About two years ago, the realization began to hit me that over the past two decades, I had formulated a lot of unanswered questions regarding what I was taught about how to believe in and practice the Christian faith. I also realized that I had been suppressing many of those questions, filing them away in a place in the back of my mind, not really believing I would ever find a good answer. I’m talking about questions on the basics of my faith. What I hope to attempt to do over the next few posts is unpack the answers that I believe I have received to those questions along my journey to Orthodoxy. I will be the first to tell you that I am in no way an authority or expert on matters of the Orthodox Faith. I am also not here to debate theology. There are lots of other places available to do that. If you have a question, I will be happy to try and answer it. If I can’t, I will find someone who can. People have asked me to tell them the stories of how the Lord has led me to embrace Orthodox Christianity. They have told me that they want to learn more about what my Faith teaches. Please understand that in doing this, I am not trying to put anyone down or criticize them for what they believe. However, I have to be completely open and honest about what I have learned along the way, or it ceases to be my story.
The B-I-B-L-E, yes, that’s the book for me! I stand alone on the Word of God, the B-I-B-L-E! I grew up singing that song countless times in my small town Sunday School. I enjoyed singing it and it was catchy. To be honest, I never thought about the words too much. I mean, I was taught that Christians who did what was right always read their Bibles every day. If they did this enough, they would eventually grow closer to God through reading His word. I remember wanting this closeness with God from the time I was young, and I did read my Bible often. I was taught that if we read the Bible, the Holy Spirit would reveal its truth to us. I absolutely believe this can happen. However, I don’t believe it happens in every circumstance. If I were to purchase a violin and a book on how to play the violin and then proceed to tell you that I planned on becoming a virtuoso violinist by teaching myself, using only the book as my guide, you would probably look at me like I was crazy. This is why I no longer believe that a person can have the fullest possible relationship with God if they use only the Bible as a guide for how to live the Christian life.
I remember feeling frustrated when I would read the Scriptures. There were parts of them that were fairly straightforward and easy to understand, but there were also parts that, deep down inside, I knew carried a much weightier meaning. There were times I would go to various pastors and ask their thoughts or read a commentary, but I would often leave with more questions than I had when I started. The gnawing question that kept resurfacing was always, “How do I know that this person is right?” I finally decided that if the Holy Spirit reveals the Scriptures to us, I would have to set out on my own to try and figure out what they say. I decided to learn how to do inductive Bible study. What is that? Well, it’s basically where you dissect the Scriptures word by word. You color code each word, look it up in its original language (Hebrew or Greek) and eventually the meaning will become clear. You see, I’m a word nerd so this was right up my alley. Armed with my Bible, my Greek and Hebrew Word Study dictionaries and a brand new 88-pack of Crayola colored pencils, I attended my first Inductive Study. I’m not kidding when I say that the book of Ruth in my Bible looked like I had opened up a box of Fruity Pebbles and dumped it right onto the pages. I did these studies for about three years. I learned a lot and some of it was quite valuable, but I began to see that although I was gaining knowledge, my heart was not changing much. Also, the questions we were told to answer were still quite subjective, like, “What does this passage say to you?” I remember thinking more often than not, “I don’t care what it says to me, I want to know what GOD meant when HE said it!” I used to just pray that God would give me the right answer, because I didn’t know where else to turn at that point. I finally gave up on the inductive studies and just continued to read my Bible and hope that someday His words would actually connect with my heart.
Sometimes I would attend Bible studies at church with people who were earnestly seeking the truth as well, but it would almost always turn into a discussion on each person’s (including my own) opinion of the passage at hand. I would end up leaving with that all too familiar empty feeling, that feeling that I wasn’t taking anything tangible away from it. I look back at this time now as a true test of my faith. I knew deep down that there was something more. Before really knowing anything about the Orthodox Faith, I would read the writings of early Christians and feel jealous because they had something I did not – a sort of connection with Christianity that transcended ordinary life. I finally got to the point where if I didn’t find it soon, I was ready to be done. I dug deep and began to ask myself whether the beliefs that I held and had been taught my whole life concerning the Scriptures were accurate. After all, at this point I had nothing to lose.
Poster with the Scripture, John 1:1
The other day, I came across a poster that is circulating the Internet. It was a picture of Earth from outer space and the caption was John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word.” Emerging from the bottom of the picture was an open Bible. I realized two things: 1) how completely absurd this was and 2) that the notion that the Word is something abstract and disconnected from Christ Himself was something that I had unknowingly allowed to implant itself into my belief system. Now, don’t misunderstand me. I didn’t think that the Bible was actually Christ. However, I did have a misplaced view of the Scriptures, and I know that it was a result of being taught incorrect doctrine. Remember that whole “standing alone on the word of God” thing? In 1522, a doctrine was developed by Martin Luther called sola Scriptura which is a Latin term meaning “by Scripture alone.” This, in its most basic sense, is the belief that the Scriptures by themselves contain everything necessary for a person to come to salvation and grow in their relationship with God. This was not a doctrine held by the early Church. When I reflected on all the times I came away from reading my Bible feeling unsatisfied and incomplete, I realized something. I realized that sola Scriptura had failed me.
I love to read books, but the problem is that sometimes it’s difficult for a busy mom to find time to read weighty material. I wanted to begin to learn the pre-Reformation history of the Church. I discovered Ancient Faith Radio. It has literally thousands of podcasts ranging from daily Scripture readings to seminars on how to learn Byzantine chant, and everything in between. This became the way in which God provided for me to take my crash course in Church history. I began with a podcast called At the Intersection of East and West. It was the perfect introduction for someone like me who knew next to nothing about the early Church. One evening, as I began to cook dinner, I decided to listen to a series of podcasts on Scripture and Tradition. I decided I was going to have an open mind and just listen to was being said. What happened was not what I expected, but something much better.
When something is important to us, part of our human nature desires to know where that something came from. “Who actually decided what was going to be in the Bible and what authority did they have?” It was one of those questions…one of the nagging ones. I tried to just be content to let it go and blindly accept that whoever it was knew what they were doing and I needed to be okay with it. I did know that a bunch of men came together at some point and decided on it, but that was it. To tell you the truth, I think that most people don’t give it a lot of thought. That night I learned some very important things:
- For nearly 400 years, the Church survived without the complete set of books that we consider today’s Bible.
- The books that comprise the Old Testament were not even decided until late in the first century.
- The Old Testament books (scrolls) used by Christ and His Apostles in the early Church were in Greek, not Hebrew.
- There were many ‘gospels’ in circulation in the early centuries of Christianity. The four that we use as Scripture today (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were not officially chosen until the second and third centuries.
The final Canon of Scripture was decided in 397 A.D. at the Council of Carthage. So, I had to conclude that if sola Scriptura were true, how could the early Church have survived and thrived for that long without it? I haven’t even mentioned the fact that most Churches didn’t even have full copies of the Old Testament, let alone all 27 books of the New Testament (which weren’t even all completed until late in the first century, nearly 60 years after Christ ascended into Heaven)! So I had to ask myself, “If there was no Bible in the early Church, then how did the first Christians grow in their faith?”
There are certain Bible verses that have always stood out to me personally. Every time I would read the story of Philip and the eunuch in Acts 8:26-31, I felt pierced to the heart. I could never really explain why. It was like God always wanted to show me something there. Here is what it says:
Orthodox Icon of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch
Now an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, “Arise and go toward the south along the road which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is desert. So he arose and went. And behold, a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, who had charge of all her treasury, and had come to Jerusalem to worship, was returning. And sitting in his chariot, he was reading Isaiah the prophet. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go near and overtake this chariot.” So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him.
The phrase, “Scripture interprets Scripture” became a mantra of sorts in my inductive Bible studies. This was the idea that if we looked at a verse and then looked at all the other verses in the Bible that had to do with that verse (cross-references) we would come away with a clear meaning. Sometimes it works, but again, this assumes that when we are doing this, we have the whole Bible. Therefore, since the early Church only had portions of the Bible and individuals in that Church had no Scriptures at all, someone must have been guiding them. I began to think of all the “guides” I had had throughout the years. Many of them were sincere, godly people who truly wanted others to come to the knowledge of the truth. But, many of them had completely contradictory interpretations of certain portions of Scripture. Again, if sola Scriptura were true and these people were really seeking the truth, why would God give them conflicting insights? However, I believe that an even bigger problem for this doctrine exists. Just take a drive through the streets of any typical town in America. On one corner is a Baptist church, on another is a Presbyterian church and down the street is an Assembly of God church. I had to ask myself why all of these different types of churches existed in every town and city. The truth is that the Protestant Reformation of 1517 has resulted in the creation of over twenty-five thousand (yes, thousand) different Christian denominations. Why? Because they all have differing views of what the Scriptures teach. Most of them would adhere to the doctrine of sola Scriptura. Titus 1:2 tells us that “God cannot lie.” So, I had to come to one of two possible conclusions. Either Titus 1:2 was not true and God was lying to some of these branches of Christianity, or sola Scriptura was simply a false doctrine and men were coming to all of these varying conclusions on their own.
Before I had children, I would occasionally attend different Christian conferences and retreats. I would find myself sitting in a huge auditorium with other women singing upbeat praise songs, or my husband and I would be listening to some Christian speaker talk about how understanding Song of Solomon properly would help us to have a better marriage. At the end of every session, we would be given a plug for the speaker’s latest and greatest book, which would be “filled with new insights into the Scriptures” and then told to make a beeline for the bookstore before they sold out. This kind of thing has been going on in Christianity for centuries. Why do people write books about what the Scriptures say? Why can I still purchase a book written hundreds of years ago containing some classical Biblical scholar’s interpretation of the Scriptures? Again…people who hold to the doctrine of sola Scriptura (remember, it means, “by Scripture ALONE”) write books about what the Scriptures mean! This must mean that they think that people need help interpreting the Scriptures.
I was perfectly fine by now rejecting the notion that the Bible alone was a sufficient guide to lead me to salvation and to help me grow in my faith. The other conclusion I had come to was that any tradition that developed after the Reformation was likely quite different from the original Church that Christ had founded, and was probably lacking things that had been taught by the Apostles. I began to think about the men who decided which books were to be included in the Canon of Scripture (canon, by the way, means ‘a rule set by the Church’) and the Church of their time. By this point, I knew that the Church they belonged to was the Orthodox Church. I also knew that it had remained consistent in its teachings and practices for over 2,000 years. This would also mean that they were the ones who had been interpreting the Scriptures longer than anybody. However, the way they approach the Scriptures differs from the way I had been taught throughout my life. They approach the them as a Church, not as individuals, and they interpret them within the context of Holy Tradition.
-Part two can be found here.