Scripture and Liturgy

In determining what the Church believes, Scripture has a kind of priority over Liturgy, but it can be tricky getting a handle on just what this involves.

For a start, it is worth remembering that the Church was worshipping liturgically before the New Testament came into being. ‘The prayers’ are among the things the earliest converts continued in (Acts 2:42; note the definite article) , while Christ’s eucharistic words repeated at the Liturgy had been received by the Apostle who then delivered them to the Corinthians, before he put them in writing (1 Cor 11:23-25). It is clear from the Didache, portions of which must be older than some of the New Testament, that the Eucharist was already being celebrated with fixed prayers, although this text does not mention the words of Christ. Perhaps more startlingly, the New Testament reproduces material that has the appearance of having already being used as hymns. This is most clear at 1 Tim 3:16, where pairs of line end with nouns that stand in opposition to each other (flesh/spirit, angels/gentiles, world/glory) and within each line is a word ending with the Greek letters ‘the’, producing an internal rhyme. Among the epistles of the New Testament this is a late one, but passages that look like hymns occur in earlier ones, in particular at Phil 2:5-11 and Eph 5:14. (These passages already display the love of paradox that will characterize such later Orthodox hymns as the Akathistos.)

Indeed, for the early church Scripture was something primarily encountered in the context of the Liturgy. St Paul wrote most of his letters to the members of particular churches, the majority of whose members were surely illiterate, and he must have anticipated them being read out, quite possibly in a eucharistic assembly, just as happens now. The degree of literacy we now take for granted was unknown in the early church, and I wonder whether the liturgy of St John Chrysostom is designed not merely for a largely illiterate congregation, as its rhetoric of repetition may suggest, but also a priest in danger of fluffing his lines, for some of the utterances of the deacon seem like stage prompts. Some of the earliest biblical manuscripts are laid out in a manner that indicates they were intended to be read from out loud.

Perhaps, then, the relationship between Scripture and Liturgy isn’t as clear as we sometimes think. Just as Jewish worship in the Temple may have antedated much of the Old Testament, so among Christians Liturgy came first, and it continues to provide the context in which it the contents of the Bible are primarily to be appropriated.

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