As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and living in the United States, which has been powerfully shaped in its cultural and religious life by Protestant Christianity, the most common way of thinking about the role of the scriptures in the Church is the principle of Sola Scriptura in its various forms. It is therefore very common to read Orthodox perspectives, written in dialogue or in controversy with Protestantism, speaking against this foundational Protestant principle. Unfortunately, most often these Orthodox commenters pick up and utilize traditional Roman Catholic arguments against Sola Scriptura, rather than attempting to formulate Orthodox answers. This is unfortunate because these arguments are well and good as an attempt to get a person to reject Sola Scriptura and embrace the Roman Catholic view of authority, but if we want someone to come to an Orthodox understanding of the role of the Bible in the Church, these arguments simply don’t suffice. Elaborating on this Orthodox understanding from various perspectives will be the purpose of this blog.
In terms of the classical formulation of Sola Scriptura, the West is in agreement that there are three basic sources of authority in the life of the Church. The question between Roman Catholics and Protestants is which of these authorities is preeminent. These three sources of authority are the scriptures, tradition, and the teaching authority of the church. Sola Scriptura is the view that of these three separate sources of authority, scripture is preeminent. The teachings of any church authority, whether it be an ordained individual, a council, or a statement of faith, must be tested against scripture. Traditions which come to exist in various churches must likewise be tested against scripture on an ongoing basis to determine their validity. Either of these two sources other than scripture are capable of being, and often are, wrong. Rome’s position is, in essence, similar, but placing the teaching authority of the church, the magisterium, in the preeminent place. It is the teaching authority which defines what is and isn’t scripture, and how it is to be interpreted. It is the teaching authority which defines what is and isn’t a valid part of the received tradition, and how that tradition is to be interpreted and applied.
What both of these Western views have in common is that they view the revelation of God as primarily discursive, as a series of truths or propositions which are communicated to human beings. The theological task in the West has historically been to arrange these true propositions into logical arguments, and use them to construct further theological doctrines. These later constructions may be called “good and necessary inferences from scripture” by Protestants or “the progress of doctrine” by Rome, but the fundamental project is the same.
Christianity, from the New Testament on, however, has seen the revelation of God to be the person of Jesus Christ. Christ is the Truth. Therefore, the only way in which to come to know God is to come to know Christ. There is here an important distinction between knowing God and knowing about God. While the West speaks of coming to know certain things about God from natural revelation in Creation, certain other things through the scriptures, certain other things through orally handed down tradition, etc. the East has traditionally spoken of coming to know God, experientially, by coming as a human person to know, and be united with the person of Christ.
The question then becomes, how do we come to know Christ in the Church? As Christ expressed it in the Gospel According to St. John, “When the Comforter comes, whom I myself will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth who proceeds from the Father, that one will bear witness concerning me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning” (15:26-27). Here Christ describes two witnesses who will testify to his person, through whom he will be known in the future, after he has ascended to the right hand of the Father. The first is the Holy Spirit. The life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, from his descent at Pentecost to the present day, is what is called Holy Tradition in the Orthodox Faith. St. John’s theme throughout this passage has been that Christ’s followers will come to know him through the working of the Holy Spirit. This life of the Spirit is accurately referred to as ‘tradition’ because it is perfectly unified throughout the Church and throughout the Church’s history, because it is the same Spirit, bringing human persons to know the same Christ.
The second witness in this passage is the testimony of the apostles themselves, those who were with Christ from the beginning, and knew him directly and intimately. The earliest title given to the texts that would become known as the New Testament, by the earliest Fathers, is ‘the memoirs of the Apostles’. Luke introduces his gospel saying, “…just as it was handed down (literally, ‘traditioned’) to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word” (1:2). The second witness is therefore the scriptures themselves.
By here citing two witnesses, Christ is appealing to a principle laid out originally in the Torah, that any truth in court must be established by the testimony of two witnesses (see Deut 19:15). For these two witnesses’ testimony to be valid, that testimony must be identical. If they tell different stories, it is rejected. It is therefore necessary to recognize that the testimony of the Holy Spirit at all times within the Church, and the testimony of the scriptures, is identical. We should expect this, if both of these are bringing us to know the same person of the living Jesus Christ. The two cannot be separated from one another, and therefore cannot be pitted against each other, nor one placed above the other.
Rather than saying that the Orthodox Church ‘rejects’ the position of Sola Scriptura, it is more correct to say that the Orthodox Church does not hold to the definition of God’s revelation or separate, competing authorities in the Church that make Sola Scriptura possible. The scriptures are not a manual on how to live a moral life or organize the church as institution or any sort of textbook. The scriptures are the means by which we come to know the Risen Christ, always through the working of the Holy Spirit.