself? Or am I timid, mean,
holding myself back, never ready to give myself fully to anything, either good
or bad? As the Desert Fathers say, "Better someone who has sinned, if he knows
he has sinned and repents, than a person who has not sinned and thinks of
himself as righteous."
Have I gained the boldness of Saint Mary Magdalene, her
constancy and loyalty, when she went out to anoint the body of Christ in the
tomb (John 20:l)? Do I hear the Risen Savior call me by name, as He called her,
and do I respond Rabboni (Teacher) with her simplicity and completeness
Reading Scripture in this wayin obedience, as a member of
the Church, finding Christ everywhere, seeing everything as a part of my own
personal storywe shall sense something of the variety and depth to be found
in the Bible. Yet always we shall feel that in our Biblical exploration we are
only at the very beginning. We are like someone launching out in a tiny boat
across a limitless ocean.
"Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path"
(Psalm 118 :105).