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.

Martin Luther is still my hero

Therefore a distinction must be made between reason left to itself without restriction, which runs about unbridled and is carried around by its reckonings, which judges and decides on the basis of its own principles, which are common notions, perceptions, experience, etc., and reason restrained by God’s Word and kept in obedience to Christ. This judges and decides on the basis of the proper principle of theology, that is, on the basis of God’s Word, which has been set forth in the Holy Scriptures. The mysteries of faith are not contrary to reason considered in the latter respect, but they are contrary to reason considered in the former respect. (from a yet-unpublished translation of Luther, as posted by Paul T. McCain)

Martin Luther is still my hero.   While Luther’s comments on reason (a longer quote is posted on McCain’s site) have been ridiculed by atheists as showing the irrelevance of Christianity, it is only because they are not understood in context.  Obviously, Luther relies on well-reasoned logic in this very analysis.

This quote by Luther, I think, reveals an area of protest with regard to the Roman Catholic Church that is often overlooked, and which I’ll be writing more about soon in my series on “Exploring the Twain“: The Roman Church’s theology was being subjected to a philosophy that was more and more governed by man’s ability to make things appear logical.  While Luther saw and opposed this direction, the rest of the protestants – Calvin and Zwingli, for example – continued to embrace a reason-driven theology, which paved the way for our modern evangelicalism.  Luther’s position here places him more in like with the Eastern Church, which had and has a different approach to theology and philosophy.

Luther probably doesn’t get all the credit he deserves for his remarkable insights, I think primarily due to his patently unmodern commitment to apostolic Christianity.

Luther is still my hero.

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.

Re Considering the issue of Tradition

With regard to my current series on the issue of Tradition, especially the Eastern concept of Tradition, here’s an interesting article with some helpful guidelines in considering something – like historic Christianity – which might be outside of your current box: Ten Steps to Avoiding Knee-Jerk Theology.

At first glance, this seemed like just another example of why evangelical theology is what it is, but then I realized that these points are, indeed, valid if we want to grow theologically.

[Note: the comments to the linked article provide a great example of why church Tradition is, indeed, of importance.]