Monthly Archives: February 2008

Reading the Scriptures in Context

For those that haven’t noticed, Fr. Joseph has decided to go a little controversial. :)  This reminds me of something that I have been wondering for a while.  I think the Orthodox Study Bible is a good thing and I will buy one as soon as it comes out. Though, I have wondered what effect it will have on the Church. Before I explain, let me critique Fr. Joseph’s reader a bit.

First, he argues that Study Bibles tend to have poor scholarship.  Scholarship is not an either/or but a range from poor to excellent.  I suspect any massive work like OSB will have scholarship all over the spectrum.  However, scholarship is not necessarily what makes a good Study Bible.  In my opinion, Study Bibles are very useful when they serve as a bibliography of references to other writings.  Many people want to read the Fathers, but don’t know where to start.  OSB should be helpful in this regard.

Second, Fr. Joseph’s reader argues that the OSB will systematize Orthodoxy. I disagree. The samples I have seen have avoided this systematization quite well.  I am far more worried that it will overemphasize Eastern Fathers over pre-Schism Western Fathers (from whom there is an abundance of good commentary).

I do think there is something, however, to the “how will people use this text?” question.  I’m basing my argument on the thesis of Marshall McLuhan.  He is famous for the phrases “global village” (which he means as something different than its contemporary usage) and, particularly relevant, “the medium is the message.” His thesis is that the channel which a message is delivered in impacts us more than the message itself.  For instance, he says: “[Printing] created the portable book, which men could read in privacy and in isolation from others… The private, fixed point of view became possible and literacy confirmed the power of detachment, non-involvement.” (McLuhan, 1967, p. 50)  This, for McLuhan, is the catalyst for Sola Scriptura, not a particular theological argument: before the printing press, Sola Scriptura could have never existed because there was no Scriptura to be had in a Sola fashion (as Into The Light points out, there never was a Bible in the Orthodox Church).

This brings us back to the “how will people use it?” question.  I would argue that Protestants using Study Bibles in poor ways is much more a result of the change of medium than poor scholarship.  Before Study Bibles, if you wanted to know more about the text, it forced you to read a wide variety of materials and go hear commentary at your local parish.  This in turn had the effect, generally speaking, of making the person more sociable and well read.  The shift in medium to Study Bibles made all this extra reading and socialization obsolete.  This was good because it made it possible for those with limited time and skill able to read great materials.  Unfortunately, the lack of reading and socialization also made the reader unable to handle the texts responsibly.

I think the biggest disadvantage in the Study Bible change in medium is this: it emphasizes that the best commentary on the scriptures are found outside of the life of the Church.  For the Orthodox (and others), this is a great travesty!  For us, the very context of the Scriptures is the life of the Church and to read them outside of this context is to misunderstand them.

All that said, I can’t wait to have a real translation of the LXX. :)