On June 25, 2011, Tim Enloe posted an article in response to my Contra Sola Scriptura series in his blog Viator Christianus [formerly available at http://viatorchristianus.wordpress.com/2011/06/25/an-interesting-defense-of-sola-scriptura/]. I did not respond immediately because I was unaware of Tim’s posting. Tim’s paragraphs have been numbered for the reader’s convenience.
Note: Tim has brought to my attention that the original source was Wesley’s comment to my article: “If Not Sola Scriptura, Then What?: The Biblical Basis For Holy Tradition.” In light of that I’ve reworded the posting addressing my comments and questions to Wesley.
Part I. Wesley’s Response
¶ 1 You are right that 2 Timothy 3:16 doesn’t say Scripture’s nature as God-breathed elevates it over tradition, but it doesn’t have to say that in order for my position to hold up. Sola Scriptura does not teach that everything we believe must necessarily come from the Bible and nowhere else. It is the Bible Onlyism position I outlined which maintains that view. The claims of sola Scriptura are less radical than that. We don’t need for the Bible to teach sola Scriptura in order for sola Scriptura to be believed. We do, however, believe the Bible leads us inevitably to the conclusion of sola Scriptura, again, as I said, because of the very nature of Scripture.
¶ 2 You make an interesting argument for the God-breathed nature of church traditions that are not contained or passed down in Scripture. The Holy Spirit was certainly active in multiple ways in the church beyond the composition of the documents that constitute the New Testament and beyond the death of the apostles. I want to affirm that I agree with you on that point. I believe strongly that the Holy Spirit is active in the church today. If you believe he is as well, tell me, is he inspiring any traditions today? Anything God-breathed coming from the Spirit in the church in this generation or any time near it? If not, why not? You suspect I limit the Spirit’s ministry to the Bible after the death of the apostles, but I suspect you limit the ministry of the Spirit (in the way you say I do) to the early church. Am I wrong?
¶ 3 The fact is that the activity of the Spirit is not restricted to inspiration. The Holy Spirit can be active without inspiring something. Just because the Holy Spirit is at work in a given person or a given church function or activity, it doesn’t mean that the result is God-breathed. You gave three biblical evidences for why tradition should be viewed as God-breathed. I don’t think any of them individually, nor the three taken together, make your case or lead to your conclusion.
¶ 4 John 16:13 is a promise given to the apostles, not the whole church in all ages. The promise was fulfilled, for I believe the apostles were indeed led into all truth by the Spirit. The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 presents several flaws for your use of it and your position. I’ll mention just three. First, it wasn’t the bishops alone gathered in council, but the whole Jerusalem church, the laity included, along with those disputant parities in the debate. The conclusion was reached on congregational grounds, not episcopal grounds. Second, the final voice that wins everyone over is that of James, and James rests his case on the confirmation of the Old Testament. It is only after the Scriptures are consulted to corroborate and confirm James’ position that it seemed good to the church and the Spirit. Third, the decision of the council was significantly ignored by Paul himself in a number of his post-conciliar letters. Paul wholeheartedly agreed with the substance of the council’s decision (that Gentiles do not have to become Jews in order to be Christians), but some of the particulars (e.g., the Jewish dietary restrictions) he felt free to ignore. Paul felt no such freedom to ignore what he himself proclaimed to be the God-breathed Scriptures, which means he probably didn’t consider the decision of the council to be of the same nature and authority as conciliar tradition.
¶ 5 The final text you mentioned, Ephesians 4:7-13, tells us about the different spiritually gifted offices given to the church. But in no way does the establishment of a church office or function entail or prove or guarantee that the things that result from those offices will be inspired and equal with Scripture in nature and authority. Do you believe that the pastor in your local church is giving you that which is God-breathed and equal with Scripture when he opens his mouth to preach and teach? Being spiritually gifted to fill and/or fulfill a divinely established office or function in the church does not mean one is delivering anything God-breathed when he operates in his gifts in his appointed office. It certainly can mean that the Spirit is powerfully using him and mightily working through him, but that isn’t the same thing as delivering divinely inspired special revelation to him or through him, which is what Scripture is. So I think the biblical line of reasoning you provided is extremely unsuccessful and unconvincing.
¶ 6 I have no doubt that you are uncomfortable with my insistence that either the Bible or the church must ultimately be primary over the other. Your position looks good on paper, but it just doesn’t work that way in reality. In the end, either Scripture or the church and her tradition is going to have the final word. Ultimately, either Scripture will dictate what the church’s tradition must be, or the church will dictate what the Scriptures must say and teach. You will find yourself saying, “Scripture mandates that the church believe and practice this,” or you will say, “Tradition mandates that Scripture teaches this.” This will be the key. Is the ultimate authority that is appealed to in any matter of controversy, dispute, confusion, or question Scripture or church tradition? And if the church has decided and established that a given tradition says or mandates x, are the Scriptures ever give the place to reform or change or annul the church’s decision? If not, my point is proven, uncomfortable as it may be.
¶ 7 To conclude, I am very glad you provided me with some purely oral, extra-biblical traditions that you take to be God-breathed and of equal and binding authority with Scripture. Notice what they are: weekly Wednesday and Friday fasts; communion without a bishop is invalid; special fasts during Lent; weekly recitation of the Nicene Creed at Sunday worship. Two things here: First, I find absolutely no reason to believe those things are God-breathed and equal with the Bible. Second, those things are completely unnecessary. By ‘unnecessary,’ I do not mean they are worthless or wrong or anything of that sort. I find absolutely nothing wrong with observing and practicing those things.
¶ 8 What I mean by ‘unnecessary’ is that none of those things are essential, fundamental, or foundational to the core of the true Christian Faith (we obviously don’t lose any of Christianity if we lose any of those traditions), to our salvation (no one’s salvation rests on the observance of special fasts, for example), or to living a godly life. They are adiaphora, indifferent, neither to be taught nor forbidden. The church may receive them or not at her own discretion, but the church may not bind them upon conscience since they are unnecessary.
¶ 9 These sorts of customs and observances are usually what some Orthodox have in mind when they speak of tradition, and I don’t see the necessity or the tremendous importance of holding on to them at all cost. If they aren’t essential to the Faith, they may come and go as time and circumstance dictate. It isn’t ultimately important. Have we lost the Faith without them? I don’t think we have.
Part II. Robert’s Response
As I read your article I found a number of misunderstandings about Orthodoxy. I see these misunderstandings beneficial in the sense that they make explicit certain assumptions that Reformed Christians have about Orthodoxy. By clearing up these misunderstandings I believe we can advance reasoned dialogue between the Reformed and Orthodox traditions.
What Is The Basis For Sola Scriptura?
You wrote in ¶ 1:
We don’t need for the Bible to teach sola Scriptura in order for sola Scriptura to be believed. We do, however, believe the Bible leads us inevitably to the conclusion of sola Scriptura, again, as I said, because of the very nature of Scripture.
First of all, I commend you for holding to the classic doctrine of sola scriptura which is more balanced than the later extreme version, the Bible Onlyism position. What I appreciate about the classic sola scriptura position is that it is open to the historic Christian faith, e.g., the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Formula, an appreciation for the early Church Fathers like Athanasius the Great. This places Calvin and the other Reformers much closer theologically to Eastern Orthodoxy than the popular Evangelicals and the Pentecostals.
In my blog posting I made two kinds of arguments. The negative argument was that the Bible did not teach sola scriptura. You are right that this is not sufficient grounds for rejecting sola scriptura. However, I then advanced the positive argument showing that what we find in the Bible is the traditioning process whereby the apostles preserved the teachings of Christ and passed on these teachings to their successors the bishops. If you want to really refute my blog posting you should engage in an extended exegesis showing how the Bible really teaches sola scriptura. Furthermore, you should set two benchmarks, one for identifying sola scriptura and the other for identifying the Orthodox traditioning process, then show how Scripture supports the former and contradicts the latter.
In the above quote I believe you uncritically accepted the Protestant paradigm for doing theology. This can be seen in your use of the word “inevitably”; for the critical reader words like “inevitably” almost automatically raise red flags in their minds. To show how problematic the word “inevitably” is let’s look at the broader context of II Timothy 3:16. Paul refers to a multi-generational traditioning process that runs in the family (II Timothy 1:3, 5) and in the church (II Timothy 2:2). Paul instructs Timothy to safeguard the apostolic tradition (II Timothy 1:13-14). In II Timothy 2:14 to 3:9 we find Paul warning Timothy about false teachings and exhorting Timothy to be a careful worker who skillfully handles the “word of truth” (II Timothy 2:15). One might assume that this refers to Scripture but a look at Ephesians 1:13 shows that the “word of truth” is something heard (see also James 1:18). One looks in vain in II Timothy for evidence of Paul invoking the principle of sola scriptura — the superiority of Scripture over other sources — for Timothy’s ministry. As Paul draws to the close of his letter he notes that Timothy has in the past “carefully followed” Paul’s doctrine and his way of life (II Timothy 3:10) and exhorts Timothy to “continue” in the things he learned from Paul (II Timothy 3:14).
Then Paul segues to the Jewish Torah reminding Timothy that he was brought up with a knowledge of the Torah. He reminds Timothy that the entirety of the Old Testament was divinely inspired and for that reason is “profitable” for teaching doctrine, for correcting those going astray, for discipleship. This is congruent with the Orthodox understanding of Scripture as being divinely inspired and very useful for Christian living and ministry. What is missing here is any hint of Scripture’s superiority over other sources of knowledge or how one’s life and ministry must be biblically based. Therefore, a close reading of II Timothy does not lead us “inevitably” to the Protestant sola scriptura but towards the Orthodox traditioning process.
Wesley, you can no longer just assume sola scriptura, you must argue your case for sola scriptura providing evidence and citing sources. Failure to do so will result in blind faith.
Is The Holy Spirit Inspiring Any Traditions Today?
You asked in ¶ 2: Is the Holy Spirit inspiring any traditions today?
That’s a very broad question that can be understood in many different ways. Keep in mind that for Orthodoxy there is Tradition with a capital “T”, and tradition with a small “t” which refers to more local and recent practices. The seven Ecumenical Councils defined many of the major theological issues relating to Christology and the Trinity, and the early Church developed much of the Liturgy that we use today; these fall under the category of big “T” Tradition. The significance of big “T” Tradition is that they apply to the entire one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. As an example of small “t” tradition there is the icon stand in the nave. Slavic Orthodox churches typically have an icon stand in the middle of the nave — the main part of the church. Greek Orthodox churches tend not to have icon stands. Slavic churches sing the Beatitudes in the Sunday Liturgy, Greek churches do not. Moving the sermon from the Liturgy of the Word to after the Liturgy of the Eucharist falls under small “t” tradition. Ethnic festivals which are quite popular among Orthodox churches in the U.S. fall into the category of local custom.
In response to your suspicion in ¶ 2 that I limit the Holy Spirit’s inspiration to the early church, my response is that I do not confine the Holy Spirit’s ministry to the early church. I can think of several examples of the Holy Spirit inspiring traditions after the early Church (let’s say after Nicea II in AD 787). The Orthodox Church accepts and recognizes the tenth century saint, Symeon the New Theologian, for his teachings on the possibility and reality of experiencing the Divine and Uncreated Light. The Orthodox Church also accepts and recognizes the fourteenth century saint, Gregory of Palamas, who defended the possibility of experiencing the Divine and Uncreated Light of God by drawing a distinction between the essence and energies of God. Another fourteenth century saint is Andrei Rublev whose Holy Trinity icon has had a tremendous influence on Orthodox iconography. These mark major advances in the Orthodox Church’s theology.
One of the more visible examples of the Holy Spirit’s ministry is in the lives of the saints. Among the more recent saints are: Xenia the Holy Fool who lived in eighteenth century Russia, Herman of Alaska another eighteenth century saint, the nineteenth century Chinese Martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion, the nineteenth century martyr Peter the Aleut, the twentieth century saint St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, and St. Tikhon who died under Soviet rule. A very recent possibility is the late Fr. Daniel Sysoev who was assassinated in his church in 2009. If it is found that he was killed because of his evangelistic outreach to Muslims then it is likely that he will be recognized as a martyr saint. The recognition of a particular person as a saint is not a top-down decision made by the church hierarchy but involves the whole church, both laity and clergy. There is an organic quality to the canonization of Orthodox saints that stands in stark contrast to the more bureaucratic approach taken by Roman Catholicism. It begins on a local level but in time become accepted by the entire Orthodox Church. When someone is recognized as a saint then an icon is made and a hymn (troparion) is composed in honor of the saint. It then becomes permissible for the saint’s icon to be displayed in the church sanctuary and the saint’s troparion sung during the Liturgy. It is in the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church that the Holy Spirit’s creative presence in the Church is most evident. These may seem extraneous to you but for Orthodoxy the lives of these saints have become part of the liturgical component of big “T” Tradition.
The Holy Spirit Acting But Not Necessarily Inspiring
In ¶ 3 you wrote something that I found a little puzzling.
The fact is that the activity of the Spirit is not restricted to inspiration. The Holy Spirit can be active without inspiring something. Just because the Holy Spirit is at work in a given person or a given church function or activity, it doesn’t mean that the result is God-breathed.
You seem to be under the impression that in my blog posting that I asserted that actions of the early Church after the apostles were just as inspired and equivalent in authority as Scripture. I didn’t say that. What I asserted was that according to I Thessalonians 2:13 and II Thessalonians 2:15 oral apostolic tradition was equivalent in authority and inspiration to written apostolic tradition. Then using John 16:13 I asserted that the same Holy Spirit who inspired apostolic tradition also guided the church into all truth. This is important because the activity of the Holy Spirit is needed for both the reading and the writing of Scripture. Man cannot apprehend Scripture apart from the grace of the Holy Spirit (II Corinthians 3:12-18).
I think the fundamental difference between you and me is how we understand the Holy Spirit’s activity in the church. Both the Reformed and Orthodox traditions recognize the miracle of Pentecost, and both traditions recognize the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence in the church. Let me describe what I think the critical difference between the two.
Reformed Tradition. The Reformed tradition is clear about the inspiration and authority of Scripture. The source of Scripture’s preeminent authority is its being divinely inspired (cf. II Timothy 3:16). The underlying assumption for Protestant theology is that where Scripture is divinely inspired, extra-biblical traditions like the creeds (Nicene, Chalcedonian Formula, Westminster Confession), orders of worship, sermons, and theological treatises (the writings of Luther and Calvin) are not divinely inspired. There seems to be a deep divide running through Protestant theology between divinely inspired Scripture on one side and the creations of sincere faithful men who seek to understand Scripture to the best of their understanding on the other. The Reformers may have done theology prayerfully, but the Reformed tradition would not describe their works as inspired. Protestantism has had some vigorous debates about the role of the Holy Spirit in individual believers, but seems to have been silent with respect to the significance of the Holy Spirit indwelling the church as a whole. This is my general impression and I am open to being challenged on this. While the Protestant tradition closes the book on the Holy Spirit’s ministry of inspiration with the completion of the New Testament, it opens the door again with the teaching of the need for regeneration by the Holy Spirit. This has given rise to the tendency to individualism among Protestants and the emergence of self-taught theologians forming their own denominations.
Orthodox Tradition. The starting point for Orthodoxy is the Incarnation of the Word of God. Holy Tradition in Orthodoxy is based upon apostolic tradition in both oral and written forms (I Thessalonians 2:13; II Thessalonians 2:15). From the apostolic oral tradition we get the Divine Liturgy, the sign of the cross, the fasting disciplines, the episcopacy etc. One can even say that the New Testament writings emerged out of oral apostolic kerygma. Orthodoxy believes that the Church as a whole is indwelt by the Holy Spirit and that the Holy Spirit has guided the Church throughout history, especially through various crises: the early persecutions resulted in the great heroes of the faith, the martyrs; the Arian controversy resulted in the Nicene Creed, the Nestorian controversy resulted in the Chalcedonian Formula and Mary being recognized as the Theotokos (Mother of God), the iconoclastic controversy resulted in the affirmation of icons. The Orthodox Church believes that the Nicene Creed is an authoritative and inspired decision on the question of Jesus’ divine nature binding on all Christians. Its binding nature flows from three sources: (1) the bishops are the successors to the apostles, (2) because it was ecumenical, the church as a whole made this decision, and (3) the Holy Spirit was guiding the bishops in their decision making.
The difference between the Protestant and the Orthodox positions can be summarized by the following syllogisms:
Protestant Sola Scriptura
Major Premise: The Bible is the divinely inspired word of God.
Minor Premise: Everything else is man-made tradition.
Conclusion: The Bible is superior to man-made traditions.
Eastern Orthodoxy is based upon a different set of premises. These premises are based upon the teachings of the Bible. I urge you to show how these arguments are contrary to Scripture.
Orthodox Holy Tradition
Major Premise: The New Testament writings are authoritative because the apostles wrote them.
Major Premise: The oral teachings of the apostles are authoritative because they were taught by the apostles.
Conclusion: Both the New Testament and oral traditions are equally authoritative because they share the same source.
Orthodox Apostolic Succession
Major Premise: Christ commanded his apostles to pass on his teachings.
Minor Premise 1: The apostles passed on the teachings of Christ to their successors, the bishops.
Minor Premise 2: The bishops passed on the teachings of Christ to their successors.
Conclusion: The church that has this line of apostolic succession has the teachings of Christ.
The New Testament Scriptures are basically the teachings of the apostles in written form. The teaching ministry of Christ and his apostles were predominantly oral. The New Testament writings emerged out of this oral tradition and there is no evidence it was intended to supersede oral tradition. Neither the written nor the oral form of the apostolic teachings are opposed to the other or superior to the other because both share a common source: Jesus Christ the Incarnate Word.
Protestantism’s sola scriptura results in Protestants attributing infallibility to Scripture but denying this attribute to the Church. Orthodoxy attributes infallibility to Scripture and to the Church, the interpreter of Scripture. The Church is infallible because of the Spirit of Truth who indwells the Church. Please bear in mind that Orthodox has an organic and mystical understanding of the Holy Spirit’s guiding of the Church. It does not mean that everything a church father says is infallible; we look to the patristic consensus for the dogmas of the Faith.
One can have a divinely inspired and authoritative Scripture but someone has to interpret what Scripture means. To use an analogy, the decision of an Ecumenical Council is like the Supreme Court rendering a ruling on the Constitution. The US Constitution is not self-interpreting but requires an authoritative interpreter in order for the country to be legally coherent. This leaves us with three options. One, an infallible Papacy interpreting Scripture for all Christendom — the Roman Catholic position; two, infallible Scripture interpreted by fallible men — the Protestant position; and three, the Scripture interpreted by the Church according to Tradition — the Orthodox position. Lacking a coherent magisterium Protestantism has fractured along the lines of a multiplicity of rival readings of Scripture.
Because Protestantism attributes infallibility solely to Scripture a deep divide runs through its epistemology. On the one hand there is a divinely inspired and authoritative Scripture and on the other hand there are fallible men who seek to understand Scripture as best they can. This means that where the Orthodox Church recognizes the seven Ecumenical Councils, the Reformed tradition recognizes a plethora of confessions, none of them providing a doctrinal center for the entire Reformed tradition. Protestant confessions are basically opinions by learned men; they are not authoritative binding interpretations. They may be binding upon a particular denomination but not the Church catholic. There is a tentativeness to Protestant theology. This has also endowed Protestant theology with a contested nature much like modern science. Protestant theologians work with the biblical data and from that data develop theories (doctrines) about God, Christ, human nature, church, and society. Unlike Orthodoxy, Protestantism cannot lay claim to a right and authoritative interpretation of Scripture. If it did one would could point to a theological confession recognized and accepted by all Protestants.
John 16:13 — The Holy Spirit Guiding the Church
Let’s talk about the Holy Spirit’s activity in the church then and now. You asserted that in ¶ 4:
John 16:13 is a promise given to the apostles, not the whole church in all ages. The promise was fulfilled, for I believe the apostles were indeed led into all truth by the Spirit.
If the word “you” is understood restrictively for this passage then this restrictive understanding should also apply to John 14 to 16. Are we to understand Christ’s promise of his peace in John 14:27 to apply only to the Twelve? Are we understand the metaphor of the vine and the branch in John 15:1-8 to apply only to Christ and the Twelve? Are we to understand that Christ’s command to love each other in John 15:12 to apply only to the Twelve? I think a better way to read John 14 to 16 is to read it on several levels: to the Twelve directly and to us, the Church, indirectly.
The key reason why your restrictive understanding is incorrect is found in John 14:16-17a:
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever — the Spirit of truth. (NIV)
The Holy Spirit didn’t guide just the apostles “into all truth” (John 16:13), but obviously if the Holy Spirit is to be with us “forever” then the Holy Spirit continues to guide us, the Church, into all truth. To assert that the John 16:13 passage only applies to the apostles is to assert that God has abandoned the Church, leaving us as orphans which contradicts John 14:18. Therefore, I believe that your restrictive understanding of the pronoun “you” for this passage for John 16:13 is driven more by theological bias than with grammar and linguistics.
Acts 15 – The Jerusalem Council
First, let’s clear up who was present at the Council. You’re right that the laity were present along with the ordained clergy that can be seen in Acts 15:22 which states that following the Council the “apostles, elders, with the whole church” selected delegates to communicate the Council’s decision to the other churches. But Acts 15:6 says: “The apostles and elders met to consider this question.” (NIV) This means your assertion that the decision was made on “congregational grounds, not episcopal grounds” is incorrect.
Second, you note that the Scriptures were consulted to corroborate James’ position and that it seemed good to the church and to the Holy Spirit. All this is very Orthodox. Scripture is an essential component of Tradition and much of Orthodox Tradition consists of an exegesis of Scripture based on a received understanding of Scripture. Acts 15 describes a very Orthodox process and provides a biblical precedent for the Ecumenical Councils. You see the gathering of the apostles and their successors, James the Bishop of Jerusalem, the witness of Scripture, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the reception of the Council’s decision by the church as whole, including the laity. Is there any indication that the Jerusalem Council invoked the principle of sola scriptura?
Third, you asserted that Paul felt free to disregard the Jerusalem Council’s decision but provided no evidence in support of this claim. You will have to do better than that if you want to persuade me that your position is correct.
You misunderstood my interpretation of Ephesians 4:7-13. I do not believe that the Holy Spirit’s indwelling gives the local pastor or the bishop an inspiration equivalent to the original apostles. The original apostles ministered under a unique inspiration by the Holy Spirit. Their successors possessed a similar but lesser inspiration by the Holy Spirit. This can be seen in the Orthodox stress on patristic consensus. We do not consider individual church fathers on the same level of inspiration or authority as the original apostles. We believe that the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit in the post-apostolic period is most evident in the actions of the Church Catholic. Where Protestantism assumes a sharp either-or distinction between Scripture and man-made traditions, Orthodox takes a more inclusive approach that sees varying degrees of inspiration among the various components of big “T” Tradition.
When it comes to doctrinal issues, the work of the Holy Spirit is most evident where there is a consensus among the church fathers. This means that one cannot just read the church fathers to learn Orthodox theology. The Orthodox approach involves collective discernment. Tertullian and Origen were a brilliant theologians but because of certain flaws are not church fathers. Then one has to learn which parts of the fathers’ writings has been recognized as valid and of lasting value. While there is a place for academic scholarship in the study of the church fathers, the Orthodox approach is fundamentally ecclesial. To be Orthodox means accepting as church fathers those whom the Church recognizes as church fathers. You can read the church fathers independently as a Protestant but holding to an independent stance means you will remain outside the Orthodox Church.
Scripture vs. the Church
You write in ¶ 6:
In the end, either Scripture or the church and her tradition is going to have the final word. Ultimately, either Scripture will dictate what the church’s tradition must be, or the church will dictate what the Scriptures must say and teach.
You seem to be assuming that Scripture and Tradition are two distinct and separate things. But for Orthodoxy that makes no sense. For the Orthodox Tradition with a capital “T” has its source in the original apostles just as much as the New Testament writings. Orthodoxy interprets Scripture from the standpoint of Tradition which goes back to the original apostles. This reliance on apostolic tradition stands in contrast to the Protestant reliance on biblical scholarship and the scientific understanding of the Bible. This reliance on reason makes sense in light of the fact that Protestantism has lost access to the oral apostolic tradition. Where Orthodoxy approaches the Bible from an exegetical tradition with apostolic roots, Protestantism approaches the Bible independent of an ancient exegetical tradition.
Your question about who has the greater authority — Scripture or the Church — is based upon what A.N.S. Lane calls the ancillary position. This view assumes that the church as a whole can and has fallen into error and that the appeal to Scripture is needed to reform the church. The assumption that the church can be at odds with the teachings of Scripture is conditioned by the Reformers’ struggle to reform the medieval Roman Catholic Church. This position is understandable in light of how medieval Roman Catholicism developed an exegetical tradition that diverged from the patristic consensus and adopted novel doctrines and practices at odd with Scripture. Eastern Orthodoxy did not engage theological innovations like papal supremacy, purgatory and indulgences. It rejects them because they are unbiblical and not part of the received apostolic tradition. Therefore, the ancillary position does not apply to the Orthodox Church.
Does Orthodoxy Work In Practice?
You write in ¶ 6:
Your position looks good on paper, but it just doesn’t work that way in reality.
After a decade of being Orthodox, I can say: “Yes, it really does work that way in the Orthodox Church.” This is because Scripture permeates the Orthodox Church. For example all of Sunday Liturgy are permeated by Scripture: the litanies, the Nicene Creed, the Eucharistic prayer. I would urge you to visit a local Orthodox parish and listen for biblical themes and ideas in the Liturgy. Read the church fathers and see how they do theology on the basis of Scripture. Read the Ecumenical Councils and observe how they exegete Scriptures.
Are Traditions Equal To Scripture?
In ¶ 7 you wrote:
… I am very glad you provided me with some purely oral, extra-biblical traditions that you take to be God-breathed and of equal and binding authority with Scripture.
When I gave you examples of extra-biblical traditions, I did not say that they were of equal authority or inspiration as Scripture. I don’t think you intended to put words my mouth. Instead, you were going on the assumption that as an Orthodox Christian I put extra-biblical traditions on the same level as Scripture. I don’t put them on the same level as Scriptures but I do believe that the practices of fasting and the weekly Eucharist came from the apostles.
Are Extra-Biblical Traditions Unnecessary?
Then in ¶ 8 you elaborate:
What I mean by ‘unnecessary’ is that none of those things are essential, fundamental, or foundational to the core of the true Christian Faith….
The question must be raised: Necessary for what? If you mean necessary for faith in Christ so that one is justified by grace and therefore go to heaven when one dies, then, ‘Yes’, the fasting and the creeds are unnecessary. But that shows how different your understanding of what Christianity is compared to the early Church.
Your assumption is that the essence of Christianity is intellectual assent to a set of ideas about Christ and his death on the cross. But being a Christian is more holistic than that, it involves right worship, following a moral code, belonging to the Eucharistic community, and living under the leadership based on apostolic succession. Without Tradition one ends up with an intellectualized faith.
Your concern with the “core” of the true Christian Faith introduces a subtle bias. It assumes a minimalist approach to Christianity and implies the question: “What are the minimum requirements for being a Christian?” It is like a husband-to-be asking the pastor: “What are the minimum requirements for being married?” Rather, he should be asking: “What is the ultimate way I can show my beloved how much I love her?”
The weekly Wednesday and Friday fasts and the Lenten fasts don’t apply to you because you are not a part of the Orthodox Church. As a Protestant you are free to follow your conscience with respect to tradition, but if you want to be a part of the Orthodox Church then accepting the fasting practices is not an option. The area of spiritual disciplines in the Reformed tradition is a matter of individual preference. This goes back to Protestant Christianity rooted in an individualistic religion — the individual believer’s faith in God.. As a Protestant you are free to follow the Wednesday and Friday fasts if you wish; no one in your church is going to disagree with you or commend you for it. But as a Protestant who affirms the authority and inspiration of Scripture, where do you stand with respect to Jesus’ teaching on fasting in Matthew 6:16-17? Do you feel that it applies to Christians today? If so, can you describe your approach to fasting?
By following the fasting practices of the Orthodox Church I participate in the ascetic disciplines of the Church. But one must understand how Orthodoxy views the fasting disciplines. It is not an attempt to earn merit for getting into heaven, rather the discipline of fasting is part of our spiritual healing. Spiritual healing and growth in Christ are a major themes running through Orthodoxy. Fasting is also part of our spiritual growth. There are degrees of fasting. There are beginning levels of fasting for those who just converted to Orthodoxy and more advanced levels for monastics. It’s a struggle to keep the fasts so I admire those who are able to keep the fasts. At the same time fasting apart from prayer and the spirit of humility and charity is just a diet. If done properly the spiritual discipline of fasting combined with prayer can result in spiritual growth. There is a growth in controlling one’s bodily passions one gets in fasting that one normally will not get from just reading the Bible. So when you write: “no one’s salvation rests on the observance of special fasts” I suspect you have a rather narrow forensic understanding of salvation. Orthodoxy has a broader view of salvation in Christ.
But when you continue with “or to living a godly life” I would strongly disagree as an Orthodox Christian. But I will wait for you to explain what you meant by that. How do you define “godly life” and what practices do you believe are needed in order for a Christian to have a “godly life”? More importantly, who gets to decide what constitutes a “godly life”? You, your pastor, or the Church catholic? Or is a “godly life” a matter of individual conscience?
You write ¶ 9:
If they aren’t essential to the Faith, they may come and go as time and circumstances dictate.
The fact that Orthodoxy has held to the fasts, the weekly Eucharistic gathering, and the episcopacy for two thousand years shows how important they are to the historic Christian Faith. These were not added on but handed down from the beginning of Christianity.
The advantage of the Orthodox approach is that it removes the element of arbitrariness. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said twice in Matthew 6:16-17 “when you fast.” Here he assumes that his followers will fast, not that they might fast if they chose to. Do you follow this passage or do you regard it as adiaphora? If you want to be biblical with respect to fasting then there is the problem of no clear instructions about how or when to fast. As a Protestant I did not know how to put this passage into practice and my church said nothing about this passage. When I became an Orthodox Christian this passage took on a relevance it did not have before. When I learned that the Orthodox Church’s Wednesday and Friday fasts were also taught in the first century document, The Didache, I was impressed with Orthodoxy’s faithfulness to tradition. Protestantism on the other hand seems to have jettisoned this ancient spiritual discipline and evolved into an almost cerebral religion where intellectual assent to doctrine takes priority, and individual choice often overrides catholicity.
Probably the most glaring example of arbitrariness in Protestantism is the doctrine of the real presence in the Eucharist. Just twelve years after the Reformation began, the Protestant Reformation became divided over the Eucharist. Luther and Zwingli had the Scripture text in front of them and still could not come to an agreement. The failure of the Marburg Colloquy stems from Protestantism’s lack of an exegetical tradition that goes back to the apostles. A Protestant might label the real presence of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist as adiaphora but for the Orthodox the Eucharist lies at the heart of the Christian Faith. Where do you stand? Do you regard the real presence in the Eucharist as adiaphora or an important doctrine? Where does your local church stand on this issue?
No Faith Without Tradition?
You closed with the question in ¶ 9: “Have we lost the Faith without them?”
As a Protestant you have parts of the historic Christian Faith but you don’t have the entire package. As a classical Protestant you may have accepted the Nicene Creed without the Filioque, your church may celebrate the Eucharist every week and even have an episcopacy like the Anglican tradition does but for Orthodoxy all this is not the “the Faith” received from the apostles.
I’m not sure how you understand the Faith with capital “F” but for Orthodoxy capital “F” Faith is more than a set of doctrines, and more than a system of practices. It is life in the Church, the body of Christ, the guardian of the apostolic deposit who has been given the mandate to teach the nations. Kallistos Ware, quoting Father Lev Gillet, gives a very nice summation of the Orthodox Faith: “An Orthodox Christian is one who accepts the Apostolic Tradition and who lives in communion with the bishops who are the appointed teachers of this Tradition” (in The Inner Kingdom, p. 14; emphasis in original).
Christ promised the Holy Spirit to guide the Church. The inspiration of individual bishops or individual church fathers are not on the same level as that of the apostles. But when taken as a whole, either in the form of patristic consensus or through an Ecumenical Council, we find the Holy Spirit working in the Church Catholic on a level similar to the apostles. The Holy Spirit will lead the Church deeper into the truths of the Faith but will never lead the Church into a new or different Tradition.
Tradition for the Orthodox consists of the “whole package” based on the written and oral apostolic tradition interpreted by the bishops the successors to the apostles under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Scripture is not read objectively but from within a received exegetical tradition. This exegetical tradition is can be found in the early liturgies and in the writings of the church fathers. Orthodoxy is not concerned about defining the bare minimum necessary for salvation but rather living the fullness of the Christian life in the Church.