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.