Mar 13 2010

Managing Conflict For Church Boards & Committees

From my Conflict blog:

We all agree that bad conflict is destructive.  An apparent lack of conflict is also destructive, because there really is no lack of conflict. It’s either open and obvious, or it’s hidden; and hidden conflict is, in my opinion, far more destructive.  How many people disappear from churches for no apparent reason?  Truth is, there’s always a reason, and typically it’s an issue of unresolved conflict (although certainly that’s not always the case).  As someone once said, “wherever two or more are gathered, there is conflict.”  Conflict is a fact of life, as long as we are imperfect beings. Rather than ignore this fact, as many churches tend to do, the best case scenario would seem to be to put conflict front and center, but make it good conflict rather than bad.

Read the whole post here.


Jan 13 2010

Exploring the Twain 6: Tradition revisited

One of the primary differences between Eastern and Western Christianity concerns the nature of authority in the church.  I’ve already explored this issue here, so I won’t repeat myself.  However, I will mention a few points that I may have missed.

  1. The Eastern Orthodox concept of Tradition is quite difficult for the Western mind to get around, as it really fails to fall in any Western category.
  2. The Church Fathers, whose teaching is part of the Orthodox Tradition, are not considered infallible; that is, even highly respected Fathers had some teachings which have been rejected as being heterodox.
  3. The Church Fathers are respected not because of their historical proximity to the Apostles, but because their revelation and teaching is seen as apostolic.
  4. Revelation is seen as continuing. Not that it is progressive, but that God continues to reveal Himself as he always has.
  5. The liturgy is also authoritative, as it reflects apostolic teaching.
  6. Tradition guides the church, however it is the church – not the leaders – who decides what is Tradition.
  7. The authoritative teachings of the later Fathers and the decisions of the Seven Councils – such as the decision concerning the veneration of Icons, or the incorporation of apophatic theology – is said not to be anything new, but to be what the Church has always believed.

As suggested in #6, to the West, the Eastern concept of Tradition appears somewhat circular: Tradition controls or guides the Church, but is also decided – or perhaps revealed – through the Church.   There also seems – to Western eyes, anyway – that there is a presumption that whatever the Orthodox Church currently believes is what the Church has always believed, and is therefore in line with the Apostolic Tradition.  For example, take the veneration of Icons, which was debated at the 7th Ecumenical Council, I believe.  The Orthodox Church has not always venerated icons, and it certainly isn’t found in Scripture.  However, once it was settled in favor of icons, it became Tradition.

It is also interesting that certain teachings of certain Church Fathers have at been accepted at certain times, and not accepted at other times. For example, if I recall correctly, the teachings of Pseudo-Dionysius were not really accepted until St. Gregory Palamas, who referred to him as “an unerring beholder of divine things.” It seems, then, that Tradition is hardly a straight line.

I’m sure that my Orthodox friends can bring some clarification on this point, which would be welcomed.

Next in the Series: More thoughts on items from my list of East-West differences.


Nov 9 2009

Wrapping up Tradition and Sola Scriptura

Well, actually, I’m just wrapping up my short series of posts looking at the issues.  To revisit them, here’s the list:

  1. Rethinking Tradition and Sola Scriptura (in which I introduced sola scriptura)
  2. Rethinking Tradition and Sola Scriptura 2 (in which I introduced Tradition)
  3. Rethinking Tradition and Sola Scriptura 3 (in which I discussed various views of Tradition)
  4. Re Considering the issue of Tradition (just a bit of added value)

And, of course, I’ve often touched on these issues here over the last 2 years or so.  But, I find it personally helpful to think through things every so often, to consider new (and old) information.  In this way I find that I am, like the reformers, semper reformanda (always reforming).

The original concept of sola scriptura, “by scripture alone,” was based on Luther’s testimony at Worms:

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other.

This stands a marked contrast to the common evangelical approach of “this is what the Bible means to me,” aka solo scriptura.  While the Bible can certainly give us personal insights, this does not mean that we can interpret the Bible willy-nilly, taking verses out of both textual, cultural and historical context.  Luther never intended to disregard the Apostolic teachings; he meant to avoid “traditions of men” as had corrupted the Roman Catholic Church.

Insofar as the evangelical church has ignored much of the early church and has let cultural and philosophical influences change how we read and interpret scripture, evangelical “tradition” is highly suspect.   I am to the point where I seriously have to question everything from Augustine to the present; Augustine compromised theology in order to make it rational, as he understood the concept, inventing doctrines like Original Sin.  The enlightenment further compromised theology, as did romanticism and existentialism.  We in the west now view everything through Cartesian and Augustinian lenses.  As such, the evangelical church has no authority; the “plain reading” of the Bible is not “plain” at all – even within one denomination, people can’t agree.

The Roman Catholic Church claims to be the original, Apostolic faith.  However, I have a very hard time accepting the RCC as having any authority whatsoever.  While it has certainly reformed itself since Luther’s time, it still suffers from a great many heresies, including claiming an authority which rests in the office of the Pope.  Also, it, too has been corrupted along with the rest of the West by Augustinian and Enlightenment thinking.  It’s history of disagreements and heretical decrees speaks for itself.

So, when the Pope reaches out to the Eastern Church or to the Anglican Communion seeking unity, I admit I am suspicious.  All along the RCC has believed that “unity” means for other churches to submit to the Pope, who, as I mentioned, has no Biblical or Apostolic authority.  The RCC is not, as it turns out, the original church.

This leaves the Eastern Churches, the Orthodox and Coptics.  It says much that these churches have not changed the essential nature of the faith, ever.  If there is a church group that has Apostolic Authority, it would have to be the Orthodox.  It is the Orthodox who has retained all of the ancient documents as well as oral tradition. They have successfully kept out heresy, and have avoided the theological and ethical scandals of the later traditions.

The question now is, “Can we be sure that the Orthodox have not erred in accepting ‘tradition’ as authoritative when it was just opinion?”  Is being the original church enough?  Timothy Ware explains what constitutes “Tradition” in the Orthodox church:

To an Orthodox Christian, Tradition means the Holy Bible; it means the Creed; it means the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils and the writings of the Fathers; it means the Canons, the Service Books, the Holy Icons, etc. In essence, it means the whole system of doctrine, ecclesiastical government, worship and art which Orthodoxy has articulated over the ages [The Orthodox Church, p.204]

In evaluating apostolic authority, we have to consider that we know from Paul’s letters that apostles do make errors. Paul specifically nails Peter, for example, as well as other unnamed apostles for teaching legalism.  Are we assuming that the Church Fathers didn’t make errors?

While many are able to accept that the Orthodox Church possesses the original faith, and has Apostolic authority, I am not yet at that place.  Perhaps I am still too entwined in rationalism – I do consider that a possibility.  But, while I will agree that the Orthodox Church has the greatest – and perhaps only – claim to the Apostolic faith, I cannot accept that all of the trappings of orthodoxy are apostolic.

That being said, I am more and more developing a great respect for Orthodox theology and spirituality, and will agree that if the 1st and 2nd century Christians taught a certain way, it is well worth considering.  I would go so far as to say that when interpreting Scripture, one should look to the early church for guidance.

Tradition is more than just looking back to the way things were done in the old days. Tradition is looking back to an understanding of Christianity that was shared with people who were within a generation of the Apostles – who better to show us how Scripture and doctrines were understood?

I am quite glad that the Orthodox Church has expressed a willingness to dialog with the Anglican Church of North America (and find it amusing, and proper, that Calvinism is one of the 3 big concerns); for me – and apparently also to the Eastern Church – the conservative Anglicans sit (to borrow a phrase) at the intersection of East and West, a place where I currently find myself.


Nov 5 2009

Rethinking Tradition and Sola Scriptura 3

If you haven’t read Part One or Part 2 of this series, feel free to do that before continuing on.  These posts are the equivalent of my thinking out loud about the concepts of sola scriptura (the sole authority of the Bible) and Tradition (extra-Biblical teachings of a church that are held to be to some extent authoritative; this differs from “small t” tradition, which includes a number of cultural and ceremonial things that have significance, but aren’t considered either apostolic or authoritative).  I am undoubtedly wrong about some of my understanding and assumptions about various church traditions and doctrine, but such is life.  This is not an attempt to present a thesis on the issue, I’m just thinking things through and inviting you along.

In this post, I will try as best I can to outline some basic views of Tradition and authority, as I understand them.

Evangelical

“Evangelical” is a rather broad category, and for the sake of this post it will refer to modern, non-liurgical churches.  Evangelicals have their various traditions. While they will claim that the Bible is their sole authority, their interpretations are often ruled by their particular tradition.  For example, one common tradition is Calvinism; those who are hard-core Calvinists will always read Scripture through Calvinism’s Five (or Four, if they’re wimps) Points of the TULIP.  Other churches have other traditions that filter how their folks interpret Scripture, and some – not unlike the 2nd Temple Jews – have added rules and regulations to Scripture such as Tithing, not having fun, and so on.

In general terms, the modern evangelical church takes an a-historical view of tradition; that is, the ancient faith – that known in the first few centuries A.D. – is interesting, but has no merit in terms of Biblical interpretation (unless someone wants to quote Athanasius in support of the Trinity).  I have heard it claimed that modern evangelicalism is the true faith of the Apostles and therefore has the true Apostolic Succession (the teaching of the Apostles, handed down without alteration).  If this is true, then evangelicals dismiss anything pre-Calvin (Luther tends to be dismissed as he wasn’t “protestant” enough, although people like the 95 Theses concept), with some exceptions for some of Augustine’s concepts and the concept of the Trinity.  As you may have guessed, I’ve already dismissed the claims of modern evangelicalism.

Historic

Those churches I have categorized as “historic” are those with an historic view of Tradition; basically the Eastern Orthodox Churches and to some extent the Roman Catholic Church.  I say “to some extent” as the RCC has, in my opinion, departed from the original view of Tradition and Apostolic Succession.

The historic view of Tradition understands that the Apostles instructed the 1st Century Church both orally and in writing, with oral instruction no less authoritative than written. Consider 2nd Thessalonians 2:15:

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

or 1st Corinthians 11:2:

Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.

Apostolic traditions were distinguished from “traditions of men” (Col. 2:8).   As I have mentioned in the prior posts, the “Word of God” is mentioned often in the Epistles, before the Gospels were thought to have been written.  It is obvious that the early, oral teaching of the Apostles was considered no less authoritative than the later written Epistles; and we know that not everything was written down.

Are we to then conclude that we are free to ignore those oral traditions held by the ancient church, while the Thessalonian and Corinthian Churches were instructed otherwise?   (Oh, well, when you put it that way…)

Eastern Orthodox

The Eastern Orthodox Church’s concept of Holy Tradition is possibly not what you think it is.  One description says it is, “the deposit of faith given by Jesus Christ to the Apostles and passed on in the Church from one generation to the next without addition, alteration or subtraction.”   The Orthodox, more than any other branch of Christianity, has maintained familiarity with the many other writings of the first few centuries of Christianity including 1st and 2nd Century writers like Clement, Polycarp, and Ignatius.  Polycarp, by the way, was a student of John (disciple and author of the Gospel), and knew others who had known Jesus personally; this is documented in writing (if that matters to you) by Irenaeus, who studied under Polycarp.

The Orthodox holds the Bible as the central, most important part of Apostolic authority.  Holy Tradition also includes the early Creeds (Apostles, Athanasius, Nicene), as well as the decisions made by the 7 Ecumenical Councils (of which Nicea was the 1st, in 325AD).  To the Orthodox, Tradition grounds them in the past and prevents drifting into heresy.  At the same time, the Orthodox have a very developed eschatology, so that they exist in the present, looking both to the past and to the future.

Of all of the branches of Christianity, the Orthodox are the least likely to change; the Divine Liturgy is essentially that written by St. Basil (shortened form by St. John Chrysostom) in the 4th Century.  There is certainly something to be said for having a good knowledge and record of the past (and a belief that this is the apostolic tradition that has been passed along).

Roman Catholic

I don’t really understand that much about the Roman Catholic concept of Authority, except that their concept of Apostolic Succession is more focused on the authority of men as opposed to the authority of the teaching.  At some point the Roman church developed the concept that Peter was in essence the first pope, and that apostolic succession was based in Rome; the Pope is considered “the vicar of Christ” and at times is infallible, the source of authority for the church.  In the beginning, the Roman Bishop was just one of 5; Rome, however, claimed primacy and the rest, as they say, is history.  The Roman church added 14 additional “ecumenical” councils to the original seven; apparently they redefined the word “ecumenical.”

Doctrines added by the RCC include the Immaculate Conception of Mary, adding the filioque clause to the Nicene Creed (in 1274), Papal Infallibility, the whole Purgatory and Indulgence thing, and so on.  The RCC also adopted doctrines originating with Augustine that in essence changed the Christian faith, adding the doctrine of original sin.

Lutherans

Luther, beginning with the sale of indulgences and the worship of relics and moving on to the obvious fallibility of the Pope, attempted to reform the church, bringing it back into line with the historic faith.  He even distanced himself from Augustine, to some extent.  As I mentioned before, Luther’s concept of sola scriptura was meant to strip away “doctrines of men” without tossing the original apostolic faith.

Anglican

The Church of England’s website states:

The Scriptures and the Gospels, the Apostolic Church and the early Church Fathers, are the foundation of Anglican faith and worship in the 38 self-governing churches that make up the Anglican Communion. …

  • We view the Old and New Testaments ‘as containing all things necessary for salvation’ and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.
  • We understand the Apostles’ creed as the baptismal symbol, and the Nicene creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith …

Anglicans trace their roots back to the early church, and “uphold the Catholic and Apostolic faith.”

And so …

As you can see, there is a wide variety of thoughts as to the role of Tradition.  In my next post, I will attempt to explain my current thinking on the issue, if that is even possible …