Church, Tradition and Scripture pt 2.

Read part 1.

This is the first part of my response to the issues raised in Church, Tradition, and Scripture.  In my previous post I pointed out that this tract isn’t really a strong apologetic against Orthodoxy, but it nicely highlights many common Protestant misconceptions so it makes a good springboard to talk about the objections you’ll frequently see from Protestants.

Individualism

Starting in the introduction, you find this:

“The Church as a divine institution and a manifestation of Christ is given great authority in the Orthodox faith.   So much so that many Orthodox believers cannot comprehend understanding Scripture or even being saved apart from the Church.” (Kindle Locations 27-29)

There’s two contentions made here, which I’ll address separately, Orthodox don’t understand Scripture apart from the Orthodox Church, and Orthodox don’t see salvation outside the Church.  Let’s start with Scripture.  Is it true that Orthodox cannot comprehend understanding Scripture outside of the Church?  Well, yeah, pretty much.  Scripture didn’t drop down from heaven on a puffy cloud accompanied by harp music.  It was given by God through members of Israel to Israel, and through members of the Church to members of the Church.  It was recognized by the church, and understood in the church.  In 2 Peter 1:20 it says:

“But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (NASB)

Irenaeus compiled a list of apostolic successi...

Irenaeus

If you believe in the inspiring work of God you have to accept that Scripture had a right meaning.  That meaning was the one God intended, that meaning was known to the Church (John 16:13), and that Church will maintain the truth (Matthew 16:18, 1 Timothy 3:15).  The idea that people would twist Scripture and make of it their own interpretations, whether on purpose or merely through ignorance or speculation, is a phenomenon that happened very early in the church.  Peter talked about the difficulty of understanding Scripture (2 Peter 3:16), and Irenaeus mentioned it happening in the 2nd century with the gnostic heretics.  He gave a very appropriate metaphor for this:

“By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions. Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. In like manner do these persons patch together old wives’ fables, and then endeavour, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 8)

The subject of Sola Scriptura is a large one and deserves a much longer treatment, which I will give in another post as exhaustively as I know how, but you can see that the idea that you should be able to read and understand Scripture on your own, for yourself, is not the way the ancient Church understood Scripture, and is in fact quite dangerous.

Now a few comments in regard to salvation outside the church.  In the mind of the Protestant there is a deep distrust of institutions and hierarchy.  At the first indication that an organization might be as important as the individual, a Protestant will immediately see them as authoritarian and probably abusive.  In a sense Caleb is certainly accurate in this quote, though.  The Orthodox believer would not think that they achieve salvation on their own.  This sort of individualism is a product of Reformation and Enlightenment thinking, where the individual was severed from the authoritative community and each person’s intellect reigned supreme.  One only need see how Martin Luther approached interpretation to see this in spades.  Orthodoxy has a radically different understanding of salvation and community.  

It’s important, however, for the Protestant to return to Scripture and consider just how self-sufficient they are.  They should reconsider whether the metaphors used in salvation indicate individualism or a corporate understanding.  The Church, and not the individual, is referred to as the Body and the Bride of Christ.  The Church, and not the individual, is the pillar and foundation of the truth.  We believers are sheep in a flock, which is another corporate notion.  We are individual rocks, but built into a single temple.  Over and over again the metaphors you find in Scripture point to the inescapable fact that we are not saved alone.  We are saved as part of a community, and it makes absolutely no sense for individuals to try and step outside of the communal work of the Holy Spirit in history.  So in that sense Caleb is correct in saying that the notions of individual understandings of Scripture and individual salvation make no sense to the Orthodox.  The question really is, why do they make sense to Protestants?

The split

At the time of the Great Schism the head of the Orthodox Church was in the East in Constantinople.   Thus, it became the Eastern Church. (Kindle Locations 49-50)

OK, that’s just wrong.  At the time of the great Schism there wasn’t a separate Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church.  There was just the Church.  The head of the eastern church didn’t and doesn’t exist.  The Church had no head other than Christ, though the pope started claiming universal jurisdiction, which is part of the reason why the Roman patriarchate split from the other four patriarchates.  The bishop of Constantinople was the second of the five major patriarchs, after the bishop of Rome, and he is in the east, but that has nothing to do with the split, or why the Orthodox Church is known as “eastern.”  Since Rome took the western half of the old Roman empire away into schism, it is known collectively as the western church.  The remaining part of Christendom was in the east.  The rest of the church in the east stayed in communion with each other, and came to be known collectively as the eastern church merely due to geographical location.  That’s it.

The amazing thing about Orthodoxy is that it truly hasn’t changed much if any in the last 1,000 years.   Although, Orthodox scholars will tell you that their faith and traditions haven’t changed in the last 2,000 years! (Kindle Locations 74-76)

Yeah, pretty much.  Of course, Orthodox understand that when we say we haven’t changed that doesn’t mean that everything is literally identical.  Languages change.  Liturgies are updated.  New saints are recognized and fasting/feasting periods are adjusted.  New issues require new solutions.  The Church is living and vital, but the worship and doctrine remains the same.  The heart of the ancient faith is still beating in Orthodoxy.  In that way, it remains unchanged.  Even in the surface way that Caleb means you will find a strong conservatism and resistance to fad and fancy.  It’s one of our strong points.

The source of truth

if the Church is the only one who can make decisions on theology then why should the individual study theology at all?   Even if an individual were to study theology he would have to do it without making any reasonable decisions for himself. (Kindle Locations 147-150)

As a result individuals are discouraged from studying theology for themselves and with great trust rely upon the fact that all truth and only truth will come from the Holy Orthodox Church. (Kindle Locations 158-159)

Insert picture of a beaten down and subjugated people here.  That’s the Protestant bias at play in this false dichotomy.  Either the individual is free to make up their own minds, or there is some repressive hierarchy handing down edicts on dogma.  This is not at all the case.  Individuals are completely free and encouraged to study theology and learn deeply of God in whatever fashion they are capable.  They are not, however, free to then make dogmatic statements on their own.  If that’s what you are looking for, please apply to the bishop of Rome.  He’s got the only gig like that.  In Orthodoxy only the entire church in consensus has an expectation that they are led by the Holy Spirit into truth (John 16:13).

The place where you find this happening in history is in the ecumenical councils, where doctrines were firmly defended against heretical innovations.  These councils did not originate doctrines.  They maintained them.  The dogmas set out by these councils set the guide rails that protect our revealed knowledge of God.  For instance, the first ecumenical council firmly established the correct Christian understanding that Christ was equal to God the Father in essence and set out a creed to be followed by the church.  The second ecumenical council further defended the Trinity and expanded the earlier Creed into the final form it maintains to this day (in the Orthodox Church), which is known as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed.  This is still the gold standard in Christian doctrine throughout the world.

So Caleb is wrong here.  Personal study and theology knowledge is encouraged and highly lauded throughout history in the saints, many of whom were the most knowledgeable theologians of their day, and there is no hierarchy laying down new doctrines for us to follow.  My personal experience has been that theology is deep and rich in Orthodoxy, though it requires a lot of unlearning for the Protestant.

Apologetics

Whenever [an Orthodox Christian] may come across a differing theology they will neither have the means to defend their own theological stance nor to correctly evaluate the theology they are confronted with. (Kindle Locations 163-164)

Depends on who you talk to.  Just like with Protestants.  This is an unfair statement to lay out against the recovering Soviet-bloc Christians.  They are rebuilding, and many of them will have been raised under the restrictions of the communist repression.  To say that the average Ukrainian Orthodox Christian on the street should be able at a moment to engage in debate with a Protestant missionary is uncharitable.  Again, I would have no other expectation of the average Protestant who would encounter an Orthodox missionary.

Caleb feels that 1 Peter 3:15 lays an obligation on every Christian to be an apologetic power house, and while that would be nice, that’s not what saint Peter means.  Verse 15 is a suggestion by Peter on a proper response and preparation for the persecution the early Christians faced.  This is an excellent suggestion indeed, but the word he uses doesn’t indicate an elaborate apologetic, but rather an explanation.  Be ready to explain.  Give an account.  Indeed Orthodox Christians should be ready to explain where their hope comes from, and sadly sometimes they cannot.  This is grievous, but not unexpected.  This is a situation that should be remedied, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches should strive to make sure that everyone is properly catechized, just like every locality of the Church.  They should be given a certain grace and understanding in this time of recovery, and the individual Orthodox members should be given as much slack as you would give the average Protestant, who would fare no better.

I’ll stop there for now.  My time is coming to an end, and I’m doing a bit of side research into some of the other cultural claims that will hopefully shed light on the state of Orthodoxy in the Ukraine, as well as Russia.  This is a new area of learning for me, which I thoroughly enjoy.  I’ll share what I learn.

mark

About mark

Orthodox convert, writer, podcaster, husband, and father of six.

2 thoughts on “Church, Tradition and Scripture pt 2.

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