Biblical Literacy Among The Orthodox

Scripture in the East

Most of the Orthodox live in regions where there are high levels of corruption, endemic levels of poverty and the influence of other ethno-religious cultures. The influence of Islam in particular, has had mixed impact on Christianity in the East, though undoubtedly poor in terms of the knowledge of Scripture. While there had been brief periods of tolerance, particularly during the Fatimid rule and during the Ayyubid dynasty, the combined effect over multiple regressive regimes have led to expulsion of Christian representation in Civic life and decay in literacy among Orthodox. This spiritual vacuum had been filled by the affluent, and what was perceived to be the more ‘spiritually vivid’, Islamic faith.

Despite poverty and poor literacy among particular Eastern Christian communities, Christian education continued in a very ‘Apostolic’ manner. Consider Timothy, who St Paul inferred his faith was passed on by his grandmother Lois and mother Eunice. There continued to be a trans-generational culture of transmission in the household of the Word of God, despite the Scriptures being rarely distributed.

Further, during the liturgical service, the reader would often read the Scripture in the tongue of the communicants, as opposed to the priest who would read his responses in the older tongue. Great attention was given to ensuring the pulpit was positioned strategically so that the whole congregation could hear the reader.

However, despite the ability for these methods to keep the faith for some, many fell to apostasy, even without coercion, to Islam or to folk religion. Western missionaries, often when they encountered the Eastern Orthodox, remarked at their general ignorance of Christianity- almost that of unbelievers!

Scripture in the West

In the West, we live in a post-Christian and increasingly secular world. Very Biblical phrases are embedded in the everyday language, almost inconspicuously. For example, “bite the dust” (Psalm 72:9) and “leopard cannot change its spots” (Jeremiah 13:23) or even “go the extra mile” (Matthew 15:14), have become part of our parlance to such an extent that most people do not recognize the origin of the phrases. Bibles are also ubiquitous, they are found in hospitals and hotels, they are available cheaply in any bookstore and are easily downloadable on any device with an internet connection. It is estimated that the average Christian household has at least three Bibles. There are also even many different versions of the Bible, varying in accuracy or readability.

Yet, Scripture reading is declining, even among those who frequently and regularly attend Church. It is difficult to know how Orthodox or Catholic Christians compare with Protestants, but there is a general consensus view that it may be even poorer. This is despite a much formalized system of Scriptural engagement – with canonical prayers filled with Scripture, Liturgies that have multiple Scripture readings (usually more than Evangelical Churches) and ceremonial veneration of the Scriptures.

However, this problem is not unique to just Scripture. There is a significant trend of decline in reading any book at all. Pew Research in 2013 showed 23% of people didn’t read a single book, which is a three-time increase to 1970 levels. This is largely attributed to lifestyle factors, including our work-life imbalance, proclivity to entertainment and other forms of media.

Why does Scripture MATTER?

Before discussing ways in which we may try to combat the demise of, and improve Scripture literacy, I think it would benefit readers to consider the reasons I believe it is imperative that we invest in this.

In the West, particularly in many progressive or contemporary services, Scripture is used as a launching point for an idea that is palatable to their demographic. Other Churches approach the Scriptures as if it is a manual for solutions and complexities to life, which, though it has insight, I think is not the intention of the Author.

The Scriptures are first and foremost the Work of God – His work in history. It is a revelation of God, that cannot be gleaned by philosophy or the natural sciences. It describes what God has done for His chosen people, what God thinks about us, and how God has made a way for us.

The Scripture is God’s Word, though written by many authors, it is inspired by God to reveal His Word to us. The nature of this inspiration gets complicated when we consider that God has condescended His Word into words and figures, penned by varied skilled authors, using a language that has limitations of expression.

The Scriptures is also our heritage, passed down from generations, from the Ancient Israelites, to the new Gentile Christians in Alexandria, to us now in the Sydney diaspora. We read in God’s people, their history and wisdom, their prayer and worship, their grief and lamentations, their hope and expectation.

The Scriptures is God’s revelation of His plan for us: His work through the ages and the plans for the future. It teaches us about our Salvation, our liberation, our transformation, our duties and God’s promises.

So What Now?

I believe to bring back the Bible in our Churches, we will need to acknowledge that it is both a problem and that we need to address this as a matter of urgency. Efforts about other social programs, though great and necessary, will become empty if we do not get the next generation inspired by God’s Word.

We have to focus on all age groups; from the Primary Schoolers to the HSC candidates, to the young professional or the tradie apprentice, to the newlyweds, to the new parents and to the nursing home residents. The whole culture needs to change. Focusing only on Sunday School, without focusing on the parents whom children will model their behavior after, will be a bad and ineffective strategy.

First, I think Churches have a responsibility to ensure that everyone has a Bible. I believe we ought to guarantee that there are take-home Bibles to newcomers. I realize Sydney is not poor, but we cannot assume that every person that comes to Church is a faithful member, but rather we must cater for all.

Second, I think we need to have extensive Bible study tools and books. We need both access and teaching regarding how to study the Bible. This can be by the presbyter, or by readily available books in our bookstores. We need good series for guidance and we need kits with highlighters or bookmarks.

Third, we need to encourage the use of technology. With e-Sword available, audible Bibles and many other tools on the internet, more of us can either study or engage with the Bible in a level that earlier generations never could.

Forth, I believe we need to encourage particular spiritual exercise involving Scripture to be a part of every member’s life, e.g. the Canonical Prayers of the Agbia, devotional readings, quiet time programs, kenonia, attendance of Bible studies, listening to sermon podcasts and Bible study plans. We need to ensure that for every age group and spiritual maturity, we have tailored disciplines for them all.

Another belief of mine, is that the relationship between the Liturgy or the Church and Scripture, needs to explained. Perhaps Churches can reference the Scriptures on the PowerPoint presentation as well as Scripture reference our icons.

In essence, this issue belongs to our generation and request that we all own it and share the solution together. If you have more ideas, please share! To finish, I quote Scripture: My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge (Hosea 4:6)

– Tony Kodski.

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