Scripture and Tradition - Part 2: Proof Texts
Dn. Michael Hyatt · October 10, 2008
Dn. Michael continues exploring the role of Scripture in the Orthodox Church and examines common proof texts used to defend Sola Scriptura—a premise that is not so much erroneous as it is impossible.
This is the second week on the topic of Scripture and Tradition, and last week we talked in Part One about presuppositions, and I just wanted to give you a little quick review.
We’re trying to differentiate between the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura and what we believe as Orthodox. Not because we’re trying to stand and point the finger at Protestants in saying “you’re wrong”, but sometimes, for most of us particularly who come from a Protestant background, it’s helpful to understand and differentiate between the two. I’m in a unique position at Thomas Nelson because I — I told Gail, it’s like when we go down to seaside for vacation, there’s a point at which you cross the Alabama line and get into Florida. And what is that? There’s a little town there called, it’s like a combination of the two, Florala! That’s it. So, I’m kind of Florala. I’m Orthodox, but I work with a lot of Evangelicals so I’m kind of bilingual in that way. But I think it’s helpful to understand because this is the dominant kind of view of Scripture that permeates Christian culture in the West today.
So, last week I talked about the meaning of Sola Scriptura, coming from the Latin meaning “scripture alone.” And the idea is, basically, that God’s written word is self-authenticating, doesn’t need anything else to authenticate it, or give it authority. It’s clear to the rational reader. It’s its own interpreter, and here’s the key. It’s sufficient in itself to be the only source of Christian doctrine. And last week, we talked about this means different things to different Protestants. Some want to say that it’s sufficient insofar as it speaks to Christian doctrine, but there are other things that we can look to common sense, to our experience and use those as well. That’s kind of one end of the continuum. The other end of the continuum is the idea that if the Bible doesn’t say it, then we don’t do it. That the Bible says everything, it’s all-sufficient. I think it’s clear for most of us that even there, people who hold that view have a difficult time being consistent with it. I acknowledged last week that the Reformers were attempting to get back to the so-called golden age of Christianity before it was corrupted by Constantine and the nationalization or the making Christianity the state religion.
Then I talked about the actual presuppositions, and quickly, presupposition 1 was: Sola Scriptura presupposes a closed and universally recognized canon of Scripture, and we know it was centuries before that actually happened.
Presupposition number 2 that we looked at last week was Sola Scriptura presupposes that the Scriptures are self-interpreting. And I asked the question last week if that’s true, then why, if it’s so clear and you don’t need to reference anything outside of the Scripture, then how did we end up with 25,000+ Protestant denominations?
And then presupposition number 3, Sola Scriptura presupposes that the Scriptures were intended to be an all-sufficient guide for Christians, and we looked at John 21:25 last week about the fact that John says that even the things that Jesus taught and said and did could not be contained in all the books of the world. And then, presupposition number 4, Sola Scriptura presupposes that Christianity is essentially an ideology rather than a living faith based on a relationship. Unfortunately for many Christians today, it ends up degenerating into a relationship with a book. And while that book is important, and as Orthodox Christians we esteem it and indeed venerate it, in our worship, our relationship is primarily with the living Christ of whom that book speaks and to whom that book points.
So today, I want to look at some of the proof-texts that are often used to “prove” Sola Scriptura. And as we’ll see next week, this whole dichotomy or distinction between Scripture and Tradition is a false dichotomy. And what we’ll see next week is that these two things hold together beautifully in the Orthodox Faith. But let’s look at the texts that are often used to “prove” the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. First of all, II Timothy 3:16-17, and if you’re following along in your Orthodox Study Bible, it’s page 1643. And here’s what it says, and this is a verse that’s precious to all of us. And by the way, this is the full Orthodox Study Bible, if you’re just using the New Testament, the pagination will be different. 1643. And here St. Paul writes:
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.
I was converted when I was 18 years old, and the pastor that helped in my conversion and followed up with me after my conversion, this was one of the first Scriptures that he brought me to. And he said to me, and rightfully so, he said it’s critically important that you know the Scriptures, that you learn about the Scriptures. And so, he helped me embark upon a Bible reading plan, a Scripture memory program, and it was hugely helpful to my faith. But as a proof-text for that, he used this passage. The problem is that this does not prove the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, and let me show you how. First of all, if you read just a few verses above this, St. Paul says in verse 14 to St. Timothy:
But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures. (2 Timothy 3:15)
So, St. Timothy had known these Scriptures from his youth. The only problem was that the New Testament had not been written at that point. So whatever the Scriptures were that St. Timothy had known from his youth, they, by necessity, excluded the New Testament because even as St. Paul is writing this, the New Testament is being written and not all of it had been written at this point. In fact, I would say that all references in the New Testament to “the Scriptures” refer to the Old Testament, with one exception. And that one exception is found in II Peter 3:16. Is it helpful if I give you the page numbers or not? OK, 1695, II Peter 3:16. And St. Peter says — actually I want to back up to verse 14 to give you the context because St. Peter mentions St. Paul when he says:
Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless; and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation, as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking to them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.
So, St. Peter here seems to have an awareness that what St. Paul is writing is at the level of Scripture and will, prophetically, one day become part of the canon, part of the New Testament canon, but that’s the only verse that I can find in the entire New Testament where a reference to the Scriptures is speaking about something, possibly that’s not the Old Testament. No Orthodox Christian would deny that St. Paul’s affirmation of the Scriptures as inspired by the Holy Spirit does not apply to the New Testament by extension, but I’m simply trying to make the point that this book did not fall out of heaven in the first century, complete. And so that there were Bible studies as we know them today that were happening in the first century, and that people were running their churches based on what they cobbled together from the New Testament and the Old Testament because the New Testament did not exist. In fact, as I pointed out last week, for almost three centuries after this, there would not be a New Testament canon. Certain churches would have certain letters, but no Church possessed all the letters and we certainly didn’t have the wonder of the printing press to print them and distribute them like we know today. So it’s easy to read back into that something that was unknown to them.
The fact is St. Paul is not asserting the sole sufficiency of Scripture is also confirmed by II Timothy 3 in verse 8. Look at page 1643 also. II Timothy 3:8, St. Paul says this, “Now as Jannes and Jambres resisted Moses, so do these also resist the truth.” What’s he talking about? Who are these men to whom he refers? These are actually magicians from the book of Exodus, but you would not know it from the passage in Exodus. But this was part of common Jewish tradition, that these were the names of the two chief magicians in the book of Exodus when Moses confronts Pharaoh. And so, here St. Paul is making an extra-biblical reference, which would not be necessary, I suppose, if the Scripture were all-sufficient, if the New Testament was all-sufficient.
What then is St. Paul teaching? Well he’s teaching that the Scriptures of the Old Testament were profitable for doctrine, and he’s really fighting the Gnostic heresy, which look in I Timothy, just turn back a few pages to I Timothy 6:20, page 1639, I Tim. 6:20. He says” O Timothy!” By the way, this is the very last thing that he says to Timothy. “O Timothy. Guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge.” The Greek word gnosis from which we got the heresy of Gnosticism. And St. Paul is making the case — let me back up. The Gnostics made the case that the Old Testament Scriptures were irrelevant, that you didn’t need them. And St. Paul is making the case that no, what God has gone in history and in Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of what was written in the Old Testament and prophesied by the prophets of old. It’s a continuation of, a fulfillment of, it exists in continuity with what God has done in history. It is the apex of his work. It’s not discontinuous from that work. It’s continuous with that work. So St. Paul is here affirming the authority and usefulness of the Old Testament.
So, whatever our view of Scripture, and it’s certainly true in the Orthodox Church that we don’t just esteem the New Testament alone but also the Old Testament. It’s highly regarded as well. If you attend Vespers, probably 70 percent of that service is pulled straight out of the Old Testament, primarily the Psalms, but also the book of Genesis and other places. We are, as Orthodox Christians, a biblical Church. We’re steeped with the Scriptures, it’s in all of our services. It’s in our worldview, but we don’t believe it’s an all-sufficient guide as we’ll see next week.
OK, so that’s II Timothy 3:16 and 17, the Scriptures are profitable for teaching for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, particularly the Old Testament Scriptures, but they were not intended to be all-sufficient, otherwise, the Old Testament — it actually proves too much, the Old Testament would be sufficient in and of itself without reference to the New Testament canon. Another passage I want us to look at is I Corinthians 4:6, and I’m only going to look at four of these, but this is the second one. I Corinthians 4:6, and this is page 1555. I Cor. 4:6, St. Paul says:
Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that you may learn in us to not think beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other.
And this is often used as a proof-text to prove that we shouldn’t go beyond what is written. Only what the Bible says: that far and no further. But again, the same thing applies. That when St. Paul is referring to “that which has been written” he is talking about the Old Testament. If you look back a few pages at I Corinthians 1:19, and St. Paul says, again arguing from the Old Testament, I’ll start in verse 18. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written.” For it is written. Now where is this coming from? It’s coming from the Old Testament “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” It’s a direct quote from Isaiah 29:14.
So what is written, for St. Paul, is what had been written prior to his writing which we call the Old Testament. You look at chapter 1 in verse 31 in the same epistle. And St. Paul says “that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the LORD.” And that’s a quote from Jeremiah 9:24. So again, “it is written”, and all through the book of I Corinthians, we can see that and indeed the entire New Testament. So what was written was the Old Testament. It is profitable. It is useful. I’m simply arguing that it is not “sufficient” in and of itself.
Acts 17:10. So, turn backward in your Bible, and this is on page 1500. Acts 17:10, another passage that is often used as a proof-text for the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, and this is talking about the Church in Berea, and it says, “Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more fair-minded…” or I think the New American Standard says noble-minded, “than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.” Now among many evangelicals, they point to this and say this is the posture that all of us should have, and I would say, indeed it is, but we ought to test the things that we hear against the Scriptures. And so that if something can’t be found in the Bible, the argument goes, then it should be rejected. Again, if that’s what this proves, it proves too much because it could only possibly refer to the Old Testament because the New Testament was in the process of being written.
They did, though receive — the Bereans did receive the gospel with eagerness. They tested all things by Scriptures, and this is a good and important principle which we can also apply to the New Testament by extension. We can test all things by the Scriptures, and I think our position as Orthodox Christians is that this is the normative record. It’s called the canon for a reason. A canon is a rule. It’s something by which you measure everything else, but that’s not all there is. It exists in the context of Holy Tradition, but it’s God’s self-revelation to man, and nothing may contradict the Scriptures. And I would argue as an Orthodox Christian of some 24 years or so that I’ve not found anything in the Orthodox faith that contradicts the Scriptures. There may have been things that have occasionally raised an eyebrow on my part or caused me to wonder, but ultimately it’s part of the same Holy Tradition. It’s all part of the same Holy Tradition, apostolic Tradition, and in the end, as Orthodox Christians, that’s what authoritative in the Church.
The Book of Acts 2:42 says that they continued in the apostles’ teaching, or the apostles’ doctrine. That’s how the New Testament Church, if you want to get back to the “golden age” of the Church, the New Testament Church that’s how the New Testament Church ordered itself, was based on what the apostles taught. And that apostolic Tradition was preserved and passed along. In fact, that’s what the word in the Greek for tradition means: “to pass along.” That’s exactly what happened to that apostolic teaching. It was passed along from one generation to the next, geographically from one Church to another Church. And so, that St. Paul often appeals to the things that he teaches everywhere in the Scripture. We’ll look more at that next week. One final passage I’d like us to look at is Revelation 22:18-19. It’s page 1748 in the Orthodox Study Bible. Revelation 22:18-19. And this is the very end of the New Testament canon, or close to the end. And St. John writes:
For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.
That is a very sobering statement, especially to come at the end of the New Testament canon. This is a very common thing that occurs in ancient literature, even within the Bible. If you look at Deuteronomy 4:2, page 215, to make it easy, in the Orthodox Study Bible. Deut. 4:2, it says ” You shall not add to the word I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God all that I command you today.” So there in the book of Deuteronomy, in the first five books of Moses, we have the same exhortation: don’t add to the commandments I’ve given to you. And if you do, big trouble ahead. Proverbs 30:5-6, and this is page 867, but another similar exhortation. Proverbs 30: 5 and 6. And here the writer says “All the words of God are tried in fire and He defends those who fear Him. Do not add to His words that He might not reprove you and you become a liar.”
So this was common in ancient literature, and it’s true also in the book of Revelation. It’s a solemn warning not to change the text of what? This book. What does that possibly refer to? Could it be this entire book? The Bible as we know it? No. It had not been collected in this form, and there would be dispute for centuries to come as to which books would be included in this book. And what we now refer to as a “book” was a technological innovation that came about as a result of Guttenberg. A book in that day would’ve been a scroll or a reference to the book of Revelation. It’s an exhortation not to add or take away from the book of Revelation. That’s the book that St. John’s referring to in the book of Revelation. Nothing in the context would suggest that this applies to the Scriptures as a whole. Even if we did extend this to cover the entire canon of Scripture, what conclusion could we draw? That the canon of Scripture is given by God and is not to be altered? That is different from saying the text is sufficient in and of itself.
And I would just say that if Protestants who believe in the doctrine of Sola Scriptura applied that, then by what authority did the Reformers themselves, and those following them, removed what’s commonly called the Deutero-Canonical books, which were commonly used up through the Middle Ages, and even into the Protestant era. By what authority did they remove those? Or is that simply an economical decision on the part of printers? What was that? On what basis does Martin Luther struggle with and consider not including the epistle of James? There’s some other tradition that’s operating in all of this.
Well, what do Orthodox Christians believe about Scripture? Well, as I said, all Scripture is indeed inspired by God, and the word in the Greek literally means “God-breathed”, that these Scripture are the breath of God as he breathed out his life into the world. He inspired the prophets of old. And they wrote it down, they passed it along, and that became part of our Tradition. We are steadfastly, as Orthodox Christians, committed to the authority of Scriptures as the normative record of God’s self-revelation to mankind, but we’re equally committed to the principle that the text of Scripture is not to be altered either by addition or subtraction.
However, the Scriptures are still a book. It does not claim to be all-sufficient. The Scriptures, both testaments, were produced within the context of God dealing with his people with a living relationship. This context, this living relationship, is nothing less than Holy Tradition. And apart from that Tradition, the Scripture loses its necessary reference. You can’t understand it. If it’s just you and the bare text of Holy Scripture, who knows what you’re going to come up with, and you don’t have to look very far to see what kinds of things people come up with when they are left with their own devices. No Scripture is given by private interpretations, St. Peter says, but it’s given with the context of a community, within the context of a living relationship with Christ.
The Protestants’ insistence on Sola Scriptura is not so much erroneous from our viewpoint as much as it is impossible. It’s just not possible. And I would say, fully understanding all the things that the Reformers are reacting to, and it wasn’t just the Scriptures that they said Sola Scriptura, because they wanted to have faith alone with no consideration for works, and grace alone for no consideration for works. Who says it has to be either/or? Oftentimes, in reacting to one error, and we would acknowledge also that Rome was in error at that point and there needed to be a reaction, but it was an overreaction. And we can see how it happens because we’ve done it ourselves. In reacting to one error, you go from one ditch to the next.
About seven years ago, I guess, we were driving to Church, I came to Church one Sunday morning and my wife Gail and the girls were driving to Church, and I was already at the altar and Deacon Richard came and got me and said your family’s been in a car accident and you need to leave immediately. Never news you want to hear. And so, I got in the car and drove up on Peystonville Rd, right as you get off the exit and make that first turn, and I couldn’t hardly get to it. I was about a mile and a half away from it, and the traffic was backed up. So, I parked my car on the shoulder, I got out of my car and started running towards the accident. And of course, my mind is filled with all these things, and I’m seeing flashing lights. And then I see our Suburban which was upside down, crushed, and thinking the worst, and looked over and saw my family sitting on a hill with a couple of policemen and as I got closer, I could see that they were all OK, thank God. But when I inquired what had happened, Megan, my oldest daughter who was driving at the time and was doing what some do which was putting on her makeup as she was driving, ran off — you know there’s not any shoulder there — and so her wheel just fell off into the ditch on the right side and went off the road for just a second. She overcorrected, pulled the steering wheel hard to the left, went across the road and flipped the car into a telephone pole.
It was an overcorrection, and you can look through the history of the Church and see that happening, where people in trying to avoid one error fall into another. And that’s why it’s important that we think about our theology and think about our faith in the context of what God is doing in the midst of his people and not just in any particular time, but over time. We’ll have to give our ancestors a vote too, and that’s really what Tradition is all about.