One of my ongoing fascinations is what I have come to refer to in my head as “the Evangelical appropriation of tradition.” Charismatics are celebrating Lent. Baptists are talking about the Eucharist. The inscrutable maybe-universalist and now Oprah-darling Rob Bell is even using the phrase the tradition. Maybe this tradition stuff isn’t so bad. I can branch out a little. I can line up some Athanasius next to my MacArthur, and a volume or two of Gregory of Nyssa next to my Bonhoeffer. Osteen still goes somewhere preferably near the bottom. (Who gave me that book, anyway?) Maybe we’ll put Origen down there with him. Both are questionable, right?. Oh, hey, I’ve heard Ratzinger is kind of interesting. And that “wounded healer” Nouwen guy’s onto something. Has anyone heard of someone named “Schmemann”?
Welcome to the club, the Lutherans and certain Reformed types say. We’ve been waiting for you. Help yourself to some creeds. We hope you’ll stay for some liturgy.
And we hope you’ve discovered the difference between sola and solo scriptura.
Solo scriptura, it is argued, is what most Evangelicals would probably understand as their basic matrix of church authority—the Bible is above everything. Some might say that the Bible is the only authority in church life, while others might say it is the primary authority in church life, but it’s still over everything. What the Bible says trumps anything some teacher or cleric or council might say. They’ve all been wrong, but the Bible is always right.
Hold on now, say the sola scriptura adherents. The Church has a place. The tradition has a place. They’re not above the Bible, mind you, but they can inform how we read the Bible. The Church has to interpret the Bible, and the vast resources in Christian history can inform that interpretation. To summarize that position, let me quote a passage from a 2013 essay by Reformed Baptist writer Matthew Barrett (“‘Sola Scriptura’ Radicalized and Abandoned”):
I wish I could say that all evangelicals today have a crisp, accurate grasp of sola scriptura. I am hopeful that many understand how a Protestant view of Scripture and tradition differs from Rome’s position. However, I am less confident that evangelicals understand the difference between sola and solo scriptura, for in some cases the latter is assumed to be the identity of the former.
Consequently, some evangelicals, intentionally or unintentionally, have followed in the footsteps of Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) who said, “I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me, and I am as much on my guard against reading them today, through the medium of my own views yesterday, or a week ago, as I am against being influenced by any foreign name, authority, or system whatever.”
Ironically, such a view cannot preserve sola scriptura. Sure, tradition is not being elevated to the level of Scripture. But the individual is! As Keith Mathison laments, in this view everything is “evaluated according to the final standard of the individual’s opinion of what is and is not scriptural.” To be sure, such a view lends itself more in the direction of individual autonomy than scriptural accountability.
So how do we correct such a mistake? First, we must guard ourselves from an individualistic mindset that prides itself on what “I think” rather than listening to the past. In order to do so, we must acknowledge, as Mathison points out, that “Scripture alone” doesn’t mean “me alone.”
Second, tradition is not a second infallible source of divine revelation alongside Scripture; nevertheless, where it is consistent with Scripture it can and does act as a ministerial authority. The historic creeds and confessions are a case in point. While the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Creed are not to be considered infallible sources divine revelation, nevertheless, their consistency with Scripture means that the church spoke authoritatively against heresy. Therefore, it should trouble us, to say the least, should we find ourselves disagreeing with orthodox creeds that have stood the test of time. Remember, innovation is often the first indication of heresy. Hence, as Timothy George explains, the reformers sought to tie their “Reformation exegesis to patristic tradition” in order to provide a “counterweight to the charge that the reformers were purveyors of novelty in religion,” though at the end of the day the fathers’ “writings should always be judged by the touchstone of Scripture, a standard the fathers themselves heartily approved.”
Abandoning solo scriptura does not require us to go to the other extreme, namely, elevating tradition to the level of Scripture. But it does require the humility to realize that we are always standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. For the reformers, the early church fathers were valuable (though not infallible) guides in biblical interpretation. In that light, we would be wise to listen to Luther this Reformation Day: “Now if anyone of the saintly fathers can show that his interpretation is based on Scripture, and if Scripture proves that this is the way it should be interpreted, then the interpretation is right. If this is not the case, I must not believe him” (LW 30:166; WA 14:31).
I’m overjoyed, of course, that Baptists, Lutherans, Calvinists and others should want to read the Church Fathers, sign onto the ancient creeds, and so forth. This is very good news, and I can only believe that it is likely they will thereby move closer to the faith that I hold as an Orthodox Christian.
At the same time, in reading this, even though it is certainly far more nuanced than the “no creed but the Bible” homespuns one usually finds in a Baptist church, I am nevertheless left with the sense that this “sola” vs. “solo” business is really a distinction without a difference.
As someone who spent ten years as a theatrical stagehand, and now as a pastor of a not-large parish, whenever I read things like this, my first thought is to logistics—how will this work? What does it mean, practically speaking, to be a “sola scriptura” and not a “solo scriptura” Christian?
On the ground, even the “solo” types read Bible commentaries, listen to sermons on Sunday, and largely resemble their co-religionists when it comes to theological matters. That means that, even if they deny it de jure, the de facto reality is that they are at least subconsciously submitting themselves to interpretive authorities outside of themselves. There is an interpretive community at work even for the most isolated snake-handler in the hollers of West Virginia. That community probably consists of at least his pastor, probably his parents, other members of his church, his Sunday School teacher, some books and tracts he’s picked up over the years, and maybe the preacher he listens to on the radio on Saturday nights.
He might believe in “no creed but the Bible,” but he’s still being influenced, whether he knows it or not.
Yet even with all those influences, he will still feel free to take his pastor aside and let him know about something he read in one of Paul’s epistles that he thinks flatly contradicts what was said in the Sunday sermon. And he may even hold some beliefs that are different from everyone else’s in his church. In fact, nearly everyone there has some ideas that aren’t in synch with everyone else’s. No one really minds, though. They’re held together by a common inheritance of their particular kind of theology and spiritual life.
Enter the “sola” reformer who will bring these snake-handlers the good news of the “real” Reformation belief about the Bible.
Here, read this creed, he says. Doesn’t it square with what the Bible says? Isn’t this just the right way of reading the Bible? And how about this Basil fellow from the fourth century? Hasn’t he got some interesting ideas about the Holy Spirit? What do you think about how that lines up with Pentecost in Acts? Seems okay, right?
He gets a few of these snake-handlers to break off and form the First Reformed Snake-Handling Bible Church of Pinch, West Virginia (yes, it’s a real place), and they’re now reciting the Nicene Creed, doing something that looks a little more liturgical on Sunday, and having Wednesday night Bible studies where names like “Augustine” and “Irenaeus” get floated occasionally.
That’s not how it looks for most “sola” believers, though, some might say. Okay, but even for the stodgiest and most liturgical of Magisterial Reformation churches, I am going to assert that the basic dynamics are really the same. The only thing that is actually different is that the set of influences on the individual believer now includes more historical documents.
Is this better than chucking every Bible commentary that’s more than thirty years old and clutching to the death my last copy of The Late, Great Planet Earth?
Yes, of course.
Is it a fundamentally different kind of authority in the spiritual life, though?
No, it is not.
Supposedly, the difference here is humility, i.e., that the “sola” approach is not individualistic. As Barrett puts it, “we must guard ourselves from an individualistic mindset that prides itself on what ‘I think’ rather than listening to the past. In order to do so, we must acknowledge, as Mathison points out, that ‘Scripture alone’ doesn’t mean ‘me alone.'”
Great, but what does it mean to “listen” to the past? Does it mean that I have to submit my mind to the interpretations of St. Ignatius of Antioch on the reality of the Eucharist? Or if, when I read John 6, I still come away with Zwinglian memorialism, I decide that Ignatius is wrong and “the Bible” is right? Some would say yes, but isn’t that really just what “I think” versus what Ignatius thinks?
After all, if tradition is not to be elevated “above” Scripture, then that means that Scripture always trumps tradition, right? But how do I find out what Scripture says? By reading it, right? But what happens if my reading of Scripture doesn’t agree with someone else’s? Why, when I read John 6, is my interpretation correct, while others who read that same passage get it wrong?
Is it because I am smart enough, sincere enough, and well-read enough, and they are lacking in one or more of those three categories? Will everyone who is intelligent, honest and well-informed all read the Bible in exactly the same way?
You see? The problem is still there. Saying Scripture is “above” tradition is really saying “my reading of Scripture is above tradition.” But the problem is still not solved as to why, when I read the Scripture, I get it right, while all those readers functioning in “the tradition” are getting it wrong. Or perhaps some of them are right, while others are wrong. Surely the right ones are smart, sincere and well-read. And the wrong ones… they’re just not.
Okay, it doesn’t have to be that way. The Church is there to help. The Church will interpret the Bible together. I don’t have to go it alone.
But what if my church is wrong? What about when my church interprets it in a manner that contradicts the Methodists down the block? Who’s right? Just read the Scripture? But that’s what I’ve been doing!
What is missing here is ecclesiology.
Those attempting to derive the perfect method for interpreting the Scripture (or, at least, perfect enough to get all the really essential stuff in order) are missing things the Scripture itself says about the Church and about tradition, too.
I’ll spare you all the detail, but I’ll at least point out that the Scripture calls the Church “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) and that we should “stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” (2 Thess. 2:15). And everything that happens in that great mission of the Apostles is finally churchly, finally ecclesial. What they found is not a series of Bible studies and schools of interpretive method, but churches, real Eucharistic communities who continued to function for centuries before the New Testament finally coalesced into what we now have.
And they kept functioning the same way even after that happened. The idea that the Scripture they’d produced was now “above” the tradition that had produced it would not have made any sense to them. Were they supposed to go back and revise all the things they’d been doing for centuries now that the Bible was around, even though when they put the Bible together, none of it contradicted what they had been doing?
Keith Mathison (the author of this “sola/solo” distinction) asserts correct interpretation is according to the “rule of faith” (regula fidei) that has been in place for 2,000 years. But where exactly is that to be found? What defines it?
In the end, the arbiter is still the individual. Mathison reaches towards ecclesiology in his arguments, but falls short when he claims that traditional ecclesiology makes the Church “autonomous” apart from God. God inspires the Scripture but not the Church, it seems. But who will interpret the Scriptures correctly? Who will correct the Church?
One can say that the Church has authority to interpret Scripture, but which Church? Is it all of them? What about the fact that they don’t all agree? And no, they don’t even all agree on essentials. “Which Church?” is a critical question, and it’s one that isn’t being asked very much in these discussions. Still further, “What is the Church?” is also just as critical, and I fear it’s also gotten lost somewhere. The second question finally leads to the first. If you can figure out what the Church is, then you will realize that not all “churches” are the Church.
If not all churches are the Church, then that means there’s got to be one that is that One. The Bible talks about only one.
In the end, the “sola” method is really the same as the “solo” one. It’s still fallible people claiming to read an infallible document and deriving their authority from their reading. That reading is still “above” church and tradition. The only difference between this and the “solo” approach is that the “solos” see it as so far above that they needn’t pay those things much, if any, mind. A “sola” reader might pay far more attention to history, but he is still its master, not its servant. He doesn’t have to put himself in obedience to any of those people.
So the “sola” reads Athanasius and Origen, while the “solo” reads Swindoll and Lewis, and both are free to put those books all back on the shelf when they think they contradict Scripture. In the end, it’s still the individual by himself, judging all these things for himself. How else could it be otherwise?
Part of the problem here is that the main lens through which most Protestants view questions of tradition and ecclesiology is marked with their image of Roman Catholicism. It is seen as a top-heavy, controlling magisterium who demand obedience and have an infallible papacy at their center. And that infallible papacy draws his pronouncements from two separate sources, Scripture and Tradition, and we suspect that he’s making up some stuff of his own to stick into the “Tradition” side that will suit him.
That is a caricature, of course, but even the more honest version is not the way these things work in the Orthodox Church. For the Orthodox, we have no single infallible, authoritative interpreter of Scripture. (Protestants rightly protest this, but they finally each make themselves into their own infallible interpreters. Saying “I could be wrong” or “I’m standing on the shoulders of giants” doesn’t really help. You’re still in charge.)
We also do not regard Holy Tradition as a separate source of authority. Indeed, none of these things are “sources” at all. Rather, the Scriptures are at the center of Tradition and inseparable from it. Holy Tradition produced the Scriptures and is the proper context for their interpretation. For us, Scripture is not “over” Tradition nor “with” it, but rather, Scripture is within Tradition. Far from lessening its authority, this is the Scripture properly enthroned within its natural sphere of influence. A king outside his court is subject to all kinds of dangers, but within it, he is at home and everything is sensitive to him. Holy Tradition is the natural home of Holy Scripture.
And Holy Tradition is not simply anything one might find lurking somewhere in Christian history. (This, I think, is what Rob Bell means when he speaks of “the tradition”: “Oh, I found this somewhere in an old book.”) Rather, it is the living reality of Christ in His Church, vivifying the Church by the Holy Spirit. No new dogmas are revealed, because everything was revealed in Christ. There is an ongoing revelation, but it is a revelation of the same things, the same God Who wishes to be known by every person. That is why not everything ever said by every Christian writer is really part of Holy Tradition. Some got some things wrong, but it was not individual believers reading their Bibles who knew better and then corrected them. It was the Church, acting according to the apostolic succession given “to bind and to loose,” which sifted out what really represented the tradition and what didn’t.
Someone’s always got to “bind and loose.” Will it be people who were ordained by those ordained by those ordained by the Apostles (and so on), or will it just be me and my Bible? Or just me and my church community, founded by some fellow who settled here just a few decades back? Do you get the authority to “bind and loose” just by claiming it?
R.C. Sproul had this to say about his view of Christian tradition:
Although tradition does not rule our interpretation, it does guide it. If upon reading a particular passage you have come up with an interpretation that has escaped the notice of every other Christian for two-thousand years, or has been championed by universally recognized heretics, chances are pretty good that you had better abandon your interpretation. (The Agony of Deceit, p. 34-35)
But who will make you abandon it? Does anyone have the authority to do that? And what if you disagree about whether those heretics are “universally recognized” or whether an interpretation has really “escaped the notice of every other Christian for two-thousand years”?
This is finally the problem with Protestants laying claim to elements of Christian tradition while still retaining sola scriptura—it all becomes just “texts,” resources that can be called on or discarded as the individual sees fit for himself. I like it when Basil speaks highly of Scripture but not when Ignatius speaks highly of the bishop. I like it when Athanasius insists on the homoousios but not all that “man becomes god” stuff. I like Chrysostom’s commentaries on Scripture but not Cyprian’s insistence that you cannot have God for your Father without the Church for your mother.
They still just get to decide for themselves what they will listen to and what they won’t. “Sola” as distinct from “solo” scriptura is really just a better-read version of the same thing.
I love that some Protestants are getting in touch with Christian history. But they shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking that they’re being faithful to that legacy if they do not pay heed to so much of it. And of course one cannot be faithful to everything in Christian history—there are heretics and dragons lurking there, after all. But if navigating those waters in a craft I designed and built myself is unlikely to bring me to a safe harbor, then getting together with my neighbors to build it after we read some old books together is no guarantee, either.
My hope is that those who choose to sail those waters will come bumping up to the Ark of Salvation, which is the Church. There are lots of life preservers and rescue teams ready to help.
But I really am glad some of them are sailing. Really glad. This is very good news.
Suggested further reading:
- Contra Sola Scriptura, by O&H author Robert Arakaki (Orthodox).
- Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority, by Bryan Cross and Neal Judisch (Roman Catholic)
- Sola or Solo Scriptura? (And Other Questions That Don’t Make Grammatical Sense), by Fr. Jonathan A. Mitchican (Anglican) (NB: His one mention of the Orthodox gets us wrong—not everything in every conciliar canon is considered Holy Tradition, and we absolutely do not regard these things as “addendums to God’s Word.”)
- Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and Apostolic Succession: A Response to Bryan Cross and Neal Judisch, by Keith Mathison (Reformed) (This is a response to the Catholic piece above. I find it unconvincing, but it’s worth noting, anyway.)
This article was very informative, and I enjoyed reading the counter arguements.
The points made in this article are concise and convicting, so I pray that any Protestant reading this article will at least wonder their position in Christianity!
I have noticed a twist on sola scriptura in my mainline Protestant tradition: difficult interpretive decisions (like John 6) are left up to “scholars” who teach in our mainline seminaries and colleges. And the position that has the most nodding heads wins. So it becomes groupthink and an echo chamber, rather than the sincere searching for truth.
Although I like and agree with much of what your writing here, I strongly disagree with your view of the church. While I do believe in the Great Tradition of the undivided church (first seven councils), after the Great Schism no church can claim to play the same role. After the division, all we have left is Great TraditionS or denominations without unity, none of them speaking authoritatively for all the churches.
So in doing theology of any type, we must first look to the scriptures and do proper Biblical, considering both Old and New Testament passages related to the subject at hand. After this we do Historical Theology and first turn to the Great Tradition, followed by the Great Traditions which include the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, Methodists… Etc…
In doing Historical Theology we must also admit that all Christian traditions can and do error, mix cultural elements in with their theology and practice and draw from and react against philosophical sources in their location and time in history in making their systematic theology. This is called the cultural captivity of the church, which is natural and needed, as well as can be dangerous and deadly.
Because all Christian traditions are trapped within the culture that created them, no one traditions can claim authority over the others without practicing cultural imperialism or converting others to the culture their tradition in is as part of their “gospel”. Should One have to accept German culture and thought patterns in order to be a Christian, for that matter Greek or Latin… or does the true church transcend cultural captivity?
So regarding the “Church”, we must use a broad brush here and look to see how all the Great Traditions have made use of the scriptures, rather than have the starting point being that only our traditions has it correct.
Doing historical theology is extremely important, so that we can escape it just being the individuals reading of scripture, AS WELL AS being able to escape our one Christian tradition’s cultural captivity.
Because they spoke in unity, while at the same time allowed for diversity on non-central area of thought and practice. There is no longer unity among the Christian traditions, therefor no authority…. It is each tradition for itself… This is why we must be driven to not only do proper historical theology, but also dialog with other traditions. … However, after the scriptures the Great Tradition of the undivided church is authoritative, because they spoke with unity on central matters of the faith.
But even before the Schism there were times when not everyone spoke together in unity—there were heresies and schisms that put people outside the Church. That sometimes even happened on a large scale. You seem to be saying that there is no such thing after the Great Schism.
Why not? Why did the Great Schism make all the pieces independently legitimate and not instead yield only one legitimate Church and others who were in schism from it?
What makes legitimate Church? The Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, and Moravian churches are all valid Christian Traditions. So long as a church preaches the Gospel of Jesus Christ, faithfully teaches the New Testament, and can in honesty confess the Creeds of the undivided church, they are in de facto standing in apostolic secession. What ever else the Great Traditions may disagree on regarding faith and practice matters little, let diversity by the rule regarding secondary issues.
The Coptic Orthodox claims that their being pushed out of the Great Tradition was the result of a misunderstanding, a matter of semantics. I tend to agree with them and would include them as one of the Great Traditions.
However, not one of these churches is an actual continuation of the UNTIED CHURCH, once the Great Schism took place, there has been NO authoritative church body that speaks for all churches…. there are only denotations including… the Orthodox Churches in the same position of all the other churches.
If there was still a unified church, that church would speak for all churches… my guess is this will never again be the case.
You’ve made lots of assertions here, but as you may imagine, the Orthodox disagree with many of them. To take but one example, apostolic succession requires more than just faithful preaching, teaching and confession (though of course I’d argue that only the Orthodox do that, the others having fallen into various heresies). Apostolic succession also requires actually being able to trace unbroken ordination from the Apostles. This is how it was defined in the early Church (Irenaeus gives a pretty clear outline of this in the 2nd c.), and it’s how the Orthodox have kept it since then.
As for “speaking for all the churches,” well, I do not see why the one, true Church has to speak on behalf of schismatics and heretics in order to be the one, true Church. For the Orthodox, the Church has never been divided and cannot be. Is Christ divided? For us, that is what you are saying.
In terms of your last common… I we agree that we disagree. This is why I am remain Paleo-Orthodox and never converted to any of the Orthdox Churches. Bishops are not required for these to be true church, but when useful it is ok to have bishops. While we look to the Great Tradistion with respect, extra Biblical devolptments that resulted from cultural or structural situation the churches faces are not required for all churches in all times and are optional. The Great Traditions is not infallible, not untouched by cultural syncretism, and not without influence of secular political powers… So it is not outside of need for reform. Never the less, after the Holy Scriptures, we must next look to the Great Tradition, before moving on to the Great TraditionS… They idea the Holy Spirits work is limited to one denomination or church government is creaky not a Biblical idea… Nor has that been proven in church history, as churches of many flavors has proven to produce Godly people full of the love and light of Jesus Christ. …. Lutherans understand apostolic secession is different way than Orthodox, while we believe in it, we do not feel it is continued on in the same way.
Since bishops were ordained by the Apostles (who traveled great distances to do so) and then continued unbroken in the early Church, at what point were they no longer needed and why?
And I did not say that the Spirit does not work outside the Church. He does. But it’s still outside.
Brett Pavia seems to be confused. The Lutherans hold to the four councils through Chalcedon. The Anglicans aren’t certain how many they hold to. Enter the variety of Continuing Anglicans which have listed the number of councils they hold to–some seven, some four, some five, etc. I don’t know too much about the Moravians–I think they follow more closely to Eastern Orthodoxy on the councils and the sacramental theology. Other than that, I do agree that the first seven ecumenical councils need to be held onto faithfully for a church to have claims to orthodoxy.
Maybe I am not saying this clearly enough… The fruit of the Holy Spirit is seen not only in the worship service, but even more importantly in the lives of the people and their impact on the culture around them. … If as the Orthodox seem to believe that they have special access to the Holy Spirit that no other Christian tradition have … Than why are they not better Christians? Why do they seem to fail to make a long term positive influence on any of the nations they have a majority in? In America, why do the high tend to use the church to hide away form the culture around them, rather then influence it for Christ?…. On the flip side, in non-orthodox churches, why do we see people transformed and powerfully Christ-like lives? Why have we seen in the history of western Christian traditions great examples of they church changing their culture for the good? If the Holy Spirit only works in lesser way outside the Orthodox Church, than it should be visible in the fruits of the church and lack of fruit in non-Orthdoox churches… However the opposite could be argued. If you have proof of better fruit, I might believe you and convert… Seriously… Prove the Orthodox Church, it’s people, and the cultures it touches are more GODLY and Christ-like because they have special access to the Holy Spirit and I will convert…. Otherwise you are just spitting out meaningless words and ideas that are not proven over time.
Who exactly is defining “more GODLY and Christ-like”? What does it mean to be a “better Christian”? You tip your hand here to define it yourself, that what a believer does outside of worship is “more important” than what he does in worship. If that is really the case, then the life to come is entirely ungodly, because all indications are that it is nearly entirely about worship. But Orthodoxy does not define it that way.
Further, as long as one is presuming to be a judge of others (which is what you are asking), you should really compare saints to saints. That is, how do those who are following a particular way to the best of its precepts compare to those from another communion who are also following that way to the best of its precepts. Even if one wants to go down that path (which I think is mostly pointless), where exactly are the Evangelical saints who are seeing God, raising the dead, healing the sick, foretelling the future, reading others’ hearts, with incorrupt bodies after death, shining literally with the uncreated light of God, etc., etc.? There might be some, for all I know, but I have actually never heard of any. If you’re interested in some of those people in the Orthodox tradition, well, we have literally thousands upon thousands like that.
In terms of this statement you made “As for “speaking for all the churches,” well, I do not see why the one, true Church has to speak on behalf of schismatics and heretics in order to be the one, true Church. For the Orthodox, the Church has never been divided and cannot be. Is Christ divided? For us, that is what you are saying.”
Why do you assume that after the great schism the Orthodox Churches retained, stated inside, or still have ownership over the Great Tradition of the early church? Unity was the only thing that gave it any kind of authority. Once that unity was broken, the Orthodox Churches came out no better off than the Roman Catholic Church or any of their Protestant churches. … You make it sound like the Roman Catholic Church schism was rejected by the a unified church, like the Coptic church was for example. However, this is clearly not the case. Both the eastern and western churches decided to go their own direction and break the unity. …. Who is to say that it was not the Orthodox Church that broke from the Roman Church? … Both lost their roots and were cut off from having exclusive ownership the Great Tradition. The early church fathers belong to all Christian traditions in an equal way, with none able to claim them more than any other. … However all called to learn form from them and be rooted in them.
Why do you assume that after the great schism the Orthodox Churches retained, stated inside, or still have ownership over the Great Tradition of the early church? Unity was the only thing that gave it any kind of authority. Once that unity was broken, the Orthodox Churches came out no better off than the Roman Catholic Church or any of their Protestant churches.
Yeah, but I don’t agree that that unity was broken. If people leaving the Church breaks the Church’s unity, then it was broken the moment Judas betrayed Christ.
You make it sound like the Roman Catholic Church schism was rejected by the a unified church, like the Coptic church was for example. However, this is clearly not the case. Both the eastern and western churches decided to go their own direction and break the unity.
The history is a whole lot more complicated than that, but I’m sure you know that. But yes, Orthodoxy has firmly rejected communion with Rome until such time as she repents of her heresies.
Who is to say that it was not the Orthodox Church that broke from the Roman Church?
Well, I do, for one. And of course it was Rome who threw down the gauntlet.
The early church fathers belong to all Christian traditions in an equal way, with none able to claim them more than any other.
It’s not so much a question of “claiming” them as following them and keeping their faith, as well as remaining in their communion. Only Orthodoxy does that. Rome lost it by its own act of schism and heresy, and Protestants were born into it.
My apologies, by the term “special access” I ment to sumerize the Orthodox claim that the Holy Spirit works more fully in the “true” church than it does outside of it. This is a claim that church history and contempaty church life is proving false.
In terms of physical healings, raising people from the dead, ordinary lay people being empowered to be a witness for Christ, holiness of church leaders and lay people, ministries of kindness, comparison, and mercy …. The Orthodox Church is no better off than any other church.
When have seen Protestents Funamentlists and Roman Catholics make the same types of claims about being the only true church, in the end both of these churches are also making false claims.
Well, you’ve made a lot of assertions, but you’ve not backed them up with anything. I understand that this is what you believe, but you haven’t given me any reason to agree with you.
Thanks for participating, though!
You’re freaking me out. 🙂
My point regarding worship is not to define worship, but simply to say that while worship and prayer both with the church or in the home is wonderful, if that is all one does yet lives a wicked and sinful life otherwise than there is not point to it. Worship and prayer is not an end destination, rather the starting place that prepares us to let the light and love of Christ shine through us in the world around us. So if Orthodox worship and prayer is all that, it should be proven in the lives of the faithful in ALL ages. Along with this obvious personal piety of the belviers, the advance of Christianity and a churches culture around the church. …. In historically Orthodox countries the church this retreating, losing major ground in terms of people attending church, losing church properties due to lack of cash, and the culture around the church in these countries is among the most visibly sinful in Europe. SO IN WHAT WAY is the special access to the Holy Spirit helping the Orthodox Churches today? …. In your response you hint at many examples from Orthodox Church history, that I already know about, admire, and live, but what about in today’s Orthodox church? Are their still signs and wonders following orthodox churches today? …. In terms of Protestant Christians, among the Pentecostal and Charismatic there have been many such signs and wonders in the past 100+ years all over the globe. If the Orthodox Church truly has apostolic power, why no signs and wonders in the last 1,800 years? If you have proof of such things, site actual examples… I am open to accepting believe. …. also please explain your understanding of encountering Christ in worship/prayer. Does it have any real connection to the way the believer live their lives? If so, than the special access to the Holy Spirit should be visible in ever church and every believer. ..l yet I see people in such churches as just the same as people in protest churches… Mostly not doing much of anything out side of church for God…. Powerless and weak icons of Christ… So how is their special access to the Holy Spirit helping them or advancing the Orthodox Church?
My point regarding worship is not to define worship, but simply to say that while worship and prayer both with the church or in the home is wonderful, if that is all one does yet lives a wicked and sinful life otherwise than there is not point to it. Worship and prayer is not an end destination, rather the starting place that prepares us to let the light and love of Christ shine through us in the world around us.
Why do you think that worship is just a means to an end? And why, if it just the “starting point,” does it seem in the age to come, to be the actual destination? And where did I endorse living a wicked and sinful life?
You seem to think that worship and prayer are for the purpose of enabling morality. I disagree. I believe the purpose of morality is to enable worship and prayer. And that’s what’s witnessed to in Scripture, too, in both the Old and New Testaments, where one must become clean, forgiven, reconciled, etc., before one goes to worship.
Along with this obvious personal piety of the belviers, the advance of Christianity and a churches culture around the church. …. In historically Orthodox countries the church this retreating, losing major ground in terms of people attending church, losing church properties due to lack of cash, and the culture around the church in these countries is among the most visibly sinful in Europe. SO IN WHAT WAY is the special access to the Holy Spirit helping the Orthodox Churches today?
Do you really want to go down that road? Which historically Christian countries in Europe are the most secular, again? Where was secularism invented? You do know that the Communism which invaded and dominated Eastern Europe, literally martyring its believers, was invented by a German, right?
In your response you hint at many examples from Orthodox Church history, that I already know about, admire, and live, but what about in today’s Orthodox church? Are their still signs and wonders following orthodox churches today?
Yep. We keep canonizing saints. And we’ve got people being martyred right now. Yes, right now.
If the Orthodox Church truly has apostolic power, why no signs and wonders in the last 1,800 years?
I will assume you are just ignorant here. We’ve got such saints being pumped out for 2,000 years. If you’re interested in recent examples, I suggest you read about St. Silouan the Athonite, for instance, or Elder Paisios, or St. Porphyrios, or Elder Sophrony (Sakharov). Or St. John of Kronstadt. Or St. Raphael of Brooklyn. Or the millions of martyrs in Eastern Europe. The list goes on and on. The 20th century has literally seen more saints in Orthodoxy than the previous 19 centuries combined.
also please explain your understanding of encountering Christ in worship/prayer. Does it have any real connection to the way the believer live their lives?
Yes, of course. But the point in living life is to become more like God. And worship is the place where that can happen most intensely. There’s no guarantee, of course. One can be in the presence of Jesus and not actually be affected in the right way. Certainly, that’s what happened while He walked this Earth. Surely you would not doubt His identity as God just because most people who encountered Him walked away worse off.
The “results” are the saints. It’s not really right to judge a faith by the people who aren’t fully following it.
(1) Let me ask my questions in a differnt way as I am not so interested in the rare exceptions … if I was to join a local Orthodox Church, what should I expect? If as you say they have a special access to the Holy Spirit that no other chrisitan tradition has, should I expect that they are better Christians than those in other traditions? Should I expect that my encounter with divine in Orthodox Church worship and prayer will help make me more like Christ than what any other Christian tradition has to offer? Should I expect more love between those in the church around me? Should I see more compassion for the poor and needy in the neighborhoods around us? Should I expect to more transformation of the pagan culture us? In all of highest things more visible than in any other local church of another Christian tradition?
(2) I am confused as you said “I believe the purpose of morality is to enable worship and prayer” and “the point in living life is to become more like God. And worship is the place where that can happen most intensely.” So which is it… Us trying to get clean in order to be worthy of worship or worship transforming us? It is also confusing that you believe that people can walk away unaffected by such powerful worship and working of the Holy Spirit.
In the end, if the local Orthodox Church produces no better Christians or Christian culture around it than the local Lutheran, Catholic, Baptists, or Pentecostal… Then does the Orthodox Church actually have this special access to the Holy Spirit and if so why does it matter if there is no real Differance?
(3) I have lived and traveled in Eastern Europe for many years. Although the theory of Communism was invented in the west, the west did not invade Eastern Europe with it. Rather the people of Eastern Europe picked communism up to find progress in their culture… Attacking the Orthodox Church as they felt it was holding back progress by retarding the culture. It was their own people who turned against the church in orthodox nations because they wanted to be modern and stuck in the ancient.
In terms of Greece, the story is a bit differnt as they did not have the same type of government level attack on the church, not an attack by another world religion either. Yet the Orthodox Church in Greece is suffering major retreat and lose of people attending and buildings. Greek culture today is every bit as secular as western European nations. This is a path that body forced on them, they picked it themselves. … So why in the cradle of Orthodox Church culture has the church faced so many set backs if it has the special accesses to the Holy Spirit, it should be shining bright.
(4) I love the Orthodox Churches… Not only have I specialized in patristics at the MA level, but I regularly attend Byzantine, Coptic, and Greek-Catholic churches and monasteries. I find the Divine Liturgy, Divine Service, and Jesus Prayer, icons, incense, saints, monastics, martyrs, and otherwise rich history all so breath taking…. I also daily prayer for orthodox churches around the world.
Soon I will be starting a doctoral program in liturgical studies and I will be giving time to study the Coptic and Byzantine liturgy of the hours as I love the deep ritual and spirituality behind all of it… Powerful stuff really…
Yet I still have many questions… Mainly does any of it make the local church and believers better icons for Christ?
1. I didn’t say “special access.” I said that Orthodoxy is the one Church. As for what you could expect, I could describe it for you, though there are ample descriptions elsewhere online—even videos. But it’s not the same as actually becoming part of the life there. That’s not something that can be conveyed with description. As for the questions of cultural transformation you mention, I think it’s undoubtedly the case that Orthodoxy’s long history in various cultures has left a profound stamp on them. If what you’re looking for is just evangelism and charity, that’s everywhere in the Orthodox tradition. If you expect to see every single parish function as a machine pumping those things out, and that those things are the litmus test for whether a church is true, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. But those things, while absolutely appropriate for a Christian to do, are not what Christianity is about.
2. It’s both. But I think the problem here is that you’re identifying transformation mainly with morality. Morality is just one aspect of personal transformation. Yes, it is cyclic. But the point is that morality is not the goal of the Christian life. It’s one of its tools. The goal is to become sons of God, partakers of the divine nature, to grow to the fullness of the stature of Christ. That goes way beyond morality.
3. I see lots of martyrdoms in Eastern Europe as a very bright light indeed. I see the flowering of monasticism and the sanctity undeniably flowing therefrom in Greece as a very bright light indeed. You seem to see them as some kind of failure. If you’re expecting the presence of the true Church to prevent the existence of sin, then it seems there are no Christians at all, for sin is everywhere. But if the Church is actually the front line in the war against sin, then the presence of persecution makes a lot of sense. Why is it that Christianity is dying in the West, where it is free to be practiced, yet where it is persecuted it is again flowering?
4. Yes, though, from what you have said, probably not by your standards. But what you’ve said of your standards is not what I see in Scripture and in the history of the Church. You seem to be preaching merely evangelistic charitable moralism. Orthodoxy’s after deification.
Watch this video and you will see why Orthodoxy is beautiful:
Fine article Father. Well said. Regarding the place of Tradition Prof. Clark Carlton
made an arresting point about those who “claim Tradition” for their own, at least in part. Tweaking the great Patristic scholar Jarsolv Pelikan’s “The Vindication of Tradition” Carlton says:
“Actually, I would amend Pelikan’s formula slightly at this point, for a further distinction needs to be made. There is also a great difference between claiming tradition for oneself and being claimed by tradition. I…was perfectly willing to claim the historic Church and the liturgy for my own understanding of Christianity. Yet, I was still in control! I, in true Protestant fashion, was judge and jury of what would and would not fit into my kind of Christianity. I was willing to claim the historic Church, but I had yet to recognize Her claim on me.” http://orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/tca_carltonfirstbaptist.aspx
There really is no getting around it. The “claim” of Tradition by thoughtful Christians, of course, is in fact the claim of the Church upon them. Thankfully, this is no road to Rome and all the Papal authoritarianism and moral baggage that come with. The Orthodox Church, imperfect as She is…is alive and well on planet earth. Come and see.
Thank you for this article which helps me understand the non-denominational church? in which my daughter-in-law was raised. He father told her that my son, an Orthodox Christian, would lead her to the devil if she married him. My retort to my son was that maybe she’s be leading my son to the devil. Her father didn’t allow her mother to participate in anything for the wedding other than picking out the dress. He scowled throughout his visit to St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Alaska, and throughout the ceremony and reception. He gave no speech or prayer. Our family and church friends rallied around the couple and in within 5 days had decorations, music, food all taken care of. If he was so against the marriage he should have stayed home.
My son has given him several books about Orthodoxy, and they always are returned with yellow sticky notes telling him why this belief or that belief is wrong. Oi.
I hope some of what you wrote will make it’s way to her dad’s heart.
Dear Fr. Andrew,
I think that you’ve stated the issue quite well!
You might, however, address the question of interpretation of Tradition. The denunciations of the “True Orthodox” jurisdictions of the canonical jurisdictions, and even more of each other, shows that the question of who’s the final arbiter of Orthodoxy still ends up being an individual opinion, just bumped up a level!
I’d appreciate hearing you continue your discussion in that regard.
Fr. David Kinghorn
Father, do you just carry worms around in your pocket in ready-to-open cans? 🙂
Even with the “true” groups in mind, it’s still a question of what Church tradition teaches, not what I happen to think the Scripture says, and thus it is located ecclesiologically rather than purely hermeneutically.
I don’t see what this article is actually arguing for, maybe you guys can help me? It seems what you are saying is that the protestant position is solo sciptura when actually it is not. Sola scriptura is the protestant position and it says that the bible is the only INFALLIBLE authority. Does this mean that there will be no differences in interpretations? No. It means that God’s Word is Holy and inerrant. It means that the protestant should expect to see different interpretations throughout the church and throughout church history. Why? Because the only INFALLIBLE authority is scripture. The church is not scripture. Does this mean that protestants are free to concoct their own interpretation? Well in one sense they are, and so are all Christians, but that doesn’t mean that is the goal. Nor did that only happen after the reformation. The church is not infallible, but scripture is. This is sola scriptura.
On the other hand I am still trying to figure out the Orthodox position. It seems to me that it is this: Orthodox believers are Orthodox. If you are not Orthodox then you are not Orthodox. I mean maybe I just don’t understand. But why are Arius, Nestorius, Calvin, Luther, Sproul, and Pope Francis not Orthodox? Please just don’t tell me that they are not Orthodox.
This article is arguing against the idea that “solo” and “sola” scriptura really are different things (which is asserted by certain Protestants). My assertion is that their distinction is only that those with some respect for tradition are at least theoretically better-read. They still do not regard tradition as binding them.
As for Orthodoxy, it isn’t just formal membership, but it does indeed require that membership. That is, being in communion with the Orthodox Church is a necessary but insufficient condition for being an Orthodox Christian. As for why the men you name are not Orthodox, it is not only because they are not formally members of the Orthodox Church but because they also teach various teachings which have been rejected by the Church as heretical.
So essentially they are not Orthodox because they are not Orthodox.
No. And yes. 🙂
But doesn’t the epistemological drive the ontological?
It sounds like it could be inferred from what he writes that Aaron believes knowledge is the ground of existence. The reality seems to me to be the opposite. Existence (ontology) is the ground of knowledge (epistemology). There is no basis for a sound understanding of what is true apart from experience of the truth in its existence. But I’m not trained in philosophy–that’s just my intuitive take. I was a psychology major and we studied how children develop and learn–the child’s conceptualization (knowledge/understanding) develops as a result of his interaction with what exists in his environment and the dynamic growing capacity of his brain to make connections from this constant “bumping up against reality” if you will.
Actually I think you are both wrong. At least you misunderstood me. My point is that you cannot seperate ontological from epistemological or vice versa. Does epistemology drive ontology? Sure. Does ontology drive epistemology? Sure. Can you isolate them from each other? I don’t think so.
Fr Damick your ref, 1 Tim 3:15 concludes with vs 16 @ least?! Paul’s instructions to Timothy & us today are sufficient for godliness. Our Orthodox Church will greatly benefit if it returned to Paul’s instruction, the NT is the church, the pilar of our faith in Christ. If we are to lead those in error to the Way of Truth we must go back to our first love…..Christ & His & only His teachings. Our Orthodox traditions have dominated the Traditions of God I’m sad to say…..1 Tim 3:2 for example, our Bishops are not to marry.
Yours in Christ,
The question of episcopal marriage is an issue of Church discipline, not Holy Tradition as such. It can be changed and has been in the past. This isn’t an example of Orthodox tradition “dominating” God’s tradition. Paul also urges that everyone be celibate, if possible, something that even the Church in his own day did not really adopt. Not everything witnessed to in Scripture is of equal weight.
The definitive (and only) difference between solo and sola scriptura that those who hold to sola scriptura will approvingly quote tradition when by fortuitous circumstance they agree with it, and then claim they have history on their side. But then when history disagrees, they suddenly switch arguments that history doesn’t matter anyway. Solo scriptura adherents are slightly more consistent in saying history is meaningless, but then get all confused when you ask how they know what books are scripture.
Thank you for this fine article. In response to Fr. Andrew above, you wrote:
“Even with the ‘true’ groups in mind, it’s still a question of what Church tradition teaches, not what I happen to think the Scripture says, and thus it is located ecclesiologically rather than purely hermeneutically.”
However, I am unclear as to how that addresses Fr. Andrew’s concern. In order to know what “Church” tradition teaches, one must (as you pointed out in the OP) first determine *what is the Church* and subsequently *which is the Church*. Or said another way, in order for your solution to be “located ecclesiologically”, it would seem that you would first need to have a principled means of locating the ecclesia. If one cannot make those identifications in a principled, non-circular way (avoiding, for example Q1: “who is the ecclesia” A1: “All those validly ordained clergy who adhere to Orthodox teaching”, followed by Q2: “Where does one go to learn Orthodox teaching” A2: “The ecclesia”); then how can one identify the locus and scope of authoritative “tradition” with respect to proper interpretation of Scripture?
Fr. Andrew’s point concerning the problem of “who’s the final arbiter of Orthodoxy?” seems to present a significant ecclesial (and therefore interpretive) problem. If those who identify as Orthodox Christians cannot offer a coherent account of how they, themselves, identify who or what counts as “the Church” for purposes of establishing the scope of authoritative “Church” tradition, then “Orthodoxy’s” solution would indeed seem to be yet another riff on solo scriptura – just “bumped up a level”.
Can you say more about how an Orthodox Christian could avoid the charge that “They still just get to decide for themselves what they will listen to and what they won’t” because they ultimately decide the limits of who or what counts as constituting “the Church” for purposes of locating authoritative “tradition”? Isn’t that the problem Fr. Andrew is raising when he speaks of the denunciations of the “True Orthodox” jurisdictions, etc, etc?
I myself am a convert to Roman Catholicism, and have a very high regard for Orthodox Christianity. I also have Protestant friends who find themselves drawn to more historic forms of Christianity, and they often find themselves at a juncture wavering between heading East or West (I pray daily for a time when that choice will no longer be necessary). Of course, there are many factors to consider at a juncture like that.
However, given their sensitivity to precisely the solo scriptura problem which you highlighted in the OP, this particular concern with respect to Orthodox ecclesiology (the concern that self-identifying Orthodox Christians can offer no non-subjective, non-circular, means for identifying and locating the ecclesia – “THE” Church) is often raised in discussion. I want to be sure I am explaining the Orthodox response to this question in a charitable, non-caricatured way; and your blog strikes me as a place where I might be assisted in this regard since I noticed (and greatly appreciated) your willingness, in the OP, to avoid caricature of the Roman Catholic position.
In one sense, all epistemology is finally circular, because one cannot be absolutely sure that one’s senses are not lying. Were you trying to point that out by pitting me against “Fr. Andrew”? 🙂 (I assume you mean Fr. David.)
That said, the difference here between a purely hermeneutical approach and an ecclesiological one is that the former is about developing a system that can be used by anyone to come up with the truth, while the latter necessitates being part of the God-ordained community that has the authority to speak on truth.
Now, the question of “Which is the true Church?” is related, but not the same. In that, yes, there are hermeneutical issues at play, but if there really is a true Church, then its truth doesn’t depend on what different people think of it. The question is really “How do I find the true Church?” And that is about me and what I am going to do, which introduces a whole set of subjective problems.
Now, we can try to objectify the issue as much as possible, e.g., by pointing to certain marks of what the true Church must be (that it must be historically present since Pentecost, that it must be unchanging in its teachings), and I think many churches clearly miss the mark here. But for every mark one might point to, people could argue against it or argue that one church really does fulfill it when I say it doesn’t, etc. And there is also often an assumption here of the authority of Scripture—do I believe what the Bible says about the Church? But if it’s the Church that compiled the Bible (a historical observation), where does that leave me?
On the individual level, one can always simply say, “I find that argument unconvincing.”
Now, you could say that someone being unconvinced by your perfect argument is an indication that he is dishonest, unintelligent or uninformed (my “unholy triad” of reasons why people disagree with me), but what do you do with someone who is clearly honest, intelligent and informed? People who are all of those things look at the same set of evidence and come up with different conclusions all the time.
So I don’t think there is a “scientific” way of proving which is the true Church. If you are convinced that all the things some “True Orthodox” group has are the marks of the true Church and that no one else has them, then of course that group will seem to be the true Church to you.
This works for Rome, too, of course. One can point to the papacy, but even that is not a stable institution. There is the Western Great Schism, for instance (three simultaneous popes!), and while I’ve seen attempts by RCs to explain that history in a way that keeps the line purely linear, I don’t think they line up with what the record shows. And one can always question the election of this or that pope. This is why there are sedevacantists.
For every argument there is always a counter-argument, and you can choose to believe whichever you like (or another entirely). The question being dealt with here is whether this really is okay or not. I say it’s not. That doesn’t mean one won’t make mistakes. But the fact of mistakes shouldn’t send one into the ecclesiological agnosticism of denominationalism.
St. Gregory Palamas makes this point about arguments and counter-arguments, but then he asks what argument can counter life. And there is at least part of the answer (though it is somewhat trans-rational, I’ll admit; I’m fine with that) to your question about whether the Orthodox are just deciding for themselves what the limits of the Church are. The “life” that is on the ground is that we’re not a big Church-limit-deciding society who all came together on the basis of agreements on such things. It is life on the ground, with actual communities one can either belong to or not. Most Orthodox people have probably hardly even considered what the limits of the Church are. Most just behave in a way that’s roughly obedient to what they received. The “crisis of conversion” (to a church) is non-existent for most of them.
All that is to say that, if what you’re asking for is some absolute, objective means for knowing any of these things, I don’t think you can find one. On what objective basis ought we all to be Roman Catholics, for instance? Can an argument be made for that that is free of any first principles / primary assumptions? So I think arguments can be advanced that some will find convincing, but none of them will be airtight. Or at least, I’ve never seen one yet.
Perhaps a simpler way of boiling all this down could be to ask this: On what objective basis ought I to be a Christian?
(Now, lest the skeptics walk away and thing they are laughing everyone into atheism, one can also ask on what objective basis one ought to be a skeptic. That, too, is an assumption, one that, incidentally, most of mankind has actually not shared and still does not.)
I have never quite been able to escape the irony that, in seeking to be under the authority of the Church, I nevertheless chose which church I was to subject myself to. I “chose” Orthodoxy for a variety of reasons, some theological and historical, and some aesthetic, but It was all a bit like falling in love. I no more “chose” Orthodoxy than I choose what women I am going to be attracted to or the one I will eventually fall in love with and marry. So then, our best attempts at epistemological certainty based upon reason or some such is often overridden by the simple attraction we feel toward this or that church and how we “get along” with that church during the initial period of courtship.
At some point, however (and Fr. Andrew alluded to this) I find that the search for the “true Church” is wrong-headed altogether, for the search for the “true Church” is not a problem that confronted most Christians throughout history, to whom the choice was never presented. To convert to Orthodox solely because one comes to reason that it is the true Church may carry with it certain pathologies that we are all familiar with. That estimation is easily changed once new data are presented.
I suggest, then, that one convert to the Gospel, and that one “choose” a church where the Gospel is preached and the presence of Christ is found. I want to remain Orthodox because I perceive that in it the fullness of the Gospel is found and I know the presence of Christ within it. I find this to be a more “apostolic” way, for in the days of the Apostles, there were many Jewish sects that all claimed to have the “true interpretation” of the Torah, but the Gospel of Christ rendered it all “rubbish” for the Pharisee Saul who subsequently counted it all a loss that he might gain Christ. When Paul went about preaching Christ, his letter of commendation to all of the Churches, some which he had founded and others (like the Church of Rome) he had not founded, was the authenticity of his apostleship and the authenticity of the Gospel which he preached.
If someone then converts to Roman Catholicism on the basis that she hears the Gospel preached from it and knows the presence of Christ therein, then I have no quibble with that. I would not dare approach such a one with the charge that she had chosen “the wrong church” based upon this or that theological datum.
So then, I do not regard the choice of ecclesial communion to be quite the same epistemological conundrum as sola scriptura, but a different one altogether, for reason is not necessarily the most dominant faculty involved in choosing a church to convert to, and if it is, one might have cause to second guess it!
As a follow up to your comments, I’ve heard it said that the problem of private judgment is not that Joe Christian chooses between A and B–that’s part of being human. Rather, the problem is when my reading of Scripture is normative doctrine for the church. Perhaps that sheds more light on your distinctions between choosing a church and choosing what doctrine is to be found in the Scriptures.
Thank you for your thorough reply. Ha, I wish I could say my mistaken naming of Fr. David was intended as a bit of epistemological cleverness; however, I am afraid it was merely a mundane mistake due to haste. I happen to agree with many of the things you wrote. However, I hope you won’t mind if I probe a little further with respect to this topic.
“In one sense, all epistemology is finally circular, because one cannot be absolutely sure that one’s senses are not lying.”
Epistemological issues may, in fact, be at the root of whatever disagreements we have. I’m not sure I would describe all epistemology as “finally circular”. Denying the reliability of the senses as the first road in human knowing (even via a scenario as radical as Descartes “evil demon”) does not involve any circular argumentation (or any argumentation at all for that matter). It simply results in a performative contradiction whereby the possibility of communication of any sort breaks down. First principles of being and knowing, it seems to me, are not circular so much as “first” or self-evident, in the sense that no meaningful conversation can proceed without agreement concerning their truth.
“That said, the difference here between a purely hermeneutical approach and an ecclesiological one is that the former is about developing a system that can be used by anyone to come up with the truth, while the latter necessitates being part of the God-ordained community that has the authority to speak on truth.”
Okay, but again, on Orthodoxy, how does one determine whether one really is “part of a God-ordained community that has the authority to speak the truth” without falling prey to precisely the sort of principled criticisms you raise concerning those who embrace sola scriptura within a Protestant context?
“Now, the question of “Which is the true Church?” is related, but not the same. In that, yes, there are hermeneutical issues at play, but if there really is a true Church, then its truth doesn’t depend on what different people think of it.”
“The question is really “How do I find the true Church?” And that is about me and what I am going to do, which introduces a whole set of subjective problems.”
Of course, all problems which persons seek to solve are “subjective” in the sense that some human subject is the seeker of some solution. But do you mean to say that the data of history, historiographic practice, and other means by which one might go about answering the question “where is the true Church” are themselves unavoidably subjective? I grant that historiography and historical conclusions often depend greatly upon background philosophical (and sometimes ideological) frameworks. But these, in turn, can be charitably discussed according to premises, conclusions, etc. Getting at the truth of a question such as “where is the true Church” might take an enormous amount of effort, patience, and time (unpacking and analyzing paradigmatic background presuppositions, etc) but that would not, to my mind, entail any sort of inevitable disagreement.
“Now, we can try to objectify the issue as much as possible, e.g., by pointing to certain marks of what the true Church must be (that it must be historically present since Pentecost, that it must be unchanging in its teachings), and I think many churches clearly miss the mark here.”
“But for every mark one might point to, people could argue against it or argue that one church really does fulfill it when I say it doesn’t, etc.”
Sure, anyone can argue against anything, but arguing effectively is another story. Are there not ground rules in logic (ultimately rooted in undeniable first principles of being and knowing) which enable persons in dialogue to distinguish between demonstrative arguments, probable arguments and sophistical arguments? And if so, why (assuming sufficient patience and charity on both sides) could not such rules be continually brought to bear on each layer of disagreement in an effort to seek the truth together?
“And there is also often an assumption here of the authority of Scripture—do I believe what the Bible says about the Church? But if it’s the Church that compiled the Bible (a historical observation), where does that leave me?”
I agree, that is a common problem at the level of fundamental theology in Protestantism.
“On the individual level, one can always simply say, ‘I find that argument unconvincing.”’
Sure, but that would only be an assertion – and, of course, assertions are a dime a dozen. What integrity would require is a *reason* for finding a given argument unconvincing.
“Now, you could say that someone being unconvinced by your perfect argument is an indication that he is dishonest, unintelligent or uninformed (my “unholy triad” of reasons why people disagree with me), but what do you do with someone who is clearly honest, intelligent and informed? People who are all of those things look at the same set of evidence and come up with different conclusions all the time.”
From the fact that people come up with different conclusions all the time, it does not follow that one conclusion is as good or probative as another. The probative force of a conclusion rests with the structure of the argument itself and the truth of the premises. One need not accuse someone with whom one disagrees with dishonesty, unintelligence, or lack of formation. One need only recognize the mutual finitude of both parties with respect to knowledge in order to understand how easily mistakes in thinking are made, even among the wise. Yet, so long as both parties share a commitment to logical principles, and careful discourse, there seems to me no need to abort dialogue at some premature point as if there were any number of inevitable impasses. Obviously, if one party or the other denies first principles (law of identity, of non-contradiction, of excluded middle, etc, etc) conversation must break down, but at that point one has reached the final foundation of human concepts and language.
“So I don’t think there is a “scientific” way of proving which is the true Church.”
“Proving” is a word that can have several senses, but are you saying there is no objective criteria or objective means of investigation by which the probative force of respective arguments for “which is the true Church” can be assessed?
“If you are convinced that all the things some “True Orthodox” group has are the marks of the true Church and that no one else has them, then of course that group will seem to be the true Church to you.”
Certainly, if someone is so convinced, he must, in good conscience so choose. But that does not mean that the premises or argumentation by which he has become convinced are sound.
“This works for Rome, too, of course. One can point to the papacy, but even that is not a stable institution. There is the Western Great Schism, for instance (three simultaneous popes!), and while I’ve seen attempts by RCs to explain that history in a way that keeps the line purely linear, I don’t think they line up with what the record shows. And one can always question the election of this or that pope. This is why there are sedevacantists.”
Sure, and assessing the respective force of the arguments related to such historical events would certainly be part of any sustained conversation in reasoning together concerning the identity and locus of the Church.
“For every argument there is always a counter-argument, and you can choose to believe whichever you like (or another entirely). The question being dealt with here is whether this really is okay or not. I say it’s not. That doesn’t mean one won’t make mistakes. But the fact of mistakes shouldn’t send one into the ecclesiological agnosticism of denominationalism.”
Here you seem to be claiming that the mere fact of the existence of counter-arguments, or that people can choose to believe however they wish, or the fact that mistakes are sometimes made, is not a necessary barrier to the possibility of discovering the truth of some matter, nor should any of that dissuade us from seeking the truth together. If so, then I agree entirely. Yet I remain a bit confused by other sections of your reply which seem inconsistent with this stance. For instance, you write:
“St. Gregory Palamas makes this point about arguments and counter-arguments, but then he asks what argument can counter life. And there is at least part of the answer (though it is somewhat trans-rational, I’ll admit; I’m fine with that)”
What do you mean by “trans-rational” and what do you mean by “life”? And why are (seemingly) you fine with the notion that arguments and counter-arguments may, at the end of the day, be trumped by “life’ and the “trans-rational”? Again, I am quite confused concerning your actual position with respect to the probative force, value, and utility of careful and sustained argumentation as an agreed upon means of arriving at truth. Without recognizing the essential importance of the laws of thought and being for coming to truth (adequation of the mind to reality), and if always retaining the option for flight to “life” and the “trans-rational” as a foil against argumentation; how can fruitful dialogue really happen? As I said above, I have a hunch that there may be a deep epistemological divide between us.
“to your question about whether the Orthodox are just deciding for themselves what the limits of the Church are. The “life” that is on the ground is that we’re not a big Church-limit-deciding society who all came together on the basis of agreements on such things. It is life on the ground, with actual communities one can either belong to or not. Most Orthodox people have probably hardly even considered what the limits of the Church are. Most just behave in a way that’s roughly obedient to what they received. The “crisis of conversion” (to a church) is non-existent for most of them.”
My concern is that the mere fact that you are not a big “Church-limiting-deciding society” or that Orthodox people have probably hardly even considered what the limits of the Church are” in no way shows that the Orthodox position is any less susceptible to the very same criticisms which you raise against various forms of Protestantism within the OP. Most Protestants have never given much though to the formation of the canon (canon problem) or the sort of hidden presuppositions latent in sola scripture which really entail its equivalence with solo scriptura. Nevertheless, you have argued that those hidden paradigmatic blind spots result in a lamentable inconsistency in their position per se. If the inability of the sola scriptura adherent to give an account of why he brings this or that portion of the “Great tradition” to bear on his interpretation of scripture does not save him from the charge of practicing an inchoate form of solo scriptura, then how does the Orthodox inability to identify the Church, so as to determine exactly what constitutes “tradition” for purposes of properly interpreting scripture, save him from justly bearing the exact same charge? If the tradition by which scripture must be interpreted is the tradition *of the Church*, but no one can identify who or what counts as *the Church* in a principled way, then how would the “Church tradition” which an Orthodox Christian brings to the biblical text for interpretive purposes be any less arbitrary than that of the Reformed Protestant championing sola scriptura?
In other words, one could in fact bypass all of the historical questions concerning the identity of the Church and simply begin with Orthodoxy’s own position that scripture is to be interpreted by “Church tradition”. Rather than asking the Orthodox Christian to give a historical argument for how he identifies the Church in the historical record, I am asking how does the orthodox Christian, presupposing the truth of his own ecclesiology, determine where the Church is – here and now? If no coherent account of how the Church is recognized here and now can be give on Orthodoxy’s own terms, then how is the position that scripture is to be interpreted by *Church* tradition helpful in any way which is superior to Protestantism? Again, that is the part of Fr. David’s post which seems to remain un-addressed thus far. Who, here and now, is “the final arbiter of Orthodoxy?” If an Orthodox Christian cannot answer that question, then how is his advertence to “Church tradition” as an authority with respect to biblical interpretation superior to Protestantism?
“All that is to say that, if what you’re asking for is some absolute, objective means for knowing any of these things, I don’t think you can find one.”
But there are objective methods and standards of dialogical procedure by which men can seek the truth together and assess the relative force of arguments for and against a position, so shouldn’t the jury remain out on whether we can come to know these things? What you write here strikes me as having a tendency to stifle dialogue prematurely.
“On what objective basis ought we all to be Roman Catholics, for instance? Can an argument be made for that that is free of any first principles / primary assumptions? So I think arguments can be advanced that some will find convincing, but none of them will be airtight. Or at least, I’ve never seen one yet.”
Of course, no argument can be free of commitment to the first principles of being and knowing (on pain of the performative contradiction I mentioned above). But short of that, yes, I think the Roman Catholic case can be made and shown, through objective criteria, to have greater probative force than the arguments which attempt to identity the Church Christ founded with any given Orthodox jurisdiction, or all Orthodox jurisdictions taken in aggregate. But, more importantly than my mere assertion to that effect, is the larger question about whether we agree or disagree that there are any objective means by which we can seek agreement in truth on this point or any other (which might process might ultimately reveal an error in the thinking on the part of Catholics, or Orthodox, or both concerning the identity of the Church). Without such a shared commitment, I worry about a premature retreat to the comfort of our protective walls.
“Perhaps a simpler way of boiling all this down could be to ask this: On what objective basis ought I to be a Christian?
(Now, lest the skeptics walk away and thing they are laughing everyone into atheism, one can also ask on what objective basis one ought to be a skeptic. That, too, is an assumption, one that, incidentally, most of mankind has actually not shared and still does not.)”
I think this word “objective” is causing trouble. If you mean by “objective” the same as “demonstrative” in the technical sense, then I agree that the arguments for Christian theism are not “objective”. But if you mean to say that the arguments for Christian theism cannot be shown to have greater probative force than any other cosmic-cum-historical narrative concerning man and reality, then I disagree. It seems to me that what’s needed in order to avoid rank fideism, is not a QED demonstration of the truth of Christian theism per se; but rather, demonstration of the superiority of the arguments for Christian truth as a macroscopic account of the created order.
Thanks again for the conversation Father!
From the fact that people come up with different conclusions all the time, it does not follow that one conclusion is as good or probative as another.
Did I say that somewhere?
The probative force of a conclusion rests with the structure of the argument itself and the truth of the premises. One need not accuse someone with whom one disagrees with dishonesty, unintelligence, or lack of formation. One need only recognize the mutual finitude of both parties with respect to knowledge in order to understand how easily mistakes in thinking are made, even among the wise. Yet, so long as both parties share a commitment to logical principles, and careful discourse, there seems to me no need to abort dialogue at some premature point as if there were any number of inevitable impasses. Obviously, if one party or the other denies first principles (law of identity, of non-contradiction, of excluded middle, etc, etc) conversation must break down, but at that point one has reached the final foundation of human concepts and language.
So, basically, you are an epistemological Pelagian. I am not.
Your comment here actually reminds me of Calvinist arguments that try to explain how a purely deterministic God is not the author of evil. They say that He predestines “in such a way as” not to be the author of evil. You admit here that not all disagreements are founded in dishonesty, ignorance and/or unintelligence, yet you still say that “mistakes” are made. Is not a mistake in such things really just a lapse in one of those three?
But, no, I do not believe that people of goodwill, intelligence and wide reading necessarily must come to the same conclusions, even if no “mistakes” are made. If it was demonstrable that they always did, then that might be a credible position. But I don’t see how you can demonstrate that without assuming the conclusion from the get-go.
In any event, yes, this is a big divide. You seem to see reason as being somehow divine and infallible. I see it as an invention of humanity and therefore inherently fallible.
You seem to think that if only honest, smart, informed people will talk long enough, they will necessarily come to the truth. But if that were really the case, there would be no point in divine revelation.
Thank you, Father, and Ray. That was a very helpful conversation for me. I have to admit Ray’s line of reasoning was also reminding me of conversations with Reformed and Calvinist folks–an indicator, perhaps, of the common philosophical roots and assumptions among Western Christians–whether Reformed or Catholic, which are not shared by the Orthodox.
Right. One of the biggest issues (which we really didn’t get into) is that Orthodoxy believes that some kinds of knowledge–especially the most important kinds–are only available through participation. No amount of conversation will get you there if you haven’t been there.
And of course the assumption that analytical conversation is the key to finding the truth leaves people out in the cold who are incapable of such conversation — the very young, the intellectually challenged, etc.
BTW, here’s a useful piece that explores some of these same issues, expanding on his ontological argument: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/onbehalfofall/sola-scriptura-vs-holy-tradition-difference/
As a 5 point (charismaticish) Calvinist, at a top evangelical seminary and member at a Reformed SBC church, who dealt with Mormons on a regular basis, I was committed to Sola Scriptura in the ilk described in this article. But as time went on 3 things occurred to me.
1. Though I claimed Scripture was my final and only infallible authority, most of that hinged on my definition of plenary inspiration of the autographs. But we didn’t have the autographs and all of the manuscripts had discrepancies (though most not of the doctrinal kind). So I had to trust that God used the Church somehow to infallibly preserve the original intent.
2. Though I claimed Scripture was my final and only infallible authority, I began to realize the only doctrines all the traditions I excepted as orthodox Christianity agreed on, were what had been defined by Nicea and Chalcedon. So even that which was fundamentally Christian God used the Church somehow to infallibly present his truth.
3. As a Reformed Baptist, I came to the realization that no matter how much I, and the Elders in my church quoted Augustine or Calvin, the fact was, they couldn’t be members in our church – nor could we in theirs. And it wasn’t just because of infant baptism. Especially Augustine. He had a completely different concept of the Church than I had. The (only) Church Father I quoted as proof for my beliefs and I, could not commune together. That stung me – especially as someone who’s main argument against Mormonism was that the Church was one throughout history. But practically, I didn’t really believe that did I? I was a functional restorationist just like them. And the more I read the Bible, the less I could see the “no one visible body can claim to be the one, true Church after the Apostles/Constantine/Schism (take your pick)” ecclesiology that my experience mandated I believe. For in the Bible, the experience, and the expectation for the future, is that the Church is One visibly because it shares one cup and one bread. That is to say, as Augustine pointed out, I saw that ontology preceded epistomology, even when it came to the Church.
So as you said Presbyter Andrew, what I was missing, was ecclesiology. I took the que from what Presbyter Peter Gilquist, of blessed memory, said concerning his journey to Orthodoxy, I stopped judging God’s history and let God’s history judge me. From there it wasn’t a matter of which church is true as if I stood outside fully equipped with all knowledge. As I saw it, the Orthodox Church was the Church that I both read about, and birthed, the Bible I so love. Therefore, if I was to be a faithful Christian at all, it meant to not simply believe the Church’s doctrine (as if ecclesiology isn’t part and parcel of the Church’s doctrine) but to humbly join it. That is to say, I joined the Orthodox Church because I am a Christian and Christians belong in/to the Church. All other issues, even the place and exegesis of the Holy Scriptures, are to be settled within the Church; not to use the Church’s book to establish or condone anything outside of it.
“Worship and prayer is not an end destination, rather the starting place that prepares us to let the light and love of Christ shine through us in the world around us.”
(My understanding): This is a fundamental difference between Orthodoxy and many other traditions. In The Orthodox Church Worship, Liturgy, is the end. That is where unity in faith and doctrine are established. It is where heaven and earth, Savior and sinner, Christ and His Bride The Church unite. Everything else is established and extends from this core foundation. This only happens inside The Church.
While I have many things that make me think that Sola Scriptura is not so different in its assumptions or epistemology from the Orthodox view of authority being in the church, the main thing that struck me after reading all these comments is the fact while you see Ray as sounding too Calvinist, I found that what bothered me about your reasoning is that you sounded too Calvinist. Let me explain. The Calvinist believes that the true and irresistible source of Spiritual knowledge is the Holy Spirit and that ultimately no reasoning will get someone into the kingdom. I suppose I’m not really against this fully, but if the Protestant says that the scriptures’ self-testimony and the Holy Spirit bring us knowledge of the truth, how is this different than the way the Orthodox say that Tradition’s self-testimony and the Holy Spirit bring us knowledge of the truth. In either case we must rely on God and our own experience to lead us into truth, since in neither case will reason lead us to the true church (or doctrine or whatever). We end up with subjectivism all over again . . . so it seems.
It’s different in three critical ways:
1. One is individual, while the other is the Church.
2. Christ and the Apostles said a lot about the Church, including as a rule of faith, preserving it, etc., and nothing about the individual.
3. In the individual approach, no one can correct you. After all, you are just reading what the Bible says, right? Adherence to Holy Tradition includes active participation in the one Church, which can indeed correct you and has actual mechanisms for doing so.
In your reply to Prometheus, you say: “In the individual approach, no one can correct you. After all, you are just reading what the Bible says, right? Adherence to Holy Tradition includes active participation in the one Church, which can indeed correct you and has actual mechanisms for doing so.”
…which is true enough.
But in the one Church, how can errors by a large number of the bishops, or by a majority of the most prominent bishops and patriarchs, be corrected? (This actually happened, in the Arian controversy.)
What is the mechanism for doing that? If the sole mechanism is “an ecumenical council” then…
(a.) …are we saying that there is no currently-functioning mechanism, but at some hoped-for future reunion the mechanism will begin functioning again? and,
(b.) …presuming that some future reunion makes it possible to hold an ecumenical council, how would one call the council if not all the bishops agreed that it should be called? …and how would one dispositively know that the council was a real and valid ecumenical council, with all the apostolic & divine Acts-15-It-Seemed-Good-To-Us-And-To-The-Holy-Spirit kind of authority that goes with it?
If, for example, half the bishops wanted a council and half didn’t; and they had it; and three-quarters of the bishops attending claimed that it had been valid, but only one third of all the bishops worldwide granted that it were valid, how would this be resolved?
I ask because it seems to me that the Sola Scriptura advocate’s problem is not so much solved, as merely recapitulated here, but at a higher level:
Sola Scripura Problem
Person A interprets the Bible, informed by selections from Tradition, to say X (e.g. Luther’s position);
Person B interprets the Bible, informed by selections from Tradition, to say Y (e.g. Calvin’s position);
Without the authority of the judgments of the bishops of the One Church, no one can decide between X and Y save on the strength of their respective arguments…about which people will disagree, causing a coalescing “A-crowd” and a coalescing “B-crowd” who will eventually schism from one another…or, if they are disinclined to do that, then they will continue in communion with persons whom they believe to be heretics, which psychologically will have the effect over time of making heresy permissible.
Orthodox Church Authority Problem (?)
Bishop A interprets the Bible, informed by selections from Tradition, to say X (e.g. Arius’ position);
Bishop B interprets the Bible, informed by selections from Tradition, to say Y (e.g. Athanasius’ position);
Without the authority of the judgments of the bishops of the One Church, no one can decide between X and Y save on the strength of their respective arguments…about which people will disagree, causing a coalescing “A-crowd” and a coalescing “B-crowd” who will eventually schism from one another…or, if they are disinclined to do that, then they will continue in communion with persons whom they believe to be heretics, which psychologically will have the effect over time of making heresy permissible.
Is that right?
Or have I missed some mechanism by which the whole process may finally be decided with finality, Church-wide, after which any further dissent does indeed constitute a refusal to listen “even to the Church,” after which the Church treats the dissenter as no longer a member of the community unless (as one always hopes) he repents?
It seems to me that such a mechanism is required, to establish that a principled difference exists between the position you espouse, and the Sola Scriptura view.
Orthodoxy doesn’t propose a “mechanism” at all. This is precisely the problem with the Western Christian approach to authority—it is about externalized authority structures, whether in terms of the private judgment of the Protestant or the magisterial pronouncements of the Roman Catholic. Orthodoxy has an internalized sense of authority which manifests itself at times in terms of conciliar decrees and at other times in terms of overthrow of such decrees by faithful monks and laymen. There is no absolutized “means” by which these things work out. It’s part of why the Church itself is an article of faith in the Creed.
All that said, Protestants and Catholics still have uncertainty in their own mechanisms. The difference is that Orthodoxy does not put its faith in mechanisms, so even if a mechanism goes awry (which they manifestly do), it does not call into question our ecclesiology or soteriology as it indeed must for Roman Catholics and Protestants.
As for whether the Orthodox Church can hold a council that is authoritative in the sense that the Ecumenical Councils are authoritative, I don’t see why not. There certainly has never been any dogma of Ecumenical Councils solemnly declared that requires, for instance, an emperor or pope or universal buy-in. The Church is the Church, not the sum of meeting certain requirements, and as such it is still authoritative.
Thank you for your reply, it was kind of you to address my question so quickly.
I am puzzled by your reply, however, and would like to ask for clarification.
Please be aware: Some of my questions may sound as if I am accusing you of saying things that don’t make sense or are contradictory. I am actually making no such accusation! …but what you have said does not yet make sense to me, and I am digging further in the hopes that clarity will emerge.
You begin your reply to me by saying: “Orthodoxy doesn’t propose a ‘mechanism’ at all. This is precisely the problem with the Western Christian approach to authority—it is about externalized authority structures, whether in terms of the private judgment of the Protestant or the magisterial pronouncements of the Roman Catholic.”
Well, in using the term “mechanism” I was borrowing the term you used, in response to Prometheus, when you said, “Adherence to Holy Tradition includes active participation in the one Church, which can indeed correct you and has actual mechanisms for doing so.”
I thought you were lauding the fact that the one Church “can correct you” and “has mechanisms for doing so” as a positive benefit to Orthodoxy, isn’t that right? If so, how can you then go on to say that having mechanisms for correcting the individual Christian (should he happen to drift into doctrinal error) is “precisely the problem with the Western Christian approach to authority?”
Similarly when you later say, in reference to disputes of bishops, that “There is no absolutized ‘means’ by which these things work out,” I wonder, Why then, do you commend to Prometheus that there are mechanisms by which the individual Christian may be corrected?
You also say, “Orthodoxy has an internalized sense of authority which manifests itself at times in terms of conciliar decrees and at other times in terms of overthrow of such decrees by faithful monks and laymen.” [emphasis mine]
I am not sure how that notion could ever be accepted and practiced by an average plumber and make “the obedience of faith” possible for the individual believer. Perhaps I can illustrate this with an example….
Let us say I’m a normal guy raised in an atheist or pagan household and I come to believe that Jesus was, in some fashion, God. And let us say that there are no Protestants or Roman (or Eastern) Catholics nearby and the only Christians I know are Orthodox, but with the following problem: They have recently begun to disagree with one another over some issue and the bishop, together with some priests and laymen, has decreed that XYZ is correct, but a nearby group of monks and laymen have resisted this and believe the decree is heretical. And assume that both sides feature persons of personal holiness and even mystical spiritual union with Christ (so far as such things can be judged through visible external evidences).
Into the midst of this I, Mr. Normal Guy, walk in. I immediately wonder, “How shall I determine who is correct?” I’m a layperson. My training is in carpentry or immigration law or whatever; I have no degree in theology, nor a lifetime of holy contemplation under my belt — and anyway the debate is between one group of people with theology degrees and lives of holy contemplation and another group of people with theology degrees and lives of holy contemplation, so apparently even if I had these I would not thereby be guaranteed to know what is true.
I just want to believe and obey Jesus Christ. I want to believe what’s true and live it out, to His Glory. To do that, I need to be be confident that I’m believing and obeying what Jesus Christ really wants me to believe and obey, not what some other person mistakenly believes that Jesus Christ wants of me.
How, in such a circumstance, may I objectively locate the voice of “the Church” so that I can put my trust in what Jesus says to me through His Body? Where is His Kingly Authority speaking, within the borderlines of His Kingdom?
Knowing the answer to this question is especially important in the event that — as has happened before! — the two groups cease intercommunion and are in full-blown schism with one another. If the only way I can discern which one is really “The One Church” and which one is “A Well-Meaning Group Which Has, Through Unintentional Error, Departed The Church” is by first studying Scripture and The Fathers and deriving accurate conclusions about What Christianity Really Is, and then attempting to discern which group (if either!) matches my conclusions, the average Joe attempting to join the right Church is outa luck. Or so it seems to me.
You also add, “It’s part of why the Church itself is an article of faith in the Creed.” I confess don’t understand the applicability of this sentence. Yes, the Church is an article of faith in the Creed: I do believe in the holy catholic Church and that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. I have read some of the early fathers to get their take on how they understood these “marks of the Church.”
But it doesn’t seem to me that that information helps Hypothetical Mike, the master mechanic from Milwaukee, distinguish between true and false doctrines, or discern which of two groups is the One Church when both claim it and claim that the other is an honorable and well-intentioned schismatic sect. Mike (and all the other mechanics out there) are gonna need a miracle to figure it all out.
* cough *
I hope this helps clarify my questions and concerns. None of the above is intended to be combative! …but I do want to understand the Orthodox approach to such questions as best I can, which is why I am pointing out things which remain unclear for me.
Sorry, also, for the length of the comment. Reply at your convenience.
I think the problem here is that you’re switching between contexts. To illustrate, these are all different contexts:
1. How do I, as an Orthodox Christian, read the Bible?
2. What do I do if I believe that most of the Church has gone awry (e.g., as during Arianism)?
3. How do I find the true Church?
My post is really about #1 (particularly in terms of analyzing how Protestants read the Bible), but then it seemed to me that you wanted it to be about #2 and now are introducing #3. While the tools one uses to answer those various questions are related and have some overlap, I don’t think they can be absolutized and made universal, certainly not to answer all three questions.
And of course exceptional circumstances make for bad norms. Just because, for instance, it seems that most Church leaders can be led astray does not mean that I should create a new norm elevating private judgment over the historical faith of the Church. And just because I have to make use of my private judgment in determining where exactly the true Church is (and even whether there actually is a true Church) does not mean that the Church’s truth is contingent upon whether I believe it.
The central distinction between Orthodoxy and most Protestants (I’m generalizing here, I know) regarding #1 is this: Orthodoxy says that you must be willing to be corrected by the Church, even if you really believe you’re right. Protestantism says that you really don’t have to be willing to be corrected, if you really believe you’re right. For Orthodoxy, Scripture is within the Church, but for most Protestants, the Church is below Scripture.
Fr. Andrew, this is an excellent article. I’m an Eastern Catholic, I think there is no substantial difference between Latin tradition on Magisterial authority with Eastern tradition on the Church authority to read Scripture within Tradition. Eastern tradition (Eastern Catholics included) lean towards unity of Scripture and Tradition in such a way that Scripture is to be read within Tradition. While Latin tradition distinguish the Church with her two natures, Scripture and Tradition. The Church as the Magisterium read Scripture within Tradition. The two I believe similar at fundamental level. Thank you for writing this article.
I’m about a year late, but I just recently discovered this website. Fr. Damick, I received your book, Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, a couple of days ago and have already read a good percentage of it. I especially enjoyed the section on Roman Catholicism. Thanks!
I have friends who converted to Catholicism. They use the same, or very similar, arguments you use in this blog post. I once asked a Catholic priest about Tradition: “How do you know which Tradition is the right one?” I asked. I was comparing Catholicism with Orthodoxy. He said, “As a Catholic priest, I would have to say that the answer is in recognizing the Papacy.” If someone believes Tradition is the means whereby God has preserved Truth, then, obviously, he has to study this issue and draw his own conclusions. He would need to study the history of the Papacy, Matthew 16, the Pope in relation to the Councils, etc. At the end of the day, his conclusion, if he is able to draw one, is still based on his own understanding; so, it seems to me, he’s right back to the Evangelical approach. It was my own study of this subject that led me to the following thoughts/questions. If you have time to address them, I would appreciate it. If not, I understand…no problem.
We believe that Moses spoke and wrote infallibly. So did the Prophets. We also know that God established a priesthood, with assisting Levites, and a body of elders (Sanhedrin) in ancient Israel. To these bodies were given the responsibilities of governing, teaching, preserving the Oracles of God, and leading the nation in worship. Yet, if I read the NT correctly, there is no evidence that any of these bodies, or the sum total of all of them, served as an infallible teaching/interpreting authority. Jesus clearly placed Scripture far above these authorities. Should we not consider this when, in the Christian era, we are confronted with claims regarding an infallible interpreting authority? Further, if I am capable of reading the Scriptures and have developed excellent exegetical skills (many in past centuries did not have the opportunities we have in this regard), am I in violation of some principle if I do not accept the ancient Councils’ interpretation of, say, John 6, because my careful studies and honest exegesis lead me to a different conclusion? To what degree am I accountable (before God) regarding my understanding of Scripture based on my best exegetical efforts? Finally, isn’t it true that you had to rely on your own ability (your own interpretive skills, mental processes, understanding) when you sorted through the material and drew conclusions for yourself in coming to your decision to become Orthodox? So who was your final authority in this matter?
Here are some answers to some of these questions which I find useful:
I think it should also be noted that choosing to convert to a church like the Orthodox Church is not the same as being Protestant. The Protestant, by virtue of his Protestantism, officially retains himself as the final authority in all things — subject to God, of course. But those who choose to convert to Orthodoxy (and to Rome, for that matter) are voluntarily giving up their position as the final authority. Yes, of course their will is involved, but it is a will to be obedient to a tradition and to the authority who interprets and applies that tradition. This is not the same thing as Protestantism.
And is it possible for two people of equal goodwill, good faith, intellectual ability and information to look at the same set of evidence and come to different conclusions? Of course it is. Why? I don’t know. What will God do about that? I don’t know that, either.
As to what degree you are accountable before God for your own exegesis, I wouldn’t even know where to look for the answer to that. (And no, God hasn’t told me, either!) I do believe that everyone is accountable for what he does with the light he has been given, but how exactly that works (“to what degree,” etc.) I don’t know.
Thank you for your reply. I appreciate it very much. I suppose that, in one sense, I do consider myself the final authority — for myself, of course, not for others. However, I don’t think I’ve ever thought in those terms. Instead, I think in terms of personal responsibility/accountability. I believe in a supremely intelligent First Cause — God — because the evidence demands it (and because the truth of His existence is written in the hearts of the creatures that bear His image). I believe in Scripture because of several reasons, but chiefly because I have found the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus compelling (thanks to the exceptional work of several Evangelical apologists). Now, having concluded that Scripture is inspired of God, and having discovered in Scripture that there is a true Church, I have the responsibility of discovering the nature of that Church. I have thus far found no compelling reason to believe that the Church may be properly defined in terms of a succession of ecclesiastical authorities (and I have tried to be as objective as possible in my study of this issue) and good reasons for embracing the “invisible Church” concept. Reason informs me that I would be foolish if not downright arrogant if I completely disregarded the historic councils and the works of the theologians and apologists of past centuries. On the other hand, if I assumed that councils could not be wrong, I would be disregarding an important lesson of that same rich history (you would agree that Trent and Vatican I taught grievous errors). For these reasons, I think Barrett’s article hit the nail on the head.
I have thus far found no compelling reason to believe that the Church may be properly defined in terms of a succession of ecclesiastical authorities (and I have tried to be as objective as possible in my study of this issue) and good reasons for embracing the “invisible Church” concept.
A rather good reason for embracing an ecclesiology of apostolic succession is that the early Church did so. St. Irenaeus (2nd c.) makes that very explicit, actually. So if one is to reject the ecclesiology of the early Church, that would mean that Apostles either failed in their mission or that their mission fizzled out pretty quickly.
And that ecclesiology is only more clearly in terms of apostolic succession in the period in which the canon of Scripture is worked out. So one would also have to conclude that, if the Scripture teaches an “invisible Church,” then that Scripture was canonized with that teaching in it despite having been canonized by people who were teaching something quite different.
Reason informs me that I would be foolish if not downright arrogant if I completely disregarded the historic councils and the works of the theologians and apologists of past centuries. On the other hand, if I assumed that councils could not be wrong, I would be disregarding an important lesson of that same rich history (you would agree that Trent and Vatican I taught grievous errors).
These are not the only two options, however. The historic Christian tradition is not equal to everything any Christian in history has ever said. Some councils and theologians are correct, while some are not. The solution to sifting through them is not to decide that they all have to submit to you. Rather, the key is to begin at the beginning and see what remains truly consistent throughout time.
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