I’ve had the question posed to me several times since becoming Orthodox of how the Orthodox Church views Scripture and how it is utilized in both our services and daily lives. I find that in addition to simple curiosity, this question comes from a suspicion that the Bible is not very important to Orthodox Christians due to the prominence of our prayers, hymns, liturgies, writings, icons, and Councils. From a Protestant perspective (a lens which in reaction to Roman Catholicism has always had a tendency to try to strip down and define the “essentials” or “fundamentals” of the Christian faith) all of these things are mere distractions from what is really important, which is the Bible (we see here the doctrine of sola scriptura (the Bible alone) implicit in this line of thinking). Sola scriptura is a doctrine rejected by the Orthodox Church, and in addition all of the above mentioned aspects of the Orthodox faith are seen as vital (you won’t find language like “essential” or “fundamental” much in Orthodoxy).

Meaning Orthodoxy holds the Bible to be less important than Protestantism, right? Such an assumption would be completely misguided and oversimplified, because the environment in which Scripture is utilized in Orthodoxy is so vastly different than in Protestantism. The following is my description of what this difference looks and feels like.

The Divine Liturgy relies heavily on the Bible, but what is integrated into the liturgy is not rote Bible verses and quotes intended to solidify a point in a sermon; rather, the Church looks at the history of the people of God going as far back as the infancy of the Hebrew nation, and asks the question: how are we to worship? The answer to this question is the Divine Liturgy, and in it we find not heady teachings and theology (at least as theology is generally understood in the West), but rather a realm of worship that is rooted in thousands of years Tradition. We weekly (and even daily) sing with the Psalmist David, with the early Hebrew nation as they sing songs of thanksgiving in the desert, with the apostolic church as we listen to readings from the epistles and Gospels, and join with fellow Christians through the ages in worship, in prayer, and in the recitation of creeds.

The reason for this divergence with the West on theology and liturgy comes from the belief that the Divine Liturgy is not meant to simply convey cognitive biblical insights, but to be immersive and transformative- to bring us to a state of worship, of ecstasy, of repentance, of forgiveness, of fear, awe, and glory (one can see why clocks, projectors, videos, and PowerPoint sermons are anathema to the Orthodox Church). It is a state of being that the liturgy is asking us to enter, and it is with this purpose in mind that we can begin to understand the repetitions both within the Liturgy and of the Liturgy as a whole.

It’s the same thing each week, doesn’t it get boring? This is a statement that comes from one who has never connected the head to the heart. The repetitions are intentional, and come from the recognition that novel stimuli often prove to be our greatest hindrance from entering the Sacred. Thus, the Church incorporates what is similar to the Eastern mantras (our most well worn being the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner), because in entering the Divine Liturgy we are entering a space in which we transcend the rational mind and participate in genuine theology in the Eastern sense, which is the direct experience of God.