Below is a short presentation I wrote this year for a discussion group I attend locally from time to time. I do not attempt to answer everything here or address objections. I specifically designed this piece to facilitate discussion so as to allow various objections to come out in due course. I did write it as part of a larger argument because I think it gets to the heart of the matter concerning Reformation disputes. That is, the argument is not over epistemological issues (how can we know the correct interpretation of scripture?) but rather normative issues (what interpretation of scripture is binding or obligatory?) So I think that framing the matter in this way helps to clear away much of the confusion over the Reformation’s formal distinctive that is left untouched by most discussions of this topic. I hope you find it profitable.
“The Gnostic appeal to a secret tradition embodied in its own Gospels or modifications of the existing Christian gospels thus highlights the situation of the “Two Churches within One Institution” Model, for the Gnostic “tradition” is esoteric, and can only be arrived at by initiation into methods known to the Gnostic. The situation is all too similar to the claims of much modern textual criticism, which asserts the right of its own scholarly elite to modify the text of Scripture, or in actual fact, to reject the ecclesiastical texts, in favor of its own highly questionable conjectures and reconstructions of the “original autographs”. Seen in this light, the Gnostic is little more than a second century textual critical peritus, and the modern textual critic as little more than a nineteenth or twentieth century Gnostic.”
“Specifically, by the latter part of the second century, when the orthodox insisted upon “one God,” they simultaneously validated the system of governance in which the church is ruled by “one bishop.” Gnostic modification of monotheism was taken—and perhaps intended—as an attack upon that system. For when gnostic and orthodox Christians discussed the nature of God, they were at the same time debating the issue of spiritual authority. Thus, even the idea of apostolic succession is transformed in the hands of some Gnostic systems who claimed succession from different teachers, who form, according to Ptolemy, “an esoteric supplement to the canonical collection of Jesus’ words.” Bodily resurrection, apostolic succession, and the canonical and textual form of the Scriptures form a continuous strand of orthodox response to Gnosticism, as Gnosticism forms a continuous and total program of assault on each of these. For both the Gnostic and the Orthodox, to imperial any of these elements was to imperial them all. Again, the implications for the modern situation are dire, for faced as we are with Churches and hierarchies that all too quickly are abandoning versions of Scripture based upon some form of the Majority Text—the received ecclesiastical text underlying most versions of Scripture, in favor of versions based on critical constructions of what scholars think the early text to have been, constructions themselves based upon manuscripts in many cases of known Gnostic or heretic pedigree, the implication for apostolic succession is enormous.”
“[W]hen St. Irenaeus emphasizes the recapitulation of all things in Christ, including all stages of human nature, he is stating more than just Christological doctrine. The unity of the Godhead and the inclusion of all of humanity in the effects of the Incarnation are double blows against the Gnostic proliferation of deities and authorities; his understanding of recapitulation is also a statement of ecclesiastical polity. There are, indeed, he acknowledges, two traditions, but only one derives from the Apostles; the other derives from Simon Magus and ultimately from Satan. The importance of this will be lost unless restated in modern higher critical terms: the distinction of two kinds of tradition as regards doctrine, polity, and canonical Scripture means that any attempt to deal with early manuscripts of Scripture as an indistinct mass, without regarde to doctrinal content, is, from the orthodox Christian perspective, impossible, since it does not account for the historical fact of the existence of different kinds of tradition from the beginning.”
–God, History, and Dialectic: The Theological Foundations of the Two Europes and Their Cultural Consequences, +Photius Farrell
“More important is the fact that the content of tradition is nothing other than that which is also preserved in a written form, as Scripture — they are not two different sources. Tradition is not the accumulation of various customs, nor does it provide us with access to knowledge necessary for salvation that is not also contained in Scripture. It is the Gnostics, according to Irenaeus, who appeal to tradition for teachings not contained in Scripture.
“The community founded upon the apostolic Gospel, the Church, is also the community which has recognized certain writings as apostolic and as authoritative Scripture (and will eventually speak of a canon of Scripture). As there were many writings laying claim to apostolic status, the claim to apostolicity, however, was not itself enough to justify the recognition of a particular writing as Scripture. What was essential was the conformity of the writing to the apostolic Gospel which founded the Church, which has been preserved intact, and which had since come to be phrased in terms of a rule/canon of truth/faith. This also means that the apostolic writings are accepted as Scripture within a community that lays claim to the correct interpretation of these writings. Tradition is, as Florovsky put it commenting on Irenaeus, Scripture rightly understood. In Irenaeus’ vivid image, those who interpret Scripture in a manner which does not conform to the rule of truth are like those who, seeing a beautiful mosaic of a king, dismantle the stones and reassemble them to form the picture of a dog, claiming that this was the original intention of the writer (Against the Heresies, 1.8).
“It is not that what is claimed to be the picture of a king can be arbitrarily imposed upon Scripture — Scripture is fixed — it is “the ground and pillar of our faith,” as Irenaeus puts it, modifying Paul’s words, about the Church, to Timothy (1 Tim 3:15; although as Bart Ehrman has noted, parts of the text were modified during the course of the second century to produce a more ‘orthodox’ text). Scripture is that to which one must continually return, to be sure of the ground on which we stand.
“If tradition is essentially the right interpretation of Scripture, then it cannot change — and this means, it can neither grow nor develop. A tradition with a potential for growth ultimately undermines the Gospel itself — it leaves open the possibility for further revelation, and therefore the Gospel would no longer be sure and certain. If our faith is one and the same as that of the apostles, then, as Irenaeus claimed, it is equally immune from improvement by articulate or speculative thinkers as well as from diminution by inarticulate believers (Against the Heresies, 1.10.2). We must take seriously the famous saying of St. Vincent of Lerins: “We must hold what has been believed everywhere, always and by all” (Commonitorium, 2).
“From an Orthodox perspective, there simply is, therefore, no such thing as dogmatic development. What there is, of course, is ever new, more detailed and comprehensive explanations elaborated in defense of one and the same faith — responding, each time, to a particular context, a particular controversy etc. But it is one and the same faith that has been believed from the beginning — the continuity of the correct interpretation of Scripture. And for this reason, the Councils, as Fr. John Meyendorff pointed out, never formally endorsed any aspect of theology as dogma which is not a direct (and correct) interpretation of the history of God described in Scripture: only those aspects were defined as dogma which pertain directly to the Gospel. So, for instance, the only aspect pertaining to the Virgin Mary that was ever recognized as dogma is that she is Theotokos — “Mother of God” — for she gave birth to our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ — it is something which pertains to the Incarnation, rather than to Mary herself. Whilst individual theologians have speculated about other aspects concerning the Virgin herself, and her glorification, items not directly pertaining to the Gospel of Christ’s work of salvation, such as the Assumption and the Immaculate conception, have never been held to have the status of dogma in the Orthodox Church. ”
—Father John Behr
A Talk given at the University of North Carolina / March 23, 1998
Peter Enns is an evangelical biblical scholar at Westminster Seminary. I am not usually disposed to post things from WTS, but this article will prove helpful to those wondering how the Orthodox Fathers exegete Scripture. While not, for obvious reasons, always consistent with Orthodoxy, he comes very close to it and has came to see the inadequacies of the grammatical-historical methodology that is so prized among Protestants.
This new family-the body of Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit-is responsible for writing the Gospel, which is not a systematic exposition of the Christian teaching, precisely because it is not concerned with teaching. Jesus did not leave behind Him a new philosophical system, nor did He institute a mere religion. He left His body and sent His Spirit. And the Gospel consists of fundamental elements from the life of Jesus and the experience of the new community in Christ. St John the Evangelist speaks clearly of the restricted character of the Gospel: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). However, those things which the world could not contain if they were written in detail are found, made known and lived in the Church, where Jesus Himself lives. Those who think they know Christ outside the Church know very few things about Him; those who belong to the Church live “in Him”. Thus we can say that the Gospel is essentially a “private” book. It belongs to the Church, which has a world-wide mission. Or, to put it another way, outside the Church the Gospel is a sealed and incomprehensible book. This is characteristically expressed in the way that it is placed on the altar in the Orthodox Church, for it is within the Church that the ministry of the Gospel is accomplished.
Later, when needs present themselves, the Church will formulate dogma, which is only an expression, perhaps in a different way, of the truth which it has embraced from the day of Pentecost, “Having received all the spiritual illumination of the Holy Spirit…” the Fathers who proclaimed Christ “set forth the faith taught by God.”
The Gospel and dogma are expressions of the same Spirit of the Church. The Church is not producing literature when it writes the Gospel nor engaging in philosophy when it formulates dogma, but in both cases it is expressing the fulness of the new life hidden within it. For this reason, the Gospel cannot be understood outside the Church nor dogma outside worship.
Archimandrite Vasileios Hymn of Entry (p. 17-18)
Steve Hays responded in part to my challenge concerning three doctrines and their lack of support from Scripture. Of course it really wasn’t a response. He just posted to articles that he thinks are sufficient to answer my challenge. Of course, he lists no article on divine simplicity. And there is a good reason for that. Steve knows that it is not justifiable by Scripture alone. So again, I wonder, why aren’t Calvinists protesting that doctrine? It matters not if Steve personally subscribes to it. His confession does and I’d bet his elders do and practically the entire Protestant tradition does. In fact his own confession also subscribes to denying any knowledge of the divine essence, (“whose Essence cannot be comprehended by any but himself”) which is really quite funny given his recent rants against Orthodoxy on the very same point. What was especially funny was Steve’s invocation of Platonism to deny that God’s glory is visible, even though Scripture says otherwise (Lev 9:6, Num 20:6, Ex 34:29-35) All one has to do is read Augustine’s De Trinitate books 1-6 to see the same Platonic moves to deny God’s visibility, which incidentally was the same line of thinking that the Arians employed to deny the divinity of the Son.
Here is an interesting article by an M. James Sawyer on Protestant views of the canon of Scripture. It is interesting to note how much is actually conceded to arguments made by Catholics and Orthodox. In the end what he argues for is a return to Calvin’s view of the internal witness of the Spirit. I don’t think that gives us any objective reason or method for why Protestants accept the canon that they do. Some of my reasons can be found in Rupert Davies’ little book, The Problem of Authority in the Continental Reformers.