Thursday, March 03, 2005

How do we determine Orthodoxy?

The Church has been in existance for nearly 2,000 years. Church leaders have come and gone, heretics have come and gone, Orthodoxy has been a constant debate. The question which has existed since the infancy of the Church is "how do we determine Orthodoxy?" There have been several answers to this, but the area which I would like to address is, "what do we do with Tradition?"

First I suppose it would be of benefit to establish a distinction between Tradition and tradition. The big "T" Tradition is basically Orthodoxy passed down from the inception of the Christian Church. As described in the previous post it is determined by antiquity, universality, and consensus. There are also traditions (small t) within the Christian Church. There is the Wesleyan tradition, Baptist tradition, Reformed tradition, Lutheran tradition, Roman Catholic tradition, etc. The big "T" Tradition is actually quite accomodating, as the majority of these small "t" traditions find themselves at home within it (for the most part). There are, of course, certain parts of traditions which find themselves in conflict with Tradition (one should note: if there is a point of conflict do not "throw out the baby with the bathwater" but rather acknowledge that there is probably a little bit of heresy in all our traditions :)).

Moving on; Scripture is of course foundational for determining correct Christian behavior and teaching. Tradition can never supplement Scripture. However, the conundrum which Christians find themselves in is who's interpretation of Scripture is correct? As Vincent of Lerins said in his A Commonitory for the Antiquity and Universality of the Catholic Faith, for as many interpretors there are interpretations. In other words, we all interpret the Bible when we read it. How we interpret is in large part a product of our tradition. Martin Luther's idea of Sola Scriptura is certainly a desirable means to interpretation yet inevitably falls up short. For one, Scripture never espouses such an idea but rather expects that the beliefs shall be "passed on" from generation to generation. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:2, "I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you." It is not that Scripture does not in and of itself contain Truth and the fullness of Truth, nor am I presupposing Scripture does not contain all the essentials of the faith. Yet even in regards to essentials there are differences of interpretation. Who's to say that Arius was not right about Jesus being a created being? He did make an incredibly biblical argument by the standards many Christians hold in modernity. Arius argued from Colossians 1, in which Jesus is described as the "firstborn" that Jesus must therefore be a created being and cannot have existed from all eternity. In this case other Scripture can help to denounce such heresy but Church Tradition (taking into account that the Apostles and early Christians exalted Christ and proclaimed His pre-existence) certainly played a large role in the anethama of Arius.

It is interesting that Martin Luther himself did not allow for the uneducated laymen to read the Bible by means of Sola Scriptura. Luther was afraid of simply putting Scripture into the hands of those whom may distort and twist it. Therefore, when he translated his first Bible into German he included a sort of damage control device; marginal study notes. Luther placed study notes in the margins to prevent heresy and misinterpretation. While Luther most likely believed his interpretations were based soley on Scripture the question must arise, "how did Luther interpret Scripture?"

As I have previously alluded, every person who reads the Bible interprets the Bible, and every interpretation is based upon something. Lutherans use a Lutheran paradigm and inevitably interpret in large part according to the Lutheran tradition. Prebyterians interpret within the Presbyterian paradigm. Eastern Orthodox members interpret within the Easter Orthodox paradigm and so on. As we all know there is conflict in interpretation between these traditions. So who is right, or who is the most right, is anybody more right than everyone else? The Roman Catholic Church has struggled with admitting that it may not in fact have the "fullness of the Truth in Christ". Protestantism in America seems to assert that it has the "fullness of the Truth". Does any branch or denomination within Christendom really have this "fullness of Truth"?

Correct interpretation is found most often at home within the Tradition of the Church. Tradition provides the lenses through which Orthodox teaching is most fully recognized. If an idea or doctrine is novel (such as the Rapture and, as I would argue, Calvinism) it is very likely wrong. Novel interpretations 99.9% of the time are heresy. The big "T" helps us determine which beliefs have always been accepted and which have been rejected. Tradition is not without its limitations and problems, though, and finally I will address the questions Kurt posed in his comment on my previous post. Look to the next post to continue this discussion.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"The Fathers did not understand theology as a theoretical or speculative science, but as a positive science in all respects.

This is why the patristic understanding of Biblical inspiration is similar to the inspiration of writings in the field of the positive sciences.

Scientific manuals are inspired by the observations of specialists. For example, the astronomer records what he observes by means of the instruments at his disposal.

Because of his training in the use of his instruments, he is inspired by the heavenly bodies, and sees things invisible to the naked eye. The same is true of all the positive sciences.

However, books about science can never replace scientific observations. These writings are not the observations themselves, but about these observations.

This holds true even when photographic and acoustical equipment is used. This equipment does not replace observations, but simply aids in the observations and their recordings.

Scientists cannot be replaced by the books they write, nor by the instruments they invent and use.

The same is true of the Orthodox understanding of the Bible and the writings of the Fathers. Neither the Bible nor the writings of the Fathers are revelation or the word of God. They are about the revelation and about the word of God.

Revelation is the appearance of God to the prophets, apostles, and saints. The Bible and the writings of the Fathers are about these appearances, but not the appearances themselves.

This is why it is the prophet, apostle, and saint who sees God, and not those who simply read about their experiences of glorification.

It is obvious that neither a book about glorification nor one who reads such a book can never replace the prophet, apostle, or saint who has the experience of glorification.

The writings of scientists are accompanied by a tradition of interpretation, headed by successor scientists, who, by training and experience, know what their colleagues mean by the language used, and how to repeat the observations described. So it is in the Bible and the writings of the Fathers.

Only those who have the same experience of glorification as their prophetic, apostolic, and patristic predecessors can understand what the Biblical and Patristic writings are saying about glorification and the spiritual stages leading to it.

Those who have reached glorification know how they were guided there, as well as how to guide others, and they are the guarantors of the transmission of this same tradition.

This is the heart of the Orthodox understanding of tradition and apostolic succession which sets it apart from the Latin and Protestant traditions..."

- Father John Romanides (+)

Excerpt from: