Journey with Orthodoxy: Scripture

Boys are strange. Get two little boys together, whether good friends or not, and in no time flat they’ll be wrestling. I remember me and my cousin Ryan would wrestle for literally hours at a time. It’s amazing that we ever learned the English language because the only phrase we ever heard from our parents was, “Go wrestle outside!” Well, and the occasional, “Son of a b—tch, go wrestle outside!”

Now, as a grown-up, little has changed. I may not meet a person at the office and immediately take him down in a choke hold, but I still like to play the grown-up version of wrestling. Since I’ve become Eastern Orthodox one of my favorite games to play with my Protestant friends (particularly the ones who know how to banter out of fun without getting upset) is to flesh out the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.

Most people recognize Sola Scriptura as a doctrine that expresses one’s trust in Scripture as the only sure authority and foundation of the Christian faith. Originally Sola Scriptura was a simple declaration made by the Protestant Reformers which meant that Scripture alone was to occupy the highest place in the formation of one’s doctrinal beliefs, over/against that of Church authority and/or tradition (specifically the authority of the Roman Catholic papacy). And this makes perfect sense, particularly for one who has never been part of the Catholic tradition and has no obligation to even consider the Catholic Church’s claim to papal authority in the first place.

But having crossed some mysterious threshold from Protestantism to Eastern Orthodoxy, the doctrine of Sola Scriptura has lost nearly all logical basis and theological influence in my walk as a Christian. Here is a brief look at Scripture from an Orthodox perspective and my own personal wrangling with the doctrine of Sola Scriptura:

1.) The Orthodox have a single Tradition—the Christian Tradition.

It is a mistake to think that the Orthodox Church has various traditions that when complied equal the Orthodox religion. No, the Orthodox have a single Tradition which encapsulates various means of input. This Tradition is the faith and practice which has been handed down by Jesus Christ to the Apostles, and from the Apostles to their disciples, and so on from generation to generation in the Church. The supreme expression of God’s revelation has been handed down to us through Scripture. When the Church needed to come to agreement over what Scripture meant – as there are many Scriptures which are far from clear in terms of doctrine and practice – the Church brought together its bishops from throughout Christendom and held councils (the first of which took place in Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 15). Therefore, the great 7 Ecumenical Councils reflect the Apostolic Tradition in their insights and formation of creeds, of particular importance is the Nicene Creed. These are some of the aspects of the Christian Tradition which the Orthodox Church holds. I’ll skip the rest for time sakes.

2.) Scripture and the Christian Tradition cannot be divided.

Taking these different avenues into consideration and seeing them all as a consistent testimony of the Church, it is clear that the Christian Tradition cannot be set over the Scripture nor Scripture set over Tradition for the simple fact that they are intermingled in such a way that they cannot be strictly separated. The Bible is held to be the supreme revelation but that revelation is delivered, preserved, defended, and articulated through the Church.

3.) Sola Scriptura is a logical absurdity.

How can one suppose that they can have Scripture alone, free from tradition, when the Scriptures themselves are a product of the Tradition?

There are many ways to make this point, but consider this: why is it that the New Testament has 27 books, no more, no less? Especially when one considers that during the first couple centuries of the Church there was no set canon of the New Testament. There were literally hundreds of gospels and letters floating around throughout the Christian communities. So how were they whittled down to the 27 we now possess?

The answer is simple: the bishops from the Orthodox Church got together and decided which books stayed and which ones went. In other words, Protestants believe in the 27 books contained in our New Testament because the early Orthodox bishops told them to. If that’s not unfettered trust in Church Tradition I don’t know what is. Sola Scriptura is a logical absurdity because it poses trust in Scripture alone while denying authority to the very ones who established Scripture. Said another way, it is from the Church that the Bible ultimately derives its authority.

4.) Sola Scriptura reveals a deficit in basic understanding of how language works.

Strictly speaking, it is not possible to say that the Bible is the ultimate authority for the simple fact that the Bible, by itself, says nothing, (please don’t misunderstand me). The Bible is “Interpreted.” This may seem like a basic point, but it is terribly misunderstood in many circles. For any given person, the Bible says what the person “understands” it to say, and not necessarily what it actually says (does that make sense?). If left alone a person can make the Bible say absolutely whatever he/she wants it to say. The examples are too numerous to get into, but suffice it to say that witch hunts, slavery, genocide, crusades, torture of every kind imaginable, etc, are all justifiable depending on one’s interpretation of Scripture. What prevents a person from running seriously off track when reading Scripture? Tradition!

The principle at stake here is the fact that everyone approaches Scripture (and indeed all written texts) from a set of presuppositions. Those presuppositions are developed by one’s tradition. Even those who claim to have no tradition have one, in fact theirs is typically more entrenched than the outspoken traditionalist. The difference between one person’s view of Scripture and another person’s view is not in the difference of Scripture. The Scripture is the same. It’s in the difference of their traditional views of Scripture. So, which tradition do you want to view Scripture through? This was the question that settled my quest. I wanted the tradition that was there from the beginning and continues to the present day—not my interpretation, but the Church’s interpretation. My interpretation stinks.

9 thoughts on “Journey with Orthodoxy: Scripture

  1. Hey brother, I just wanted to say I really like your blog as a former reform in theology protestant and now a recent Orthodox catechumen. I was always trying to find the most pure form of christianity. I was uncomfortable in the modern evangilical Church and the media filled services and rock style music. After reading A.W Tozer who quotes many of the early christian writings I started looking into the early Church writings mostly catholic and reformers. My past early christian writings were mostly spurgeon and Billy Graham so I was very interested in what I found. This led me to a 5 point calvinist Church which raised other questions. I found it strange like things like infant baptism supported by John Calvin was not encouraged. Also they banned alcohol by all members. I wondered why we only took communion once a month.

    I also came upon a writing by St Ignatius a disciple of St John the apostle who says
    ” Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes. — Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1″

    I started to realize that I needed to join the historical Church. But this raised another choice Catholic Or Orthodox both have good arguements. I finally realized that the Orthodox Church was closest to the early Church.

    I posted your writing on sola scriptura on my blog. If thats not ok I will take it off.

    Take care brother


  2. Aaron, please, post away. I’m honored.

    It’s interesting that you began your journey partly through Tozer. I can’t tell you how often I hear of people beginning this way. I really should read him at some point. I also love that you brought up the quote from St. Ignatius. It’s one of my favorites. Reading him always reminds me of how deeply Gnostic the churches I was raised in were.

  3. Have you posted how you joined the Orthodox Church anywhere on your blog? I would be interested in reading your story on your journey to the Orthodox Church.

  4. Aaron,

    The “Journey to Orthodoxy” series hits on much of it, but I don’t think I’ve written a single, all encompassing one. It’s an interesting thought. I should do so.

  5. I like that you have a G.K Chesterson quote on your page. The Everlasting man and Orthodoxy are two of my favorite books of his. I notice that CS Lewis famous arguements seem to borrow heavily from Chesterson writings. I could be wrong though.

    One hurdle for me in joining the Orthodox church was icons. My last reform Church was so against imagery they did not even have a Cross in the building and I did a 180 in joining the Orthodox Church. ( Sorry for rambling)

    {“Science is weak about these prehistoric things in a way that has hardly been noticed. The science whose modern marvels we all admire succeeds by incessantly adding to its data. In all practical inventions, in most natural discoveries, it can always increase evidence by experiment. But it cannot experiment in making men; or even in watching to see what the first men make.

    But he cannot watch the Missing Link evolving in his own backyard. If he has made a mistake in his calculations, the airplane will correct it by crashing to the ground. But if he has made a mistake about the arboreal habitat of his ancestor, he cannot see his arboreal ancestor falling off the tree. He cannot keep a caveman like a cat in the backyard and watch him to see whether he does really practice cannibalism or carry off his mate on the principles of marriage by capture. He cannot keep a tribe of primitive men like a pack of hounds and notice how far they are influenced by the herd instinct.

    If he sees a particular bird behave in a particular way, he can get other birds and see if they behave in that way; but if be finds a skull, or the scrap of a skull in the hollow of a hill, he cannot multiply it into a vision of the valley of dry bones. In dealing with a past that has almost entirely perished he can only go by evidence and not by experiment. And there is hardly enough evidence to be even evidential. Thus while most science moves in a sort of curve, being constantly corrected by new evidence, this science flies off into space in a straight line uncorrected by anything.”

    – G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man}

  6. Aaron, the Everlasting Man was a game-changer book for me. I remember reading somewhere that CS Lewis made his final trek into Christianity from atheism due to his reading of Everlasting Man. Its a powerful book. Chesterton is unique in that he is not a self acclaimed theologian, nor one by formal training, but due to his wit and deep wisdom he’s able to crack many Protestant codes (i.e. Protestant confusions). He was instrumental in my gradual conversion to Orthodoxy.

  7. What do you say to the hermeneutic principle of scripture interprets scripture?

    Has the orthodox church changed it’s hermeneutic concepts or theories in any way when it comes to interpretation of the Scripture.

  8. I think it works but it still, in the end, conforms to the predetermined dispositions of the interpreter. Every church and minister I was ever associated with (which was many) used this method intellectually and yet still could not agree with anyone else who also used this method.

    Orthodox Christianity defies the rules of hermeneutics as I was taught them in my undergraduate in Pastoral Ministry at Oral Roberts University. I was taught that one consults commentaries last. First one consults the original text and applies his hermeneutically trained mind to solving whatever Scriptural riddle is in front of him. Then, and only maybe then, does one consult a commentary. We Orthodox reverse this entirely. We first of all consult the Fathers of the faith as to what has always been taught from Scripture and how the Church has used it for the last 20 centuries. Then and only then do we break out our Greek texts and fumble through our hermeneutics.

    Agreeing with the Fathers of the faith is far better than going it alone with a text that is primarily spiritual and secondarily accessible through the intellect alone. The Fathers were far more spiritually enlightened and submitted than I am.

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