Posts Tagged 'scripture'

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.


More from Alden Swan

Swan has some interesting things to say on the relationship between post-Reformation church and Modernism, as well as the question of by which authority we not only interpret Scripture, but by which authority we determine the canon of Scripture.

For example:

One of the most irritating qualities of Modernism is the almost essential arrogance that comes from the belief in progress; that is, that “new” is better than “old.” Evangelicalism seems to exhibit the same tendency to believe in theological “progress,” as well as the resulting sense of arrogance in how they deal with past theological positions. While many would argue, especially in the case of fundamentalists, that this is absurd, I think in the “big picture” it makes sense.

With Evangelicalism, there are some basic presumptions that may not be true. One such presumption is that it is an advancement to think of theology almost as a science, being able to break large concepts down into minute detail and argue over the fine points. This scientific approach has, as Webber points out, reduced theology to a set of facts or propositions which can – and must – be believed. This systematic approach appears to have a goal of eradicating any sort of mystery from theology, believing that we can reason our way through our faith. Our faith (as Webber also points out) can then conceivably be conveyed to others in a logical, reasoned way, what we think of a “apologetics.” Evangelicals reason their way to truth, whereas the reformers simply proclaimed it.

To restate one of his points, Christianity is reduced by this approach to an ideology and a philosophy, rather than a means by which the faithful live their lives. By believing we can simply reason our way through our faith, the opposite has been greatly enabled–one can also very easily reason one’s way right out of their faith, too. I recall no examples from Acts or the Epistles of anybody coming to Christianity through a well-reasoned argument. Truth is a Person whom we meet in Christianity, not a set of precepts. To put it another way, it is not the case that the more one knows about God, the closer one is to God.

I would also tweak his last sentence–the reformers proclaimed the truth which they believed they had found while rejecting the truth which they had received. To understand what I mean by this, it is necessary to jettison the baggage most of us have with the word “tradition”, that it means “we do it this way because we’ve always done it this way and we don’t have a better answer than that”, as typified popularly everywhere from Fiddler on the Roof (a humorous example) to the Shirley Jackson short story “The Lottery” (a horrifying example). It is a given that “tradition” is used in both a positive and negative light in Scripture; there is of course the admonition about “traditions of men” but then also there is 2 Thess 2:15, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or by our epistle” (compare to 2 Tim 1:13–“Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus”) and 2 Thess 3:6, a reference to “the tradition which you received from us”. The Greek word here is παράδοσις paradosis, derived from the verb παραδίδωμι paradidomi, “to hand over, to transmit”. So, literally, παράδοσις is “that which is handed down” or “that which is handed over”. “Tradition” is simply the Latinate form of the same word; it is from “traditus”, the perfect passive participle of “tradere”, “to hand over”.

So what was passed down? “The faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). “Delivered” in Greek here is again a form of παραδίδωμι, so this is the faith once “traditioned” to the saints. That faith is “the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, the breaking of the bread, and the prayers” (Acts 2:42), and the apostles had been told that the Holy Spirit, “the Spirit of truth”, “will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13), that truth of the which the Church is “the pillar and ground” (1 Tim 3:15).

Tradition, therefore, is the truth, it is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, the Church which is both Body and Bride of Christ, Christ who is Himself the Truth. Tradition is not what we do because we’ve always done it and don’t have a better reason, but rather it is the the faith once “traditioned.”

So, from this perspective, the Reformers rejected that which had been “traditioned” to them while proclaiming what they believed to have been the truth they found, rather than received, by narrowing the list of acceptable sources.

By contrast, what we might generally refer to as “the catholic tradition” proclaims the truth which it receives. I don’t mean for that to sound arrogant (although it inevitably will); rather, that’s what the Greek Orthodox priest to whom Swan was speaking meant when he said that, on the inerrancy of Scripture, “we don’t think that way…we’ve just never questioned it.”

Still, there’s more of a context to his statement than just that, which brings me to Swan’s other piece:

As I think I’ve mentioned before, it is interesting to note that based on what we read in the New Testament, the “Word of God” does not seem limited to anything which was written down, and in fact, seems to speak of oral testimony.

Exactly, per 2 Thess 2:15, as quoted above. This again gets to the heart of the what the priest was saying–the New Testament is a witness to the tradition, to the authority, to the life of the Church already ongoing, not the instruction manual and not the source itself. More specifically, the Gospels and the Epistles are the Truth proclaimed and witnessed to in community–that is, liturgically, since they were written to be read to the assembly when they had gathered. To remove Scripture from this context and try to make it its own discrete source of authority is to obscure its meaning and reduce its authority, not to clarify it.

To relate this to an earlier point, Christianity is not a philosophy derived from a text, it is new life through an encounter with a Person who is the Truth. By being reduced to adherence to a set of precepts found in a text without the continuity of the life of the Church which has been ongoing since Pentecost, Christianity has been severely weakened.

What St. Ignatius wrote to the Philadelphians comes to mind: “When I heard some say, ‘Unless I find it in the official records–in the Gospel I do not believe’; and when I answered them, ‘It is in the Scriptures,’ they retorted: ‘That is just the point at issue.’ But to me the official record is Jesus Christ; the inviolable record is His Cross and His death and His Resurrection and the faith of which He is the Author.” The Scriptures witness to the Faith, not the other way around.

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