Scripture and Tradition - Part 1: Presuppositions
Dn. Michael Hyatt · October 4, 2008
In his first podcast, Dn. Michael tackles the question of Sola Scriptura and the Tradition of the Church.
This series we’re entitling “What Orthodox Christians Believe,” and I’m going to use as the foundational text the Orthodox Study Bible, which we conveniently have for sale in the bookstore, and Nathan is already back there, prepared to sell them. We won’t be using it for a couple of weeks, because I’m going to lay the foundation before we get into it.
Last week, I gave you a survey of all the different articles that are in the Orthodox Study Bible; I think there’s about 45 of them I counted this week. And you rated those, the top 10 that you wanted to have covered, and I was kind of surprised by the results. The number 1 topic, just so you know, was fasting. That’s the number 1 thing that people wanted to know about. The second thing was life after death. The third thing was the second coming, and then they - I’ve got a list, and I’m going to cover them in order.
But anything, any discussion of what Orthodox Christians believe has to begin with a discussion of authority: how do we know what we believe? What is the foundation? And so, I want to be able to talk about Orthodox tradition, as well as Scripture, and for us as Orthodox Christians, those are part of a seamless whole. And so I want to spend here a couple of weeks talking about the relationship between Scripture and Tradition. We’ve done this in the past, but I think it’s critically important as we think - because we live and operate in a context where, at least among Evangelical Christians, the Scripture is the final authority, and if you can’t prove it from the Bible, then you’re a little bit on your heels, and have difficulty communicating.
But it’s because we have different assumptions about the Scripture. It’s not that Orthodox don’t revere the Scripture; we indeed do revere the Scripture, greatly. It’s highly esteemed in our church, but it is esteemed precisely because it is at the core and at the focal point of apostolic tradition. And that’s what gives it its authority.
So with that, what I’d like to do is talk about a doctrine that is very prevalent, that you need to understand if you’re going to dialogue with Evangelicals, is the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. How many of you know what that means? It’s a pretty common term that’s used in Evangelical or Protestant theology; in fact, it’s the bedrock of that theology. But here’s the meaning of it: it comes from the Latin, and it means, simply, “by Scripture alone.” In other words, by yourself, with the Bible, you ought to be able to figure most of it out. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura.
Wikipedia, which has supplanted, I guess, Britannica and every other encyclopedia out there - in fact, I talked to a printer this week who said that sales of encyclopedias have completely vanished, that Wikipedia basically has made that part of the publishing business, sadly, go away. But Wikipedia says, “Sola Scriptura is the assertion that the Bible is God’s written word, is self-authenticating, clear, or perspicuous, to the rational reader, its own interpreter,” - Scripture interprets Scripture, you may have heard that - “and sufficient of itself to be the only source of Christian doctrine. The Scriptures - the Old and New Testament - were given by inspiration of God, and are the only sufficient, certain, and authoritative rule of saving knowledge, faith, and obedience.” So says the Abstract of Principles of the Southern and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminaries. So if you came out of that background, that’s kind of the common view, and I’ll let that stand as a proxy for the view of Sola Scriptura.
You don’t have to talk, though, to too many Evangelicals or Protestants to realize that the doctrine of Sola Scriptura has a lot of different meanings, depending upon who you talk to. So you need to think of that doctrine as a continuum. On the one end are the reformers, such as Luther and Calvin. They taught that the Scriptures are the sufficient source of saving knowledge, the Bible does not contain everything we would like to know or could know, but everything we need to know. The position leaves a certain amount of room for maneuvering.
So if you are a Presbyterian, like I used to be before I became Orthodox, in the Westminster Confession of Faith, it says this, and listen carefully to the room it gives you for maneuvering, quote: “Nevertheless, we acknowledge that the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word, and that there are some circumstances, concerning the worship of God, the government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.”
So the Bible doesn’t talk about everything, and there are some things that we can just use common sense to figure out. So says the Westminster Confession of Faith. In other words, the Bible’s not a how-to book. It’s not going to cover every possible subject. And, in fact, in the Presbyterian Church, they have the Book of Church Order, and there are many other such manuals in other denominations.
That’s one end of the spectrum, sort of the Reformed end of the continuum. On the other continuum are the radical reformers, or the Anabaptists. They basically taught that the Scriptures are not only the sufficient source of saving knowledge, but also the exclusive guide to worship and community life. The most vocal and consistent adherents of this view are the conservative descendents of Alexander Campbell and the Restoration movement, typically known as the Church of Christ.
But regardless, both ends of the continuum, and everything in between, agree that tradition has no binding authority. No real place for it. The Scriptures may not speak of everything, we might be able to use our common sense on a few things, but the Scriptures play the sole role of authority in the church, at least in the Evangelical church.
In the final analysis, Sola Scriptura is not so much an affirmation about the Bible as it is a denial of tradition. And that indeed was why it was framed - was a reaction, in the reformation - to the Roman Catholic doctrine of tradition, which in the view of the reformers, had corrupted the church, and introduced things that were not only extra-Biblical, but contrary to Biblical teaching. More about that in a little bit.
I think we have to acknowledge, though, that the reformers were attempting to get back to the golden age of Christianity. There was an intention, a motivation on their parts, that was good and appropriate, because what they were seeing didn’t square with the gospel. And in fact, I think we would even argue that in many ways, it didn’t square with apostolic tradition. There were many things that had been added, through the Middle Ages, to the faith once for all delivered for the saints, that even as Orthodox Christians, we could not embrace today. But by returning to the Bible, they sought to divest Christianity of all the accretions, the additions, and return it to the pristine state of the early church. And if you were in my classes on the seven ecumenical councils, one of the things that was clear and apparent was that there was no golden age in the history of the church - it’s really a myth - that there were heresies from the very beginning pages of the New Testament that had to be routed out, and challenged, and debated, and fought over. And it took centuries for that to happen.
The irony is, that the principle by which the reformers sought to turn to the purity of the early church, that is, Sola Scriptura, was itself unknown in the early church. And I’ll tell you here in a moment why it would have been impossible to have that doctrine in the early church. The idea of Sola Scriptura was an invention of the 16th century. No father or council of the early church ever asserted that the Scriptures, in and of themselves, without any reference to the church, are the all-sufficient rule of faith.
The doctrine of Sola Scriptura was very much a product of its age, and it was predicated upon several assumptions relative to that age, and it’s important that we understand these assumptions, and that’s what I want to go through, is 4 assumptions that undergird the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. And I think it will be helpful to us as we have dialogue with Evangelicals, to understand where they’re coming from, and what’s not stated in the arguments. You know, when we’re having this debate, there’s a lot of unstated assumptions, and these are 4 of them.
First of all, Sola Scriptura presupposes a closed and universally recognized canon of Scripture. In other words, you have to have something from which to draw this sufficient knowledge of the faith. And as hard as it is for some people to believe, the Scriptures didn’t always exist, in bound form, in one commonly accepted book, or books. It just didn’t. Not even in the 16th century did it exist in that form.
But this assumption completely ignores the fact that the process of defining the canon of the New Testament took centuries. Here’s a couple of examples: the church of the first three centuries - the age frequently regarded as the golden age, before Constantine legalized Christianity and there corrupted it - had no single, defined New Testament canon. This was the first three centuries of the church. There was no book of letters, universally agreed upon, circulated to every church. The Scriptures were a series of letters; different churches had different collections of these letters.
Not all the letters circulating would end up making it into the canon. Some are regarded [as] Scripture by some and others are rejected by others. Heretics rejected many of these letters. The Gnostics, for example, rejected the letters of Paul, because he takes them on pretty ferociously in his letters, and they circulated their own. For example, the Gospel of Thomas, the so-called “lost gospel” that was popular and sold well a couple of years ago.
This led the church to make decisions about which books were or were not to be considered Scripture. It was a process that took time. It wasn’t until the 2nd and 3rd century that Saint Irenaeus, Clement, and Origen of Alexandria explicitly state that there are four, and only four, gospels. That wasn’t until the 2nd and 3rd century.
The Muratorian Canon, dating from the end of the 2nd century, lists the books of the New Testament, but omits James, Hebrews, 3 John, and 1 and 2 Peter, and in addition to the Revelation of John, it includes the Apocalypse of Peter. Certain books remained problematic for centuries. Hebrews remained controversial in the West until the end of the 4th century. Revelation remained controversial for centuries. In fact, it’s the only New Testament book that’s not read liturgically in the Orthodox Church. The first extant list of New Testament books that exactly matches our canon is found in the Paschal letter of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, in 367 AD. That’s a long time after the supposed golden age - you know, the first few centuries.
In the West, the canon wasn’t settled until the Council of Carthage in 397 AD. So really, until we get to the 4th century, it would not even have been possible to make an argument - Sola Scriptura - because there wasn’t an agreed-upon canon of Scripture that could be used in the argument. And the Old Testament is even more problematic.
This assumption, Sola Scriptura, which presupposes a closed and universally recognized canon of Scripture, also ignores the fact that even the Old Testament canon was not settled for centuries. Even among the Jews of Jesus’ day, there were variations in usage. There doesn’t appear to be any attempt to settle the question of the Old Testament canon until after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
There were different scrolls that were rolled up in the synagogue, and you might grab the scroll of Isaiah and read from it, but there was not an agreed upon canon, even of the Old Testament. The first time this was even attempted was at the Council of Jamnia in 90 AD. However, even after this council, Christians continued to use books from the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, and in fact, that’s what’s in the Orthodox Study Bible. The Old Testament was translated from the Septuagint version of the Scriptures, which would have been the canon that was known in the Old Testament, to the apostles.
This assumption also ignores the fact that even the reformers struggled to define the canon. Oops. This is a dirty little secret. Even the reformers, who claimed Sola Scriptura, evidently using some other criteria, because they couldn’t agree on what the canon was, argued about some of the books, whether they should be part of that canon. Now think about that: if the final authority is Sola Scriptura, then by what criterion do you exclude certain books from the canon? For example, Luther rejected James. He didn’t much like Hebrews either. And there were other books that were in dsipute.
So that’s the first assumption. And again, just to repeat it, Sola Scriptura presupposes a closed and universally recognized canon of Scripture. Second assumption is that Sola Scriptura presupposes that the Scriptures are self-interpreting. This is an interesting one. And you have to ask the question, if it’s true, why are there more than 25,000 Protestant denominations? If the Scriptures are so clear, so that anyone, unaided by anything except the prompting or the inner illumination of the Holy Spirit, reading the Scriptures, would come to the same conclusion, why do we have over 25,000 different denominatons? It presupposes a notion of absolute objectivity. That somehow, I can come to the Scriptures, open the Bible, and, unprejudiced by my current cultural context, my own upbringing, my own time, my own psychological weirdness, that somehow I can read the Scriptures and understand it, by myself. It presupposes that.
But I don’t even think most Protestants believe this. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have penned documents like the Westminster or the Augsburg Confessions. There is something that’s supplemental, that helps come to consensus about what the Scriptures teach. Or, just take a trip to your local Christian bookstore. If the Scriptures are self-interpreting, why do we need commentaries? Even Protestants can’t escape tradition. Lutherans write commentaries from within the tradition of Luther, Milanchthon, and the Augsburg Confession. Presbyterians write commentaries from within the tradition of Calvin, and Beza, and Knox, and the Westminster Confession. In fact, every commentary is written from within some tradition.
If you’ve got your Bible this morning, look at Acts, chapter 8, verse 26. In the Orthodox Study Bible, it’s page 1483. This is the story of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. And Saint Luke writes,
Now an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, “Arise and go toward the south, along the road which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is desert. So he arose and went. And behold, a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, who had charge of all her treasury, and had come to Jerusalem to worship, was returning. And sitting in his chariot, he was reading Isaiah the prophet. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go near and overtake this chariot.” So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”
And so then Philip proceeds to explain to him how the prophet Isaiah speaks of Christ, and the Ethiopian eunuch is converted, and later baptized. So the second presupposition is that Sola Scriptura presupposes that the Scriptures are self-interpreting. And I think, by their actions at least, most Christians understand that that’s not the case.
Third presupposition: Sola Scriptura presupposes that the Scriptures were intended to be an all-sufficient guide for Christians. In other words, everything God could possibly say, or wanted to say, is here. Let’s look at a few verses, even in the Bible, where the Bible doesn’t claim this for itself. Look back just a few pages to John chapter 21, the very last verse of that gospel. John 21:25. Page 1467. Saint John says, “and there were also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen.” Whole lot of stuff that wasn’t recorded in the Bible that Jesus did and said, and even more if you contemplate the apostles and all that they taught. And as we’ll see in the weeks to come, Saint Paul makes it clear that there’s not only a written tradition, as we have here in the form of the Holy Scripture, but also an oral tradition that was passed on from one generation to another.
Look at Acts 20 and verse 7. And this is on page 1505. And it’s talking about a 1st century worship service, and it says, “now, on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread.” Not a lot of detail about the worship. How did they administer it? Was it out of a common cup? I don’t think they had little plastic glasses in that day. How was it administered? Was there praying beforehand or afterhand? If you look back at Acts chapter 2 and verse 42, where it talks about the early church subsequent to Peter’s sermon - this is page 1473, Acts 2:42 - “and they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship and the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” All those elements are certainly part of Orthodox worship, but in what order? How is it administered? Do you sit? Do you stand? Do you wear vestments? Can you use incense? Not use incense? Have pictures? Not pictures? There’s a lot that’s not covered there.
The Torah gives specific directions about worship under the Old Covenant. All you have to do is look at the book of Leviticus, and it’s mapped out in painstaking detail. But nothing resembling this is outlined in the New Testament. Which has caused a lot of the more radical reformers and Protestants to argue that there is no structure, there should be no structure. And what I would just say, is that structure is inescapable wherever life is found. Even if it has the appearance of non-structure, that’s even a structure.
Fourth assumption: Sola Scriptura presupposes that Christianity is essentially an ideology rather than a living faith based on a relationship. This is probably the most important thing I could say, and I think one of the things that differentiates Orthodoxy and makes it really attractive to me is that we’re not just talking about a moral philosophy, about an ancient book, that if somehow we memorize and know, that that knowledge will somehow save us. But in this view of Sola Scriptura, I think, the Bible is seen as a book that contains teachings and a complete system of doctrine. That’s why you can have systematic theologies, and if you really want to understand what the Scripture teaches, then just read this systematic theology, which attempts to take what the Bible teaches on various topics, put them all together, and teach that. The problem is, which systematic theology? Do you want to look at Calvin’s Institutes? Or more modern systematic theologies? Or better yet, roll your own. Come up with your own systematic theology, which is almost what is taught in many places today.
Thus anyone can pick the Bible up, and because it’s self-interpreting, glean from it everything he needs to believe and do in order to be a Christian. Therefore Christianity, I believe, in this view, is reduced to a set of doctrines to be believed and a set of rules to follow. But for Orthodox Christians, Christianity is essentially a life to be lived. It is, first and foremeost, a relationship, a dynamic relationship that we’re invited into in the Holy Trinity. We’re invited to participate in that divine life and to be restored to that position which was taken, and actually be elevated from that position.
But it’s not just any life that we’re called to. It’s not just, again, a set of moral principles. And even among Orthodox, we can degenerate our faith into being a series of Dos and Don’ts. What are the fasting rules? And we start looking at the back of cans to see what the ingredients are, and it can quickly be devoid of life. But it’s primarily a relationship.
But it’s not just any life; it’s life in Christ, not a mere ethical imitation of him, but an organic union with him, in his body, the church. And it’s inside of this life in Christ that we have the ability to understand the Scriptures. And apart from that organic union with Christ, and with his body, the church, the Scriptures, no matter what else we may declare, continue to be a mystery for us.
So this is just part one of Scripture and Tradition, and next week we’ll deal with some more aspects of it.