Church, Tradition, and Scripture pt 4

Read part 1part 2 or part 3.

Back to my look at Church, Tradition, and Scripture, a small polemic against the Orthodox Church that nicely demonstrates many Protestant misconceptions.  I’d like to state again that I intend no disrespect to the author of this short work.  It just serves as a nice demonstration, no more.

So, picking up where I left off…

Owning a Bible

Despite this reverence for the Bible as a divine book it would be very uncommon in the former Soviet states for a lay person to possess his own copy of the Bible.   But then again why would they need to? (Kindle Locations 181-184)

It’s not my intention to address many of these points that are specifically aimed at Ukraine or other former Soviet countries.  As I’ve stated previously, these are particular cases and are not indicative of normative Orthodox attitudes.  Nevertheless, I did take a little time to dig under the covers with some folks who are more knowledgeable about Orthodoxy in Ukraine than myself.  Caleb’s experience is apparently not common to the entire country, but rather to the part that was most under the thumb of the Soviet regime.  We shouldn’t forget that it hasn’t been that long since the Soviet Union fell, and that regime was violently anti-Christian.  Owning a Bible would’ve been impossible in a practical sense.  Orthodoxy is gradually growing back in, but it will take some time for common Bible ownership and usage to reassert itself.  Looking at other, strongly Orthodox countries you will not find that this is a universal attitude.

Theology As A Clergy Domain

The author felt that the lack of Bible ownership or knowledge was not a result of communism, but rather a systematic weakness of Orthodoxy, because it held a strong clericalism.

The individual can neither interpret nor do theology on his own. (Kindle Locations 184-185)

Paul’s instructions to Timothy are especially appropriate for the Orthodox Church as he exhorts Timothy to study God’s Word on his own.     “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth.” (II Timothy 2:15)

Of course Orthodox theologians can protest and say, “But Timothy was an ordained bishop in the church, so he had the right to study and teach God’s Word!” (Kindle Locations 188-194)

This is a common fallacy among Protestants.  They misunderstand the communal responsibility of the entire Church to protect and pass on the faith as a restriction of theological power in the hands of a clerical elite.  The individual Orthodox believer, whether a lay person or a bishop, is both free and encouraged to know the Scripture.

Saint John Chrysostom spoke about Scripture knowledge extensively.  He said:

“It is not possible, I say not possible, ever to exhaust the mind of the Scriptures. It is a well which has no bottom.” (homily 19 on Acts)


“This is the cause of all evils, the not knowing the Scriptures. We go into battle without arms, and how are we to come off safe?” (Homily 9 on Colossians)

John was extremely knowledgeable about Scripture, and used his influential position to constantly encourage a similar attitude in his parishioners.  Nothing has changed.  The Orthodox Church continues to encourage a knowledge of Scripture.  Now, many of the laity do not engage in Scripture to the extent they should.  This is hardly unique to Orthodoxy.  The knowledge of Scripture in the various Protestant groups is abysmal as well.

What Orthodoxy gets so very right in this regard, that Protestant groups get so very wrong, is the essential understanding that Scripture is only truly Scripture when it is rightly understood.  Scripture abused and twisted does not bring life, so it is important that individuals do not create their own theology outside the pale of the faith one and for all delivered to the saints.  This focus on the communal life has served to keep the Orthodox Church remarkably unified.  A lack of this distinctive has fragmented Protestantism beyond recognition.

The author goes on to attribute very Sola Scriptura attitudes to Paul.  One scarcely knows where to begin with this sort of revisionist reading of Scripture.

When Paul spoke he didn’t mind if people were checking what he was saying with Scripture.   He knew that he was fallible, he wanted everyone in the church to diligently study God’s Word for themselves! (Kindle Locations 212-214)

The only time you find anything of this nature in the New Testament is the brief statement in acts regarding the Jews of Berea.

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. Acts 17:11

This is a common proof-text for Sola Scriptura, and one that is completely misused by Protestants.  Back up and look at the context just before verse 11.  What happened in Thessalonica?  The same thing.  Paul preached Jesus in the synagogue from the Jewish Scriptures, and some people believed.  What was the difference between the Thessalonians and the Bereans?  It wasn’t that they looked at Scripture for themselves.  The Thessalonians did that as well.  The difference was the attitude of openness in Berea and the jealousy of Thessalonica.

But other Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. (v5)

It was the lack of jealousy that makes Berea a place of noble character, not the readiness to examine Scripture.  The Thessalonians also looked at Scripture (v2) and some were persuaded (v4).  Indeed, this was the seed of the Church that would later receive two epistles from Paul that are found in our New Testament today.

While what the author said in the quote above is true in detail, the intent of the quote is to say that Paul was a proto-Protestant, asking everyone to come up with their own theology from Scripture.  This is completely unwarranted from that passage, or any passage.  Paul didn’t bring a freedom to theological looseness.  He brought the gospel message of Christ, which may be verified against Scripture, but is not produced by individual excavation of Scripture.  The message is delivered.  It is passed on.  It is not created, invented, or discovered by any individual.

Salvation Outside the Church

Continuing on the author says:

Finally the doctrine of the divine authority of the Church affects the way in which the Orthodox Church thinks about the salvation of mankind.   The Protestant idea of sola fide, sola gratea, sola scriptura (faith alone, grace alone, Scripture alone) is incomprehensible to the Orthodox Church. (Kindle Locations 215-220)

This is true.  The Protestant notions of the 16th century are incomprehensible to the ancient mind of the Church.  Nothing wrong with that.  Continuing…

In casual conversation with most Orthodox believers they will tell you most assuredly that salvation is by grace through faith.   What they don’t tell you, however, is that apart from the Church there is no salvation. (Kindle Locations 220-221)

This is a hard one for the Protestant mind to grasp at first, though it’s not really that difficult of a concept.  First, it’s good to know where that comes from.  The phrase “outside the Church there is no salvation” comes from an early church bishop named Cyprian, in a work called On the Unity of the Church. It’s a really great read, and will completely blow a Protestant’s mind.  Cyprian was bishop of the large Christian African city of Carthage when he wrote this in the early 200s.  He was very close to the time of Christ, and his explanation of church unity will destroy the loosey-goosey notions of anyone who believes in Sola Scriptura.

To understand what Cyprian means, keep in mind that the Church of the first millenium was a unified entity.  This is prior to the great schism, and prior to the Reformation explosion of the 16th century.  At this point you were a Christian, inside the Church, or you were a heretic outside it.  Perhaps you were a gnostic, or one of those who lapsed out of the faith under Roman state persecution.  In any case, Cyprian is underscoring the fact that salvation in Christ means being a member of His Body, and His Body is the Church.  How could you possibly be saved without being a member of His Body.  At this time, prior to Luther’s theological innovation of the invisible church, it was understood that the Church was a visible entity, and it was quite clear if you were a part of it.

Allow me to quote from Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church to demonstrate how the Church was understood originally:

“Thus also the Church, shone over with the light of the Lord, sheds forth her rays over the whole world, yet it is one light which is everywhere diffused, nor is the unity of the body separated. Her fruitful abundance spreads her branches over the whole world. She broadly expands her rivers, liberally flowing, yet her head is one, her source one; and she is one mother, plentiful in the results of fruitfulness: from her womb we are born, by her milk we are nourished, by her spirit we are animated.” [emphasis added] (part 5)

The spouse of Christ cannot be adulterous; she is uncorrupted and pure. She knows one home; she guards with chaste modesty the sanctity of one couch. She keeps us for God. She appoints the sons whom she has born for the kingdom. Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress, is separated from the promises of the Church; nor can he who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother. If any one could escape who was outside the ark of Noah, then he also may escape who shall be outside of the Church. The Lord warns, saying, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who gathereth not with me scattereth” (St. Matthew 12:30). He who breaks the peace and the concord of Christ, does so in opposition to Christ; he who gathereth elsewhere than in the Church, scatters the Church of Christ. The Lord says, “I and the Father are one;” (St. John 10:30) and again it is written of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, “And these three are one.” (I St. John 5:7) And does anyone believe that this unity which thus comes from the divine strength and coheres in celestial sacraments, can be divided in the Church, and can be separated by the parting asunder of opposing wills? He who does not hold this unity does not hold God’s law, does not hold the faith of the Father and the Son, does not hold life and salvation.” [emphasis added] (part 6)

“That coat bore with it an unity that came down from the top, that is, that came from heaven and the Father, which was not to be at all rent by the receiver and the possessor, but without separation we obtain a whole and substantial entireness. He cannot possess the garment of Christ who parts and divides the Church of Christ.” [emphasis added] (part 7)

That is very strong language for the unity of the church, against the divisions rampant in the Protestant world.  And it’s extremely strong language for those who stray outside that Church in an effort to find salvation.  Is it any wonder that the Orthodox Church, while not the judge of those outside her borders, must nonetheless say the way of salvation is to belong to the Bride.  God is a merciful judge, particularly on those innocent of the act of separation, which all Protestants are at this time.  Nevertheless, you cannot find the pure stream of salvation by straying from the spring of the ancient Church.  That’s where the hard truth lies.

Scripture Over Tradition

Getting toward the end of the book I found these indictments of “tradition.”

Peter, Paul, John and Jesus all testify to the inspiration of Scripture, yet none of them indicate that tradition is on the same level. In fact Jesus does quite the opposite when he confronts the Pharisees. He rebukes them relying heavily upon their traditions. (Kindle Locations 333-336)

Here he quotes Matthew 15:1-9, and then says:

If the Pharisees ancient traditions were condemned why should the Orthodox traditions be any different? (Kindle Locations 350-351)

Thank you for that excellent leading question.  The simple answer is, the Orthodox traditions are not the traditions of man that Jesus was rebuking.  🙂

Let me back up and clarify something.  The author says that Peter, Paul, John, and Jesus didn’t put tradition on the same level as Scripture.  Oh?

So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. 2 Thessalonians 2:15

I guess he forgot that one.  And before he goes riding off on his statement about how much Jesus hated tradition, he should read Matthew 23.

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

Here Jesus has another run in with the Pharisees, and clarifies his position on them.  He doesn’t condemn them for their teachings.  Instead he reinforces their teaching authority.  “Do everything they tell you.”  It was their practice that was the big problem, not their traditions.  In Matthew 15 that the author quotes Jesus is explicit.  It’s when their teachings give them a weasel way to break the commands of God that things have gone off the rails.  That is hardly a universal condemnation of tradition.

And less tradition get overly maligned, it’s important to point out that the greek word translated as tradition just means teachings.  The word is used frequently in the New Testament in a positive sense.  I already quoted one time above, in 2 Thessalonians.  This is not uncommon.  What would it even mean to condemn tradition universally.  That would mean we could never learn from our predecessors in the faith.  It would mean that 2 Thessalonians 3:6 would make absolutely no sense.  It would make Jude 1:3 make absolutely no sense.  It would make 2 Timothy 2:2 make absolutely no sense.  No, indeed tradition is absolutely necessary to the proper functioning of the Christian faith.  And make no mistake, Protestants have their own traditions.  They just started much more recently.

No Need For Priests

There is no more need for a priest to intercede for us because Jesus is our High Priest. (Kindle Locations 371-372)

To the author the context makes clear that by this he means two things.  First, don’t listen to your priests.  Think for yourselves.  As I’ve already said, this Protestant philosophy of do-it-yourself Christianity is destructive and has flowered into the hydra of Protestant schism.

Second, there is no need for a hierarchical priestly system.  That’s been done away with.  Protestants don’t understand two things.  Priests in the Orthodox Church are merely entering into and manifesting the high priestly office of Christ in the world.  It’s true that we are all participants of this priestly office in various ways.  Some of us serve that function a bit more outwardly.

Also, the Church has always had hierarchy to it.  This wasn’t invented by Constantine or whoever.  You can find this strongly in the writings of the church.  It’s in the New Testament.  Go look in Acts 15.  Ask yourself, what was James?  When Paul laid hands on Timothy, what was he doing?  When he instructed Timothy to pass on the faith to worthy men, and gave him the qualifications for an “elder”, what was that elder?  The didache, a manual of church life during the times of the apostles, contains references to a hierarchy that ran Sunday services, and it wasn’t the apostles.  The writings of Ignatius in 100AD are so thick with discussions of bishops and priests that you can’t make it through them without wondering how anyone could discount the traditional hierarchy of the Church.  The writings of Clement, bishop of Rome, in the 2nd century discuss the succession of Bishops.  Irenaeus discusses it.  On and on and on.

There is also no need for an earthly temple because each believer is a temple. (Kindle Locations 376-377)

So the Church never had places to worship?  Protestants don’t have buildings?  Come on.

Finally, Faith Alone

Salvation comes only through simple faith in Jesus, not through sacraments or other religious traditions. (Kindle Location 387)

Well, we’ve already discussed tradition.  What about salvation by faith alone.  Sola Fide.  This tenet of the Reformation is an interesting one.  It deserves an entire book treatment on all the problems inherent in it, but I’ll just mention the major flaw with it.  It’s not Biblical.  Where is salvation by faith alone in the Bible?  Hint: it’s not in there.  An often repeated, but accurate, fact is that the words “faith” and “alone” appear together only one time in the Bible, in James 2:24.

You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

Doesn’t get any clearer than that.  Dance all you want, but it’s completely clear.  Martin Luther was so distraught by this passage that he wanted to pitch James out of the Bible altogether.  Thankfully he didn’t get his way.

That’s all I’m going to say on this book.  This was a whirlwind of different fallacies and misconceptions.  It’s not an in-depth treatment that could be made on any of them, but I think it serves as a nice overall treatment of the various complaints that you will often find against Orthodoxy.

Read part 1part 2 or part 3.


About mark

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

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