Here is a wonderful blogcast and comment from Frederica Mathewes-Green on the authority of Scripture from the Orthodox perspective.
This week’s podcast is about the authority of Scripture, and the assertion that it is “infallible.”
It came about as a response to an email I received from a Protestant clergyman asking about the Orthodox view of the authority of Scripture. He said that in his own church there are debates about morality and theology, and those who want to adhere to a classic or traditional stand tend to do so on the basis of Scripture, and for that reason must defend the Scriptures as unimpeachable. He wanted to know how the Orthodox handle this question.
I think the main difference is that we see the Scripture as having the highest authority in our community–but it is read within a community, the community that originally wrote and originally heard these words. Everybody interprets the scriptures. It is not possible to read them and give the same weight to every passage. It is not even likely that anyone will read it all as uniformly literal–many Protestants think Jesus’ words about his Body and Blood, in John 6, were meant metaphorically, while we liturgical Christians take them as literal.
The debates about what the scriptures mean are really a debate about whose interpretation you are going to follow–Luther, Calvin, St. Thomas Aquinas, etc. For us Orthodox, the Scriptures mean what the community says they mean, those who wrote and received the New Testament scriptures when they were new. So the bible is not seen as something independent of human readers and believers, like an object floating in space. It is always read in a context of human interpreters, and we think the original writers and readers are best equipped to have the accurate interpretation.
It’s a different angle from one that would want to determine whether the words standing alone are “infallible.” An interesting question. I got an email from an Orthodox priest this morning saying that I went too far, and that the Church Fathers (he quoted St. Augustine) see the words of the bible as literally true, and if there appears to be a problem, it is in the reader’s understanding. Worth thinking about further–but this part, about being guided by the interpretation of the community, still holds.