Orthodox Theological Method VI

Essay series, part VI:  What is distinctive about the way that Orthodox Theologians conceive of their task with reference to the work of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel.

Biblical Exegesis

In the Enlightenment era sources of authority have been dealt with as separate entities that butt up against each other vying for priority. Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience came most commonly to be viewed as distinct sources, with or without a hierarchy depending upon where one stood in the post-Reformation church. The non-dualistic dynamism of Orthodoxy does not conceive them to be in opposition. “Scripture must be interpreted by the Spirit and the Spirit is in the church, therefore, Scripture and Tradition work together, never separated or opposed to each other.”1 Scripture is clearly regarded as the supreme, divinely inspired source of revelation and maintains the kind of elevated position of the Word in Reformed traditions. However, “tradition becomes the initial and fundamental source of Christian theology – not in competition with Scripture, but as Scripture’s spiritual context.”2 Without the corporate discernment of Tradition, there would only be individual, subjective interpretations of Scripture. “Scripture is sufficient but tradition necessary to take it beyond the realm of the individual.”3

When an Orthodox theologian does theology, they consistently start with the relevant Scripture then go the Church Fathers for the first interpretation of what those texts means. But this in essence is a drive towards personalism and Sobornost. “Theology, therefore, is not simply a science, using Scripture as initial data; it also presupposes living in communion with God and people, in Christ and the Spirit, within the community of the church. Biblical theology is of course, the best theology, but being truly biblical implies living communion in Christ, without which the Bible is a dead letter.”4

Behr-Sigel argued that the competition for ‘authority’ between Scripture and Tradition is misplaced, because the theological exercise is personal, not abstract. Note again the Trinitarian dynamic in the way theological authorities are conceived:

For the Christian, supreme authority belongs to God revealed in his Son on whom the Spirit of the Father rests: one God in three persons, whose being, whose common nature, is love. All authority in the Church comes from him and is exercised in his name: in the name of God transcendent who speaks to humans, who reveals himself to them and gives them his gifts, the gift of his own life: a treasure that we have, as the apostle Paul writes, ‘in earthen vessels’ (2 Cor 4:7). It is in this tension between the divine and human aspects of the authority with which some people are invested in the Church that we find, at one and the same time, the nobility and difficulty of its exercise.”5

1 Florovsky (2003) p.113

2 Meyendorff (2003) p.82

3 Florovsky (2003) p.98

4 Meyendorff (2003) p.82

5 Behr-Sigel (2001c) p.87

(if you want full referencing details follow the links to the essay via the ‘writing’ page)

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