Unabashedly not adhering to sola Scriptura – surely there’s another way to put that…

In a discussion with a Calvinist friend (and to be fair, I don’t know that he himself identifies as a Calvinist, but his church certainly identifies as “Reformed” with lots of appeals to Calvin) about something else recently, one of our points of disagreement on the issue at hand was determined to be rooted in doctrinal differences. In this case, it was a matter of whether or not the Gospel is principally a textual phenomenon. I said that it is not; the Gospel is Christ resurrected in the flesh, trampling down death and redeeming fallen Adam — that is, the Truth of our faith is a Person whom we know and with whom we have fellowship, not a set of texts we read. The texts are a way we know about Him, and a way He is proclaimed in the context of the worshipping body, but those texts aren’t the only way or even the principal way we know about Him or proclaim Him. My friend’s response was to say, you’re right, this is a doctrinal dispute that’s older than we are, but needless to say, I unabashedly adhere to sola Scriptura and believe Scripture teaches it.

A different conversation with an Orthodox person about a completely different matter also touched on the question of textuality, in this case whether or not liturgy, as understood by the Orthodox, is a chiefly textual experience. To this person, the answer was without question yes; everything in our services more or less expresses a set of texts, and anything that obscures those texts need to be reconsidered. My thoughts on the matter were that the Divine Liturgy is chiefly the celebration of the Eucharist — that is, communion with God — not a proclamation of text. While there are texts that are proclaimed, they are done so in the context of other sensory experiences — incense, icons, singing, movement, and so on. Yes, this person replied, but the celebration of the Eucharist is preceded by the parts of the service intended to prepare us to receive it, which means prayers that we’re supposed to say, and while we do adorn the texts with things like incense, those seem to have only become important as we’ve gotten away from understanding the Liturgy as textual. Part of my problem, as I told this person, is that sounds a little close to sola Scriptura for me; no, he replied, sola Scriptura is a doctrinal dispute between Protestants and Catholics that doesn’t have anything to do with us. Hm.

By contrast to both of those discussions, another friend was telling me about a paper he’s having to write for an ethics class. His professor is big on a threefold model of “doing, thinking, and knowing”, and evidently the model that gets used is that of romantic relationships — dating -> doing, engagement -> thinking, marriage -> knowing. So, my friend is looking at how this model might apply to textures of Byzantine chant. He’s arguing that things like psalm verses, refrains, petitions, liturgical dialogue, and so on constitute “doing”, stichera and troparia (to name a few) are “thinking”, and then the melismatic textures are “knowing”. He singled out kratemata and terirem (basically musical meditations on nonsense syllables) as, in this model, being the ultimate form of “knowing”, saying that if hesychasm is our ideal form of prayer, then these represent the musical equivalent. I was reminded of this passage from St. Augustine’s commentary on Ps. 100:

The one who sings a jubilus [qui iubilat] does not speak with words, but it is a certain sound of joy without words: it is the voice indeed of a soul exhilarated with joy, expressing to the extent possible love but not encompassing sentiment. A man rejoicing in his own exultation, after certain words which are not able to be spoken or understood, bursts forth into such a voice of exultation without words; so that it appears that he indeed rejoices with his own voice, but as though filled with too much joy, he is not able to express with words that in which he rejoices.

I’ll note that I’ve heard qui iubilat argued to mean “the one singing a jubilus” (that is, the melismatic ending to the Alleluia in the Mass); I’ve also heard it argued that this understanding must be anachronistic, and that is simply means “he who jubilates”. The former is what I was taught in music history, so I’ll stick with it for now. In any event, whatever qui iubilat means, this “sound of joy without words” seemed to be very much what my friend was getting at with the “knowing” part of the model.

Finally, I recently encountered this passage from a 1923 essay by Pavel Novgorodtsev titled “The Essence of the Russian Orthodox Consciousness”:

When… Protestant writers reproach the Orthodox Church for not developing sufficiently the practice of spiritual exhortation in its church services, for having little concern for the moral superiority of its flock, then here… misunderstanding continues. For the Protestant in his church service, between the bare walls of his temple, the chief thing is to listen well to the moralizing teaching, to do the expected psalm singing and prayers, which have as their goal the same moral concentration and self-purification. The chief thing here is human influence and personal introspection. On the contrary, for the Orthodox the main thing in the Church service is the action of divine grace on the believers, their communion with divine grace. Here it is not human influence that is determinate but divine action; the goal here is not simple moral education but mystical unity with God. The beneficent force of the Eucharist and liturgical religious rites, in which the grace of God mysteriously descends upon those who pray — this is the highest focus of the church services and prayerful exhortations. The cry of the holy servant [that is, the priest celebrating the Eucharist] “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all” summons the gifts of divine grace on all present at the liturgy[.] (collected in A Revolution of the Spirit: Crisis of Value in Russia, 1890-1924, ed. Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal and Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak)

How to put all of this together? To come back to the conversation with my Calvinist friend, I was really struck by how he described himself as “unabashedly” adhering to sola Scriptura. I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean this, but in thinking about it, it seemed that it could be understood as him thinking that the main reason one might not adhere to sola Scriptura is because they are “abashed” — that is, ashamed of Scripture. This would be suggested by something that he said, that we have to be willing to proclaim all the truth of Scripture — not just the easy, warm and fuzzy parts, but also the “gnarly” (his word) bits that are hard to reconcile with where the world is at right now.

In any event, I don’t adhere to sola Scriptura, and I unabashedly don’t adhere to sola Scriptura, but I don’t unabashedly not adhere to sola Scriptura because I’m ashamed of Scripture. Now, here’s the problem — how does one restate that positively?

The arguments about sola Scriptura are centuries old, and no blog post I could possibly write in between spurts of exam reading is going to resolve that dispute, so I’m not going to bother trying. Here are some things that I think I can say about the experience of an Orthodox Christian with respect to Scripture:

  • The principal experience of Scripture for an Orthodox Christian is hearing it proclaimed in the context of the worshipping body. That’s not to say that we don’t ever read it on our own, just that the normative way it is transmitted and received is that it is heard in the context of corporate worship. That includes the Epistle and Gospel readings in the Divine Liturgy, but it also includes Old Testament readings at Vespers, Gospel readings at Matins, and Psalms at every service. Another way to put this is that the Gospel, Epistles, Psalter, and Prophets are books written by the Church, organized and edited by the Church for the Church, and done so for the Church’s use. If this seems a bizarre way to think of the Bible, well, I refer you to Harold O. J. Brown, late of the faculty of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, who noted once that “there is no way to make the New Testament older than the church” (“Proclamation and Preservation: The Necessity and Temptations of Church Traditions”, Reclaiming the Great Tradition,  Intervarsity Press, 1996).
  • (As a side note, I’ll say that somebody close to me recently bought an audiobook version of the Bible. “It’s really fascinating what you get out of it hearing it out loud rather than just reading it on your own,” this person said to me. “Have you ever heard it that way?” I gently suggested to this person that this is not exactly news in Orthodox circles.)
  • The hearing of Scripture in the context of the Liturgy is one of many elements in support of the celebration and reception of the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ. The Eucharist is not in support or an expression of Scripture; it may be the Body and Blood of the incarnate Word, but that’s not the same thing as saying that it’s chiefly about words.
  • Scripture is not in conflict with Tradition. Scripture is the component of Tradition that has been passed down through the written witness of the Apostles, the Evangelists, and Prophets. We have knowledge of what Scripture is because the Church was able, by means of Tradition, to evaluate the various writings claiming status as Scripture.
  • The Truth that we proclaim is not a set of writings, but a Person. The Gospel is that the Christ, the Son of the Living God, having been crucified in the flesh, rose from the dead and trampled down death by means of death itself. Scripture is one of the ways that this is witnessed to and proclaimed, but it is neither the only way nor even the chief way. One of the chief ways, yes.
  • The Divine Liturgy, the celebration of the Eucharist, is itself not principally a textual experience. It is an experience of heaven on earth, communion with the Living God, a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom. There are many modalities of sensory experience that are used to present this image of heaven; hearing and sight are among them, but one hears many other things besides just the plain words of Scripture in the context of our worship, and while one may see things that invoke certain Scriptural images (there is a distinct relationship between what one sees going on at the altar and the description of heavenly worship in the Apocalypse of St. John, for example), one rarely sees the words of Scripture in a service as such (unless it is one’s liturgical function to proclaim Scripture). Sensory experience as a way of knowing God has a long Christian tradition; I refer the reader to Susan Ashbrook Harvey’s study of the sense of smell in the late antique Christian East, Scenting Salvation, as a place to start on this.
  • None of this is to discount, devalue, displace, diminish, disobey, marginalize, or minimize Scripture. No, indeed; the point is honor Scripture in its proper place — to “hold fast to the traditions received from [the Apostles], whether by [their] word or [their] epistle” (2 Thess 2:15), and to hold the high view of the Church that we are to have, as witnessed to by Scripture — that the Church is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).

As I said at the outset, my words — which sound an awful lot like a thousand other similar such things written by Orthodox Christians — aren’t going to resolve the long-held disagreements about this, so I’m not going to pretend they have any chance of doing so. The point is, what’s the positive thing that an Orthodox Christian can affirm so that we’re not just saying, “I don’t adhere to sola Scriptura“? Maybe ὅλη παράδοσις — “whole Tradition” (or “the whole of Holy Tradition”? Try saying that five times fast)? I guess it’s not found in Scripture in so many words, but it’s doing neither better nor worse than sola Scriptura on that front.

Let’s try that, then. I unabashedly adhere to ὅλη παράδοσις, Tradition in its fullness, and I believe that Scripture teaches it.


10 Responses to “Unabashedly not adhering to <i>sola Scriptura</i> – surely there’s another way to put that…”

  1. 1 Zotikos 15 December 2011 at 8:08 am

    Inspired reflection. I especially enjoyed the excerpt from Pavel Novgorodtsev’s essay. Thanks for taking time from exams to post.

  2. 2 Lucas 15 December 2011 at 10:16 am

    How about “πολυφροσύνη τῆς παραδόσεως” ?

    • 3 Richard Barrett 15 December 2011 at 10:41 am

      Possibly! I sort of like how ὅλη παράδοσις works as a direct contrast to sola Scriptura, but those words certainly express the idea well.

  3. 4 Lucas 15 December 2011 at 11:03 am

    Ah, good point; there’s a parallelism in your formulation for which I hadn’t accounted.

  4. 5 Dan 15 December 2011 at 4:30 pm

    Not sure if this is much help, but I just had a conversation with a friend last night about the letters of Paul. She’s a Catholic, trained by protestant historians and exegetes. She pointed out that in her very ecumenical Protestant circles, there is very little sense in saying that the Church should be open to all sorts of various opinions and interpretations, only to declare someone like Paul infallible. It’s nearly impossible to justify the primacy of Paul when you give primacy to no living writer or person.

    I said I agreed in principle, but that this was no problem for me as an Orthodox. I remarked that as time has gone by in my Christian life in the Church I’ve come to appreciate Paul’s letters more and more, and have come to see them as really completely true. I find them flawless, and in that sense infallible.

    But the point I made was that I don’t believe everything Paul says because it happens to be in the bible – I believe it because it is true, and through my life in the Church I have come to know and experience it as true. So I accept its authority because it DESERVES authority, not the reverse. And I think that this is what scripture is for the Church – a group of texts that are authoritative not because they fell out of the sky, but because they are, in fact, true, and generation upon generation has seen their truth for millenia.

    In the end, a sola scriptura thinker first has to choose to assent to everything scripture says. It doesn’t help not to be critical of the process by which a Christian comes to accept the bible. Is it because his mom told him to – the Church told him to – a minister told him to? Or is it because he read it and found it to ring the bell of his soul so much that he could no longer deny the truth within? Something else? None of those are necessarily bad reasons to trust scripture, but the point is that scripture can never have absolute primacy – something else leads us to even open up the bible in the first place. Protestants seem to want to dodge the fact that at the end of the day the real reason they first chose to trust scripture is that someone they love or trust told them they should. Again, that’s not wrong, but we have to recognise it.

    For us Orthodox, the something that leads us to trust scripture is ultimately the Church as guided by the Holy Spirit. So, maybe what we believe in is “Sola Spiritu” (sorry – is that the right Latin?) Obviously Orthodox don’t mean that in the charismatic pentecostal sense, but in the end the Spirit must first act on any individual Christian, and that Christian must give in to the will of the Spirit before he or she can even open up the bible in the first place, to say nothing about interpret it. For us, the Spirit acts in the Church, so all this happens in the context of the Church.

    So, to wrap it up, I think that this is in a sense what you’re saying about the liturgy as text – lovely comments, by the way, and I’m quite convinced that you are right. Of course there is text, but before all that there is the Spirit, inspiring the text, guiding us to the text, and making the text live in us as we worship (not to mention manifesting in the sacraments).

    Does that make any sense at all? Are we the people of “the Spirit only?”

    • 6 Richard Barrett 15 December 2011 at 6:38 pm

      Probably either solus Spiritus or solo Spiritu, depending on what case one presumes sola Scriptura to be representing, nominative or ablative — in other words “the _____ alone” or “by means of the _____ alone”.

      I think what you say makes sense!

  5. 7 Samn! 16 December 2011 at 12:51 pm

    I recently had a conversation similar to the one you had with the Orthodox who talked about the liturgy as being primarily textual. In this case, my Orthodox interlocutor was arguing that because the liturgy is primarily textual, it needs to be revamped so that the people have much understanding of the texts, and that better texts need to be composed or imported to replace ones he finds ineffective (in this case, the Cherubikon). There really ought to be more popular, practical, non-theoretical discussion about how liturgy works among Orthodox…

    • 8 Richard Barrett 16 December 2011 at 1:34 pm

      Heh. Yes. It’s sort of funny to me to hear the Cherubikon described as ineffective. Somebody completely missed the point of what’s happening there.

  6. 9 Teague 17 December 2011 at 6:37 pm


    I really like what you said about Truth being the Person of Christ. Protestants sometimes elevate the Bible improperly, as Jesus said of the Pharisees: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the scriptures that testify of me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39, 40). Improperly elevating scripture diminishes Christ and leads to legalism. We can focus on the letter of scripture and marginalize the spirit (2 Cor. 3:6). I’m also glad you pointed out that scripture is part of tradition. Years back I realized that “scripture vs. tradition” is a false dichotomy and misframes the issue. The real question is whether certain parts of tradition are authoritative over others. As you said, this is a centuries long discussion to which Christians have given different answers. Anyway, thanks for the post 🙂

  1. 1 “Encounter” vs. “reception” vs. solutions looking for problems « Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Trackback on 7 January 2012 at 3:49 am

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