Daily Meditations

Father Maximos on the Bible, Translations, Tradition and the Church

“Meanings were lost in translation,” I muttered.

“That’s what I was just thinking,” Teresa added. “Much distortion sneaked into the Bible though flawed translations.”

“It is always a problem with translation,” Fr. Maximos agreed. “That is why many Christians who rely exclusively on the words of the Bible for guidance generated such great diversity of beliefs, interpretations, and, alas, distortions.”

“And that is why a rigid and literal adherence to words can lead to all sorts of misconceptions and fundamentalisms,” I added.

“For sure.” Fr. Maximos nodded. “That is why we consider the Bible as only one of several spiritual sources in our understanding of God.” He then pointed out that in the Orthodox way, the entire holy tradition and experience of the Ecclesia must be taken into consideration. It includes the mystical experiences of the saints along with the homilies and testaments they left behind.

Fr. Maximos then raised a hypothetical question. What would happen in the event that all the Bibles in the world were destroyed in a massive catastrophe? The answer, he said, is that the saints would rewrite the Bible because, as St. Silouan the Athonite once said, the Bible is eternally written in the hearts of the saints, from where it can be retrieved whenever external conditions permit it. It is for this reason, Fr. Maximos continued, that the true interpreters of sacred scripture are not the Bible scholars or the theologians but the saints, who base their knowledge on direct personal experience and mystical illumination. That is why the guidance of an elder is so important in a serious spiritual struggle for “the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.” It is for this reason also that Fr. Maximos mentioned to me several times how impatient he is with academic theologians, with their obscurantist wordiness and theories that have nothing to do with a direct experience of divine realities. A true theologian, for Fr. Maximos, is someone who has tasted the reality of God directly.

The Ecclesia,” Fr. Maximos claimed, “is over and beyond Scripture.  It includes the Holy Bible, but the Ecclesia is the Holy Tradition itself. This is what some people do not understand.”

This is a most crucial difference between how the Fathers of the Eccelsia view scripture and how Protestantism, particularly its fundamentalist version, understand it,” I interjected. With Fr. Maximos’s encouragement, I briefly explained that fundamentalist Protestantism considers the Bible the inerrant word of God, innately infallible and beyond questioning. In the Eastern Orthodox mystical tradition, on the other hand, the Bible is considered to be divinely inspired but written down and recorded by fallible human beings. Traditional and fundamentalist Protestants believe in sola scriptura, which means that the Bible soley and exclusively speaks the Truth. Furthermore, the holy scripture can be understood by the faithful directly and without intermediaries such as priests, monks, and saints. A person is like a maverick who can search for God using his reason with the aid of infallible Holy Scripture.

With modern scholarship, however, the Bible has come under rational scrutiny, and a number of glaring contradictions have been unraveled. Many people who based their belief exclusively

on the inerrancy of scripture were left with only two options: to reject modern scholarship altogether and follow the fundamentalist pathway or to lose faith in the Bible and consider it simply literature, as many liberal theologians have done.

According to the Eastern Christian fathers and saints, the proper way of relating to Holy Scripture and the Bible is the exact opposite of sola scriptura. For them the Bible is a means to help us attain a direct experience of God and not an infallible historical document. The American-born Greek Orthodox theologian Fr. John Romanides, reflecting on this issue and the mysticism of Eastern Christianity’s understanding of Holy Scripture, asks: “Is there a single Church Father who identifies the Holy Scripture with the experience of Theosis itself? No, there is not one, because God’s revelation to mankind is the experience of Theosis. In fact, since revelation is the experience of Theosis, an experience that transcends all expressions and concepts, the identification of Holy Scripture with revelation is, in terms of dogmatic theology, pure heresy.”

I went on to clarify that the fundamentalist understanding of scripture is not limited to Protestants but also to members of other denominations, including Eastern Orthodox themselves. John Romanides laments the tendency among many Eastern Orthodox theologians, oblivious to the mystical understanding of their religion, to become either fundamentalists in their interpretation of scripture or “liberal”. For Romanides and Fr. Maximos, both tendencies are off the mark of the authentic mystical legacy of the patristic tradition, which focuses on the direct experience Divinity.

~Adapted from Kyriacos C. Markides, Inner River: A Pilgrimage to the Heart of Christian Spirituality