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)
* * *
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.