Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Orthodoxy up against the "New Testament Church"

If I am not blogging about travel or foreign policy, chances are I am writing something to do with the Orthodox faith. By and large, I confine my comments to particular events, observations on Orthodoxy in the U.S., or some story about the plight of Orthodoxy overseas. I generally avoid doctrinal discursions or anything that is of a polemic nature. The reason for this has been-- and remains--that I am supremely unqualified to engage in such discussions. So far, this approach has served me well, and I am sticking with it.

That said, I venture to at least link to an ongoing Orthodox-Protestant dialogue that touches on the questions of sola scriptura, authority in religion and Tradition, as well as the strange notion of "restoring the New Testament church." This particular discussion is of great interest to me, as it involves the writings of Fr. Stephen Freeman, perhaps the most articulate and insightful Orthodox writer among us today (certainly within Orthodox blogdom), and on the other side, a defender of the Church of Christ, the evangelical fellowship in which I spent 25 years.

Clearly my sympathies lie with the case made by Fr. Stephen Freeman. It has been noted that converts sometimes attempt to discredit their former affiliation, perhaps out of some need for self-vindication. I am sensitive to that temptation, and would hope that that is not where I am going with this. Actually, I appreciate my Church of Christ background, as I think it has primed me and others for Orthodoxy. I think we make for an interesting and growing sub-category of converts to Orthodoxy. But that said, becoming Orthodox from any Protestant persuasion (and yes, despite their denials, the Church of Christ is Protestant) is unlike moving between different denominations. In our highly mobile society, one could easily be raised Methodist, attend Presbyterian services while raising a family, and then settle in to big-box, nondenominationalism in later years. These changes could be based on personal choice or preference, convenience, spouse's influence or any number of reasons, though none would particularly be discrediting to the former association. A move to Orthodoxy from Protestantism, however, is something altogether different and by so doing implicitly conveys a rejection of the entire underpinnings of Protestantism.

Two posts earlier, I linked to the essay of a young man in the Church of Christ, now disillusioned with Restorationist theology and considering Orthodoxy. The discussion generated considerable response, primarily from among those former Church of Christ, now Orthodox, or at least moving in that direction. One respondent defended the Church of Christ position and encouraged us to "return to the church." As it turns out, this was just the continuation of a discussion he and others had been having on Fr. Stephen's blog from the previous week, and it is that dialogue that I wish to note.

You will find the discussion to be polite and gentlemanly, if a bit one-sided. Fr. Stephen Freeman is undoubtedly one of our most gifted writers. These explanations would have been extremely helpful to me 5 years ago. My hope is that they may help those coming out of the Church of Christ and similar groups. I encourage the reading of the entire posts and comments which I have linked. Some choice excerpts follow the links, below:

At the Edge of Tradition--More Notes from the Edge

The content of the Tradition is not a set of ideas – but a reality - God with us.

And this is the problem that always accompanies attempts to reach that reality through reform. It is not our reformation that is the problem in the first place. We cannot reform ourselves into union with Christ. We can submit ourselves to union with Christ and not much else. We can cooperate with union with Christ.

Invariably, the great stumbling block faced by various attempts to “recreate” or “rediscover” the “early Church,” is that the “early Church,” is not an historical reality. It is a present reality – not simply as the “early Church” (this is not a Biblical phrase anyway). The present reality is the same as the “early Church”: it is the Body of Christ, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, the true and living Way. It never ceased nor was overcome by the gates of Hell. It has lived and thrived in enough places to have picked up many languages, many customs, but always the same faith.

This always comes as a stumbling block, I believe, because the existence of the Orthodox Church stands as a stark witness to the True and Living God - not the idea of a God – but God.

Selected Comments, below:

from John (not me):

How does the Orthodox teaching on church tradition differ from the Jews tradition/oral law, which was condemned by Jesus? You are aware of the Matthew 15 text: He answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? (Matthew 15:3 NKJV)

from Fr. Stephen:

The content of Tradition in Orthodox Christianity is nothing other than the living presence of the Spirit. Protestants always quote Matt. 15, but do not know the Scripture. Try reading 2 Thess. 2:15 “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.”

Do a word study on the Greek paradosis or paradidomi which is the word correctly translated “tradition” to “hand over or hand down”. The New Testament itself is Tradition. I did not write it – it was handed down to me by the Apostles of the Church.

St. Paul uses the word for tradition when he says, “That which I received I also delivered (traditioned) unto you, how that our Lord Jesus Christ, in the night in which He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks and broken it, said, “Take, eat, This is my body…” etc.

This, it seems to me differs greatly from the “traditions” that Jesus condemned.
However, the Protestant hermeneutic, forged in the 16th century battles with the Roman Catholic Church, placed blinders on itself and does not see many parts of Scripture. The New Testament teaching on Tradition is just such a blind spot.

from John (not me):

How could the tradition in 2 Thessalonians 2 refer to material that had not at that time been taught? The text refers to tradition that had been taught. Would not this be the teaching of the apostles and other inspired writers of the New Testament? Should not the 1 Corinthians 11 passage be understood in the same manner? How could these two passages have anything whatsoever to do with writings that were yet in the future? How are they relevant to a discussion of church tradition after the close of the New Testament?

from Fr. Stephen:

In the writings beyond the NT such as the Apostolic Fathers, they continued to view Tradition as the NT viewed Tradition. You are assuming that the Apostles had a Protestant view of the Bible, which they did not. It’s a mistake to read the 16th century back into the first. Read their context instead of imposing assumptions about the “Bible” on the New Testament and early Church. The Orthodox, who are the same people whom God used to give us the canon of Scripture in the first place, still remember how they have always read Scripture. They are not a modern movement but simply the same continuous Church that uses Scripture in the same continuous way.

There are a number of examples in the NT that represent fragments of early “Creeds” generally that would have been used at Baptism and for the teaching of the faith. The opening verses of 1 Corinthians 15 are just such an example. It too uses the formula, “What I received I delivered (traditioned)” and St. Paul recounts the most primitive recitation of the resurrection. But it begins with a creedal form.

Of course, since many Protestants do not have a creed, they wouldn’t recognize one even when it occurs in Scripture. It is like many things. Having separated themselves from Holy Tradition, they do not see things that are obvious and they think they see other things that are not there.

Everyone reads through some sort of Tradition. Evangelicals have a tradition, they just don’t call it that. There is some “teacher” whom various people follow, and they see his matrix of thought in the pages of Scripture. But such matrixes are without authority and do not represent the apostolic deposit of faith – only various systems invented by men. Fortunately, the text of Scripture itself can help prevent some errors – though not all. The Arians quoted Scripture, as did all the early heretics. The Apostolic Tradition, including proper historic succession in ordination, teaching and communion, was one of those marks looked for in the early Church.

The Christian Church is not something to be reinvented. It is the gift of God. It is not the following of a book, though we believe the Scriptures to be the Word of God. But it is of the Church that Scripture says it is the “pillar and ground of truth.” There are other such statements. The exaltation of Scripture as something apart from and over the Church is itself, not Scriptural. They are not separate. The Epistles are letters to the Church, while St. Paul says that the Corinthians are “my epistle, written on the fleshy tables of the heart.”

Those who actually knew the Apostles treated Tradition in the same manner in which the Orthodox Church does. That seems sufficient explanation.

from John (not me:)

Thank you for your response. Respectfully, I am not assuming anything. I am simply attempting to read the text with an open mind, seeking truth.

To quote the patristics from the 300’s, or even the 100’s, is irrelevant. It would seem to be begging the question. Is there a passage in the NT that authorizes using teaching beyond the NT as authoritative? Can it be shown, from the NT, that the tradition to which it refers is something beyond NT texts?

What is your understanding of “perfect/complete” in 2 Timothy 3.17? What is your understanding of “once for all” in Jude 3?

Thank you.

from Fr. Stephen:

First, I’m not sure there is anything in the NT that “authorizes” the NT. It’s authorization, if you will, is itself an Apostolic Tradition. When the NT says Scripture, it clearly means the OT. But the Church understands the NT as Scripture and authoritative. But you cannot posit the NT as prior to the Church. The verse from 2 Thessalonians, clearly sees a function for Tradition, and there is no reason to read that (from the text) that assumes that these “traditions” are somehow superseded by a text that is yet to come. They are traditions (of word or epistle).

2 Timothy is clearly a reference to the OT – the NT does not come to be described as “Scripture” until well into the 2nd century (not that its authority is weakened by that). I think perfect and complete refer to spiritual maturity and not to any sense that “now you have all the information you need there will be no use for tradition.”

The notion of the “complete” NT is a very modern idea – an interpretation put forward within fundamentalist protestantism that is simply novel in the Christian interpretation of Scripture. Thus in 1 Corinthians 13 “when that which is perfect shall come” clearly refers to the fulfillment of the eschaton, not the completion of the NT.

In Jude, once and for all, is the Apostolic deposit of faith, which certainly includes Scripture, but is also the whole life of the Church, including its Tradition (which is not an addition of later information). The doctrine of the Trinity, for instance, is not a development, but a vocalization of what the Church always believed and of the Apostolic foundation, even if the Apostles would not have put it in terms of ousia and hypostasis (just to use an example).

Vestments and many things about the services are not necessarily thought of as “Tradition” in Orthodoxy. Tradition is the indwelling of the Church by the same Spirit that “raised Christ from the dead,” the “Spirit that leads us into all Truth.” There could be no reading of the Scripture and discernment of its meaning without that Spirit. Tradition is a way we describe the fact that we have the same faith that the Apostles have – and not simply a love a antiquity.

We would say that Jude 3 refers to the “faith” once and for all delivered. The “faith” generally is not used in the NT as a synonym for Scripture but is indeed the deposit of the faith (which Jude indeed mentions in 17 and 18 of that “spoken” by the Apostles (which is certainly echoed particularly in St. Paul’s pastoral epistles). But there is no evidence that the readers of Jude would as yet have any knowledge of the letters to Timothy and Titus. But they, as did all the Churches, knew the words of the Apostles, which, of course, agree with the writings of the Apostles. That faith was once and for all delivered to the saints (the Church). It was not laying around to be reinvented in the 16th century or in later centuries, but is the one faith, the same faith, which has been preserved in the Orthodox Church (from whom came the martyrs, the fathers, and the single living witness of the Apostles). In the modern world they contributed more martyrs for the faith than in all centuries prior (added together). It’s saints do indeed earnestly contend for the faith and continue to hold fast to that which was once and for all delivered to them. That faith has not been changed nor altered. This cannot be said for Protestant Churches, unfortunately. Many engage in practices unknown as little as 40 years ago or even still more recent. Its theology is a constant moving target reflecting cultural winds and various theological “movements.”

The letters of the NT, interestingly, with the sole exception of the letter to Rome (which, interestingly was in Greek like the other letters) were written to Churches’ whose address is still an Orthodox Church. Of course they are written to the whole Church – but who can claim to be in communion with those Churches and to share in the same Apostolic life which was and is theirs?

But no where do any of the Apostles sit down to write a complete treatise on the Christian faith. They write letters very often for very specific purposes. It is the Apostolic Deposit, their “word” to the Churches, that gives us the matrix for reading their writings and interpreting them correctly.

Forgive me if my tone is too argumentative. I am at a Church assembly this week and only have a limited time to read and respond for the blog. Brevity sometimes is the enemy of kindness – your questions are important, even classical in their form. And they are certainly worthy of conversation.

from John (not me):

Thank you for your detailed response.

I am not positing the NT as prior to the church. The church was established in Acts 2.

2 Timothy 3 – v 15 is surely the OT. V 16 surely could include the developing NT. Note ‘the Holy Scriptures’ vs ‘all/every Scripture.’ Is all/every of 16 limited to the reference in 15? I’m not so sure that it is. Also, if Scripture of v 16 excludes the NT, then it would appear that one could be ‘complete’ and practice ‘every good work’ (v 17) apart from the NT and apart from Christ, who is revealed in the NT. Why could v 16 not be a reference inclusive of the NT before the second century?

It seems that the way you are interpreting indwelling of the Spirit comes pretty close to claiming inspiration for the patristics, a claim which I believe you are unwilling to make.

Jude 3 – While in the vast majority of cases in the NT ‘faith’ means belief producing obedience (I imagine we would agree on that), I have always understood the Jude 3 reference to mean the gospel system of salvation by an obedient faith. You and I have somewhat different backgrounds, in that you’re Catholic and I’m not, so I’m not sure I’m hearing accurately what you are saying relative to your understanding of ‘the faith’ here. For instance, I am uncertain of exactly what you mean by ‘Apostolic Deposit.’ It seems that you are assuming that ‘the faith’ would include later tradition. I have yet to see any evidence from the NT text that later tradition should be accepted as authoritative. The fact that some of the patristics may have taught that is not sufficient proof. There must be a NT passage that demonstrates that what the NT meant by tradition was more than the teaching of the Apostles and the developing NT text.

from Fr. Stephen:

On our backgrounds – I am a former Protestant so that I am familiar with a good bit of what you are saying (though I think our Protestant experiences are different). I am not a Roman Catholic, but Eastern Orthodox which has not been in communion with Rome for over a thousand years and has a very different history and understanding of many things. I would like to continue the conversation, though I’ll probably have to take it up next week.

from Jesse:

I believe what originally led me to Orthodoxy (and I’m not there yet, not quite) and Tradition was realizing that the New Testament, to which I had attributed ALL authority, was itself a product of tradition. When I realized that the NT was finalized by the same people I had been raised to believe were in “apostasy” by about the time of Constantine, I was forced to make the choice of saying that the NT was a relatively worthless document (like much of contemporary biblical criticism) or of accepting a greater role for tradition. One could, of course, say that the NT document was the culmination and end of the Holy Spirit’s work, but that struck me as being blasphemous (what a relief after learning some more about Orthodoxy to realize that the Holy Spirit could still be alive and powerfully active in the Church!). After accepting that tradition should still be a part of the Christian’s life, it didn’t take long to realize that Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Anglicans, and even Roman Catholics didn’t have any more claim to it than the church of Christ did (yes, I’m from the church of Christ as well, John). Thank God that the Orthodox church was slowly entering into the picture, in a variety of ways (that I just now realized might be the work of grace). That is my journey, in a very very small nutshell.

from John (not me:)

Jesse: I am not having this discussion because I am considering converting. You need to remain in the church of Christ. Our goal is to restore Christianity as practiced in the NT. I think we have the framework correct. One always needs to work on improving their individual Christian life.

I have yet to see anything offered which would justify human tradition beyond the NT. If this line of tradition were correct, the danger would be that once a divergence from the NT occurred – there would be no end to it. Should we trust our spiritual lives to a succession of men, or directly to God’s word? If this line of tradition is required, what about those who became Christians in Acts? Did they not know what they were doing?

I hope to continue this discussion, and I will be the picture of courtesy. But, my intention is to lead a pursuit of truth for us all, and this intention should not be misread. May we all humbly bow before God, and Him only, as we seek to hear, believe, and obey His word.

from Alex:


God’s Word is not a book. It is a person – a man. He dwells in Christians, and they in Him. He, the Truth, the Way, and the Life, is a man, not a book. So yes, if you wish to follow Him, you must follow those in whom He dwells.

The Christians in Acts had an idea of what they were doing – but did they not also hold council to resolve certain disputes not fully understood? What makes you think that nothing could possibly ever come up after the 1st council which would not need to be resolved?

And what do you think that the Apostles at the Council of Jerusalem referenced? Do you think that they all sat around saying, man, too bad the NT hasn’t been written yet? Preposterous! They were guided by the Spirit of God. Do you think that this Spirit suddenly departed after the NT was completed? If so, then I have some bad news for you – you, and all the rest of us are doomed. After all, the NT does not present itself as its own canon – only the Church can do that, and it has.

However, the Lord keeps His promise, and He has sent us the Comforter. Regarding your question about inspired ‘patristics’, do you think that the Fathers of the Church are given a different Holy Spirit than the writers of the NT?

I would encourage you to investigate where the NT that you have so much respect for came from. The only reason that you can even speak of something called the New Testament, as a book, is that the Orthodox Church said so in council, many years after the Apostles fell asleep.

Therefore, your statement about ‘restoring Christianity as practiced in the NT’ cuts off the branch on which it is sitting – since you assert that the Church which wrote and compiled the NT was in and of itself in spiritual darkness. What evidence outside of the NT do you have that New Testament Christianity is any different that what we claim it is?

from J.D.:

I have spent over 60 years in the Church of Christ and was blessed in many ways and in other ways saw behavior that was embarrassing. But no one group has a monopoly on that. I converted about two months ago after four years of absorbing the ancient faith in many ways.

One of the subtle things I realized regarding the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 was the obvious decision made regarding the Gentiles. The OT is chocked full of the notion that the Gentiles would one day be drawn in. It took the leadership of the church devoid of scripture to decide, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, what would be the best way to achieve this to the glory of God and to grace the church and bless the “nations”. When you get over to Acts 16 it says in essence they went town to town delivering this decision (dogma) with obvious authority. The description is not additional scripture it is simply the end game of the church extolling through its authority how this should happen.

The Church of Christ has a lot of great people who love the Lord, but they got eaten up and eaten by western rationalization.

God bless them all and God bless those of you who are on the journey from Churches of Christ. When you go from trying to “figure it all out” mentally, to wanting to be in holy communion with God and experiencing what truly is Holy Communion, you will never regret entering the journey to full maturation (theosis).

from Patrick:


You are quite clever at avoiding questions put to you while continuing with a line of questioning that stem from false presuppositions. Since you clearly come from a mindset that says “everything must be in the scriptures and if it isn’t in the scripture either implicitly or explicitly then it isn’t true” i.e. Sola Scriptura, then answer:

1) Where does the NT claim this authority for itself? If you’re so convinced that NT has to qualify everything, why doesn’t it come out and make it clear that the NT writings are the final and only authority for the individual christian? Everything for you about the life of the Christian has to be in the scriptures alone yet the scriptures themselves do not say this. However, the scriptures do give the Church this authority.

2) How do you trust the NT in the first place since it was canonized by the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church (which you consider false and apostate) in council almost 400 years after the start of the Church?

3) How did people learn the faith and become christians without a formal NT to guide them during the 400 years when there was no formal NT? Even once the NT was finalized, how did average Christians get their hands on one since there was no printing press but had to be hand copied making them expensive.

4) How is it that you follow the “tradition” of the “Church of Christ” yet reject tradition? Doesn’t the “Church of Christ” have a specific way of conducting church service every Sunday, a specific way you have of doing things, a specific order to follow every Sunday morning? Isn’t there a specific place where the pulpit sits and a specific time the sermon begins? Where does the NT give you specific directions of how to conduct your Sunday morning worship? It doesn’t. Therfore, doesn’t the “Church of Christ” have it’s own “tradition?” Did the Apostles pass on this unwritten tradition to you? Tell me, which “Church of Christ” father was around in the first century that has passed on the tradition to which you now hold? Or does the “Church of Christ” start over brand new every Sunday morning so as not to be seen as holding to tradition?

Please, I would like to know.

from David:

There are no churches of Christ or Church of Christ or any other such thing. It doesn’t exist. Though you can find many buildings around the country with such labels on the front lawn.

Rationalistic non-denominationalism is a philosophical idea. For a time, and within a certain group of naturally like-minded persons predisposed to the experiment it inspired a movement. This movement almost immediately fell off the tracks and has remained so ever sense.

There is no “there” there. When someone says, you should come back to the church, I must admit that I have no idea what they are talking about.

True Knowledge of God--Living the Tradition

from Fr. Stephen, in the comments:

1. There is no such thing as the “New Testament” Church. This is a fiction – an imaginary description of the Church that grows out of certain forms of Protestant thought. It has a particular history in 19th century America, where a number of individuals and groups set out to recreate, restore or otherwise establish the “New Testament Church.” The Mormons are an example. Joseph Smith claimed to have refounded the New Testament Church with visitations to him of John the Baptist, the Apostles, Jesus, and no less than God the Father and the Holy Spirit (complete with feathers). Other groups attempted the same thing. In Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Tennessee the so-called Restoration Movement had its beginnings as well. With them an extreme form of the Protestant Sola Scriptura (Scripture Only) was used to establish a new, restored “New Testament Church.”

But there is no such thing. The Church existed before the New Testament was written – thus to name it by something that was created through it would be absurd. The Scripture calls the Church many things: the Body of Christ, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, the Fullness of Him that Filleth All and All.

The adjectives this Church came to use in subsequent centuries are noted in the Nicene Creed: One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. During the centuries in which this same Church, founded by Christ, suffered to preserve the faith that had once and for all been delivered to it, it came to use yet another adjective to differentiate it from those who held false beliefs. Believers came to refer to the Church as the Orthodox Church, an adjective still in general use.

It was this very Church that was first called “Christian” in the city of Antioch, whose Patriarch continues to this day, holding the same faith as Peter and Paul and others who have graced that God-protected Church. His line of succession can be recited without fear of contradiction to this day.

2. The Scriptures are a great gift to the Church (though in the pages of the NT the word “Scriptures” generally only refers to the OT, the only “Scriptures” known to the Church of the first century. St. Justin Martyr, writing in the 2nd century, refers to the gospels as the “memoirs of the Apostles.” But it was the Church, established by Christ, that came to accept the books that now comprise the “New Testament” as authoritative and declared them as the authoritative canon in the 4th century. They were certainly used and quoted authoritatively before that on account of their Apostolic origin. However, Christ did not command the Apostles to write books. They did write, and as with their other actions (teachings, etc.) they were treated as authoritative.

But they were Apostles (those who are sent). They obeyed Christ’s command to “go forth into the world and make disciples, teaching them to observe whatsoever things I have commanded you, Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Thus they traveled and established communities of believers, appointing leaders within those communities (Bishops, presbyters, deacons, etc.). The bishops were charged with shepherding the young communities and held the authority of the Apostles in those communities. Only those communities whose bishops were in communion (holding the same faith and practice) with other communities of apostolic origin were considered faithful Christian communities. These communities did not disappear nor did they alter the faith (or if the faith was altered, they were expelled from the communion of the one Church). They continue to this day, without disruption. What was delivered to them they kept.

It is incorrect to refer to the “New Testament Church.” It would be more accurate to say, “The Church’s New Testament.”

3. Some within the Protestant family have made of the bible a “Christian Koran,” reducing Christianity to a “people of the book.” They define Christianity and the Church by its obedience to Scripture and set themselves as the only authoritative interpreters. They have no warrant for such a claim – no appointment by the Apostles to such an office. They are an American fiction – born of the 19th century hubris of this land which considered itself the birthplace of all good things. Not content with unjust claims to an entire continent – its people sought to claim for themselves the title of “New Testament Church”.

4. The Apostles were obedient to Christ. They preached, taught and baptized. They appointed leaders (including an additional Apostle for the Twelve) according to the authority given them. They met in Council (recorded in the book of Acts) and made authoritative decisions for the Church. Their successors, the bishops, would also meet in council when necessary, and make authoritative decisions for the life of the Church and for its continued faithfulness. Those who would ask “where is the warrant in Scripture for such authority” need look no further than Titus 2:15 “Speak these things, exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no one despise you.” Titus was a Bishop, appointed by St. Paul. Those who taught and exercised authority neither added to nor subtracted from the faith that had been delivered to them.

5. The content of that faith is Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. The teachings concerning that salvation are important and authoritative – but the teachings serve a greater purpose: to communicate Christ Himself, not information about Christ. We are not saved by information but by the indwelling of Christ with whom we have been made one in Holy Baptism, by whom we have been anointed with the Holy Spirit in Chrismation, through whom the continued authority He established is confirmed in ordination, etc. But all things are for the excellency of knowing Christ, who alone is our salvation.

There were Christians who lived during the first century (part of what others falsely call the “New Testament Church”) who fell away and were lost. St. Paul himself mentions two of these: Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim. 1:20). The creation of a “New Testament” Church offers no guarantees of salvation. Christ alone is our salvation – and He was not rediscovered in 19th century America.

6. There is a Church that has kept the faith. It authoritatively declared the content of the canon of Scripture for it alone knew the word of the Apostles. Its faithful labored endlessly, and copied manuscripts of the Scripture by hand (as they did everything else we currently have from the ancient Western world). Those who today arrogantly or ignorantly claim to have restored the New Testament Church do so with a book for which they did not die, did not labor, did not produce, with whose keeping they were not entrusted. They have not given the world the millions of martyrs of the Orthodox Church and yet they would steal for themselves the title of “Church.”

The simple reading of history in these matters should lead to conclusions that show such claims to be false. I believe that many hunger for a “New Testament Church” for salutary reasons, but are greatly mistaken about the nature of Christian history and the work of God for our salvation. They have a distorted understanding of what the Bible itself is, having created a “holy book” for themselves that is best compared to the Muslim view of the Koran. They may be called “Bible Christians” but they are not “Church Christians” for they cannot create for themselves something that is the creation of God alone.

These seem to me to be some points worth noting.

The Orthodox Reading of Scripture

The answer goes to the heart of the matter. What is the matrix by which you seek to interpret Scripture and by what authority do you use it? Anyone who says he just reads the Scripture and that there is no matrix by which he interprets is deceiving himself and his listeners and not admitting that he has already accepted a matrix and on its basis he selects Scripture to fit his point. There really is no other way to read.

Orthodoxy has never denied this. Instead, like Irenaeus, it points to that which it has received. Irenaeus called it the “Apostolic Hypothesis.” It has also been called the “rule of faith,” and various other names. But if you have not accepted this “matrix” you cannot interpret Scripture in the form of the Apostles or their successors or the Church that Christ founded.

Others accept as their matrix a statement of faith written 1500 years later, constructed on a matrix invented by medieval scholastics who sought to reform the Church. They had no command from God, no conversation with the Apostles, nothing but their own ideas and rationality from which to construct new matrixes. From Germany Luther gave us his “salvation by grace through faith,” and read the Scriptures accordingly. Calvin gave us his matrix of the sovereignty of God. Neither could speak with authority or true assurance and neither would have succeeded in their reform had the state not conveniently enforced it with the sword (read the history). The Reformation never succeeded without the state’s cooperation and frequently suceeded by drastically destroying property and torturing its opposition. Not that this was not followed by a war from Catholic authorities. All of these things happened apart from Holy Orthodoxy. But the myth of a popular uprising cleansing the Church of false doctrine, fostered for years by Protestant historians is simply a fabrication.

More to the point of this post – the matrix of Protestant interpretation, though frequently seeking for something like the Apostolic Hyposthesis, in many places failed to adhere to that primitive standard.

Christian doctrine is not a battle over the Scriptures. Sola Scriptura has not worked and never did. Such an approach simply leads to endless argument and confusion. Others may claim to use the “plain sense” of Scripture or some other 18th century rationalist construct. Such constructs are no more effective than other failed efforts of Sola Scriptura. Either we embrace the faith of the Apostles, once and for all delivered to the saints, or else we exile ourselves to confusion or, worse yet, to the false guidance of those who never sat in the seat of the Apostles.

Speaking With Authority

The authority of Scripture is Christ Himself – and the authority of Scripture comes only through union with Christ – crucified and risen. The authority of St. Paul (at least the authority to which he pointed) is not found in his apostleship – but rather in his weakness – his union with the crucified Jesus:

If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness (2 Corinthians 11:30).


I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal. 2:20).

This, it seems to me, is a particular problem for those who would exalt a method of interpretation and the “authority” of the Scriptures over the lived reality of the Apostles and those appointed to succeed them – most of whom died a martyr’s death. The authority of the Cross, of a life lived in conformity with the crucified Christ, bears an authenticity in interpreting the word of God that is simply missing in various modern systems of rational interpretation. Where are the marks of the Lord Jesus in man-made rational systems?

Selected comments, below:

from John (not me):

Do you not need a NT text that authorizes going beyond the NT for authority? It seems to me to be essential if you are going to jump from the NT to church history. I am not aware of any such text.

On the appeal to martyrdom, what about the other religions who can introduce a long list of their own martyrs? I have had that point offered to me as an objection to Christianity. I do not believe you can prove the truthfulness of a doctrine by the martyrdom of its proponents.

We all appeal to reason every day. We would be dysfunctional without it. Why do you have such a problem with using the mind God gave us when it comes to the Bible? Did God reveal Himself so that only a few could understand His message? How do we know which “few”? We have to use reason whether we read the Bible for ourselves or allow someone else to do that for us. You can play the “Locke card” all day and all night, but you can’t escape the use of human intellect to understand God’s message, or any other communication. I ask again, Is God not capable of giving a communication that can be understood?

It is getting awkward talking with you without using your name. You know I can’t call you “Father,” and hopefully you know by now that I am not attempting to be rude. I just can’t do that. I will call you “Stephen” and please call me “John.” Also, as you know by now, I am not a prospect for conversion to Orthodoxy. However it is hoped that we both can grow by discussing Biblical teaching with the desire to trust and obey Biblical truth.

from Fr. Stephen:


I understand about the use of the title “Father.” You shouldn’t violate your conscience in the matter – I wouldn’t want you to.

The absolute distinction between Scripture and the Church in which it was written is, to me, an example of a reductionist principle. The Scripture cannot be lifted out of the context of the life of the Church – it would be as though one was “disincarnating” the word of God. The life of that Church has a real history with real people whose names we know and whose testimony we know. That the Orthodox Church is that same Church is simply historically accurate. That the Scriptures are taken away from that Church to be used to serve another group, is, of course, possible. But not reasonable except according to certain a priori assumptions.

Where you and I probably differ the most is that we have very different a priori assumptions. You would say that your assumptions are “Scriptural.” I would say that the assumptions come first and have then been applied as a hermeneutic to Scripture.

As an Orthodox Christian, I would say that the hermeneutic of Scripture begins in the Church – the community founded by Christ – to whom the Scriptures were written and through whom they were and are interpreted.

There is something of a “hermeutical circle” that has to start somewhere which always gets us into a priori assumptions. Even reason has to have a tradition by which it reasons.

One of my complaints with Locke (to use the card) is that the Enlightenment understanding of reason (whether it is Locke or some other Enlightenment figure) is a cultural tradition that is mostly an illustration of its century (ies), not an absolute objective example of some God-given faculty.

Another objection to the “rational” approach to Biblical interpretation is that the Scriptures are not given in a “rational” form. The Scriptures are not a collection of syllogisms. They are letters, gospels (which is a very unique form of writing) prophetic books, poetry, Law, etc. The Church bears witness that these are the Word of God but how that functions in the life of the Church is not to treat them like syllogistic texts. A story and a syllogism are very different things.

from Brantley:


If the authors of the text of the New Testament were God inspired, weren’t the ones who decided which texts to include in the canon also inspired?

And with respect to the New Testament “authorizing” some tradition outside of itself, it seems that 2nd Thessalonians 2:15 would seem to be a direct answer to your question. Any other way of reading it would seem to be a twisting of meaning to make it mean what you want it to mean. (I’m aware that you’ve already commented on this passage in another thread, but if it’s not possible for you to read those verses without honestly realizing that there were traditions that were not documented at that time, I don’t know that there’s anything anyone here can tell you that would be edifying for you.)

Not to be ironic, it seems to me that it may simply NOT be possible to encapsulate the Logos of God with words.

For example, when Luke and Cleopas were on the road to Emmaus, they talked extensively (hours!) with Jesus. Where is the record of that conversation? Did Luke and Cleopas take it to their graves? What do you suppose they talked about? Why was it not written down?


B. Hold said...

Interesting discussion. As Brantley pointed out at the end there, it's hard to argue for Sola Scriptura in light of 2 Thess. 2:15. I would agree with John, however, that reason is a gift from God. We should not rely too much on it, so as to idolize our intellects, but we should use it to see the obvious meanings of passages that were obviously written years after Pentecost. In my case, I came to Orthodoxy for several reasons, one of which was an objective view of history that shows continuity between the Apostles and the Orthodox Church today. But this succession alone only wins an argument about continuity. It is the life of the Church in which I hope to find closer communion with God... if only I can stop being such a bloody sinner.

Milton T. Burton said...

I see the Good Father agrees in substance with the point I made about reason being itself a sort of tradition in the earlier post. He wrote:

"One of my complaints with Locke (to use the card) is that the Enlightenment understanding of reason (whether it is Locke or some other Enlightenment figure) is a cultural tradition that is mostly an illustration of its century (ies), not an absolute objective example of some God-given faculty."

Clint said...

Hi John,

Glad you posted this for others to see. I enjoyed reading the posts and comments at Fr. Stephen's blog, as well.

Like you, I try hard to avoid "bashing" my CoC background. I agree with you that that background was a good foundation for my encounter with Orthodoxy.

So far I have done pretty well in staying out of the discussions and arguments. I think that we are all better served in my keeping my mouth shut (or fingers restrained, as it were) in these conversations. Fr. Stephen has done better than I ever could at articulating the Orthodox viewpoint and how it compares to the CoC interpretations (at least as posited by John/not you).

But I am glad that you linked to it here, so others can find the conversations.

John said...

B. Hold,

"It is the life of the Church in which I hope to find closer communion with God... if only I can stop being such a bloody sinner."

Well said, and same here.


I'm glad you enjoyed the post. It is lengthy, but I believe Fr. Stephen fleshes-out some of the questions that not only the Church of Christ but all Protestantism would do well to ponder. I know the "John(not me)" tag got a little old, but I really wanted to make sure no one confused those sentiments with my own!

Clint said...


I teach college English students. I fully understand the necessity of making SURE that people don't confuse who is saying what. Oh, the stories I could tell....

The more I read Fr. Stephen's comments (and those of other able Orthodox writers), the more glad I am that I have just stayed out of the conversation. I think I am still "too close" to my time in the CoC.

Not that I have any intention of leaving Orthodoxy, but more so that I tend to have a negative attitude about the CoC and don't want to do more harm than good.

As the CoC heritage goes: I don't want to "win" the argument, but lose what really matters.

Anonymous said...

This is a great compilation. With your permission, I think I'd like to take your work and put together as a "page" on my blog where people can read all of this together. Many thanks. It summed things up for me very well. I'll put attribution on it for your work.

Fr. Stephen

John said...


I think your course is the wise one. Even after almost 5 years, it is still a bit raw with me, as well.

John said...

Dear Fr. Stephen,

I would be honored.

BTW, the conversation that spilled over from your blog to the essay I linked above is still going apace--67 comments so far.