Sola Scriptura, Holy Tradition, and the Hermeneutics of Christ

by Robert F. Fortuin

It is not uncommon to hear Eastern Orthodox Christians assert that ‘holy tradition is the context of scripture’—by this is meant that the Bible cannot be separated from the practice and theology of the community of Christian believers. To consider the scriptures as pure text divorced from its situation in history, the situation which prompted the need for the writing and reception of the biblical text, is to commit a fundamental error. The Eastern Orthodox position is often asserted in response to claims of Sola Scriptura, the Protestant Reforma­tion principle that the Bible is the sole and sufficient source for Christian faith and practice. While Sola Scriptura has been interpreted and applied in diverse and sundry ways by Protestants since the 500 years that expired Martin Luther’s complaints at Wittenberg, it will invariably favor placing authority and meaning in the text itself over (and against) contextual considerations. This implies some measure of textual auto-hermeneutic (self-interpretation based on perspicuity) and textual autonomy. This fits well with the Reforma­tion narrative—the early Christian church with the passing of the apostles fell victim to compromise and corruption, the written scriptures excepted, until its renewal and recovery in the 16th century. The source of corruption, according to the Reformers, consists in the appeal to extra-biblical sources for knowledge, meaning, authority, and so forth. The only reliable and untainted connection available to post-Apostolic Christians whose existence is chronologically outside the historical authorship/reception setting is the biblical text itself. This narrative is not without problems, chief of which is that an appeal to the authority of the text implies an acknowledgement of divine inspiration of extra-textual factors, activities that took place long after the close of the apostolic period. The Sola Scriptura conundrum is its inability to provide an account of the developments which took place after the close of the apostolic period which were instrumental to the creation of the New Testament—not to speak of crucially important doctrinal decisions of the Ecumenical Councils. For instance, by what authority did the compilers, redactors and translators of manuscripts operate? Fur­ther­more, how to explain the creation of the canon of the New Testament, the protracted decisions to include and exclude various competing texts—by what extra-textual authority was this done? In order to stay true to the Reformation narrative, Protestants are unable to situate authority and interpretation, divine inspiration and illumination, exterior to the text—it must reside these in the text itself. Privileging the biblical text with self-referential powers created theologies of ‘disembodied’ inspiration and interpretation: consequently, the context outside the text is marginalized to be of little or no significance.

In sharp contrast to the Reformers, the Eastern Orthodox churches insist that the extra-textual contexts—the entire coherent ‘framework’ of scripture, their transmission and reception—are a divinely inspired tradition. Taken together these are a ‘holy tradition’ which is believed to be the very life of the Holy Spirit in and for the church; it is a living tradition because successful reception requires divine illumination in every age. Holy tradition as the context of scripture: while this is a very bold and lofty claim, there is convincing evidence for this assertion in the faith and practice of the early Christian Church and in the New Testa­ment itself. However, tradition as context can be, and is often, taken to mean that authority resides in tradition, an Orthodox ‘Soli Traditio’ in which tradition is ranked above scripture as the primary or sole source of meaning and authority. It is my contention that Soli Traditio is as misleading as Sola Scriptura for its failure to acknowledge Christ alone as hermeneutic principle; it is in Christ in whom the authority and meaning—of tradition and scripture—is properly situated. I am indebted to the groundwork of Fr John Behr on this subject in his book entitled The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death—this is a ‘must-read’ for anyone interested in the subject of the relation between scripture and tradition.

To the early church, as to the Orthodox Church today, tradition as the context of Scripture implied that Scripture is not self-referential in that it is not its own interpretive principle: the meaning and authority of scripture is Christ who is its hermeneutic principle. Christ is himself the truth (cf. John 14:6). The first thing to note is that scripture’s meaning is pro­foundly personal, which is to say that the question is not what scripture means, so much as to whom it refers. Evidence for this can be found in Acts chapter 8 in Philip’s interaction with the Ethiopian eunuch, who asks not what scripture meant (this is how we moderns tend to pose the question) but rather asks ‘of whom does the prophet [Isaiah] say this, of himself or some other man?’ Secondly, this person of whom the prophet speaks is not only the subject of scripture but also its interpreter. How do we know this? The hermeneutic principle is established by Christ himself, as recorded in the Gospels of John and Luke. In John 5:39 Jesus counters the unbelieving Jews, saying ‘You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life, yet it is they that witness to Me,’ and in verse 46 John records Jesus to say, ‘if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me.’ It is important to note that this was not at all clear to the disciples until after the resurrection, and not until after the risen Christ himself taught them the meaning of the scriptures. The entire collection of New Testament writings is written from post-resurrection revelation, an inspired reflection of what was witnessed—the meaning of events, the significance of encounters with Christ, his parables and miracles: all these were understood only after the resurrection. In the Gospel of Luke it was the crucified and risen Christ who opened the eyes of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, as recorded in Luke 24:27 ‘beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself,’ and in verse 44 Jesus said, ‘all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.’ The Old Testament remained a closed book until Jesus provided the hermeneutic key to unseal its meaning. The risen Christ reveals to his disciples that the scriptures are about him; and furthermore, it was necessary for the risen Christ himself to teach the disciples how to understand the scriptures. Jesus’ paideia demonstrates that interpretation and meaning resides neither in text nor in tradition. If it were otherwise, the disciples would not have required Christ’s instruction, as perspicuity of the text would have left no room for doubt and confusion; the meaning of the Mosaic tradition would have been self-evident to all. The disciples’ account, however, indicates that only after having been taught by Christ himself were they empowered by the Holy Spirit with divine authority to carry the good news to the ends of the world. We see this post-resurrection Pentecost transformation at work in the book of Acts, such as in Peter’s famous sermon as recorded in Acts chapter 2. In a surprise move the once timid and oblivious Peter by way of Christ’s hermeneutic boldly expounds Moses and the Prophets and proclaims that, ‘God has made this Jesus both Lord and Christ.’ There is ample evidence that the ‘Christ hermeneutic’ did not change after the close of the apostolic period; the same exposition of scripture is encountered as early as circa 110 AD in the writing of Ignatius of Antioch in the Epistle to the Philadelphians about the Prophets foretelling of Christ and the Gospel.

By far the most convincing exposition of what tradition constitutes and how it functioned in the early church is found in the work of Irenaeus of Lyon. Around the year 185 AD St Irenaeus explicated tradition as a coherent ‘framework’ consisting of scripture, canon of truth, apos­tolic tradition, and apostolic succession. The genius of Irenaeus’ vision is that he explicitly connects the various aspects of tradition by means of the risen Christ as its author, subject and the hermeneutic of the scriptures. This is quite significant (and fascinating) because Ire­naeus’ work takes place in the formative years during which the New Testament canon was not yet established. It was St Irenaeus who referenced a canon of books which resembles very closely to what came to be known as the New Testament. He wrote, ‘we have learned from no others the plan of salvation than from those from whom the gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.’ According to Irenaeus, what the apostles preached was what Jesus taught them—their message is identical to what they wrote, and what was handed down by them to their successors. Irenaeus details the meaning of the canon (or rule) of truth, namely the baptismal confession—the rule by which scripture was read, in accord with the faith which was handed down from the apostles. This is worth quoting as it forms the basis for the Nicene creed. The canon of truth is the faith:

… in one God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth and all the seas and all things that are in them; and in one Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was enfleshed for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who through the prophets preached the economies—the coming, the birth from a Virgin, the passion, the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Son, Christ Jesus our Lord, and his coming from heaven in the glory of the Father to recapitulate all things, and to raise up all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus our Lord and God, Savior and King, according to the invisible Father’s good pleasure, “every knee should bow in heaven and on earth.

For Irenaeus tradition then consists of the scriptures understood by Christ’s hermeneutic given and proclaimed by the apostles, together with the canon of truth in accord with the written testimony of the apostles. The tradition faithfully preserved the message and method in the handing down according to apostolic succession. All these mutually and coherently witness to Christ as the subject and meaning of the Old Testament and the Gospels.

The entire context of revelation, referred to as holy tradition, depends on the inspiration and illumination of the risen Christ through the Holy Spirit to bring about the faithful transmis­sion and reception of revelation. This complete context of Christian revelation which together constitute holy tradition can be represented in the following graphic:

Note the mutuality of scripture, canon of truth, apostolic tradition and succession. The only ranking consists between Christ and tradition. The Eastern Orthodox Church has by and large retained this understanding of tradition based on St Irenaeus’ seminal work in the late second century.

What may this mean to the concerns of Martin Luther, the theology of the Reformation, Sola Scriptura, the formative principle of the Reformers? From the Orthodox perspective if Sola Scriptura is pushed to the extreme to take scripture outside the context or framework of tradition, three things are likely to occur:

  • The construal of a false dichotomy whereby scripture is deemed to be above tradition, or tradition is altogether removed. Alternatively, the false dichotomy can also give rise to the opposite situation in which tradition is placed above scripture. This false dichotomy is often viewed as outright opposition, a primal incompatibility between tradition and scripture. The dichotomy invariably results in the privileging of one over the other.
  • The scriptures will function as its own reference, containing within the text its interpre­ta­tive principle. Meaning and authority reside solely in the text itself. While this is contrary to Christ’s hermeneutic (as has been shown above), it confuses the word of God with the Word of God, a conflation of the text with Christ. The meaning of scripture risks becom­ing unanchored from Christ, divorcing it from the canon of truth, apostolic tradition and succession—this lends credibility to rival hermeneutics and novel innovations. The context of holy tradition is collapsed, marginalizing the entire theological framework in which the Scriptures came to be and function; this reductive text-only approach ‘short circuits’ the successful transmission and reception of God’s self-revelation. The Christ hermeneutic resides extra-textually in the person of Christ who is present by the Holy Spirit in the instruction and illumination of the ecclesia.
  • Inspiration and illumination divorced from its place in the larger context of the holy tradition of the community of the faithful risks devolving Christianity into a text-based religion; intellectual assent to propositions is favored over participation in the church.

From the perspective of the Orthodox Church following the New Testament and the practice of the early Church, scripture must be situated in the coherent context of the canon of truth, the faith received and practiced by the community which is illumined by the risen Christ in accord with the apostolic teaching that was passed down. Sola Scriptura: yes, the scriptures are the preeminent, infallible, written source of revelation—the Bible is the word of God to and for and in his church. This must always, the Orthodox insist, include the entire divinely inspired process of authorship, compilation, redaction, canonization, proclamation, and reception. There exists then no dichotomy nor ranking between the written scriptures and the lived confession of the church. Holy tradition constitutes a unified and coherent mutuality together bearing witness to the risen Christ.

The Eastern Orthodox Holy Tradition informs another aspect of Protestant Reformation theology as well: Solus Christus—by Christ alone. The worry of the Reformers was the placement of mediators between God and the believer, specifically the priesthood and other hierarchs. Christ is the only mediator between God and humanity which is explicitly stated in 1 Timothy 2:5: ‘For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus’. This is a legitimate concern, which was evident to Martin Luther in 1517 with the burdensome layers of mediation of the medieval Catholic Church, particularly in the practice of indulgences and the abuse of clericalism. If we look once again to the visual representation of holy tradition we can see the Eastern Orthodox perspective on this. The hierarchy of apostles, bishops, priests and deacons is on a horizontal plane, affirming the priesthood of all believers; notably absent is a layer of mediation between Christ and the church. The Christ hermeneutic as taught by Christ to the disciples unseals scripture and is faithfully traditioned to their successors. Solus Christus understood this way does not preclude the ordained hierarchy which functions in a specific role dedicated and entrusted to lead the church. While Solus Christus is a powerful reminder of the dangers of clericalism, and we do well to heed such reminders, if taken to abolish the ancient and unbroken chain of successors of bishops appointed by the apostles, it would contradict Christ’s command given to his apostles and passed down to their episcopal successors.

Christ the Interpreter is the principle of tradition as the context of scripture. The practice of tradition by the Eastern Orthodox constitutes a radical shift of perspective—neither placing authority in text nor in tradition. The authoritative hermeneutic is provided by, and is, the enfleshed Son of God, the crucified and risen Christ. The apostolic Christ provides inspira­tion, meaning, and illumination; only in Christ resides the authority to bring an end to the false dichotomies of ‘scripture vs tradition’, ‘faith vs works’, ‘clergy vs laity’. These dichoto­mies are theological and spiritual dead-ends, needless disputes which have embroiled the western Christian churches for far too long. The Orthodox do not dismiss the Protestant Reformers’ concerns—Christians from the orient direct our gaze to the risen Christ of ‘the faith that was passed down to the saints once and for all’ (Jude 1:3) and in whom alone resides all meaning and authority.

(17 October 2017)

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Robert F. Fortuin is Adjunct Professor of Orthodox Theology at St Katherine College in San Diego, California. He holds an MLitt Divinity from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and a BA in Religious Studies from Vanguard University. 

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13 Responses to Sola Scriptura, Holy Tradition, and the Hermeneutics of Christ

  1. David says:

    “In order to stay true to the Reformation narrative, Protestants are unable to situate authority and interpretation, divine inspiration and illumination, exterior to the text—it must reside these in the text itself.”

    I’m wondering which texts from the Reformation tradition give you this impression. What this article describes isn’t sola scriptura at all, but solo scriptura. The former is what the Reformers taught, the latter is what they universally condemned. Solo Scriptura is the idea that one person alone with their Bible is the highest authority for God’s Word. Sola Scriptura says that the Bible is the final authority by which we judge all other authorities. The Reformers and their descendants acknowledge the authority of the Church Fathers, the early councils, the traditions of the early church, the universal creeds, and their own denominational confessions, not to mention local pastoral and elder authority. But all of these are the wisdom of lesser authorities, to be judged by authorities above them, the highest of which is Scripture.

    I really like this blog, because I appreciate learning about the Eastern tradition. This article did have a lot of good information on that end. I appreciate especially that this blog values so highly the centrality of Christ—even though I often disagree with how that is interpreted here, the principle is essential and I frankly don’t find it often among Catholicism. But regarding the Reformers’ doctrine of sola scriptura, I still haven’t found any response that seriously challenges my belief in it. I’d be interested in a critique of sola scriptura that shows wide and deep knowledge of what that position actually is and how it has been understood and explained throughout church history.

    But this article is based on an easily-dispelled confusion. The Reformers are the ones who emphasized reading Scripture in context, and they accused medieval Catholicism of taking it out of context. Here are some succinct explanations of sola scriptura from two of the most prominent Protestant organizations today. I hope they are helpful for understanding what the Reformers and their descendants mean by sola scriptura:

    Not Just Me and My Bible: What ‘Sola Scriptura’ Doesn’t Mean | Desiring God

    “Is Sola Scriptura a Rejection of Teachers and Tradition?”
    https://www.ligonier.org/blog/sola-scriptura-rejection-teachers-and-tradition/

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      David, years ago I wrote a series on sola scriptura which may interest you. Here’s the first article but one needs to read the entire series to grasp my argument: https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2013/11/04/unitarianism-and-the-bible-of-the-holy-trinity/

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      • David says:

        Thank you, Fr. Kimel; I read the whole series and it does interest me, although I still don’t think you have really represented the Reformed tradition of sola scriptura. My goal — which I may have allowed to get slightly confused — was not to debate the merits of sola scriptura vs an Eastern Orthodox or Catholic view of Holy Tradition. I do not expect anyone to change their theology based on internet debates. My goal was to correct a misrepresentation of sola scriptura. In that spirit, please read my comments as an attempt to accurately represent the Reformed tradition, so that in the future when you engage with it, your arguments may be more convincing and well-founded.

        Even in your series, you and the authors you quote still make the assumption that Protestants who affirm sola scriptura are rejecting some 1500 years of Christian tradition. That simply isn’t true. The early councils, creeds, and the prevailing traditions in Christianity absolutely do carry great weight in the Reformed tradition. That man who rejected the Trinity because he interpreted the Bible on his own would be condemned by Protestants who affirm sola scriptura just as much as by you.

        (A similar case is that of Harold Camping, the founder of Family Radio and end-times false prophet. He started out as Reformed but began studying the Bible only by himself, refusing to study with others or submit himself to critique or authority. He drifted into heresy. Ligonier–a Reformed organization–published a series of articles exposing Camping’s heresy and why it violated sola scriptura.)

        So the prevailing traditions of the Church are very important, but are regarded as being from men–often godly men, often Spirit-led, but still men with fallen sin natures in the flesh which makes them vulnerable to error. Scripture never identifies tradition as being God-breathed, but only itself.

        In one of your articles you wrote: “Holy Scripture is God’s Word to his Church for salvation and thus functions as canon by which all traditions are judged and authentic Tradition is determined.”

        This accords well with Section XXXI.IV of the Westminster Confession, a foundational Reformed document: “All synods or councils since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both.”
        https://thewestminsterstandard.org/the-westminster-confession/#Chapter%20XXXI

        The Reformers adore the early Church Fathers and quote them frequently — you must know of their love for Augustine especially (though not exclusively). Many Reformed and Presbyterian Churches recite the Nicene Creed every Sunday.

        But again, my goal is just to make sure that if you are addressing sola scriptura, you are actually addressing sola scriptura, and not solo scriptura or a straw man. I know we disagree on authority and tradition, and that’s okay as far as these comments are concerned. I’m not trying to change your belief, only the representation of Reformed theology. I hope this clarifies! At any rate, I do thank you for your abundance of stimulating articles. I think this is an excellent blog and I wish I had more time to read and comment (especially on subjects where we agree).

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    • jakebharmon says:

      Hi David, I agree with you that this article isn’t the best; unfortunately, when Protestants (rightly) make the o/a distinction, most Catholic and Orthodox apologists just get stuck with their wheels spinning. This is because, almost no one realizes the real question is about epistemological normativity. The best break down of this I can present of this is from the blog Energetic Procession, and Parry’s article “Are You Flying Solo.”

      Personally, I still find it an unintuitive, but good argument because it makes one answer some much deeper about questions of conscience and selfhood. I’m not quite ready to say it’s utterly ‘damning’ to the Protestant position, but I’ve yet to see a satisfying response.

      If you’d like to see the argument drawn out some more, that same blog posted a follow up post called “The Wizard of Straw,” which is unfortunately pretty uncharitable. Still, it’s helpful in clarifying misconceptions. If you want to dig DEEP, the Catholic site Called to Communion has days of reading material starting with their post “Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority.” What may be of interest to you is that Keith Matthison (the guy who, to my understanding, popularized the o/a distinction) later engaged them directly, and there’s some great reading there too.

      That said, a Protestant position that may be of interest to you is Karl Barth’s take on the ‘Achilles Heel’ of the Bible – Postbarthian has some good discussion on that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • David says:

        Thanks for the recommendations! There’s always so much to read, but I never begrudge recommendations. I haven’t read Barth yet, but plan to eventually.

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    • Grant says:

      As someone who moved from Protestantism (and for whom now questions of which tradition expresses Christianity most truly, that is which is the true Church/tradition has become a less important question for me) I think that while the distinction between solo Vs sola Scripture is important to bear in mind ultimately I don’t think you escape the problem by admitting and accepting lesser authorities but saying Scripture is dominant and the decider.

      This is simply because it is never Scripture that is the dominant authority, nor can it ever be. It is always the Christian tradition you are formed in, it’s ancestry and where their is meaningful distinction the wider culture you are from and formed by as well, which feeds into it. For the magisterial Reformers it was the centuries of Latin Christianity that preceded them, and those understanding (making the substance of those confessions) created the matrix in which Protestant cultures moved, thought and reacted against.

      And this tradition supplies the interpretive and hermeneutical glasses through which texts are read and understood, relationship of Old Testament to the New, should historical context triumph or spiritual, typological, allegorical and Christological readings triumph, and so on and so on. Just take hell readings or say how Romans is read, in both cases prior tradition provides the interpretive glasses to understand that or those texts. Also by sola Scripture you have difficulty referencing and justifying which texts are Scripture and Gospel, what is cannon and what isn’t. Of course you can refer to Church Father’s and to Church history and such, but firstly that makes them and that larger tradition the ultimate authority, and also that there isn’t a unified consensus. All the non Protestant churches include books that aren’t in the Protestant Bibles and were considered authoritative by many when the Reformation happened. And different traditions elevate different books (the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has the most O think), and within documents accepted by all you have references to books considered authoritative by authors which aren’t in many Christian traditions including Protestantism(s) such as the book of Enoch. Should they not be, and if not, why not if sola Scripture is to be even attempted. Should letters not written by St Paul but attributed to him be removed or kept, and should they have less or equal authority, and in what way, and how is this decided (you can extend this to Peter letters and so on, should only the 4 canonical Gospels stand and not others, why and for what reasons, should the Shepherd of Hermas be admitted, it was considered authoritative by many), you can go on.

      The texts don’t interpret nor explain themselves, as Scripture they must always be interpreted, and which hermeneutic is correct, well Scripture cannot be the deciding authority for that. And do it is necessarily tradition which is king and the dominant authority. There is no escaping this it seems to me, sola Scripture is as impossible as solo Scripture, it is tradition that is the dominant authority and recognising that leads to what is and gives a true tradition that illumates Christ and the Gospel?

      I would say that the Anglican position seems more coherent to me, that of Scripture, Tradition and Reason together informing each other, and more sustainable than sola Scripture though it has some similar problems (and looking at aspects of the Anglicanism today seems not to provide the stable base).

      But anyway that is how I see the problems with sola Scripture, and tradition is and will always be king in any communion.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I agree with Robert and Grant. I too wrestled mightily with the authority question before I eventually left Anglicanism. What I realized way back when is that sola scriptura necessarily reduces to soli scriptura, just by the logic of the matter. The buck stops somewhere and that somewhere rightly judges and corrects all subordinate authorities. This is clear in the Reformers and is crystal in modern evangelicalism.

      Perhaps surprisingly, it was Richard Swinburne’s book Revelation that helped me here the most. What is Scripture but a collection of diverse writings spanning a thousand years or so, and yet we think that we can interpret it in such a way that it speaks one inspired word to us today. How can that be possible? A historical critic would tell us that this is nonsense. The literal meaning of the text (if it can even be determined) is restricted to the cultural-historical meaning of the individual unit, whether it’s the individual book (Genesis, Deuteronomy, Mark, Romans) or the units that compose the individual book. In that sense we are dealing with the past tense—i.e., what the text meant (what the author or editor intended to mean or what the original audience understood the author to mean—so darn complicated, ain’t it?). But that is NOT how Jews and Christians have interpreted biblical texts! Those individual texts have been brought together into a collection of texts which Jews and Christians call Scripture, and that changes everything. Now it is Scripture as a whole (“Scripture interprets Scripture,” as we like to say) that purportedly means, and that canonical meaning transcends, and maybe even contradicts, the original historical meaning. But how does it mean and what are the hermeneutical rules for determining its meaning? Scripture itself does not and cannot tell us how to interpret itself. Only the community that canonized these writings and reads them as Scripture can do that. As Swinburne puts it:

      The idea that the Bible could be interpreted naked, without a tradition of interpretation which clarified its meaning, is not intrinsically plausible and would not have appealed to many before the fifteenth century. Theology from without always dictated which sentences of the Bible were benchmarks by which other sentences were interpreted.

      There is no plain or perspicuous meaning of Scripture. There is only ecclesial meaning.

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    • ellaonteuca says:

      The problem is that the Christian life was never an individualistic thing. The Scriptures themselves were written, collected and compiled by the Church.
      So, when you say that Scriptures are the highest authority to follow, you are also saying that the Church is the highest authority because there would not be Scriptures without the Church.
      How would you know if you are right or not in your interpretation otherwise?
      Knowing how much tradition was foundamental from the start, it follows that the most reasonable thing is to adhere to the Church. After all, if you accept the Councils you are already doing that.
      Early reformers were either motivated by Catholics abuses or political matters (see the Anglicans, which are just Catholics who substituded the Pope with the King).

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  2. Iain Lovejoy says:

    What I think the above article mistakes of at least Luther and the original reformers, and which David points out below, is that what “sola scriptura” was meant to convey was not that scripture is the only authority, but that it was the only *infallible* one. As I see it, the context is Luther’s dispute with Rome over indulgences and what he saw as abuses within the church. Rome condemned him as heretical on the basis of its interpretation of the tradition and its own authority, and Luther’s response was “sola scriptura” – essentially, colloquially, “you’re not the boss of me, the Bible is”.
    I may be getting this hopelessly wrong, but is not Luther’s at least “sola scriptura” not dissimilar to the eastern Orthodox approach in the round? The eastern Orthodox would add on as essential authorities the Creed and church councils (and I can’t imagine that Luther himself would exclude at the Creed and possibly the earlier ecumenical Councils from this) but, as I understand it, do not insist otherwise on the church heirachy’s particular interpretation of the tradition as being a binding authority in the way that Luther objected to. (After all, the universalism of this very blog remains orthodox precisely because it is only biblical and conciliar authority that is binding, not the majority consensus of tradition…)
    However, that is *Luther’s* sola scriptura: that it has become in a lot of places the “me and my Bible” solopsism that David’s articles argue against is indisputable (or no-one would have found it necessary to write the articles). I think also that the splitting of Protestantism into thousands of denominations is in part the result of abandoning too the core element of sola scripture as Luther meant it. His point, as I see it, was that outside the Bible the tradition was a matter of certainly very weighty but ultimately non-binding opinion and interpretation, and is subject to review in the light of study, practice and revelation. Multiple splits occur not just because sola scripture is taken to mean no-one else’s interpretations or opinions matter but one’s own, but also because one’s own opinion then becomes the only correct one, and binding on everyone else, and so everyone who disagrees is now a heretic and outside the “Bible-believing” Christian faith and, hey presto, another split.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Geoffrey McKinney says:

      I, too, see a certain parallel between the Orthodox and the Lutheran interpretation of the Bible. Neither depends on a guru but rather on facts and history accessible to all.

      Orthodox: “The correct interpretation of the Bible is found in the Orthodox liturgies. If you want to know the truth, study the liturgies.”

      Lutheran: “The correct interpretation of the Bible is found in the Book of Concord. If you want to know the truth, study the Book of Concord.”

      I contrast those two with Roman Catholicism and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, both of which depend upon a guru.

      Catholic: “The correct interpretation of the Bible is given by the Pope, and it might change tomorrow. If you want to know the truth, stay up-to-date with the Pope.”

      LDS: “The correct interpretation of the Bible is given by the Prophet, and it might change tomorrow. If you want to know the truth, stay up-to-date with the Prophet.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • ellaonteuca says:

        As a Catholic, I would say you are not doing much justice to the Pope. I am very willing to accept that the entire Papal question started out of pride, when a Patriarch decided that he was the direct descendant of Peter, the most important one. Pride, historical circumstances and the use of false documents, sadly. Then he became a secular authority also, and the rest is history.
        But a Pope can’t change the scriptures. He can’t add things to them. In terms of doctrine, he is bounded to the same Councils Orthodox are. The deposit of faith remain unaltered, it’s the magisterium that changes.
        Besides, you are giving too much credit to Luther. He was just a monk who came up with an interpretation (justification by faith) and decided that he alone was in the right. Orthodox’s liturgy, as Catholic’s, rely upon the historical consensus of the Church, not a single man arbitrium.

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        • Iain Lovejoy says:

          Luther didn’t set his opinion against the tradition of the church (at least not at the start). He thought his opinion in line with the teaching of the church and backed it up with appeals to that tradition as well as his own arguments. The problem was his opinion as to how to interpret the tradition conflicted with that of the church authorities and how they interpreted the tradition. The true starting point of the Reformation was not when Luther published his theses, or when he disagreed with the church authorities: it was when the church authorities declared him a heretic because his opinions differed from their own and he still refused to recant.
          It was only once cast out by the church authorities that he started ditching tradition and basing his teaching on his ideas alone.
          You are confusing the idea of Christian belief actually being determined by consensus and Christian belief being determined what the church’s magisterial determines what that “consensus” is. Luther did not deny the Bible, or, as I understand it, or at least until later, reject the tradition or the church’s consensus views as expressed in church Councils etc – he just had a different understanding from the hierarchy as to what they meant (and, crucially, which was critical of them and threatened their influence and income). If Luther had just been told he how he was getting it wrong and left be to argue from the margins as a minority opinion (as he could have been) he might (or might not) have shifted the consensus somewhat away from the abused he highlighted and towards a greater emphasis on faith, and be remembered as merely one of the more outlying thinkers in the broad consensus of the church, and the Reformation in anything like its actual form never have happened.

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