IMPLEMENTING BIBLE STUDY IN THE PARISH LEARNING MODEL: A WORKSHOP FOR THE 13TH ALL AMERICAN COUNCIL
By Fr John Hainsworth - July 25, 2002
WHY A BIBLE STUDY IN THE FIRST PLACE?
There is an incident in Acts which offers a special insight into the character of Christian witness. Peter and John, just days after the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, are taken into custody by the priests, the Sadducees, and the captain of the temple guard. The charge is that “they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (4:2). The highest religious and temple authorities, including those directly instrumental in the Lord's crucifixion, gathered together and had the two uneducated and unknown fishermen placed in the center - an intimidation tactic. The question asked of them was simple: “By what power, or in what name, have you done this?” (4:7). This was a question which Jesus had faced many times as well - the intention in both cases being to provoke a 'heretical' answer. Peter's response, filled as he was by the Holy Spirit, stunned the authorities to silence.
“Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John, and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were marveling, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus” (4:13).
In this remarkable verse we see that the Apostles, like true disciples, have taken on the character of their master. But what was that 'confidence' of Jesus that the authorities recognized in the Apostles as well? It was simply that the Lord spoke with absolute authority about the only authority that mattered - the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets. He not only knew Scripture better than his learned opposition, but he could quote it with absolute confidence in its meaning. In his mouth, the enigma of Scripture, which took a lifetime of study and interpretation to understand, became perfectly clear in an instant. The authorities questioning Peter and John realized that these disciples possessed the same infuriating ability with Scripture. And this, we learn from the verse above, is the defining characteristic of the Christian witness - that it is deeply rooted in the Scriptures.
We can say even that that confidence in the Scriptures is the birthright of the Christian. Why? Because the Christ whom we serve, and follow, and to whom we are being conformed, is the fulfillment of Scripture itself. The Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets - commonly called the Old Testament today - are, according to the Lord himself, the primary witness to who He is, even the justification for who He is: “You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me” (Jn. 5:39).
Thus, the Orthodox Christian, having been baptized and initiated into the mysteries of the Faith, possesses the one key which unlocks the whole of the Scriptural story and its meaning because, as the Apostle Paul says, he possesses “the mind of Christ” (1Cor. 2:16). And, it must be added, we are nothing without this key because we are nothing without the story it reveals. Christians are the people of a story. The Lord did not appear from nowhere with a message and language of His own invention. He came as the fulfillment of a promise made in the beginning to Abraham, in conformity to the prophecy concerning Him. Knowing the promises and the prophecies, the peoples and the sins, the punishments and the mercies, in short, knowing our story, because it is the story of Christ, is the duty and joy of every Christian.
Without this knowledge we are bereft of the substance of our conviction, we lack the justification to our actions. When Peter and John were being questioned by the authorities, they had nearby the man who had been 'lame from his mother's womb' but whom they had publicly healed in the name of Jesus Christ. The authorities knew about this man - his healing had led to the Apostle's arrest - but their miracle alone was not sufficient to release them; it was that the Apostles could also use Scripture authoritatively to justify their teachings and actions.
What does all this mean for the Orthodox parish today? If one of the primary characteristics of the Christian witness is that it is rooted in Scripture, then no parish can ignore this aspect of its education ministry except to its serious detriment. Teaching and discussing Scripture must be the central paraliturgical activity of the parish. The 21st century Orthodox parish in North America exists within a culture which is not only ignorant of its roots but demands that those who are not similarly impaired become so in the name of 'tolerance'. It is essential that we do not slip into this predicament, especially if we are to remain, as we are commanded to be, “the light of the world” (Mt. 5:14). Being knowledgeable about who we are, where we come from, and what we are meant to do is to keep our lamps trimmed and bright, and to keep our proper perspective in the world.
The parish Bible study is the key to this effort for several reasons. First, it sends the message that the Scriptures, and our place in them, are important enough to give time and effort to their study outside of Liturgy. Second, the collective nature of a parish Bible study reinforces our faith that the Holy Spirit guides us as a people. In addition, a Bible study offers another opportunity for the children of God to be nourished by His Word (after all, the Lord, quoting Scripture Himself, said “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” - Mt. 4:4). This nourishment is not simply an academic need. People crave real, workable answers to questions of faith, doctrine, liturgy, and life in general. Often people just need responses to give to others who question them about their faith. Merely by offering a forum for such questions and concerns, the Bible study will richly reward those who participate in it.
We are accustomed to answering questions about the validity of Orthodox tradition by saying that the whole of our Tradition is according to Scripture, that in fact it is the Scriptural tradition which informs and keeps in check the Orthodox mind on any matter. We can hardly claim this to be the case, at least not in practice (which is the only real proof), when our own parish does not consider the primacy of Scripture in tradition a good enough reason to study and learn it.
SO WHAT IS STOPPING US?
There may be, however, many obstacles to overcome before the parish Bible study can ever really get off the ground, and it would be impossible to tackle them all here. Perhaps they are all just species of the same serious impediment, which is fear, otherwise known as perfectionism, or pride. Few priests are actually Bible scholars, and very few among the laity feel qualified or invited to lead a Bible study. It is also true that for many the Scriptures are a monolithic set of books demanding more effort and brainpower to understand and convey than we have to offer in our frazzled lives. They are like a mountain range which we are safer admiring from a distance than setting foot on. What is needed here, however, is some humility. Our faith, we must remember, is built upon the confession of a fisherman, and upon the witness of “uneducated and untrained men”. We are not expected to be scholars and experts of the Bible, we don't even need to be so-called 'chapter and verse' people; we just need to start by learning what the Bible says.
“Ignorance of the Scriptures is a precipice and a deep abyss,” says St. Epiphanius, and it is this abyss which we are seeking to avoid. The humility comes not only in the matter-of-fact recognition of our ignorance and our unworthiness - this is hardly to be avoided in any aspect of our life with God - but in undertaking the task of 'doing a Bible study' anyway. As a well-known priest and speaker is said to have remarked, “if it's worth doing, it's worth doing poorly”. This is not to say, of course, that we would not do our best to bring forth something worthwhile, only to acknowledge our inevitable poverty before the Living God and to press on, in our awkwardness, for the sake of one another. According to the Lord's Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard, we are called to this work, and to all work in service of the Gospel, regardless of the hour and will receive our wages regardless of our unworthiness of them. In other words, it is not experts that God needs, it is dedicated, humble workers, and there is no better way to learn than by teaching. If we are called to organize or lead Bible studies in the parish (and we are), then there is no reason why we should be our own obstacles to that calling.
WHAT DO I NEED TO GET STARTED?
When a time is set, the word is out and a topic or book of the Bible is chosen, the leader will need some resources. Unfortunately, the resources are endless for every topic we can imagine in Scripture, and there is no simple sure-fire Orthodox Bibliography. What one person finds useful will be unhelpful to another. There are St. Theophylact's commentaries, and of course there are the volumes written on Scripture by the Fathers of our Church.
Both of these resources are essential, to be sure; we should not, however, stop there. Many other useful studies exist, and we should do the work of discovering which ones are most helpful, which ones contribute to the deposit of the Fathers, and which ones suit us best. In other words, merely finding out what the Fathers say about a particular passage and then stopping is not enough; we must strive to read and explore the Scriptures with them, using them as our guides. Apart from commentaries and helpful studies, our Church has a great wealth of resources which are just at our fingertips. Liturgy, festal material, service rubrics, the calendar - all of these aspects of the life of the Church can contribute deeply to our understanding of Scripture. Most importantly, however, is the attitude we bring to the Scriptures. A talented scholar of the Bible once told me to read the Bible on my knees (not literally, but in my heart) and to remember that what I read lives more truly than I, and will be my judge on the Last Day: “Until heaven and earth pass away,” says the Lord in Matthew's Gospel, “not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished” (Mt. 5:18).
A FEW RESOURCES
One way of leading a Bible study, especially if the leader lacks confidence, is by choosing a commentary and working through it along side the Bible. There are many commentaries available for this purpose, but only a few modern ones are by Orthodox scholars. The most recent Orthodox commentary has just been published (June 2002) by Conciliar Press and is designed both for personal study and group study, all the while aiming at the average layperson and non-professional. Currently, only a commentary on the Epistle to the Romans has been published, but the whole New Testament will eventually follow: The Orthodox Bible Study Companion - The Epistle to the Romans: A Gospel for All, Fr. Lawrence Farley (Conciliar Press, 2002).
However, the best way to sort through the bewildering array of New Testament commentaries is to invest in The New Testament Commentary Survey, 6th Edition, D.A Carson (Inter-Varsity Press, 2001). This survey is current, concise, and extremely helpful - well worth the money.
Lastly, anyone interested in carrying on serious research in the Bible, or just anyone who will be using the Bible to preach from or prepare articles with, will benefit immeasurably from the following software: Bible Works, Version 5, (Bible Works, LLC, Distributed by Hermeneutika, 2001).
The website for this software, www.bibleworks.com, explains its many uses. In a nutshell, however, Bible Works offers unlimited search capabilities, 15 Original Language Texts, dozens of Bible translations (21 in English alone, as well as Russian, Slavonic, Romanian, and Ukrainian), many different lexicons, analysis tools, reference works, and 5 hours of training videos. The software is adaptable, as well, to one's level of competency and software use through the Beginner, Standard, and Power Use interfaces. Bible Works really is one of the best tools a student of the Scriptures can have. Again, well worth the purchase.