One of my greatest fears is that I would give up some of my freedom for something that appears worthy of that sacrifice, only to then discover I made a huge mistake. If that freedom is directly related to my ability to decide for myself what is true, then I will have sacrificed my personal integrity and my conscience. I confess that I fear the historical Christian idea that Scripture, and what it means (interpretation), should be studied and understood within an already established Tradition. Is this merely my Protestant indoctrination kicking in? Could it be that I do not understand what it means for Scripture to be part of Tradition? Or is it my pride and even some arrogance that fuels my fear? In this post I want to approach hesitatingly the Orthodox perspective on Scripture, interpreting Scripture, and how all that fits into the Orthodox idea of Tradition. Necessarily, this will be a brief exploration–the topic is just too monumental for my mind and too huge for a blog post. Plus, in order to get at the Orthodox perspective I must examine the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura–an examination that will also be too brief. As I said in my previous post, I am profoundly ignorant of Orthodoxy. I am an outsider looking in, trying to be even-handed in my assessment, but still essentially in water far deeper than my abilities or my comfort.
The Christian Church is a Scriptural Church: Orthodoxy believes this just as firmly, if not more firmly, than Protestantism. The Bible is the supreme expression of God’s revelation to the human race, and Christians must always be ‘People of the Book’. But if Christians are People of the Book, the Bible is the Book of the People; it must not be regarded as something set up over the Church, but as something that lives and is understood within the Church (that is why one should not separate Scripture and Tradition). It is from the Church that the Bible ultimately derives its authority, for it was the Church which originally decided which books form a part of Holy Scripture; and it is the Church alone which can interpret Holy Scripture with authority. (Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, p.199)
[A]s an Orthodox clergyman, I hold the position that the Orthodox Christian faith is uniquely true. I would not be Orthodox if I did not believe it to be the true faith revealed by God in His Son Jesus Christ. If I encounter a teaching of the Orthodox faith that makes no sense to me or strikes me as incorrect, then my conclusion should be that it is I who need to be reformed, not the Orthodox Church. This is in fact the classical view of all traditional religions, as opposed to the modern consumer-style understanding of faith popular in our culture; that each person is the arbiter of what is true and false, and that he is free to pick whatever bits of “spirituality” and belief he likes from a sort of religious buffet. (Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, p. 7)
Are we to check our minds at the door of the Church? This is the classic fear of the sola scriptura Christian when confronting the claims of Tradition. The issue is not so much about doctrine as about principle. Though a particular doctrine may be held by both Orthodoxy and by the sola scriptura purist, it is the so-called purist who claims the so-called high ground in the Scripture vs. Tradition debate. The purist will claim that her own, personal arrival at that doctrine was not unduly influenced by outside sources, was grasped with her God-given rationality, and that she came to true belief rather than merely parroting the doctrine as is typically the case (it is argued) with the traditionalist who is only finding comfort within a socially circumscribed religious experience rather than exhibiting true understanding.
I do not hold as tightly to the sola scriptura position as I once did, but much of it still seems true, at least it still holds a powerful influence on me. I do not want to define sola scriptura in this post, you can read about it yourself here. The basic point I want to make is that this doctrine I grew up with taught me that all I really needed to know, and that what I was supposed to believe, and how I was to behave as a Christian, was found in the Bible, and that all I needed to do was open its pages and read it–as long as I let the Spirit of God guide me, and as long as I didn’t stray from what my church said the Bible said.
When it comes to Scripture and Tradition there is really just one two-part question: Do I read Scripture in light of Tradition, letting Tradition guide me and correct me in my understanding; or do I read Scripture fundamentally apart from Tradition, letting my own personal understanding of Scripture critique and even reject Tradition? I must say that at this point I am tending towards the Orthodox perspective that sees Scripture as being a part of Tradition, that Scripture should be interpreted within Tradition (I am not sure there really, honestly is any other way), and that to do otherwise is to open the flood gates (which have already been burst wide open for several centuries) to all sorts of trouble. On the other hand, I am not so terribly concerned with “all sorts of trouble” because I know that God is good and will not abandon His Church.
If we are not to interpret Scripture within Tradition how, then, are we to do it? From a sola scripturist we get this:
Theology, therefore, always faces the danger of elevating the theologian’s own conception of human need to a position of equal authority to, or even greater authority than, the Scriptures. But through prayer and meditation on God’s Word, that danger can be avoided. (John Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, p. 19)
There are two problems with this position. The first is that the fear–that the Bible student will elevate human need above Scripture–is already, by definition, inherent within sola scriptura. This is not necessarily a bad thing, the Scriptures are given to us for us. If we are interested in the Truth we are interested in it for ourselves, for our salvation. If we seek glory, if we search for the pearl of great price, we seek and search for ourselves. If, to safeguard the Truth, we place Scripture above Tradition, right or wrong, it is because we have elevated our human need for Truth and believe the Scriptures are the key to fulfilling that need. The problem, and what I believe Frame is getting at, is that we would let our human need cloud our judgement and that we would twist Scripture to say whatever we want it to say; that we would let lesser human needs, rather than our need for God and salvation, be our standard. In this case it is just as easy, probably much easier actually, to argue in favor of Tradition as an antidote as it is to argue for sola scriptura. The second problem is the emphasis on prayer and meditation on God’s Word as the way to keep the Scriptures in their proper order. This view is akin to giving the fox the keys to the hen-house. There has never been a lack of prayer and meditation on God’s Word at the core of virtually every denominational split, every contrary doctrine, every heresy, and just about every Christian cult. You will find the Baptist preacher, the Episcopalian priest, and the Catholic bishop all fervently praying and deeply meditating on God’s Word, and they do not agree with each other as to what the Bible means in many places. In short, though prayer and meditation are good and necessary things, this is not the way to avoid the danger as Frame argues.
Also notice the emphasis placed on the personal rather than the corporate. It cannot be emphasized enough that the tendency in modern American Christianity to favor the “knowing self” over, and sometimes against, the “believing community” is emblematic of Protestant Gnosticism, which is to say modern North American Protestantism. I recognize this is a grand claim, and I am not prepared to defend it here in this post, but my larger point is to highlight the fact that we all inhabit and embody the traditions we have grown up with, have been trained in and, at some level at least, find comfort in. These traditions include those of Christianity, but also of philosophy, of the socio-political, of the economic (including class), of family, and much more. And it can be argued that we are all children of the Enlightenment Project and that its tenets, conceits, goals, and assumptions are as much embodied in our modern forms of Christian worship, church structures, understanding of knowledge, and even how we approach the Tradition/Scripture debate, as any other influence we might claim. A Baptist apologist is as deeply within a tradition–guiding and correcting his Bible study–as any Eastern Orthodox. Remember, there are few things more indicative and more telling of one’s ignorance of oneself as to claim, “I only believe what the Bible says.”
The Bible requires interpretation. Sola scriptura is based on the claim that human rationality is sufficient to understanding the Bible, and that the Bible is understandable. Both of these claims are profoundly true. You and I can read and understand the Bible using our (common to all humanity) God-given rationality and skills of comprehension. Still, the history of Christianity is full of highly talented biblical exegetes utilizing their God-given rationality and skills of comprehension, along with prayer, meditation, and apparent submission to the Holy Spirit, who have come to fundamentally, and sometimes radically divergent understandings of Holy Scripture. While we may appreciate some of the characteristics of sola scriptura we must realize that it is not a sufficient doctrine to either ensure right understanding or to combat heresy. The evidence may, in fact, show otherwise.
But this post is not so much against sola scriptura as it is an exploration of the Orthodox perspective on Holy Scripture and Tradition. In fact, all that above is really just my way of softening my heart a bit to be more open to the idea of Tradition and of seeing that Scripture might be best understood within Tradition. So then, what does the Orthodox Church understand regarding the study of the Bible?
Since our reasoning brain is a gift from God, there is undoubtedly a legitimate place for scholarly research into Biblical origins. But, while we are not to reject this research wholesale, we cannot as Orthodox accept it in its entirety. Always we need to keep in view that the Bible is not just a collection historical documents, but it is the book of the Church, containing God’s word. And so we do not read the Bible as isolated individuals, interpreting it solely by the light of our private understanding, or in terms of current theories about source, form or redaction criticism. We read it as members of the Church, in communion with all the other members throughout the ages. The final criterion for our interpretation of Scripture is the mind of the Church. And this means keeping constantly in view how the meaning of Scripture is explained and applied in Holy Tradition: that is to say, how the Bible is understood by the Fathers and the saints, and how it is used in liturgical worship. (Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, p. 110)
From this quote we see that the Orthodox Church’s understanding is normative rather than analytical. The Holy Scripture should be analyzed, scrutinized, and pondered, but within Tradition. First we notice is that the Orthodox view refuses to accept the all-too-common assumption that Tradition is absent from the Christian’s Bible study. Second, it unabashedly claims the Orthodox Tradition. The issue is not Tradition or no Tradition, rather it is which tradition, a question that bypasses sola scriptura and 16th century humanism to bigger questions of God and His Church. It is not the Bible and our rationality alone that guides our study, rather it is the history of the Church, which is a flawed history certainly, but also a history of the Holy Spirit working in the hearts of men. Thus, Bible study is as much an activity of trust–trust in God, trust that Christ has never abandoned His Church, trusting the Holy Spirit has always been active in the Church–as it is an activity of reading and comprehension. Thus the question is not really a Scripture versus Tradition question, rather it is one of Scripture plus which tradition. While the sola scripturist may wish to downplay the role of tradition in his understanding of scripture, the Orthodox refuses such denials while elevating together Scripture, human rationality, and the Orthodox Tradition.
There is so much more that can be said and I am not qualified to do so. My apologies for such a brief description of the Orthodox view, and for leaving open so many unanswered questions. For a few more details, the list below is from The Longer Catechism of The Orthodox, Catholic, Eastern Church:
On Holy Tradition and Holy Scripture.
16. How is divine revelation spread among men and preserved in the true Church?
By two channels–holy tradition and holy Scripture.
17. What is meant by the name holy tradition?
By the name holy tradition is meant the doctrine of the faith, the law of God, the sacraments, and the ritual as handed down by the true believers and worshipers of God by word and example from one to another, and from generation to generation.
18. Is there any sure repository of holy tradition?
All true believers united by the holy tradition of the faith, collectively and successively, by the will of God, compose the Church; and she is the sure repository of holy tradition, or, as St. Paul expresses it, The Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. 1 Tim. iii. 15.
St. Irenæus writes thus:
We ought not to seek among others the truth, which we may have for asking from the Church; for in her, as in a rich treasure-house, the Apostles have laid up in its fullness all that pertains to the truth, so that whosoever seeketh may receive from her the food of life. She is the door of life. (Adv. Hæres. lib. iii. c. 4.)
19. What is that which you call holy Scripture?
Certain books written by the Spirit of God through men sanctified by God, called Prophets and Apostles. These books are commonly termed the Bible.
20. What does the word Bible mean?
It is Greek, and means the books. The name signifies that the sacred books deserve attention before all others.
21. Which is the more ancient, holy tradition or holy Scripture?
The most ancient and original instrument for spreading divine revelation is holy tradition. From Adam to Moses there were no sacred books. Our Lord Jesus Christ himself delivered his divine doctrine and ordinances to his Disciples by word and example, but not by writing. The same method was followed by the Apostles also at first, when they spread abroad the faith and established the Church of Christ. The necessity of tradition is further evident from this, that books can be available only to a small part of mankind, but tradition to all.
22. Why, then, was holy Scripture given?
To this end, that divine revelation might be preserved more exactly and unchangeably. In holy Scripture we read the words of the Prophets and Apostles precisely as if we were living with them and listening to them, although the latest of the sacred books were written a thousand and some hundred years before our time.
23. Must we follow holy tradition, even when we possess holy Scripture?
We must follow that tradition which agrees with the divine revelation and with holy Scripture, as is taught us by holy Scripture itself. The Apostle Paul writes: Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word or our epistle. 2 Thess. ii. 15.
24. Why is tradition necessary even now?
As a guide to the right understanding of holy Scripture, for the right ministration of the sacraments, and the preservation of sacred rites and ceremonies in the purity of their original institution.
St. Basil the Great says of this as follows:
Of the doctrines and injunctions kept by the Church, some we have from written instruction. but some we have received from, apostolical tradition, by succession in private. Both the former and the latter have one and the same force for piety, and this will be contradicted by no one who has ever so little knowledge in the ordinances of the Church; for were we to dare to reject unwritten customs, as if they had no great importance, we should insensibly mutilate the Gospel, even in the most essential points, or, rather, for the teaching of the Apostles leave but an empty name. For instance, let us mention before all else the very first and commonest act of Christians, that they who trust in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ should sign themselves with the sign of the cross–who hath taught this by writing? To turn to the east in prayer–what Scripture have we for this? The words of invocation in the change of the Eucharistic bread and of the Cup of blessing–by which of the Saints have they been left us in writing? for we are not content with those words which the Apostle or the Gospel records, but both before them and after them, we pronounce others also, which we hold to be of great force for the sacrament, though we have received them from unwritten teaching. By what Scripture is it, in like manner, that we bless the water of baptism, the oil of unction, and the person himself who is baptized? Is it not by a silent and secret tradition? What more? The very practice itself of anointing with oil–what written word have we for it? Whence is the rule of trine immersion? and the rest of the ceremonies at baptism, the renunciation of Satan and his angels?–from what Scripture are they taken? Are they not all from this unpublished and private teaching, which our Fathers kept under a reserve inaccessible to curiosity and profane disquisition, having been taught as a first principle to guard by silence the sanctity of the mysteries? for how were it fit to publish in writing the doctrine of those things, on which the unbaptized may not so much as look? (Can. xcvii. De Spir. Sanct. c. xxvii.)
A tentative conclusion
I have mentioned in previous posts that the tradition in which I grew up (Protestant, Reformed, Baptist, etc.) knew nothing, and taught me nothing, of the early Church, of Orthodoxy, or of the Church Fathers. I think there are a number of reasons for this, not least of which is a prevalent insecurity masquerading as emphatic confidence. Regardless, it is a big hole that is largely unrecognized and even more rarely addressed. Only recently, and after decades of ignorance, and to my surprise, I have only just begun to learn of the Orthodox Church.
I have concerns (as you can tell) about the doctrine of sola scriptura (a doctrine which, though I know from my training, I may still have misrepresented). Also, the position of the Orthodox Church seems more biblical to me, but I still am conflicted. Orthodoxy is still foreign to me. Should I trust it? What would it mean for me if I was to become Orthodox? What would I gain, what would I be giving up? Would I be leaving my mind at the door? Would I be giving up some of my freedom for something that appears worthy of that sacrifice, only to then discover I made a huge mistake? Although I express a number of opinions in this post I really am unsettled on the issue. I pray for eyes to see.