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Grant R.Osborne

The Many and the One: The Interface Between Orthodox and Evangelical Protestant Hermeneutics (1)

Exegesis and Liturgy

As stated above, exegesis in Orthodoxy is grounded in liturgy. The Bible is not so much interpreted (in a purely cognitive sense) as celebrated in liturgy and sacrament. “Orthodox Christians experience Scripture and its interpretation primarily as a liturgical celebration, other than in their private reading and study,” based upon “the self-understanding of the Orthodox as being the People of God par excellence when participating in divine service.”(42) As one notes from this quote, private reading is encouraged and practiced in Orthodoxy, but the heart of biblical understanding comes via liturgical worship.

Breck speaks of two dimensions to the Orthodox view of liturgy: the horizontal / historical or paschal dimension and the vertical / transcendent or Pentecostal dimension. The paschal (which he calls anamnetic) occurs as the Church actualises and participates in God’s redemptive activity past (celebrating the salvific events of the Bible), present (reliving those events in worship) and future (eschatological anticipation of the saving events yet to come) via liturgical worship. “Again and again the Church recalls and relives the past, in order to take part now in the eschatological grace of the future grace of the future” (italics his).(43) The Pentecostal (which he calls epikletic) occurs as the Holy Spirit draws the worshipper into experiencing this redemptive power in liturgical and eucharistic celebration. “We may even affirm that the essence of the Church is ‘liturgy,’ the ‘work of the people’ (leitourgia) who act in concert (synergia) with the Holy Trinity to effect the redemption of all things“ (italics his).(44)

As stated in the previous section, there is call within Orthodox scholarship for a nuanced use of critical tools. However, that is in response to a deep-seated suspicion in many Orthodox circles regarding “critical” research. Many reason that since God’s Word is inscripturated in a past liturgical context, it needs to be experienced in present liturgical celebration rather than in critical study. Orthodox scholars respond that the two are not disjunctive. Florovsky points out that in the patristic church, there was great concern for right exegesis, but this was primarily in counteracting the heretics. (45) In this sense Tradition is the apologetic side of exegesis, and liturgy the worship side of exegesis. “The New Testament itself came into existence, as a ‘Scripture,’ in the Worshipping Church. As Scripture was read first in the context of worship and meditation.”(46)

In this light the sermon in Orthodox worship is doxological and sacramental. Wainwright notes the three points of John Chrysostom: 1) God does not need us, but we need him, and the sermon as thanksgiving brings us into presence (Homily 25[26].3 on Mathew) ; 3) through the Spirit-inspired sermon, the Holy Spirit” equips and arms the congregation” (On I Saw the Lord, Homily 4.1). (47) In this sense the sermon participates and is anchored in the liturgy. In fact, it is an extension of the liturgy and has a liturgical purpose, to lead the congregants into the sacramental experience of the Word in worship.

The purpose of all, however, is the experience of worship exemplified in the life of the believer. Ford calls for the type of biblical research that “alone enables an authentic understanding of the primary kind of knowledge which Scripture intends to communicate (i.e., spiritual knowledge, a direct knowledge of the Risen Christ through the Holy Spirit)” (italics hers).(48) She argues that the current crisis in biblical studies “is largely the result of taking Scripture out of the context in which it was intended to be interpreted: the living Tradition of the Church, which includes the liturgical context, the context of the believing community, and especially the context of living spiritual experience.”(49) There is great emphasis on the latter category, for the Word of God is meant to be lived as well as believed, and the daily life of communion with God, a direct knowledge of and relationship with him, is the primary goal of all biblical and theological reflection.

In the evangelical church the order of liturgy and exegesis is reversed from that in Orthodoxy. The Bible is first of all understood, and then it is celebrated in worship. Worship is the outgrowth or result of Bible study, and interpretation is first personal and then corporate. Yet there is a resurgence of interest in liturgy even within the "free" or low church Allen and Borror note several advantages and disadvantages in liturgy: It is advantageous because it pays close attention to the special events of Christianity (e.g.,) Advent, Passion and Easter events, Ascension, Pentecost), provides specific goals for each service, systematically reads the Scriptures from both Testaments, provides participation for the congregants affirms basic dogma the creeds, and utilizes music to enhance truth fellowship, and worship. Yet there can be problems in that the yearly plan can fail to address current needs, he expositional-preaching ministry can be watered down, the prescribed Scripture reading might not be appropriate to the needs of the particular service, the. liturgical participation can become little more than rote memory or empty repetition without true worship, and the music can be too formal and not from the heart. Still, they conclude that overall high worship has distinct value for free Churches, in that they have replaced planning with too great a freedom in worship and too little true participation from the people.(50)

Overall, most evangelicals feel that there is a great deal to learn from the liturgical churches. The trend today is to seek a middle ground and to utilize liturgy without being controlled by it, that is, to stress the creeds and liturgical prayers more, but to maintain freedom and a needs-oriented, expository style in worship. In other words, many pastors vary high and low worship styles depending upon the theme and worship emphasis in a given service. There is a great deal of optimism that worship patterns for the next century will be able to blend the strengths of both high and low worship and thereby to minimize the weaknesses of each.

At the same time, a growing number of evangelicals realize the danger of a low priority on liturgy in the life and worship of the Christian. It is indeed true that for the early Church Christian worship preceded the process of inscriptureting the sacred credal truths. The worshipping church to some extent did provide the context within which the New Testament was written. In this sense there should be a dynamic relationship between scripture and liturgy. The danger from the standpoint of evangelical concern is to give liturgy the same status as scripture. The danger from the standpoint of Orthodox concerns is to reduce worship to the level of individual or even congregational needs and interests. Liturgy for St Basil the Great provided an apologetic and hermeneutical grid against the Arian heresy, and for nearly 2,000 years liturgy has summed up the entire history, doctrine, worship,. and spirituality of Christian experience. The primary objection to evangelical approaches is the casual selective approach normally taken to liturgy, i.e., choosing this or that portion merely to satisfy some existential need.(51) What is needed is a balance between liturgy and scripture, with the word of God the final arbiter of truth and liturgy a critical control for theological development from Word to life and worship. In short, evangelical and Orthodox have a great deal to learn from one another.


1. This paper is an outgrowth of a presentation to the Society for the Study of Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelism at Wheaton College, September 25, 1993. I would like to thank Keith Wells, a member of the Society and reference librarian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, for his invaluable help in researching this paper.

42. Prokurat, “Orthodox Interpretation of Scripture,” 60-61.

43. Breck, The Power of the Word, 128 (cf. 125-30).

44. Breck, The Power of the Word, 131 (cf. 131-36).

45. Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition, 75-77.

46. Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition, 85.

47. Wainwright, “The sermon and the Liturgy,” 337-49 (esp. 344-45). Wainwri8ght also stresses the eschatological import of the sermon (pp. 346-47), as the sermon is an urgent call to participate in “the eternal God’s project and design for humanity as part of his own kingdom.”

48. Ford, “Biblical Studies,” 124

49. Ibid.

50. Ronald Allen and Gordon Borror, Worship: Rediscovering the Missing Jewel (Portland, Oregon: Multnomah Press, 1982), 65-66.

51. Conversation with Brad Nassif, January 20, 1994.

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