It is unfortunately not uncommon to find Orthodox people who argue that it is not Orthodox to study the Bible. Perhaps clergy and monastics should study the Bible, they might concede, but not laymen. They argue that all that we need to know we get simply from the services of the Church, or perhaps from reading the Fathers of the Church, if they do not consider the Fathers to be off limits as well.
The problem with this reasoning is that if you actually read the Fathers of the Church, you will discover that they regularly admonished people to study the Scriptures… and not just clergy and monastics.
Let’s begin with the Ecumenical Canons of the Church, which are certainly the most authoritative declarations of the Fathers of the Church. Canon 19 of the Quinisext Council states:
“We declare that the deans of churches, on every day, but more especially on Sundays, must teach all the Clergy and the laity words of truth out of the Holy Bible, analyzing the meanings and judgments of the truth, and not deviating from the definitions already laid down, or the teaching derived from the God-bearing Fathers; but also, if the discourse be one concerning a passage of Scripture, not to interpret it otherwise than as the luminaries and teachers of the Church in their own written works have presented it; and let them rather content themselves with these discourses than attempt to produce discourses of their own, lest at times, being resourceless, they overstep the bounds of propriety. For by means of the teaching afforded by the aforesaid Fathers, the laity, being apprised of the important and preferred things, and of the disadvantageous and rejectable, are enabled to adjust their lives for the better, and do not become a prey to the ailment of ignorance, but, by paying due attention to what is taught, they sharpen their wits so as to avoid suffering wrongly, and for fear of impending punishments they work out their own salvation” (D. Cummings, trans., The Rudder of the Orthodox Catholic Church: The Compilation of the Holy Canons, Saints Nicodemus and Agapius (West Brookfield, MA: The Orthodox Christian Educational Society, 1983), p. 313 [emphasis added]).
St. Nicodemus provides the following interpretation of this canons:
“The Canon decrees that the Deans of churches, by which term is meant preeminently the Bishops, but secondarily also the Presbyters, must teach all the Clergy and the laity every day in the week, and especially and above all on Sundays (or even other holidays). For on these days, since Christians are wont to rest from their manual work, they congregate in the churches and listen to the divine words. Consequently those teaching therein afford them additional benefit. But such men must not teach with their own words and thoughts, but with those of divine Scripture, without straying away from the definitions adopted and confirmed by Councils and the dogmas of the faith, or away from the teaching handed down by the God-bearing Fathers. And if at any time they repeat words of the Bible, they are not to explain them in any other way than as the teachers of the Church have explained them in their written works; and they must endeavour more to make headway by teaching the discourses of the divine Fathers than by composing sermons of their own, lest by employing thoughts and conceptions of their own, and being unable sometimes to understand things aright, they fall out of line with what is proper and the truth. For by learning things from this teaching of the doctrines taught by the Fathers, the laity learn what things are of advantage to their souls, and what are disadvantageous, and they accordingly change their mode of living from viciousness to virtuousness, and are freed from the darkness of ignorance. By paying attention, again, to that teaching, and hearing about the chastisements and punishments which bad persons are bound to suffer, for fear of these they abstain from vices and bring about their salvation. Besides this, however, c. XIX of Laodicea says that the Bishop must first give a didache (or “teachment”) in the liturgy” (Ibid., p. 313f).
If the Church did not think the laity need to understand the Scriptures, such a canon issued by an Ecumenical Council would hardly have been necessary. And note that it encourages the deans of Churches to teach the Scriptures daily.
Furthermore, commenting on the Apostolic Canon that provides one of the earliest list of the canonical books of Scripture (Canon 85), St. Nicodemus states:
“These are the holy books of the Old and of the New Testament: according to the Maccabees, those in your hands; the sources of salvation, according to St. Athanasius; the records left by the holy men, according to the Areopagite; the books of the official testaments, according to Eusebius; the canonical books of the Bible, according to Council held in Carthage. Study therein, brethren and fathers, and meditate upon them day and night, in order that you may become more like the righteous man pronounced blissful by divine David. Read them continually and perpetually, because, according to St. Chrysostom, reading the Scriptures is the key which opens the way to heaven, and the mouths of the Prophets are the mouth of God. Busy yourselves therewith all the time that you have available, since, according to St. Augustine, the remedy for every disease of the soul is to be found in the Bible. Search the Scriptures in order that you may find therein the life that is everlasting, according to what the Lord Himself said (John 5:39)” (Ibid., p. 152 [emphasis added]).
In St. Athanasius the Great’s canons, which were specifically affirmed by the Quinisext Council, he recites the list of the canonical books, and then speaks of the deutercanonical books, which he refers to as “the readable books”, and states:
“Nevertheless, for the sake of greater exactness, I add also this, writing as I do the fact as a matter of necessity, that, there are also other books than these outside of the list herein given, which, though not canonically sanctioned, are to be found formally prescribed by the Fathers to be read to those who have just joined and are willing to be catechized with respect to the word of piety….” (Ibid, p. 769 [emphasis added).
Obviously, if catechumens were advised to read the deuterocanonical books as part of their preparation for baptism, it would be highly unlikely that after they were baptized they would have been prohibited from reading the canonical books.
It is objected that most people could not afford to own copies of the Bible prior to the printing press, and that most people were illiterate. Obviously, those who were illiterate would have not been able to read the Scriptures on their own, but even such people are known to have memorized large portions of Scripture. But there is good evidence that literacy among Christians and Jews during the first few centuries of Church history was not as low as is often asserted.
“Both Hellenism and Judaism promoted literacy, and the use of books was widespread during the early period before and after Christ. Already, by 75 BC, in Judah, elementary education was available to all boys — the world’s firs public school system, on could say. A significant number of people , at least in cities, could read, and “writing was an essential accomplishment of life at almost all levels to an extent without parallel in living memory”[C. H. Roberts, “Books in the Graeco-Roman World and in the New Testament,” in the Cambridge History of the Bible, edited by P. R. Ackroyd and C. F. Evans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), vol. 1, p. 48] (Dr. Mary D. Ford, The Soul’s Longing: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Biblical Interpretation (Waymart, PA: St. Tikhon Monastery Press, 2915), p. 60).
It is true that a complete copy of the Bible would have been well beyond the reach of all but the most wealthy of Christians, but the Bible was not usually produced as a single volume text, and so copies of the Gospels, or the Epistles would have been circulated separately, and would have been something that people of more modest means could afford to get, though it was certainly a big investment. But we know that there were many scriptoria that employed as many as 100 scribes, and would produce about 1,000 manuscripts a month, and obviously, there had to be a large demand for such texts to sustain such levels of production (Ford, p. 64). In addition to the production of texts of Scripture there were also biblical dictionaries and commentaries which were produced to help readers better understand the Scriptures. (Ford, p. 68).
We can see an example of someone who was not even yet a Christian who had copies of Scripture at his disposal in St. Augustine’s Confessions. He recounts the occasion which led him to become a Christian, when he was in his garden, and was experiencing a spiritual crisis as he struggled to determine what direction he should take:
“…I heard the voice as of a boy or girl, I know not which, coming from a neighbouring house, chanting, and oft repeating, “Take up and read; take up and read.” Immediately my countenance was changed, and I began most earnestly to consider whether it was usual for children in any kind of game to sing such words; nor could I remember ever to have heard the like. So, restraining the torrent of my tears, I rose up, interpreting it no other way than as a command to me from Heaven to open the book, and to read the first Chapter I should light upon. …So quickly I returned to the place where Alypius [a lifelong friend of St. Augustine] was sitting; for there had I put down the volume of the apostles, when I rose thence. I grasped, opened, and in silence read that paragraph on which my eyes first fell,—“Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.” No further would I read, nor did I need; for instantly, as the sentence ended,—by a light, as it were, of security infused into my heart,—all the gloom of doubt vanished away. Closing the book, then, and putting either my finger between, or some other mark, I now with a tranquil countenance made it known to Alypius” (Confessions, 8:12:29-30).
But even if it were true that many did not study the Scriptures in the Early Church because they could not read it, or could not afford a copy of the Scriptures for themselves, this would hardly be a compelling argument against the private study of the Scriptures for those who can read and who can afford to have a copy of the Scriptures — as is the case with most people in our time.
St. John Chrysostom makes it very clear that he considered the private study of Scripture to be an obligation of all Christians, including the laity — and in fact says that they have a greater obligation and need to study the Scriptures than do monks:
“This, also, I am ever urging, and shall not cease to urge, that you give attention, not only to the words spoken, but that also, when at home in your house, you exercise yourselves constantly in reading the Divine Scriptures. This, also, I have never ceased to press upon those who come to me privately. Let not any one say to me that these exhortations are vain and irrelevant, for “I am constantly busy in the courts,” (suppose him to say;) “I am discharging public duties; I am engaged in some art or handiwork; I have a wife; I am bringing up my children; I have to manage a household; I am full of worldly business; it is not for me to read the Scriptures, but for those who have bid adieu to the world, for those who dwell on the summit of the hills; those who constantly lead a secluded life.” What dost thou say, O man? Is it not for thee to attend to the Scriptures, because thou art involved in numerous cares? It is thy duty even more than theirs, for they do not so much need the aid to be derived from the Holy Scriptures as they do who are engaged in much business. For those who lead a solitary life, who are free from business and from the anxiety arising from business, who have pitched their tent in the wilderness, and have no communion with any one, but who meditate at leisure on wisdom, in that peace that springs from repose — they, like those who lie in the harbour, enjoy abundant security. But ourselves, who, as it were, are tossed in the midst of the sea, cannot avoid many failings, we ever stand in need of the immediate and constant comfort of the Scriptures. They rest far from the strife, and, therefore, escape many wounds; but you stand perpetually in the array of battle, and constantly are liable to be wounded: on this account, you have more need of the healing remedies” (Discourse 3 on the Rich Man and Lazarus, Chapter 1, emphasis added).
Despite the great expense in acquiring copies of Scripture, St. John Chrysostom nevertheless admonished people to get at least some portions, and to study them on their own. They should not put all of the burden for instruction on the clergy but should study themselves, and instruct others:
“Do not wait, I entreat, for another to teach thee; thou hast the oracles of God. No man teacheth thee as they; for he indeed oft grudgeth much for vainglory’s sake and envy. Hearken, I entreat you, all ye that are careful for this life, and procure books that will be medicines for the soul. If ye will not any other, yet get you at least the New Testament, the Apostolic Epistles, the Acts, the Gospels, for your constant teachers. If grief befall thee, dive into them as into a chest of medicines; take thence comfort of thy trouble, be it loss, or death, or bereavement of relations; or rather dive not into them merely, but take them wholly to thee; keep them in thy mind. This is the cause of all evils, the ignorance of the Scriptures. We go into battle without arms, and how ought we to come off safe? Well contented should we be if we can be safe with them, let alone without them. Throw not the whole upon us! Sheep ye are, still not without reason, but rational; Paul committeth much to you also. They that are under instruction, are not for ever learning; for then they are not taught. If thou art for ever learning, thou wilt never learn. Do not so come as meaning to be always learning; (for so thou wilt never know;) but so as to finish learning, and to teach others. In the arts do not all persons continue for set times, in the sciences, and in a word, in all the arts? Thus we all fix definitely a certain known time; but if ye are ever learning, it is a certain proof that ye have learned nothing” (Homily 9 on Colossians).
St. Seraphim of Sarov read the entire New Testament every week:
“So that our spirit will have freedom to uplift itself there and be nourished by sweetest conversation with the Lord, one must humble himself with prayers and the remembrance of the Lord, and I, humble Seraphim, for this reason, go through the Gospel every day. On Monday I read St. Matthew from beginning to end. On Tuesday, St. Mark. On Wednesday, St. Luke. On Thursday, St. John. The other days of the week I divide between the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles, and I do not for a single day neglect to read the epistle and gospel appointed for the liturgical day and the lives of the saints.
Through this not only my soul, but even my body rejoices and is vivified, because I converse with the Lord. I hold in my mind his life and suffering, and day and night I glorify and give thanks to my Redeemer for all his mercies that are shed upon mankind and upon me, the unworthy one” (quoted in “Reading the Scriptures with Accountability – Patristic Counsels on Bible Study,” by Fr. Josiah Trenham, Ancient Father Radio, 11-12-2016).
Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky), gave the following advice on spiritual reading:
“But what should you read? First of all, read the Bible, concurrently from 1) Pentateuch and Kings, 2) from the Prophets and Wisdom Books and 3) from the New Testament. Read every day, for at least half an hour. If you make yourself read through the Bible twice in this way, then subsequently you will reread it at your own desire and inclination” (Confession: A Series of Lectures on the Mystery of Repentance, trans. Fr. Christopher Birchall (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1975) p. 28).
He of course went on to advise that we should read from the lives of the saints and the Fathers as well, but this was first on his list.
In the classic text, The Way of a Pilgrim, the pilgrim carries with him two books every where he goes, the New Testament, and the Philokalia.
Had the Russian Church not wanted its people to read the Scriptures they would not have translated the Scriptures into Russian and published them. Go to any Church bookstore in Russia, and you will find many copies of Scripture available for the people to purchase and to read.
We must interpret Scripture in the light of the teachings of the Church and in accordance with the interpretation of the Fathers, but the study of Scripture is something that the Church places a high priority on, and admonishes all of her faithful to engage in, to the best of their ability.