Scripture and Tradition – Fr. John Behr

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The following is excerpted from Fr. John Behr’s lecture on the Orthodox Faith, delivered in 1998 at the University of North Carolina. A link to the full text is given at the end of the article.  Fr. John is now Dean of St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary.

Rather than talking about the historical or external aspects of the Churches who have identified themselves as Orthodox, “Orthodoxy” in the first sense of the term, it is primarily with the latter sense of the word, ‘Orthodoxy’ as ‘right belief’, that I am going to be concerned tonight — for it is this which the Orthodox Churches claim for themselves, though I will explore it, and some of the key and differentiating themes within the Eastern understanding of Orthodoxy, by looking at various historical developments as seen from the perspective of the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

The classical picture, as it was presented for instance by the book of Acts, and Eusebius the Church Historian in the fourth century, of an originally pure orthodoxy, manifest in exemplary Christian communities, from which various heresies developed and split off, has become increasing difficult to maintain — especially since the work of Walter Bauer: Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (1934) — and rightly so. The earliest Christian writings that we have, the letters of Paul, are addressed to Churches which are already falling away from the Gospel which he had delivered to them. However, whereas Bauer concluded that orthodoxy itself only appeared at the end of the second century, emerging victorious out of a conflict with other traditions, I would argue that the reality is there from the beginning — it is the Gospel which was delivered by Paul and the other apostles — but that it has never been perfectly manifest or realized within any community.

It is a mistake to look back to a lost golden age of theological or ecclesial purity — whether in the apostolic times as narrated in the book of Acts, or the early Church, as recorded by Eusebius, or the age of the Fathers or the Church Councils, or the Empire of Byzantium. Christians are strangers in this world — in any society of this world. As the Second Century Letter to Diognetus writes, concerning Christians:

They dwell in their own fatherlands, but as if sojourners in them; they share all things as citizens, and suffer all things as strangers. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is a foreign country.

And this is inevitably so: our citizenship is in heaven, as the Apostle Paul puts it, and its from there (ex hoy) that we wait for our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (Phil 3.20). It is a mistake to look for this as something realized in the past, and since lost — a mistake to which Eastern Christians especially are tempted as they have been subjected to foreign or atheistic powers, and forced to dwell in other lands.

Nevertheless, the Gospel was delivered. Debates certainly raged about the correct interpretation of this Gospel — but it was nevertheless delivered once for all. In the debates about what was the orthodox position, the issue of what is authoritative for this position was paramount. And in this question of authority, two particular and inseparable aspects were fundamental: the canon of Scripture and the correct interpretation of that Scripture — expressed most clearly in the rule [canon] of faith/truth.

The earliest Christians, of course, already possessed a collection of writings which they considered authoritative — the Scriptures — the Jewish writings (what became known as the OT); and it was in accordance with these Scriptures, says Paul, that the Christ died and was raised on the third day (1 Cor 15). The Gospel, as it was originally delivered, seems to have been a particular, Christocentric, reading of what was later described as the “Old Testament.” As St Irenaeus put it, at the end of the second century:

If anyone reads the Scriptures [that is, the “Old Testament”] in this way, he will find in them the Word concerning Christ, and a foreshadowing of the new calling. For Christ is the ‘treasure which was hidden in the field’ (Mt 13:44), that is, in this world — for ‘the field is the world’ (Mt 13:38) — [a treasure] hidden in the Scriptures, for He was indicated by means of types and parables, which could not be understood by men prior to the consummation of those things which had been predicted, that is, the advent of Christ. … And for this reason, when at the present time the Law is read to the Jews, it is like a fable; for they do not possess the explanation (tên exêgêsin) of all things which pertain to the human advent of the Son of God, but when it is read by Christians, it is a treasure, hid in a field, but brought to light by the Cross of Christ (Against the Heresies, 4.26.1).

The Word concerning Christ, the Gospel, is a treasure hid in Scripture, brought to light by the Cross.

It is the Gospel, Scripture read in a particular fashion, through the prism of the Cross of Christ, that is salvific — if the Law itself were salvific, then Christ would have died in vain, as Paul points out (Gal 2:21).

Yet the Gospel remains intimately linked to the Scriptures — Christ is the Word of God disseminated in Scripture. It is interesting that those who appealed most to the apostolic writings during the course of the second century — such as Marcion and Gnostics such as Ptolemy — failed to appreciate the relationship between these Scriptures and the Gospel — usually heightening the contrast between the two, claiming that they were about two different Gods. It was only by the end of the second century, with St Irenaeus, that the continued preaching/kerygma of the Gospel came to be crystallized as a rule of truth, and that the writings of the apostles themselves came to be recognized as possessing Scriptural authority. As Irenaeus wrote:

We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. … These have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the Law and Prophets; and one Christ the Son of God (Against the Heresies, 3.1.1-2).

The reason I am dwelling on this, is because it helps to understand the Orthodox Church’s insistence on Scripture and Tradition, and the place of creedal formula within this. The Gospel which is the foundation of the Church, has, according to Irenaeus, been preserved intact within the Church, as the tradition of the apostles. It has been maintained through a succession of bishops teaching and preaching the same Gospel — he continues a little later:

It is within the power of all, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted as bishops in the Churches, and to demonstrate the succession of these men to our own times (Against the Heresies, 3.3.1).

It is not that the bishops, instituted by the apostles (who are not thought of as the first bishops, as they would be by Cyprian), automatically preserved the tradition of the apostles — the Gospel which the apostles delivered — but that they are bishops of the Church only to the extent that they do so, for the Church is founded upon the Gospel.

More important is the fact that the content of tradition is nothing other than that which is also preserved in a written form, as Scripture — they are not two different sources. Tradition is not the accumulation of various customs, nor does it provide us with access to knowledge necessary for salvation that is not also contained in Scripture. It is the Gnostics, according to Irenaeus, who appeal to tradition for teachings not contained in Scripture.

The community founded upon the apostolic Gospel, the Church, is also the community which has recognized certain writings as apostolic and as authoritative Scripture (and will eventually speak of a canon of Scripture). As there were many writings laying claim to apostolic status, the claim to apostolicity, however, was not itself enough to justify the recognition of a particular writing as Scripture. What was essential was the conformity of the writing to the apostolic Gospel which founded the Church, which has been preserved intact, and which had since come to be phrased in terms of a rule/canon of truth/faith. This also means that the apostolic writings are accepted as Scripture within a community that lays claim to the correct interpretation of these writings. Tradition is, as Florovsky put it commenting on Irenaeus, Scripture rightly understood [1]. In Irenaeus’ vivid image, those who interpret Scripture in a manner which does not conform to the rule of truth are like those who, seeing a beautiful mosaic of a king, dismantle the stones and reassemble them to form the picture of a dog, claiming that this was the original intention of the writer (Against the Heresies, 1.8).

Read the entire lecture here.

16 comments:

  1. “Tradition is, as Florovsky put it commenting on Irenaeus, Scripture rightly understood [1]. In Irenaeus’ vivid image, those who interpret Scripture in a manner which does not conform to the rule of truth are like those who, seeing a beautiful mosaic of a king, dismantle the stones and reassemble them to form the picture of a dog, claiming that this was the original intention of the writer (Against the Heresies, 1.8).”

    While the recognition of Tradition played a major role in my recent conversion to Orthodoxy, I find that I am still far from really understanding it (as like most things in Orthodoxy!). I have no regrets or second thoughts about the vows (is that the right word?) I took at my chrismation and yet I find myself still trying to make sense of my protestant past. Surely the love of scripture and the serious study of it during my time in InterVarsity circles has guided me on my journey to the Church, and yet there is much that I was taught, and unfortunately I taught others, which was not correct. I still live with this tension…but I must say that analogies like Fr. Behr presents here is very helpful in making sense of it all. It’s these kinds of word pictures that will stick in my mind and help me when I find my thinking about these things muddled.

    Lord have mercy.
    Alyssa

  2. Alyssa, a good way to remember what Tradition is is that it is the outward expression of the interior reality/experience of union with God and the Transfiguration of man through that communion. It is like a star in space… from a telescope you see a ball of light, but the closer you get to the star you feel the heat of burning gasses, until you are totally set ablaze and become one with the star… only God doesn’t burn us to a crisp, but instead sets us ablaze with Divine life in a communion of Persons. Tradition is like the star. From outside you just see a bunch of random, interesting things. But as you journey farther along in faith it will start to burn you more and more until it truly enters into your heart and mind and becomes You, but you do not cease to be You. That is the way God gently works with us. The Tradition of the Church is merely the Presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of Man throughout time. It expresses itself in different ways at different times, but in essence it is the same. Elder Sophrony and Saint John the Wonderworker say things much differently, but at the heart of things they live with the very same Person, and know Him intimately. And this comes through in their lives and words.

    Maybe this illustration isn’t so good; I know nothing of astronomy or science in general!

  3. Thank you Father for this; I both greatly enjoyed and found great profit in reading Fr John’s “The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death”, and this article was similarly illuminating.

    I was also unaware he was now Dean of St Vlad’s — thank you.

  4. Fr. Stephen,

    I just came across your blog on some semi random blipping around and find myself enjoying your posts very much. Thank you for your thoughts.

    Alyssa,

    I myself am a Protestant and also came to Christ through IVCF. There is I think more of your Protestant training that is probably useful to you now then you give it credit for.

    For myself, as I have explored Orthodoxy I have come to this understanding. What tradition offers is a right interpretive framework, a right mindset by which to approach scripture.

    “If anyone reads the Scriptures [that is, the “Old Testament”] in this way, he will find in them the Word concerning Christ,”

    When scripture is rightly approached then it is rightly understood.
    “Tradition is, as Florovsky put it commenting on Irenaeus, Scripture rightly understood”

    Scripture rightly understood can then be expressed in a canon that protects the Church from whatever attacks are besetting it at the time.
    “the canon of Scripture and the correct interpretation of that Scripture — expressed most clearly in the rule [canon] of faith/truth.”

    I believe much of what I was taught in IV about appraoching scripture was really quite Orthodox. As Protestants we say that we seek to know Christ through scripture rather then simply trying to know about Him. What do we mean by wanting to know Christ if not have a personal experience of Him. And from what I understand of Orthodoxy this too is their approach to scripture. In taking this approach we seek not an intellectual understanding but rather to allow scripture to lead us into a relationship with the one about whom it speaks.

    Tradition helps us along in this because those who have known Christ have a more unified view wherein all things become a mosaic of Christ. In my own journey George MacDonald, Andrew Murray and Oswald Chambers have had a large impact in forming my ‘interpretive framework’ before I found the Patristic Fathers. I find in them all the same message only in different words, written for different cultures -it all goes back to the same Way, Truth and Life.

    “In Irenaeus’ vivid image, those who interpret Scripture in a manner which does not conform to the rule of truth are like those who, seeing a beautiful mosaic of a king, dismantle the stones and reassemble them to form the picture of a dog, claiming that this was the original intention of the writer (Against the Heresies, 1.8).”

    We all in our brokenness at first see nothing but the stones when we first approach scripture. It is only as the Spirit transforms our mind that the true picture becomes clear. But if we already have some training in how to see the picture it aids the Spirit’s work. It is those in the PC who want to set up systematic theologies explaining God that are reassembling false pictures, while those who leave the final picture open to be revealed find what they are looking for.

  5. I have been earnestly pursing the Orthodox faith over the last few weeks but am beginning to have questions I can’t answer. My wife was born into the Greek Orthodox church but she has not been an active participant for several years, though she has been involved in some aspects and professes her belief in God and the church. She has answered lot of questions, the ones she can’t answer I’ve researched online. I was raised a Baptist and in my adult life I’ve been involved in the Pentecostal church but have “fallen away” so to speak. I’ve always been interested in the “Jewishness of Jesus” so I am aware that the Apostles converted first the Jews, which means the first worship services were probably very much like they worshiped in their Jewish faith. So I asked myself this question. Which church was most like the early church? When I researched it I found that the Orthodox church claimed to be the One true church most like the early church! What’s amazing is why had it taken me 57 years, a failed first marriage after 25 years, much prayer and reading of scripture, the experience of “speaking in tongues” etc. to even ask that question? What I found after seeking the truth was there was one church that had not changed for 2000 years! How had I missed it? So, then I asked, what about all the things I thought I knew? What about my protestant upbringing? What was a Protestant and what were they protesting!? I found they were protesting the Roman Catholic Church and the practice of paying a priest to forgive your sins and the Papacy! Sounds like a logical thing to protest. But then I realized that what the protestants replaced that theology with was even farther removed from the original church. I attended my first Orthodox liturgy this past Sunday and I was overcome with the humbleness and beauty of the service. I feel I have found the place God wants me to be. I have a hunger for God I have not felt in years. That said, I’m overwhelmed at what I don’t know and feel I will never have enough years to learn it all! So my question is where do I begin? Also could someone please explain the following quote from the above article? for some reason I cannot comprehend it’s meaning. Thanks

    “it is not that the bishops, instituted by the apostles (who are not thought of as the first bishops, as they would be by Cyprian), automatically preserved the tradition of the apostles — the Gospel which the apostles delivered — but that they are bishops of the Church only to the extent that they do so, for the Church is founded upon the Gospel.”

  6. Michael,
    The simple meaning is that a Bishop must not only be a historical successor of the Apostles, but must also hold and teach what the Apostles taught. For no other Gospel can be preached other than what we have received in Christ Jesus.

  7. Michael,

    When we first became Orthodox, our priest assured us that we would change in layers as we participated in the life of the church day after day and year after year. At first I felt like a Orthodox Protestant and now feel perhaps that I am leaving some of the Protestant behind and learning to be Orthodox.

    We have found that reading is helpful and there are many great resources that way. But I think that perhaps the most helpful is the daily and yearly participation in the church. Each church year (which I think begins today, on the first of September) follows a calendar of fasting and feasting, and it is within this cyclical pattern that I find myself begin to change. With fall comes the remembrance that the nativity fast is arriving, followed by the Nativity Feast, followed by the baptism of Christ after which the priest comes to bless the homes and so on. Life takes on such a beautiful rhythm and the church’s rhythm continues on peacefully as all the chaos of life and our passions threaten to overwhelm us. And slowly our experience within the church becomes richer and richer in layers as one absorbs the beauty of the Church and seeks God and finds him in the midst of the many crisis and and sorrows and joys we encounter.

    I think that the miracle too, is that this experience continues into all of eternity, and so you don’t need to feel overwhelmed. God bless you and I am so excited for you that you have found the joy of Christ in beautiful Orthodoxy!

  8. Anna, what a lovely description.

    Michael, be comforted in knowing there are so many of us who have experienced what you have, asked the questions you are asking, and feel much the way you do! You said, “I’m overwhelmed at what I don’t know and feel I will never have enough years to learn it all!” — I wept the first time our parishioners sang “Many years!” to me on my birthday for precisely this reason (because I didn’t the even “many years” would be enough to even begin fathoming the rich, deep faith that is Orthodoxy).

    I agree with Anna ~ begin attending services and enter into the life of the church. See if there’s an enquirer’s class at your local parish; you’d likely want to begin attending that. Eventually if you want to press forward and formalize your commitment to the church you’d become a catechumen, and eventually be baptized (or chrismated). It’s a joyous journey. Our family of nine was baptized this past January. God’s best to you.

  9. Michael – one day you wake up and all the stuff you didn’t understand is just a part of who you are. It’s amazing. God be with you in your journey.

  10. Thank you Anna and NW Juliana! I am just really excited about and can’t stop thinking. praying and reading about the Orthodox faith. Any reading material you can recommend would be very appreciated. I’ve read “Mountain of Silence” which I could not put down. I’ve read lots on goarch.org and numerous other websites including Father Stephen. Plus ancientfaith.com and numerous others. Thanks for the encouragement and God bless you both!

  11. Michael, here are some books I/we read early on: Facing East by Frederica Mathewes-Green, Becoming Orthodox by Peter Gillquist, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells by Matthew Gallatin, and Common Ground: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity for the American Christian by Jordan Bajis. The “Discover Orthodoxy” page at Antiochian (dot) org has some great booklets.

    I really like what Greg just said, “One day you wake up and all the stuff you didn’t understand is just a part of who you are.” I’m starting to get the slightest glimpse of that, glory to God. I’m so, so thankful for the gift God has given us through His Holy Church.

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