A new (civil) year has dawned, and as is usual, a number of posts linking to several different Bible reading plans have appeared in various corners of the blogosphere. It so happens that, a little over a year ago, I started to work on a response to Fr Milovan Katanić’s challenging post on the subject of Bible reading among the Orthodox, and had hoped to post some thoughts on the matter (as well as some practical solutions) by New Year’s Day 2009. Regrettably, my lack of internet access at the time prevented me from finishing my post in a timely manner, so I decided to wait until New Year 2010 to publish it. Thus, I offer the following in the hope that it may prove useful to someone in carrying out their desire to read the Holy Scriptures.
I. To What End Should We Read?
Many Christians would like to read the Scriptures in some systematic fashion, but they face a number of obstacles to their good intentions. For example, it is not unusual for overzealous believers to attempt rather ambitious reading plans that inevitably lead them to crash and burn somewhere around Deuteronomy 5. As is true of other disciplines of the Christian life, the systematic reading the Scriptures is an ascetical endeavor, and here too we must allow for growth in the exercise of a discipline before we expect to produce the sorts of results that would bespeak a spiritual maturity that we have not yet attained. In the end (to adapt the advice of a well-known prayer book), it is better to read a single chapter of the Scriptures every day without fail, than to read 15 or 20 on an irregular, impulsive basis1.
Another common obstacle is that readers often seem to expect too much from their reading of Scripture. This is rooted in a deep misunderstanding of the purpose of systematic biblical reading. We should not be looking for moments of blazing insight (though such moments might come as we progress in our discipline); neither should we expect to settle, in the course of a single reading, the exegetical and theological issues on which the best minds of the ages have expended their magnificent intellectual powers. Our purpose should be much more modest: namely, to acquaint ourselves with the subject matter of Scripture. I believe St Augustine puts it best in this delightful passage:
“These are all the books in which those who fear God and are made docile by their holiness seek God’s will. The first rule in this laborious task is, as I have said, to know these books; not necessarily to understand them but to read them so as to commit them to memory or at least make them not totally unfamiliar. Then the matters which are clearly stated in them, whether ethical precepts or articles of belief, should be examined carefully and intelligently. The greater a person’s intellectual capacity, the more of these he finds. In clearly expressed passages of scripture one can find all the things that concern faith and the moral life (namely hope and love, treated in my previous book). Then, after gaining a familiarity with the language of the divine scriptures, one should proceed to explore and analyse the obscure parts to illuminate obscure expressions and by using the evidence of indisputable passages to remove the uncertainty of ambiguous ones. Here memory is extremely valuable; and it cannot be supplied by these instructions if it is lacking”2.
The daily and systematic reading of Scripture falls within St Augustine’s “first rule,” whose purpose is simply to know the content of the Bible. Anything beyond this takes place at the level of more detailed study and analysis, which the rhythm of systematic reading can hardly afford.
II. The Bare Minimum: The Gospel and the Psalter
It would be no exaggeration to say that the Gospel and the Psalter are the backbone of the Church’s liturgical use and experience of the Bible, and this is not without reason. As the late Protopresbyter John Meyendorff has rightly noted:
“Orthodox theology takes for granted the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. Even a casual acquaintance with the Orthodox liturgical ethos shows the Biblical character of the Orthodox religious experience. The office, almost entirely, is made up of scriptural texts, particularly Psalms, which are sung or read in the context of various celebrations. However, if one takes the liturgy as a guide, the Bible is not read as a uniform collection of equally holy texts. There is a certain hierarchy within it: the New Testament, read during the Eucharistic liturgy, is the fulfillment of the Old, and within the New Testament itself, the book containing the four Gospels is the object of special and direct veneration not accorded the rest of the New Testament”3.
From this perspective, it is quite clear that the Gospels should never be absent from our daily reading of the Scriptures. The same may also be said of the Psalter, for as St John Chrysostom once remarked, “It would be better for the sun to be extinguished than for the words of David to be forgotten”4. Those just starting to read the Scriptures would do well, then, to read at least the Gospel and the Psalter daily, only increasing this reading program (to once again adapt the advice of that well-known prayer book) once it has become a regular and integral part of their lives5.
Now, how do we go about our daily reading of the Gospel? The first way that comes to mind is to follow the daily cycle of Gospel readings appointed for the Divine Liturgy and usually printed in yearly calendars. This is a laudable practice, of course, but it should be noted that to depend exclusively on the lectionary for one’s private reading of Scripture has some limitations. For one thing, no appointed Gospel reading would usually be available for Lenten weekdays. Further, as I suggested earlier, the readings in our Gospel lectionary have been deliberately selected and arranged in order to serve a definite, iconic liturgical function. Because of this, attempting to gain a sense of, say, the integrity of the St Matthew’s Gospel from the lectionary’s successive pericopes would only do violence to both St Matthew’s Gospel and the lectionary.
Another method (and one I can recommend from experience) comes from the “Cell Rule of the Optina Monastery,” which prescribed, among other things, the reading of one chapter of the Gospel every day. Since there are 89 chapters in the Gospels, reading them in succession takes a reader through the Gospels, in strict canonical order, 4 times per year.
What about the Psalter? As is well known, the Psalter is divided into 20 kathismata (i.e., sections comprising roughly nine Psalms), each of which is further divided into three staseis (i.e., subsections comprising roughly three Psalms). Outside of Lent, when this regime is doubled, the Psalter is appointed to be read in its entirety once a week during the liturgical services at a rate of three kathismata per day (two on Mondays). For its part, the “Optina Cell Rule” prescribed the reading of one kathisma per day. I think that a daily kathisma is an excellent long-term goal, but again, those who are just starting to read the Scriptures should be careful not to bite off more than they can chew. In my experience, a more manageable and immediate goal is to read one stasis every day. Since there are 60 staseis in the Psalter, reading them in succession would take a reader through the entire Psalter 6 times per year.
A future post on this subject will detail a more comprehensive reading plan. Before then, however, I should like to say a word about English translations of the Gospel and the Psalter. To the best of my knowledge, there are only two existing English translations of the ecclesiastical text of the Gospels: 1) the Eastern / Greek Orthodox Bible (EOB), available both in print and for download, and 2) The Orthodox New Testament, vol. 1 (The Holy Gospels), a hopelessly eccentric translation with an invaluable set of patristic annotations. We have mercifully fared a little better with the ecclesiastical text of the Psalter, and there are several editions readily available in print. In fact, a number of them are even available online either for reading or for download: HTM’s Psalter According to the Seventy, Michael Asser’s KJV-LXX Psalter, David James’ Coverdale-based Russian Orthodox Psalter, the EOB’s Psalter, and most notably, the late Archimandrite Lazarus Moore’s rare and beautiful Psalter.
1. Cf. Orthodox Daily Prayers (South Canaan: St Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1982), page 3: “It is better to say a few prayers every day without fail than to say a great number of prayers on an irregular, impulsive basis.”
2. St Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. R. P. H. Green (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), II.9.
3. [Protopresbyter] Johh Meyendorff, “Light from the East? ‘Doing Theology’ in an Eastern Orthodox Perspective,” in J. D. Woodbridge and T. E. McComiskey (eds.), Doing Theology in Today’s World. Essays in Honor of Kenneth S. Kantzer (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), pages 340-1 .
4. Cf. Second Homily on Repentance (PG 49, col. 286): Αἱρετώτερόν ἐστι τὸν ἥλιον σβεσθῆναι, ἢ τὰ ῥήματα τοῦ Δαυῒδ λήθῃ παραδοθῆναι.
5. Cf. Orthodox Daily Prayers (South Canaan: St Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1982), page 3: “Those of us who do not [have a spiritual father], should begin with a modest [Prayer] Rule, increasing it only when it has become a regular and integral part of our lives.”