The Holy Gospel and the
Orthodox way of its study

By His Grace Bishop Joseph of Arianzos

The Gospel is not a good, beneficial, edifying book. It is not, as it has been called, "the king of books". It is the book of life. It is the Word of God. It is the voice of the Trinitarian God treasured in the Church and conveyed by the Church and through the Church to the world, for the salvation of humanity and the world. This is its primary distinction from every other book that has been or will be published on earth and on every planet (if there is ever life discovered beyond earth!).

The Gospel is a part of the Holy Tradition of the Church. Undoubtedly the most basic and most central, but still one section of the whole Holy and Sacred Tradition.

The Church of Christ separated it from the numerous holy texts of its saints, and said that these specific texts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as the remaining particular writings of Paul, Peter, James and Jude, constitute the New Testament of God with the new Israel of Grace, namely the Christ - loving people of the Church. These and no other. In their specific form and no other.

The Church rejected other texts, which were perhaps beneficial and full of reverence, because its divine experience and the illumination of the Paraclete, which guide the Church into the whole truth, grant the possibility of "discerning the spirits" and allow it, through its Saints, to discern the Voice of its Lord from "the voice of enemies".

Thus the Church very early laid down, established and consecrated the "Canon" of Holy Scripture which can neither be added to nor subtracted from, nor in any other way changed. And at this point every kind of heretic that accepts the "Canon" and yet rejects its creator and Bride of Christ, the Church, is proved outrageously self-contradictory!

The Holy Spirit "taught wisdom to the illiterate", "rendered the fishermen theologians" and inspired the authors of the Gospels. The same Holy Spirit also enlightened other "saints of God" to discern the words of divine revelation and, to codify them into the "Bible" of life and salvation, and to place them in the centre of the life of the Church. This life of the Church is what is called Holy and Sacred Tradition and is identified with the life of the God-Man extended to the ages of ages.

The Gospel, then, is the heart of the Body of the Church, and is vigilant even when the Body appears to sleep either from extreme sin in the world (as today), or from extreme persecution and threat (former or contemporary), or else from indifference or lukewarmness of those called to be watchful guardians of the logical sheep of Christ.

For the Church, the Gospel has always been and always is the Image in words of the God-Man Bridegroom and Saviour, the Image in paper and ink. This is in any case why so great honour is attributed to the Gospel: it is placed on the fearful altar, indeed in its centre; it is covered with gold and silver ornaments, studded with precious stones; it is taken in procession with the festal proclamation and command: 'Wisdom, let us attend !"; it is kissed and venerated etc. It is characteristic that at Vespers of Holy Saturday, the Gospel is taken in procession and placed in the Holy Sepulchre of the Epitaphios while people venerate it and chanters sing the Aposticha 'When You were taken down from the Cross dead.." - here, the Gospel is itself the image of the buried Christ. The so-called Epitaphios (the actual material) is the material (or Air) borne by the Clergy on their shoulders when carrying the Gospel, for example during the Great Entrance of the Divine Liturgy with the Holy Gifts. This is why we venerate the Gospel first and then the Epitaphios.

Likewise, on Sunday Matins, after reading the morning Gospel which preaches the good news of the Resurrection of our Lord, the faithful approach as the Myrrhbearing women and venerate the Risen Lord in the Holy Gospel.

With all this in mind, I was greatly scandalised when I recently saw an edition of the New Testament with "blue-jean" material on the cover, in the form of a "cowboy' pock-et-book dared by Protestants, perhaps with the aim of supposedly rendering it accessible to modern youth!

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A detail, which is perhaps not so much a detail, is that the Gospel on the Holy Altar is sealed! Its frame has small locks which keep it closed. Furthermore, it is read from the height of the holy Pulpit or from the Royal Doors and by a member of the Clergy (Deacon, Presbyter, Bishop) after a special prayer is read ("Shine, O loving Master, in our hearts the unfailing light of Your knowledge, and open the eyes of our minds to the understanding of Your Gospel precepts...."). All this means that the Gospel is proclaimed by the Church! It is the Body of Christ that preaches Christ! For those outside the Church, the Gospel remains "a book sealed with seven seals"! Inaccessible and in-comprehensible! A two-edged sword! Light that burns!

Furthermore, the Holy Gospel and the Epistle readings are chanted, not simply read, as unfortunately certain modernising Clergy do, influenced by Western practice. The chanting signifies that it is not a normal reading of this world, but a harmonious melody of theology, the product of the musical harp of the All-Holy Spirit whose cords are the Evangelists.

The study of the Gospel, then, implies certain presuppositions. One not only needs to be a member of the Church, but one must also trace the way forged by the holy Evangelists who "evangelised peace and good". So one must live the holy life of the Church, struggle for cleansing from passions and for the acquisition of Christ-like virtues, be nourished by the sacred Mysteries of the Christian altar, be enlightened and sanctified by the Grace of God offered in all the Holy Sacraments and the liturgical life of the Church in general. One must at least be in the stage of purification according to Christ, in Christ and through Christ.

When one is comfortable in one's passionate and lowly life of sin, and is negligent in one's Godly struggle for salvation, for which all the Saints of the Church struggled - and they are in this respect also the infallible pointers and sure examples - then "in seeing, one does not see; and in hearing, one does not understand". Then one may study Holy Scripture and be darkened instead of enlightened. One may be deceived instead of led towards God. One may be condemned instead of saved! This is precisely the case with all the heretics who, because they do not the necessary presuppositions, gather only darkness, deceit, corruption, death and condemnation from the Gospel! They read one thing and understand another! They see one thing and conclude another, continually being estranged from the "hidden beauty" of the saving word of God! The Light of God becomes for them the "consuming fire" of hell.

And the reading of the Gospel by a member of the Clergy has a deeper meaning. Deacons were ordained from those who were in the first stage of Godly life, that of "purification". Presbyters from those who had progressed to the second and more perfect stage, namely "illumination". And "Bishops" those who were raised to the third and supreme stage of "divine theory" or "theosis". Thus, the latter possessed, according to the measure of their struggle, analogous spiritual experiences with the God-bearing authors of the Holy Scriptures, although not exactly proportional since the Apostles and Evangelists are, after the Theotokos and John the Forerunner, at the highest possible point of divinisation to which one cannot, after those blessed ones, be elevated. Therefore, the Spirit-bearing Bishops had the ability to understand in depth and in precision the divine concepts of Scripture and to interpret unwaveringly and nourish with pure milk and clean food the Flock of Christ. This is seen literally in the Fathers of the Church. St. John Chrysostom, for example, interprets the Gospels or St. Paul's letters and conveys to the Church the exact meaning of the Evangelists and Apostles. The same applies to Athanasius the Great and Basil the Great and very Holy Gregory Palamas and others. The Presbyters in turn who were in the stage of illumination could also discern the divine concepts of Scripture and proclaim the Gospel without danger. The Deacons, finally, who were in the stage of purification, had the basic presuppositions with which not to lose sight of the spirit of truth behind the letter of the sacred texts.

In reading the Gospel thus, the Clergyman, in this action alone, claims that "no hand of the uninitiate should touch" "the dangerous" written word of God.

This does not in any way mean that the study of the Gospel is not permissible for all. It is most certainly allowed but with certain conditions!

One basic condition is that the faithful, before taking Scripture in their hands, should be deeply convinced that it is not a book of human wisdom and knowledge subject to the criticism of so called "rational logic" but it is rather the word of the Word - the Enhypostatic Wisdom of God and, therefore, must be approached "with trembling hands" as a disciple and not as a judge, as one ignorant and not as a scholar, as a fool, and not as a wise, as a child and not as one who is "sober in oneself".

And before opening the holy pages, one should open one's heart before God to pray with warmth and seek with humility divine enlightenment and assistance, after of course basically cleansing oneself from the spot of sin through Confession and genuine repentance.

Having approached with these necessary conditions the Scriptural pasture with reverence and fear of God, and having delighted in the letter of the sacred text, then one should turn to the sure interpreters of Scripture. One should study the interpretation of the relevant text as offered by the divinely-enlightened Church Fathers, in order to see how the passage is interpreted by St. John Chrysostom, for example, who is more or less the simplest and most accessible to the majority. If one wishes, one could study the appropriate interpretation of the second and third and fourth Father. If one seeks deeper study, one may look for the "Consensus Patrum", the "Agreement of the Fathers", since each Holy Father, according to the variety of illuminating gifts of the Holy Spirit - which is also related to the degree of perfection of each Father - will perhaps emphasise certain rays of the same diamond of Gospel truth more so than others. This, with very few exceptions which serve rather to underline the rule, is not contradiction at all but only agreement. I would say it is like a musical symphony (= agreement) where with different notes, with the variety of instruments and voices, the same song is sung, and in this case the all-harmonious chant of true Theology, which is none other than Christ Himself. The Enhypostaffc Wisdom of God, the human-loving God-Man, the Crucified, Risen, Beneficial, Redeeming and Saviour Lord.

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The study, therefore, of Scripture which is based on our own poor ability and on our own capacity to conceive and understand the divine concepts - a capacity which is insignificant and non-existent, due to the darkness of passions reigning within us - is to be avoided as dangerous.

On the contrary: approaching the word of God with the above basic ecclesiastical presuppositions is necessary as the required nurture of the soul, as enlightenment of life without with one cannot exist, as medicine and source of immortality and as participation in God!

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One may rightly ask: do today's Deacons, Presbyters and Bishops have the necessary presuppositions mentioned above in order to be the precise interpreters and sure teachers of the Gospel? The answer, even if negative, is that they can be through humble discipleship before the works of the Holy Fathers. By interpreting Holy Scripture in the Patristic light and by proclaiming the Gospel in the Patristic voice, yes, the teaching of the Gospel is clearly genuine, unadulterated, sure and saving. And I believe that - thanks be to God - most of today's fathers of God's people are - to their credit - good pupils of the Church Fathers. And to the degree that they are good disciples and sons, they are good teachers and fathers, worthy of trust from the Christ-loving people of God.

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The presuppositions for the study of the Gospel equally apply to the whole of Holy Scripture. Not only for the New, but also for the Old Testament. We should add concerning the latter that, for us Orthodox, it is not examined in isolation but always in relation to the New Testament. For whatever is contained in the Old Testament is prophecy and prefiguration of the New, in a way that without the light of the New, the Old is a hidden mystery, inaccessible and incomprehensible! So incomprehensible, that a contemporary thinker inexperienced in the ecclesiastical way of approaching the Scriptures could call it "Mythology of the Hebrew people"!!!

The Orthodox Christian, standing in the courtyard of the word of God, loosens the laces of his shoes and takes off the slippery sandals of egoism, self-sufficiency and rationalism, in the knowledge that he is in a holy place; and he receives the guidance of the God-bearing Fathers, full aware of his spiritual blindness; and he seeks the illumination of God on the darkness of his soul as a result of his passions; and he studies in humility, and in studying he is a pupil who prays and comes to understanding through prayer, to light through understanding, to sanctification through light and through sanctification to salvation.

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