Sola Scriptura’s Epistemological Problems (1 of 4)

 

Response to David Roxas (1 of 4)

Robert

Re your statement “The fact is, imposing sola scriptura on the early Church Fathers IS a highly disputed matter, and does not hold up under scrutiny. Where is the supporting evidence?” I have a question or two.

1. Absent a body of oral tradition and the corpus of the church Fathers, which both developed over centuries and which the Fathers themselves did not have (Irenaus was not reading the Cappadocian Fathers nor was he celebrating the liturgy of Chrysostom) what is the source of Christian knowledge of God, the law, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ? From whence did the later developed corpus of the Fathers and the oral tradition receive it’s knowledge of the Gospel?

2. Irenaus writes: “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.” Adv. Her. 3.1.1

Are you contradicting the above statement of Irenaus which says the Scriptures are “the ground and pillar of our faith” or do you equate the later corpus of the Fathers and the body of oral (and mostly liturgical) tradition with Scripture? Are the writings of the Fathers and the liturgy of the church “theopneustos?” How does the Confession of Dosiethus agree with Irenaus when said confession is adamant that Christians should not read the Scriptures because they are obscure and require initiation into the secrets of theology?

3. Do you affirm or deny that the Scriptures are the revelation of God to man? If you affirm then what exactly is it you are rejecting when you reject and claim the Fathers rejected the principle of Sola Scriptura as being the source of our knowledge of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Did the Fathers derive their knowledge of God and Christ from some other source than scripture and if so what was it? 

David Roxas

[Note: This comment has been published as it was received.  The only modifications are the emphasis in bold font.]

 

My Response (1 of 4)

Thank you for engaging Orthodoxy with an open mind and a sincere heart.  What struck me as I read your comment was how your questions about sola scriptura and Tradition are so inescapably connected to epistemology.  How we know what we know about God, Christ, Scripture, and the Church, touch on issues relating to the philosophy of knowledge.  Rather than address your concerns in the comment section, I decided that many readers would benefit from a more extensive response in a separate article subdivided into several postings.

I will be addressing your questions in reverse order because the issue of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of Scripture is foundational to our understanding of the Church Fathers and Apostolic Tradition.  This past feast day of Pentecost offers us a salient context for your questions. This is because Christian epistemology cannot be separated from Christ’s promise that He would send the Holy Spirit to guide the Church into all Truth (John 14:26, 16:13). While Pentecost provides the context for reflecting on Orthodoxy’s understanding of Scripture and Apostolic Tradition, it also raises questions about Protestantism’s tenet of sola scriptura.

 

Does Orthodoxy Believe Scripture to Be Divinely Inspired?

You asked: 3. Do you affirm or deny that the Scriptures are the revelation of God to man?

Answer: Yes. The Orthodox Church affirms the Bible to be God’s revelation to man.  Furthermore, the Orthodox Church affirms Scripture to be divinely inspired.  I do not reject Scriptures as God’s revelation to man when I reject sola scriptura. That is not the central issue here.  What is central here is that nowhere do the Holy Scriptures attest that they alone are God’s revelation to man.  Christ assured the Apostles that they would be empowered by the Holy Spirit to be His witnesses (Acts 1:8) and that the Holy Spirit would lead them into all Truth (John 16:13). Nowhere do we read of Christ’s promising that the Holy Spirit would guide the Apostles in writing the divinely inspired New Testament which would be the exclusive source of doctrine and practice for the Church. Thus, Scripture never stood alone. It derives from a prior Holy Tradition which is inspired revelation of God. Scripture and Tradition always go together. This is not unique to the New Testament, but also true of the Old Testament. Moses, in writing the Pentateuch, drew on an ancient Tradition received from the Patriarchs and even Adam.

 

Oral Tradition – Apostle Paul preaching at Berea

The Biblical Witness to Oral Tradition

You asked: 3. Did the Fathers derive their knowledge of God and Christ from some other source than scripture and if so what was it? (Emphasis added.)

Answer: Yes. That other source is oral Apostolic Tradition.  The reason why I no longer hold to sola scriptura is that the Bible teaches the authority of oral Apostolic Tradition.  In 1 Thessalonians 1:13, we read that Apostle Paul considered his oral teachings to be the “word of God,” not mere human tradition.

And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who also believe. (1 Thessalonians 2:13; NIV; emphasis added)

The phrase “which you heard from us” indicates oral Tradition.  I have used the capitalized form “Tradition” in light of Paul’s description of his oral teachings being “the word of God.” Twice!  Here we have Scripture bearing witness to oral Tradition.

For Apostle Paul, oral Tradition was not an optional add-on, but essential to being a Christian.  He exhorted the Christians in Thessalonica:

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.  (2 Thessalonians 2:15; NIV: emphasis added)

The phrase “word of mouth” indicates oral Tradition and “letter” refers to Scripture.  By his use of the word “whether,” Paul assigns equal authority to oral and written Tradition.  Here we see Paul making an explicit reference to Tradition.  The original Greek “παραδόσεις” means “tradition.”  The popular New International Version Bible attempts to avoid this embarrassing fact by rendering the word as “teachings” and relegating “traditions” to the footnote.

We learn from 1 and 2 Thessalonians two important facts: (1) what the Thessalonian Christians heard from Paul (oral Tradition) is just as much the word of God as what Paul wrote to them (written Tradition), and (2) both oral and written Tradition were to be held onto steadfastly by Christians.  This obligation to adhere to Tradition applies to laity, e.g., the Thessalonian Christians.  This obligation applies to church leaders as well.  Paul admonished Bishop Timothy:

What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus.  Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. (2 Timothy 1:13-14; NIV; emphasis added)

Here we see the origins of oral Tradition and its subsequent transmission via the ordained bishops. In 1 Timothy, we learn that what Timothy had heard from Paul – oral Tradition, he was to safeguard.  In 2 Timothy 2:2, we learn that Paul intended for this oral Tradition to be passed on via the bishops to future generations.  Where the priest’s responsibility pertains to the local congregation, the bishop’s scope of responsibility is broader, often encompassing a network of local churches.  The job of the bishop was not to “theologize” (create new doctrine) but to safeguard the “good deposit” he had received from his predecessors.  It should be noted that in 1 and 2 Timothy there is no suggestion Paul ordering Timothy to write down what he had heard from Paul.

And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. (2 Timothy 2:2; NIV; emphasis added)

We learn from 1 and 2 Timothy four critical exegetical facts: (1) that the “pattern of sound teaching” and the “good deposit” that Timothy had heard from Paul comprised oral Tradition; (2) this oral Tradition was not a secret teaching, but one that was heard by “many witnesses”; (3) Timothy was commanded by Paul – no mere suggestion – to pass on this oral Tradition to “reliable men” laying the foundation for apostolic succession via the office of the bishop; and (4) Timothy was to do all this with the help of the Holy Spirit. Thus, oral Tradition is not mere “tradition of man,” but rather apostolic instructions inspired by the Holy Spirit, which the Apostles committed to their disciples, the bishops. Orthodoxy has a succession of bishops whose lineage can be traced back to the Apostles; Protestantism cannot make this claim.

If we examine 1 and 2 Timothy carefully, we find not a single verse that teaches sola scriptura.  The two verses, 2 Timothy 3:15-16, that many Protestants like to quote pertain not to the New Testament, but to the Old Testament.  That is not the Bible as we know it today.

. . . and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness . . . . (2 Timothy 3:15-16; NIV; emphasis added)

The fact that Timothy was half-Jewish helped prepare him to receive Jesus as the Messiah.  He grew up exposed to the God-breathed Jewish Torah – mostly likely having heard it read out loud in the local synagogue.  Protestants need to beware of assuming that Timothy as a little boy grew up reading the King James Bible.  What many Protestants have done with respect to 2 Timothy 3:15-16 is eisegesis – reading Protestantism’s sola scriptura into Paul’s letters.  If Protestants wish to prove sola scriptura from 2 Timothy 3:15-16, they must be able to exegete the following conclusions from the passage: (1) that Scripture stands apart from the Church, (2) that Scripture is the highest authority for Christian doctrine and practice, and (3) that Scripture is the standard for correcting the Church when it falls into error.

Another favorite bible passage of Evangelicals is the Great Commission.  This passage also provides important support for the traditioning process.

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20; NIV; emphasis added)

What is important to note about the Great Commission is that nowhere does Christ say anything about putting his teachings into written form.  This omission makes sense in light of Jesus’ ministry as a first-century Jewish rabbi. When we look at church history we see that early on the Apostles relied on the oral proclamation of the Gospel and oral instruction on the Christian way of living. Then, in due course, the Apostles would instruct their followers through letters and other writings. Nowhere do we find the Apostles saying anything like: “This written letter has greater authority than the verbal instructions that I gave earlier.” Indeed, as seen above, we find just the opposite to be true.

Regrettably, the way in which Mr. Roxas set up his questions in effect divorces both Holy Scripture and Apostolic Tradition from Pentecost, that is, from the Holy Spirit’s pedagogical presence in the early Church.  It is a fact that for the first several centuries, the Church functioned successfully and grew phenomenally without a formalized biblical canon.  The Holy Spirit – over several decades – inspired the Apostles as they wrote what would be the New Testament, then the Holy Spirit – over the next several centuries – guided the disciples of the Apostles, i.e., the bishops, in discerning which of all the writings circulating were indeed inspired Scripture. Protestantism promotes a naive and implicitly ahistorical attitude toward what was a long process that spanned several centuries and deeply involved the Church Catholic.

One of the assumptions underlying sola scriptura seems to be that the Bible alone is divinely inspired and everything else is human, flawed, and to be viewed with distrust.  This separation of Scripture from Tradition creates for Protestantism a black-and-white dichotomy in the way it does theology and views church history.  Yet, the Apostles did not insist on separating Scripture from Holy Tradition, then denigrating Tradition to a subordinate position.  Neither did the Apostles elevate Scripture over the Church.  What we find in the New Testament and the writings of the Church Fathers is Scripture and Holy Tradition in complementary juxtaposition to each other.

Robert Arakaki

 

 

16 comments:

  1. “Πάσα γραφή θεόπνευστος και ωφέλιμος……” (2 Tim. 3:16-17) The word “θεοπνευστος” (divinely inspired) is an ADJECTIVE; as such, the excerpt could also have been written as “πάσα θεόπνευστος Γραφή” – the same way that the French language can place the adjective AFTER the noun (une femme triste). Therefore the excerpt in question when correctly read, according to the Koine Greek syntax of the Gospel, is: “Every divinely inspired writing is ALSO beneficial, (ΚΑΙ ωφέλιμος) for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness …..” – essentially saying one should be cautious when reading ANY AND EVERY writing, which may well be detrimental. Unfortunately, the Greek text is “seen” with English syntax eyes, hence the incorrect interpretation, that EVERY WRITING is divinely inspired… Not to mention that the absolute statement of “EVERY WRITING” can easily be interpreted as including non Christian “holy books”..

  2. Dear Robert,
    As a Protestant, sola scriptura is probably my biggest hangup. I am not yet convinced that the Orthodox Church is the true church, but I am Protestant more by default than by conviction.
    Prometheus.

    1. Prometheus,

      In my seven year journey to Orthodoxy, sola scriptura was relinquished fairly early, but it took me longer to come to the conclusion that the Orthodox Church is the Church. Please keep engaging us. Your insights are valuable.

      Robert

  3. Robert,

    I have been a regular reader of your blog for a couple of years now. I have really appreciated you work. Sadly, my first comment on your blog is a point of quibbling correction. I noticed that the icon you tagged as being Paul preaching at Athens is technically Paul preaching at Berea. The icon you posted is actually in the town of Berea Greece. You can even see the Greek begin to spell Berea in the last word on the icon. It was one of the more memorable icons I saw during my trip to Greece many years ago.

    Blessings,
    JohnMark

    1. JohnMark,

      Thank you for the correction! I should have taken the time to read the Greek inscription on the icon. And thank you for reading the OrthodoxBridge.

      Robert

  4. A fine beginning answer Robert. I don’t know IF…reading my bible far more carefully made me
    Orthodox…or becoming Orthodox caused me to read my bible more carefully. Either way,
    the Apostolic exhortations to Holy Tradition…IN my bible were as much a shock to me, as
    was the ABSENCE of the word “Only”. Bottom line…in time as I studied the making of the NT Canon…I grew to see Orthodoxy is simply MORE BIBLICAL and a more honest reading of Holy Scripture. Looking forward to Parts 2-4 and the critical issue of Epistemology.

  5. It should also be noted (and you might be getting to this in a later reply) – Irenaeus ALSO indicates that Scripture can be manipulated to form a picture of a fox rather than the King. Tradition is not only a part of this but emphasizes the interpretation of Scripture itself. Not one place in the New Testament for instance really helps alone to interpret the Old Testament. Apostolic preaching included this component. Also if one reads Justin Martyr and his description of what is done on the Lord’s Day it very closely resembles what one can refer to as “the historic liturgy” – a setup including two services, Word and Eucharist that remains in pretty much all ancient and traditional churches in some form. Couple this with the Rule of Faith for Baptisms the world over and I’d say you have evidence that Irenaeus does not mean what most Protestants think he means…at least he does not mean Sola Scriptura as they often interpret it.

  6. Hi Robert,
    As David Roxas brings up the Confession of Dositheus l’ll post the part he referred to here so I can explain

    The question that Dositheus is referring to is “Should the Divine Scriptures be read in the vulgar tongue [common language] by all Christians?”

    His reply is

    “No. Because all Scripture is divinely-inspired and profitable {cf. 2 Timothy 3:16}, we know, and necessarily so, that without [Scripture] it is impossible to be Orthodox at all. Nevertheless they should not be read by all, but only by those who with fitting research have inquired into the deep things of the Spirit, and who know in what manner the Divine Scriptures ought to be searched, and taught, and finally read. But to those who are not so disciplined, or who cannot distinguish, or who understand only literally, or in any other way contrary to Orthodoxy what is contained in the Scriptures, the Catholic Church, knowing by experience the damage that can cause, forbids them to read [Scripture]. Indeed, it is permitted to every Orthodox to hear the Scriptures, that he may believe with the heart unto righteousness, and confess with the mouth unto salvation {Romans 10:10}. But to read some parts of the Scriptures, and especially of the Old [Testament], is forbidden for these and other similar reasons. For it is the same thing to prohibit undisciplined persons from reading all the Sacred Scriptures, as to require infants to abstain from strong meats.”

    The context of this the numerous translations of the Bible being pumped out by Protestants in Greek, Arabic, etc that were biased (Protestantising marginal notes, shorter canon, MT as the base text, poor grammatical constructions) and the strong urging by Protestants to read the Bible privately (along with their literature) to convert them. The “no” from Dositheus might sound shocking to modern ears but he goes on to quality his point quite well. Obviously, Dositheus considers the liturgical reading of Scripture to be its proper context. He also wants people to have a proper grounding in the Faith before they go off on their own. I’m not sure where David Roxas got the idea of being initiated into the ‘secrets of theology’ from? Dositheus has no problem with lay people reading the Scriptures. He is also aware of how people can go “off the rails” when they get fixated on parts of the Old Testament.

    I know from experience how whole (Protestant) groups can go crazy by fixating of Revelations. I knew a group that spent 12 months studying Revelations and it didn’t end well.

    How can we link what Dositheus says to Irenaeus. Firstly, as there was no printing in the 2nd century and literary was only at 5 to 10 % Ireneaus is not referring to a ‘Bible Study Group’ in any modern sense. As Ireneaus uses ‘Gospel’ in the singular he is referring to the message not necessarily the books, which fits in well with Dositheus. As most churches only had one or two copies of the Gospels a catechism class would have been oral not a chapter and verse study. The Gnostics were very much ‘Study Groups’ gone crazy so Ireneaus was critical of their private (secret) nature.

    By the way the chapter and verse numbers are a manifestation of the Protestant desire to proof text quickly. They date from the 1550s.

    As far as I can see there is no contradiction between Ireneaus and Dositheus. I agree with Dositheus- I am totally against handing out Bibles to 10 year olds and to New Guinea natives that only have a basic knowledge of the faith!!

    1. Stefano,

      Thank you for your comment. I wrote a lengthy response to David Roxas’ comment. What I did was to excerpt and italicize his comment then post my response below. If you see anything by David Roxas that you want to respond to, I suggest you wait until that portion appears in italics. Parts 2, 3, and 4 will be coming soon!

      Robert

  7. Robert, I was going through the post and comments on the original Sola Scriptura thread. One thing you said was that the concept of Sola fideli absent anything else led to a disembodied faith.

    Yet Jesus Christ is Incarnate.

    I would love to see you expand on your statement.

    1. Michael,

      You raised an interesting point – one I hope that will become a full-fledged article. Historic Christianity understood faith in Christ to be manifested through sacraments like baptism and the Eucharist. The early Reformers held to this view but later generations of Protestants came to understand faith as something exclusively interior and subjective. This shift can be seen in the English Puritans’ focus on “converting grace,” that is, faith as a personal religious experience. In other words, one could have been raised a Christian in the church and be in full agreement with Christian doctrines but if one did not have this experience of “converting grace” one was not truly a Christian — one was just a Christian on the outside. As time went on, Evangelicalism emerged in the early 1800s in the frontier revivals. What started out as the mourners’ bench in time evolved into the altar call or the sawdust trail. In the 1950s, Protestant evangelism took a new turn with a little booklet, “Four Spiritual Laws.” Evangelicals would share the Four Spiritual Laws with friends and family, and with strangers on the street. All that was needed to be saved was to agree with the propositions listed in the booklet and pray what is known as the “sinners prayer” found at the end of the booklet. Baptism and church are placed in a secondary category of good works. They come after this act of faith, but are not integrally linked to faith. According to this faith tradition, once one prays the sinners prayer one is a genuine born-again Christian — one does not need baptism to become a Christian; all that baptism does is make visible and public what happened inside one’s heart.

      In contrast, the biblical understanding of faith is one of a personal trust in Jesus as one’s Lord and baptism as a covenantal act by which one comes under Jesus’ lordship and incorporation into the Church – the body of Christ. Becoming a Christian involves the whole person: body, mind, heart, and soul. We commit our whole being to Christ in baptism and in the Eucharist. As Christians, we do not read the Bible alone; rather we hear the Scripture read out loud in church, and we are taught the meaning of Scripture in the sermon. Personal, private Bible reading is commendable but can never take the place of hearing Scripture in the Church on Sunday morning. Many Evangelicals view the Lord’s Supper as a symbolic reminder which means that they view it as a stimulus to mental reflection on what Christ did for us on the Cross. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, believes that the Lord’s Supper is more than a reminder of what Christ did for us on the Cross but that we actually receive the body and blood of Christ. For the Orthodox, something greater than mental stimulation takes place in the Liturgy. Rather, an awesome transformation takes place in the Eucharist. For the Orthodox, the Incarnation is not a remote historical event but a present reality. The Eucharist and the Church flow from the Incarnation.

      This disembodiment of faith so common among Evangelicals takes place through two maneuvers: (1) faith is understood as an interior subjective experience of an individual detached from the sacraments and (2) priority is given to individual private reading of the Bible over corporate, liturgical reading of the Bible. In closing, let me point that while there is much to commended about Evangelicalism it is unbalanced. What I find problematic about Evangelicalism is not so much what it emphasizes but rather what it denigrates. Orthodoxy provides this balance. Christ in the Incarnation came to save the whole person. Christian salvation is holistic. We come to experience this holistic salvation through the sacraments and the liturgical life of the Church.

      Robert

      1. The balance. Yes. Although I did not come to the Church from a Protestant background​ the imbalance I experienced from different groups in my journey was striking to me. I saw groups that stuck to a very strick program of moral teaching. Other groups allowed “mercy” for everything. I was looking to heal the bifurcation I saw in myself, so neither was attractive especially when the Scripture clearly shows both strictness and mercy are to be held together in dynamic tension.

        The Orthodox Church showed me and is still showing me the balance. Vladimir Lossky in his Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church makes the point that the Christian life is about such balance.

        Heresey and error seem to begin as men favor one side over another when both sides are required for truth. The fundamental reality is that Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine without mixture or confusion. That is hard for poor little old humans to hold in balance as Christ does. Nevertheless it is that reality that requires an embodied faith and allows for our salvation.

        Glory be to God for all things.

      2. As you note an embodied faith is sacramental. It has to be for the Theanthropos, the God-man Jesus Christ to be fully present.

  8. Robert, have you ever looked at the Divine Liturgy from the offerings that take place building to the central offering of the bread and the wine?

    All things are offered up, our sins as well as each other. A disembodied faith could not do that.

    This discussion puts it in a whole new light.

  9. Great job Robert.

    I found the following from your comment particularly striking;

    “What I find problematic about Evangelicalism is not so much what it emphasizes but rather what it denigrates. ”

    Thanks for your work.

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