Friday, October 24, 2014

Exonerating Pelagius

So, how about that post title? It made you really want to click and find out what in the world I'm talking about, right? I digress...

In terms of popularity among evangelical Christians, the fifth-century heretic Pelagius ranks somewhere between Judas Iscariot and Satan. His eponymous teaching is considered the heresy of all heresies, the false teaching from which all others spring. Somewhat like proving NP-completeness, a teaching can be proven to be heretical if it can be shown to imply or equate to Pelagianism. What is this dastardly, false, and dangerous teaching? The gospel of works-based righteousness, it is said. The lie that man can be good without God. That our righteousness is up to our free will and moral effort rather than the grace of God. That we can earn our salvation. That man is innately good rather than sinful. It is the very antithesis of the Gospel, such that the Gospel can sometimes be defined more negatively than positively, as the opposite of works righteousness.

But like my erroneous 32,000 Protestant denominations figure, virtually all of this is hearsay. After studying total depravity in my systematic theology class, I have to wonder, how historically grounded is this picture of Pelagius and Pelagianism? I'd like to try to dispense with the following myths about Pelagius:
  • Pelagius' goal was to deceive people and pervert the gospel. Actually, his concern was much more pastoral. He was not very given to lofty theologizing; his concern was to help people live righteous, Godward lives. He saw the church's increasingly prevalent theology of original sin and human inability as an unnecessary hindrance, reasoning that God only commands us do do something (even "be perfect", Mat 5:48) if we are able to do it. He viewed Augustine's doctrines of original sin and predestination as a perversion of God's justice and a resurgence of the fatalistic pagan teachings the church struggled against in the second century, and defended what he considered to be the traditional teaching of the church on human responsibility. Adam's sin only affected Adam himself, and every human after him has the same freedom Adam did to choose to obey or disobey.
  • Pelagius denied God's grace/taught that we can be good without God. Actually, Pelagius' theology was just as full of grace as Augustine's, albeit in a different way. To Pelagius, God's creation of man with free will and the ability to choose between good and evil was an act of grace. Man's exercise of that ability was not self-righteous moral effort, but grace on the part of his Creator. He also viewed God's revelation and moral instruction as dispensations of grace. Where he differed sharply from Augustine was that he saw grace as something largely passive or external, whereas Augustine saw grace (the most important, salvific kind) as active and internal.
  • Pelagius promoted a theology of "works". He was not given to discoursing about "works" and their value at all. Rather, Pelagius stood up for what he saw as the church's teaching of human free will and responsibility over against fatalism.
  • Pelagius taught that we earn our salvation. In the fifth century there was little sense of salvation as a legal transaction based on merit. Salvation was viewed as rich and multifaceted: the forgiveness of sins, regeneration of damaged human nature, deliverance from death and the devil, bestowal of the Holy Spirit, and Godward growth in holiness, righteousness, and Christ-resemblance. It was not given in an instant but received over a lifetime, primarily through the administration of God's grace via the sacraments. Pelagius affirmed that we actively participate in our salvation by choosing God and righteousness over sin and evil, but in no way taught that we simply "earn" salvation the way a worker earns his wages.
  • Pelagius was condemned for these things. Actually, Pelagius' initial condemnation came from the Synod of Carthage in 418 over the allegation that his theology (especially his denial of the nascent doctrine of original sin) made infant baptism, a firmly established practice of the church and commanded in the Nicene Creed, unnecessary "for the remission of sins". This was reiterated at the Council of Ephesus in 433, along with mention of his denial of internally working grace.
  • The church sided with Augustine over Pelagius. This is mostly, but not entirely, true. Though Augustine's theology has been enormously influential in the west, his contemporary church, especially in the Christian east, was not willing to follow all of his conclusions. They actually agreed with Pelagius' criticism of predestination as fatalistic, and that it implied that God did not actually wish all men to be saved, as 1 Tim 2:4 says. Neither did they deny that God's grace could work externally, or that man's free will is part of God's grace. Rather, both kinds of grace are active in the salvation of man. This is basically the theology of the Orthodox Church to this day. The term "Semi-Pelagianism" was only applied to this position in the sixteenth century and does not do justice to the fact that it has been the consensus of the church throughout the majority of its history.
Pelagianism is a heresy, but it is not the arch-heresy that it gets made out to be. It is certainly not the anti-gospel. There is plenty to criticize Pelagius for that is actually true without perpetuating these myths. And Augustinian theology is not as rock-solid orthodox as it gets made out to be, historically speaking. Augustine remained in good standing with the church and was never condemned for his teachings on predestination, but later theologians who propounded them with less of his nuance and balance (like Gottschalk, Cyril Lukaris, and Cornelius Jansen) were. Augustine was one of the greatest theologians of the church in any age, but he was not infallible, and his theology does not define the rule of faith. I hope this historical context has been helpful.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Position Paper: Anthropology

The following is my third position paper for my systematic theology class, on anthropology (a theological perspective on humanity).

In Christian theology, the knowledge of God is inseparable from the knowledge of ourselves. Calvin said of them, "as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other."1 At least as much as the questions of theology proper, the questions about humanity are universal, human questions: Who are we? Why are we here? Where did we come from? What is wrong with the world?

First, the question of human identity. First, and basically, what does human nature consist of? Are we ordered collections of atoms? Do we have a body and some kind of incorporeal soul responsible for consciousness? Is matter an illusion altogether? Any attempt to separate human nature into more than two parts seems to be needlessly speculative and difficult to support biblically. Monism (the view that there is only one basic human substance) runs aground on passages that speak of an intermediate state in which the soul/spirit is separated from the body (Luke 16:19-31, 23:43, 2 Cor 5:8); Mat 10:28 also seems to make a strong distinction between body and soul. This leaves some kind of dichotomism (people have bodies and souls/spirits), but a simply dualistic approach that locates the "self" or consciousness exclusively in the soul does not do justice to the biblical idea of body-soul unity and the promise that our final state will be as new bodies, not disembodied souls (2 Cor 5:2-4, see also 1 Cor 15). Though it is by no means explicitly spelled out in the Scriptures, it seems best to conclude that the normal state of the human is a body-soul unity, with both together constituting the "self", but which can be broken upon death, though this disembodied state is by no means ideal or permanent.2

Humans were made in the image and likeness of God. (Gen 1:26-28) Are the "image" and "likeness" are synonymous or different. The early church generally believed they were different: the image of God is something innate and essential to humanity that remains untouched by the Fall, while the likeness is something humanity has to grow into through Godward growth in holiness and Christian maturity. Origen wrote "that man received the dignity of God's image at his first creation; but that the perfection of his likeness has been reserved for the consummation."3 Irenaeus identified the image with reason and free will, and the likeness with growth into Spirit-endowed righteousness.4 This distinction is still a frequent teaching of the Orthodox Church today: "The image, for those who distinguish the two terms, denotes man's potentiality for life in God, the likeness his realization of that potentiality."5

In contrast, Luther taught that the image and likeness are synonymous, with Gen 1:26 an instance of Hebrew parallelism6, as did Calvin.7 On this he based the belief common in Lutheran and Reformed theology that the whole image of God has been damaged in humanity by sin; only a relic remains, and the whole person (even the will, mind, etc.) is in need of regeneration. I tend to agree with the traditional view that the image and likeness are distinct, reflecting the fact that due to sin we are lacking in some areas of God-resemblance (those pertaining to morality and knowledge of God) but not others (the innate faculties we have in common with God that make relationship with him possible, as Irenaeus states). Put another way, our creation in the image of God means that humans, of all the earthly creatures, are not only capable of a personal relationship with God, they cannot escape this relationship, whether positive or negative. The image of God is also the biblical basis for human rights and dignity which are in no way affected by sin; we see it used as the justification for prohibiting the shedding of human blood (Gen 9:6) and cursing others (Jam 3:9). Because of the image of God, there is something innately valuable about a human person. But the likeness of God is something we must grow to realize, which means developing this relationship, strengthening it with love, and being transformed by grace into the likeness of Jesus Christ. (Rom 8:29, 2 Cor 3:18, Eph 4:15)

Next is the question of human purpose: why are we here? Reflecting the previous point, I think God's desire for humans is to grow into his likeness. Christians seek to be imitators of Christ. Paul speaks of this goal in Eph 4:11-16, saying that God builds up the body of Christ (the Church) "until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (v. 13 RSV). "Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ" (v. 15). Jesus was the perfect example of a true human being, and we were made to become like him. On a broader level, we see the purpose of humanity in the initial statement of their creation: after making humans, God tells them to "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." (Gen 1:28) In a Christian context, this means our imitation of God (in his moral nature) applies to our relation to the rest of creation as well as to each other. We become most fully human when we live in union with God and fulfill his purposes for us.

Regarding the third question, the Bible gives an account of human origins depicting our instantaneous creation by God, along with the rest of the world. Genesis 1 and 2 appear to contain two different creation accounts side-by-side,8 the first emphasizing God's majestic sovereignty that creates the cosmos in a peaceful, orderly fashion, the other emphasizing his personal nature and creation of humans in particular. People have been making much of these accounts since before Christ, but our appreciating them today is complicated by their apparent contradictions with the scientific account of our origins. I do not consider biblical concordism a suitable option for reconciling the two accounts as it imposes our modern expectations on an ancient text, which tends to lead to ad hoc interpretations that often produce more questions than they answer, questions which the biblical authors almost certainly didn’t concern themselves with. To further explain why, let's look at some historical approaches to interpreting Genesis.

The traditional interpretation of Genesis 1 does view it as speaking historical truth: how God really created the heavens and the earth. However, to note only this is misleading. Early interpreters did not view the literal sense of Scripture (not just the "literal" interpretation, but the intended meaning of the author) as the only way to read it, or even the most important. Because the Scriptures were inspired by the Spirit of God, they had multiple layers of meaning, including dimensions the human author did not intend.9 The church fathers focused on the allegorical or spiritual meaning of the paradise narrative, mostly using Adam’s historicity to prove the universality of Christ’s salvation of all the sons of Adam.10 In The Literal Meaning of Genesis, St. Augustine cautions against interpreting the Bible to contradict facts that are common knowledge among nonbelievers, for fear of casting doubt not only on themselves, but on the Scriptures as well.11 In other words, if we consider ourselves defenders of "traditional Christian orthodoxy", we should not assume that a literal, historical interpretation is the only one possible, even for passages that appear to be historical. And we should be willing to rethink our interpretation of Scripture if it contradicts things that even unbelievers know to be simple fact. To adopt a nonliteral interpretation of Genesis 1 in response to scientific evidence is not to compromise on the integrity of God's word, but to accept our limitations as human interpreters.

It is often pointed out that Paul seems to believe in the historicity of Adam, and indeed claims that sin and death came from Adam's sin. (Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:21-22, 45-49) Doesn't this settle our interpretation of Genesis 2-3? Without a historical Adam, what did Christ die for? I will briefly respond with two points to consider. First, Paul was an ancient man, reading his Bible (Old Testament) with an ancient understanding of science and origins that was, in his time, entirely uncontroversial. Elsewhere in 1 Cor 15 he states (about the resurrection) that "What you sow does not come to life unless it dies." (v. 36) But today, we know that a seed that dies cannot germinate.12 Paul’s being wrong about botany does not falsify the resurrection any more than his being wrong about the historicity of Adam does. Also, Paul is not making his understanding of Christ dependent on his understanding of Adam, but the other way around. What Christ reveals about Adam is not his place as the historical originator of sin and death, but as a type of Christ, his archetypal sin serving as a typological prelude to Jesus' universal redemption. In a very real sense, Christ reveals to us the nature of the very problem he solves.13

One other argument is the question: if man was not created instantaneously but by evolution, when and how did the human soul (or the image of God) originate? Did God at some point in evolutionary history implant it in a sufficiently developed primate? I think this question again arises from concordism, the quest to align biblical history with scientific history. But as a scientific theory, evolution is not bound to answer theological questions like this any more than the Bible is bound to answer our scientific questions. Is the origin of souls really an essential dogma of the faith? (Keep in mind that Genesis 2 never specifically mentions any ensoulment of Adam; it must be inferred by assuming that it tells us the etiology of souls) We should not expect spiritual realities like these to be accountable to our modern, scientific inquiries; "spiritual realities are not open to this kind of precise analysis".14 I don't see any problem with considering the origin of souls a divine mystery, real but wholly outside the explanations of science.

Regardless of how God created us, our biblical status as beings created by a personal God (in his image, no less) has great significance. We are simultaneously connected to God and to the rest of creation. Like the animals, we are limited, part of the creation and dependent on him for our existence (see Psa 104, Mat 6:25-34). But at the same time, because of our creation in the image of God, we have a unique relationship with him among all the earthly creatures. As our creation mandate directs, we are made to be God's stewards and emissaries here on earth, taking an active role in the exercise of his rulership of creation. In light of Adam's role in naming the animals (in the ancient Near East the name of something was effectively its identity15), we are even made to be God's "assistant creators", continuing his creative work in his Name towards the redemption of all things. And of all the creatures besides the angels, we alone are capable of knowing God and loving him personally. Scientific or no, the Bible gives a much better account of human origins than the dominant stories of our culture.

By studying the original ancient Near Eastern context and genre of Genesis 1-3, we can better understand the intent of the creation account beyond simply telling ancient history. The contrasts between Genesis 1 and contemporary creation myths (like Enuma Elish) are glaring. Unlike Marduk, "God is portrayed as truly mighty in that he is solely and fully responsible for forming the cosmos"; there is no struggle involved in his doing so, and the elements of creation are depersonalized rather than enemies that God has to subdue.16 Since Enuma Elish predates the Genesis account, these contrasts are surely intentional. Genesis 1, besides an account of Israelite origins, is a polemic for worship of the true God. John H. Walton offers another interpretation, that it may also be a description of God establishing the cosmos as his temple and taking up residence in it to rule all things.17 Genesis 2 has typological parallels with Israel's exile, and since it was completed from an earlier written/oral tradition after the Babylonian exile18, it likely reflects a humble Israel's desire to remember her past sins and seek to serve her Creator humbly. These are just a few examples of the significance of the creation account beyond the literal.

No biblical discussion of humanity would be complete without turning to what is known as "the human condition". Christians and non-Christians alike know that our existence is not perfect. We are reminded of it every time we look to the news, and sometimes with problems that hit closer to home. The faithless believe the apparent indifference of the universe is exactly what it looks like; the faithful agonize over the question, why does a loving, all-powerful God allow suffering, evil, and death? This is the "problem of evil", a fundamental question of human existence. Our understanding of mankind is inextricably connected to it.

In light of my ahistorical interpretation of Genesis 1-3, I don't attribute the existence of evil and death to an original human sin that somehow corrupted our nature; the presence of "natural evil" before the existence of humans makes this conclusion untenable. This view also has theological problems: I see no way that Adam could possibly have ruined human nature in a way that takes God thousands of years to mend. If, as some suppose, this corruption was instead an act of divine judgment,19 then by implication we need salvation not from sin and death but from God himself. Additionally, if basic human nature really is corrupted by sin, then Jesus, by being sinless, was less than fully human. I consider these implications untenable.

I instead hold something like the eastern formulation which, instead of making Adam's act of "original sin" the source of our total depravity that is condemned with death, holds that mortal is our basic problem, and that sin springs from it.20 Sin is not something that Adam (much less God) somehow injected into basic human nature, but the result of slavery to the terror/power of death wielded by the devil.21 (See Hbr 2:14-15) As Paul wrote, "The sting of death is sin" (1 Cor 15:56). Yet at the same time our sin pulls us further from God, the giver of life, which accelerates the vicious cycle; "the wages of sin is death" (Rom 6:23) In Orthodox theology, sin, death, and the devil are all viewed together as a sort of unholy trinity, namely the one Jesus came to defeat.22 Human nature, created by God, remains essentially good, but is trapped by these forces and cannot escape corruption and destruction on its own. What we need is not legal pardon, but rescue and vivification; the arena of salvation is not a courtroom, but a hospital. This theology, with its focus on sin and death together as present realities which we understand and are delivered from through Christ, is much more amenable to a nonhistoric Adam.

Yet I, for one, can't simply ignore the question of the origin of death. If death was not only the condition into which the first humans were born but vital to the evolutionary mechanism that produced them, the question must be asked: did God create a world with death "built-in"? And if death is "the last enemy to be destroyed" (1 Cor 15:26), does this make God responsible for the very problem that Jesus solves? Only if we view salvation history as merely a timeline, a succession of events one after another. Some (particularly in eastern traditions) restructure even this timeline around the eternal reality of the Incarnation. One priest writes: "But does this mean that God created a world that has held death from the beginning? It would not be strange to say so, since Pascha [Easter] was before the beginning."23 The second-century church father Irenaeus even views our faithful journey through the presently corrupted world as an intentional part of God's process of soul-making, bringing us to full maturity in the knowledge of him as well as freedom from sin and death. Accompanying this is a concept of “perfection” that is not simply freedom from taint, but fully realized completion. "God, for his part, could have offered perfection to humanity at the beginning, but humanity was not capable of receiving it, being no more than an infant."24 Though unintuitive, I find this way of approaching the problem of evil compelling in that it does not clash with scientific discoveries but challenges us to take on God’s eternal perspective and put off the human one from which we pose our accusatory questions.

I believe that Christianity, more than simply being conversant with philosophers’ questions about humanity, holds the best answers to them. Who are we? God's beloved creatures, made in his image to shine in his likeness. (Phil 2:14-16) Why are we here? To be conformed to the image of God's Son (Rom 8:29) and, with the Son, to become participants in God's ongoing work of new creation/reconciliation of the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19). Where did we come from? The hand of God (Gen 1:26-28), working with the instruments of nature. What is wrong with the world? The oppression and corruption wrought by sin, death, and the devil (Rom 6:23, 1 Cor 15:56, Hbr 2:14-15), whose works have already been brought to nothing by the Lord Christ and in whose victory we participate by the shedding of his blood. (Col 2:9-15) Calvin was right: it is impossible to come to a full understanding of ourselves without also finding a full understanding of the gospel.

  1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (trans. Henry Beveridge; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008), 1.1.1.
  2. Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 491–492.
  3. Origen, De principiis, (22 October 2014).
  4. Erickson, Christian Theology, 462.
  5. Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 66.
  6. Erickson, Christian Theology, 462.
  7. Calvin, Institutes, 1.15.3.
  8. Denis O. Lamoreux, Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008), 199.
  9. Michael Graves, The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 48–55.
  10. Peter C. Bouteneff, Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 173–180.
  11. Augustine, “The Literal Meaning of Genesis”, quoted in Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006), 83.
  12. Lamoreux, Evolutionary Creation, 137.
  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman, “Creation and Evolution,” Glory to God for All Things, 11 February 2014, (17 October 2014); see also Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012), 131–135.
  14. Lamoreux, Evolutionary Creation, 289.
  15. Henri and H. A. Frankfort, “Introduction,” in The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: An Essay on Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977), 13.
  16. Enns, The Evolution of Adam, 41.
  17. This is the overall argument of John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: 2006).
  18. Enns, The Evolution of Adam, 23–26.
  19. R.C. Sproul, “The Pelagian Controversy,” Ligonier Ministries, 1 August 2005, (22 October 2014).
  20. John Chrysostom, “Homily on Romans 5:12” in The Works of Saint John Chrysostom (ed. Philip Schaff, George Barker Stevens; Kindle edition: 2011).
  21. Richard Beck, The Slavery of Death (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 12–14.
  22. Beck, The Slavery of Death, 17.
  23. Freeman, “Creation and Evolution”.
  24. Irenaus, “adversus haereses,” in The Christian Theology Reader, 343.

My Journey, Part 11.2: The Insufficiency of Scripture

This is part 11.2 of my rebooted series on my journey from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. The full series can be found here:

1Back to the beginning
2Cracks appear
3Questions multiply
4Questioning the "gospel"
5The big question
6A better hermeneutic
7Explorations in epistemology
7.5Excursus on oversystematization
8Back to the gospel
9The new direction
10Ecclesiological foundations
11.1Sola scriptura
11.2The insufficiency of Scripture
11.25Addenda on sola scriptura
11.3Holy Tradition
12Bridging the cracks
13.1Orthodoxy and Genesis 1–3
13.2A Better Atonement (Against Penal Substitution)
13.3Faith Alone?
13.4The Colour and the Shape of the Gospel
14Worshipping with the Church
15Mary, Saints, Baptism, and Other Odds/Ends
16Looking Back, Coming Home

Having given what I hope is a satisfactory explanation and defense of sola scriptura in the last post, I can now explain why I no longer agree with it.


The basic distinction my previous argument set up is highly dualistic. It views "God's word" and "the traditions of men" as two mutually exclusive categories which must be held separate. One is authoritative and infallible, the other is fallible and authoritative only in its agreement with the infallible source. This mandates a strong distinction between the Bible and the traditions of the Church.

Orthodox teaching would say that this view fails to take the Incarnation seriously enough. When God became man, the simple human-divine distinction was obliterated, like the veil in the temple of Jerusalem (Mat 27:51). The second Person of the Trinity put on flesh and lived with us, for our salvation. The destiny of Christians is now to be become like him, to become by grace what he is by nature. Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:15-16: "Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love." Or, as St. Athanasius famously said, "God became man that man might become god." I lowercase the second "god" because, obviously, we will never become infinite or uncreated as God is. We will never become omnipotent or omniscient, never rule the cosmos as he does. God can never have an equal. Yet, in a very real sense, Orthodox view salvation as deification, increasing union with God and sharing with him in who he is.

Therefore, Orthodox believe the biblical teaching of the Church as the body of Christ the head (Eph 1:22-23, Col 1:18-20) has wide-ranging implications. The Church is the "the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15) , built on the confession of Jesus as the Messiah (Mat 16:16-18), the recipient of the Spirit of truth (Jhn 16:13). Paul writes of the Church, "So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit." (Eph 2:19-22) In light of all of these affirmations, it seems unjust to call the Church merely a human institution that perpetuates human tradition. The simple human-vs.-divine dualism of sola scriptura is no longer tenable if the Church is the body of Christ and the temple of the Spirit of truth, just as it doesn't apply to Christ himself. The aforementioned warnings against following human traditions (Jer 23:16, Mat 15:6, 1 Cor 2:4-5,10,13, Gal 1:10-11, Col 2:8, 1 Th 2:13) are not speaking of every tradition of the Church except Scripture, but against heretical teachings and corruptions of the apostolic tradition.

A few other observations: by implication, it seems like Protestants should simply repeat the words of Scripture in church, since saying anything else is simply speaking the words of man, and how can those possibly improve on the perfection of God's word? But of course no one does this, which means that, to some degree, Protestants unconsciously agree with the view of tradition I am stating. (As I will get to in a few more posts, the Orthodox liturgy arguably includes more words of Scripture than the typical Protestant service)

Luther's protests against the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church were somewhat valid in that the Church really had corrupted its teaching. There really was a tension between the teaching of Scripture and the "words of men" (the Magisterium), so it's unsurprising that Luther would draw a contrast there. But Luther's contrast between the teachings of men and the word of God doesn't transfer to Orthodoxy, which testifies that it has faithfully preserved the apostolic faith without change (and whose testimony I have come to believe). If Luther had been Orthodox, there would have been no Reformation because there would have been no need for one. I don't know of anyone in the eastern Church who has championed anything like the Protestant "back to the Bible" approach without being influenced by the Reformation.

Apostolic tradition = Scripture?

I'll turn now to my argument's equation of the "apostolic tradition" with Scripture, and the implied exclusion of everything else. Obviously, if the apostolic tradition has the exact same content as Scripture, it is at least somewhat propositional in nature, the kind of truth that can be put into a book. But Orthodox believe that Tradition is much more than doctrinal truth about Jesus: it also includes the prayers and liturgy of the Church, the lives of the saints, and holy icons, music, art, and architecture. It is the whole "grammar" of the faith that Orthodox live consciously and subconsciously. Tradition is the very Spirit-breathed life of the Church. not simply its doctrinal teaching. In the early Church God was powerfully active, by no means restricted to writing. Has he so restricted himself now?

The Bible itself speaks against the idea that it contains the entirety of the apostolic tradition. John 21:25 says, "But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written." Did the apostles, when orally passing on the teachings and works of Christ, restrict themselves to talking about what they would later put into writing? I hope not. Also, as N.T. Wright notes, since Jesus taught all over Judea he probably preached each of his sermons and parables dozens of times in total, with a certain amount of variance or improvisation in each telling. Yet each gospel only records a single copy of each. (Incidentally, this may account for some of the differences in details and ordering between the gospels) Also, in Paul's farewell speech to the Ephesian church he quotes a saying of Jesus (Acts 20:35) which is not found in any of the gospels. He cites other extrabiblical traditions in 1 Cor 10:4 and 2 Tim 3:8, as does Jude in vv. 9 and 14-20. (But are they really "extrabiblical" then?)

Additionally, the idea that we now know Jesus exclusively through the Bible seems to make the Bible into the definitive mediator between us and God, but "there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Tim 2:5). Is there a paper-and-ink mediator between us and Jesus as well?


I think sola scriptura also has less historical founding than the Orthodox view. It claims to be faithful to the practice of the early Church, but my studies have not borne this claim out. The Orthodox Church, like the early Church, has not understood tradition as something separate from the Scriptures and tacked onto them, a distinct source of authority. Rather, it views Scripture as the central and most important part of the Church's tradition. This is how Protestants can read the church fathers and claim they believed in sola scriptura, because they base their points on Scripture and not on a different thing called "tradition". That is simply not how tradition works. Tradition includes the Scriptures, and everything in it can be traced back to biblical teaching. I will explain this more below, but because Scripture needs to be interpreted, the fact that everything in tradition is "biblical" in some sense does not mean sola scriptura is true.

My argument's statement that after the apostles died, their oral tradition ceased and only the written tradition was left is simply false. Oral tradition can be passed down just like written tradition; Paul even commands it in 2 Tim 2:2. Also, the division between "oral" and "written" tradition is blurry, since many parts of tradition besides the Bible (writings of the fathers, liturgies, prayers, canons of church councils...) have been put into writing. This process began at least with the Didache, which was written just after or contemporaneously with Revelation, around 100. "Written tradition" isn't equivalent to the Bible.

Finally, sola scriptura leads to a kind of foundationalism (the quest to base knowledge on a foundation of certain beliefs) that I see nowhere in the early Church. Protestants today view the Bible as a body of truth from which to rationally, inductively construct a faith. Ostensibly starting from nothing (even knowledge of God or the nature of Scripture), they first discover Scripture's "self-authenticating" nature and then develop a complete theology from its teachings. But this is absolutely not how the early church operated, even after churches started to acquire reasonably complete collections of New Testament writings. It used the Scriptures more as an expression of an already-realized faith (that is, the apostolic tradition) than as a constitution on which to base such a faith. The faith preceded the Scriptures (at least the New Testament) and encompasses them; it does not originate in them.

The problem of authority

But these are all preliminary arguments. The main reason why I came to disagree with sola scriptura is this: it is based on a lie—the lie that there is effectively no difference between reading Scripture and interpreting Scripture.

Sufficient how?

This is the crucial distinction that so often gets forgotten in proclamations of the "sufficiency" of Scripture. Luther's belief in Scripture as the arbiter of tradition and judge of the Church's teaching assumed that it can speak with a clear, definitive voice, objectively governing the Church and deciding which traditions are or are not "biblical".

Within ten years of Luther's 95 theses came the first big disagreement about the interpretation of Scripture between reformers, namely Luther and the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli's differing opinions about the nature of the Eucharist, the central and climactic act of Christian worship before its later replacement by the sermon. Luther pointed to Christ's statement, "this is my body" (Mat 26:26, Mar 14:22, Luk 22:19, 1 Cor 11:24) to substantiate his interpretation of the Real Presence known as consubstantiation. Zwingli pointed to John 6:63 ("It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail") to support his view of communion as a memorial and symbol of the atonement. Their disagreement proved irreconcilable before Zwingli's death and presaged future spats between the Lutheran and Reformed wings of the Reformation (to say nothing of the radical reformers that everyone else loved to hate).

What does this say about Luther's democratic view of Scripture, as the infallible basis for the rule of faith? Was one or both of the two unable to read the biblical teaching on the eucharist clearly because of sin? Or is it possible that the Bible itself does not conclusively label one view as "biblical" and not the other? Does it clearly enumerate the difference offices of the church (bishop, elder, deacon...) and their duties, or a comprehensive list of all the spiritual gifts, or instructions for performing the liturgy of the early Church? Does it clearly state how faith and works are supposed to intersect? Later variance among sola scriptura Christians on these and other matters strongly indicates that it does not.

What I am trying to get at here is, again, the distinction between reading Scripture and interpreting it (and between interpreting it and rightly interpreting it). The Bible certainly has things to say concerning all of these topics, but if Luther and Zwingli's feud is any indication, it does not give one clear, simple, authoritative teaching on them, at least not one that is equally evident to everyone throughout time and space. Interpretation is required to come to "biblical" views on these things, and not everyone interprets in the same way. It is not so clear on every subject of interest to Christians (no matter how important it may seem at the time) that everyone is able to come to the same conclusion on the matter by simply reading the Bible themselves. Trying to make the Bible into an arbiter of our modern disputes over faith and practice simply shifts the debate to the seemingly intractable question of which interpretation is correct or binding for Christians—what Orthodox often refer to as the "problem of authority". This is roughly the Catholic distinction between the material sufficiency of Scripture and the formal sufficiency, which I find quite helpful. How can Scripture be authoritative if it speaks different things to different people?


Does this mean that Scripture really is unclear, that God did not speak intelligibly? This distinction is too simplistic. As I argued above, sola scriptura, the belief that the Bible alone is sufficient to inform Christian faith and practice, tends to place the focus of belief on rational, propositional truth. So here with the clarity of Scripture. The concern of the argument in my previous post was to establish and defend the intelligibility of Scripture to the intellect: no layman is "unqualified" to read Scripture on his own or obligated to defer to an authority outside Scripture itself. This statement is qualified by the admission that our hearts can still keep us from understanding Scripture properly, but this is not taken as a big deal since we have received the Spirit which is from God (1 Cor 2:12) to heal our rebellious hearts and lead us to the truth.

Yet if the point of interpreting the Bible is more than just correct belief (and even Protestants maintain that it is), then this is a big problem. In fact, it's an even bigger problem than not being able to understand the Scriptures intellectually. What difference does it make if we follow the prescribed model of reading Scripture faithfully, understanding it soundly, and then applying it if our hearts refuse to listen? Doesn't this just make us Pharisees? When Protestants quote 2 Peter 3:16, it is almost always in the context of proving that even as the New Testament was still being written, Paul's letters were already being considered "Scripture", indicating their self-authenticating nature. But look at what comes before: "There are some things in [Paul's letters] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures." Why do we assume that because we call ourselves Christians, Peter's warning never applies to us? "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked" (Jer 17:9), so why do we place such trust in our own ability to interpret the Scriptures?

And if God does not guarantee that our hearts will understand the Scriptures, then why should we seek any such promise for our heads? Does a well-written textbook on calculus speak clearly? Yes, if the reader has the necessary background learning. Its lack of clarity to an uneducated person is not necessarily due to any mistake on the part of the author, but the nature of the content and the ability of the reader. Reading Scripture correctly requires discipline, discernment, and holiness. To flatly state that it is "perspicuous" doesn't do justice to its complexity and depth, in which those able to understand it find its richness. Fr. Stephen Freeman writes on the Protestant democratic view of Scripture:
The Scriptures are difficult to understand, simply on the most straightforward level. What often passes for understanding is nothing of the sort. To actually hear the Scriptures without the filters of cultural abuse and twisting they have endured over the centuries (and especially in the modern period) is a great spiritual feat, a miracle. 
This feat is even greater when it comes to reading the Fathers – for there the layers become even denser, the required contextual knowledge yet more complex. 
The scholarly reading of Scripture and the Fathers is inherently non-egalitarian. All are not equal. All will not have equal understanding. But neither is it truly and solely intellectual. For spiritual meaning is also spiritually discerned. And it is here that many make shipwreck of their understanding. For the arrogance of our times convinces many that “at least with themselves” the ability to spiritually discern will be present. Or, more commonly, they will champion this reader or that and choose sides like the crowds of a football match. Theological debate often resembles the conversation of sports clubs.
Orthodox don't believe the Bible is "perspicuous" to the head or the heart, not even on "salvific" subjects (as if it is made to be so divided). But this is not an issue, and does not mean that God has not spoken clearly or doesn't really want to save his people because salvation doesn't come from simply reading Scripture individually and then believing and applying what it says. We don't have to go it alone! Salvation is through the Church, which is itself the living interpretation of the Scriptures. It is through the instruction of the Church rather than any kind of common-sense principle or right methodology that we learn to read the Bible correctly, just as it has been from the first century onwards. This is not to discourage anyone from reading the Bible and seeking its riches for themselves, but a reply to the democratic rhetoric of the reformers that makes everyone's personal interpretation of Scripture authoritative and infallible for them.

Responding directly to the arguments I put forward for perspicuity last time, Paul's distinction between the "wisdom of men" and the gospel is a contrast between the pretensions of itinerant teachers and philosophers (against whom Paul was being unfavorably compared), not an argument for the simplicity of Scripture. "Making wise the simple" more likely means that the Scriptures are good and useful for the instruction of the simple to make them wise in Christian maturity, not that they are a metaphorically open book to the simple from the get-go.

Jesus' manner of correcting peoples' misreadings of Scripture actually argues for an undemocratic view of the Bible's clarity; in all but one of the cases I cited, Jesus is correcting Pharisees, Sadducees, chief priests, and other Jewish elites—people who were expected to know what the Scriptures said because they had studied them their entire lives and were considered qualified to teach others, not simply because they are equally clear to all. The exception is Luke 24:25, in which a) Jesus says the disciples are "slow of heart" to believe, not slow of mind, and b) He is about to embark on retrospective journey through the Scriptures to show how he fulfills them in ways not originally expected (and quite possibly allegorical). Paul's letters were written to entire churches, but of course they would have been read publically to the congregations and then expounded upon by a leader or teacher, not simply read and interpreted individually by each parishioner. The rarity of books in the ancient world made this impossible.

Pervasive interpretive pluralism

But perhaps the biggest argument against the clarity of Scripture is that Protestants who rely on the Bible and consider themselves "biblical" Christians disagree so much about what the Bible really says! There are over 32,000 hundreds of Protestant denominations who have divided with each other over almost any biblical subject imaginable—including the number and nature of the salvific "essentials" of the faith that Scripture supposedly speaks clearly about. Is this confusion the result you would expect if the Bible alone is really perspicuous and sufficient for matters of faith and practice? This is the problem of "pervasive interpretive pluralism", as Christian Smith calls it, and it began within ten years of Luther's 95 theses, even among his own followers. When Protestants equally seeking to read and apply the Bible aright interpret it in different and incompatible ways, how do you decide which interpretation is right? Can we even know? Who gets to decide this?

And the disagreement isn't just across space, but across time. Most any interpretation stands on the shoulders of some giant or another, so it's almost always possible to consider your view "traditional". But again, how do we know that we are right and the historical interpreters we disagree with are wrong? It seems like we'll always have to be ignoring some part of tradition. Aware of this selective approach, I journaled:
But...ignoring tradition is a kind of epistemological arrogance, albeit an unintentional, institutionalized one. (2014-2-1)
This all comes back to my point that the Bible never just "speaks" on its own. It has to be interpreted, and for a variety of reasons different Christians come to different conclusions. No one has a direct line to God through it. So just relying on "Scripture alone" will only generate pluralism and confusion. The problem, I realized in a pre-echo of the Orthodox approach to the Bible, is the individualism behind the assumption that anyone can pick up the Bible and understand what it means.
The expectation that someone can just pick up a Bible and understand it is unrealistic—it must be read in community to be understood holistically. (2013-6-13)

A nasty decision

Faced with this problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism, Protestants tend to pick one of three options to preserve the doctrine of sola scriptura.
  1. The modernist solution: Insist that you have read Scripture correctly or "objectively", and others have misread for various reasons, probably because of their sin or preconceptions. Most Protestants realize why this is not a solution at all—when everyone does it, it merely perpetuates the problem and even makes it worse. It effectively makes your own reading of Scripture as authoritative as Scripture itself.
  2. The postmodernist solution: Admit that maybe this pluralism is the the way it's supposed to be; we can't know what the Bible means for sure, but maybe its truth is found in the plurality of interpretations instead of boiling down to one right answer. Or maybe a truly "objective" reading of Scripture is an ideal that we can draw ever closer to but never actually reach, so we must be humble about our efforts. Aside from looking absolutely nothing like the approach of the early Church towards Scripture, I have found this option profoundly unsatisfying and hard to reconcile with the Bible's inspiration.
  3. The via media: Admit that some things in the Bible ("open-hand issues") are unclear, but the essentials (the "closed-hand issues"/"matters of salvation") are clear and and can be agreed on.
...except they can't. Protestants are unable to agree on even what is "essential" or "salvific". Some Calvinists hold that a Reformed understanding of God's grace is essential to be a Christian, but not all who call themselves Christians agree with this. Some young-earth creationists hold that agreeing with their account of origins is essential, but many Christians disagree. Quite a few Christians believe that a Nicene understanding of the Trinity is necessary to be a Christian, but not everyone self-identifying as a Christian (e.g. unitarians, Mormons) agrees with this. If you define the "essentials" as the things which all "Christians" (can we even agree on a definition of the word?) can agree on, the set of them quickly shrinks down to nil. If you adopt a stronger definition of what they are, you are asserting the correctness of your interpretation over someone else's. So this approach really reduces to one of the first two, though it is usually more humble about it. I expressed the pessimism of the second approach when I journaled:
There is also an opposite error to epistemological arrogance, on the other side of epistemological humility—an unwillingness to hold to crucial truth, to 'just get along'. But how do you decide what truth is worth holding to—or is that even the right question? (2014-2-2)
This search for the "essentials" or "fundamentals" of the authentic Christian faith also leads to a very boundary-oriented understanding of what Christian faith really is, defined by the beliefs that are merely "sufficient" for salvation. I now consider "mere salvation" an oxymoron, something we shouldn't even concern ourselves with for a moment. Orthodox theology, while it does have some clear boundaries, is much more center-oriented, focused on knowing and celebrating the mysteries of Christ, on laying hold of salvation and acquiring the Holy Spirit by any means possible. This is because the boundaries of Orthodoxy are well-known and universally agreed-upon, so no one tries to figure them out anew or challenge them. I also believe it's because they are correct, not excluding parts of the true faith or allowing for blatant heresies to coexist with it, so by and large no one feels called to question them as so often happens in Protestantism.

The search for the correct hermeneutic

To try to create some order in this chaos of different interpretations, Protestants seek a hermeneutical method that will allow people to agree on the "correct" interpretation of Scripture and establish it as the infallible rule of faith that Luther envisioned. (If such a method is needed and apparently not obvious, does that mean that Scripture alone really isn't sufficient?) These include:

Just read the Bible literally. Unfortunately, this doesn't work. As I have pointed out myself, there are plenty of instances where even staunch "biblical literalists" don't read it all literally. Does your church allow women to speak in church, or to worship with their heads uncovered? What about when Jesus said, "This is my body...this is my blood"? Or when the Bible uses anthropomorphic language to describe God the father, or says that he changed his mind? No one reads the Bible entirely literally, and that's a very, very good thing.

The Holy Spirit illuminates our hearts and guides us to the correct interpretation. Unfortunately, this approach compels one to de-Christianize those who disagree with you, since you both can't be led by the same Spirit to conflicting conclusions. Every difference in interpretation that can't be reconciled becomes an implicit accusation of some failure in the other's faith. As the number of denominations grows, it becomes harder and harder for a Protestant to maintain that the Spirit has led just one of them to interpret the Bible correctly—but he or she will probably believe that if it's any denomination, it's theirs.

Scripture interprets Scripture. As the Westminster Confession says, "the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture, is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly." Yet, as I have pointed out before, which passages are "clear" and which are "unclear" varies from person to person, dependent on preassumptions. So this approach doesn't work either.

The historical-critical/grammatical method of exegesis. This approach acknowledges the biasing role of preconceptions that makes the above three methods untenable, and seeks to see past them. By studying the Bible "objectively" or "scientifically", it is thought, its true meaning will be revealed. While this approach has yielded much useful scholarship, it runs unto the problem of hermeneutics not being an empirical science. Because of the impossibility of banishing preconceptions entirely, this approach often just results in the scholar reading his or hers back out of the Bible behind a mask of objectivity. Again, if reading the Bible in such an empirical way were really possible, we would expect all historical-grammatical exegetes to agree in their reading (or at least the major points), but again this is not the case. Again there is interpretive pluralism.

Read the Bible with the Church. This approach recognizes the dangers of allowing individual interpretations to rule, and even seems to learn a lesson from more traditional forms of Christianity. But it runs into trouble when applied in the context of a fragmented Church. Yes, you can read your Bible with your church, as part of a tradition of some kind, but what about the church down the street that has a different understanding? How do you adjudicate between different churches' different interpretations? The problem of pervasive intepretive pluralism has simply been kicked up a level to churches rather than individuals. If your definition of the Church is effectively "those who hold the beliefs I consider salvifically essential", letting church tradition guide your reading will do little to produce unity with other churches. Tradition is inseparable from ecclesiology.

Even seeking to align your reading with the historical traditions of the wider Church doesn't work if you continue to hold to the sola scriptura tenet of the Bible as the arbiter of tradition. How can you know which traditions are "biblical" and which are not? For example, on what basis aside from personal conviction do most Protestants affirm that the first ecumenical council of Nicea (which established the orthodox view of Christ's two natures and promulgated the first version of the Nicene Creed) is "biblical", while the second (which allowed for the veneration of icons) is not? I expressed something like this sentiment when I was coming to terms with the Orthodox view of tradition, not seeing the contradiction:
I might be willing to accept Tradition inasmuch as it expounds, interprets, clarifies, strengthens, applies, etc. Scripture—but not when it contradicts it or innovates on it, as with the perpetual virginity of Mary. (2014-4-23)
It's nice to see Protestants paying an increasing number of attention to the historical tradition of the Church, but as long as these traditions and writings are simply treated as additional "texts" from which to draw in the pursuit of unity, the individual still reigns as the final interpreter, as this post argues. Even if churches seek to consciously draw from the wellspring of tradition, while the plurality of churches remains, people can always just choose the one whose reading of the Bible and tradition aligns the best with their personal interpretation.
It’s not so much that Protestant traditions are the personal domains of individuals—although this does happen, and more traditions begin or are identified with a single person. The real issue is that choosing these traditions is highly individualized—it’s an a la carte approach to belief where we can easily surround ourselves with those we agree with. (2014-3-21)
As my interest in Orthodoxy was growing (but a few significant doubts remained), I journaled:
I’m inclined to remain Protestant (not evangelical) and freely extol the overall truth of Orthodoxy and borrow from its tenets and traditions. Yet this seems like the epitome of hypocrisy; such borrowing is an affront to what Tradition is supposed to be to us. (2014-6-4)
I realized this borrowing approach to Tradition, whether sipping or guzzling from it, was ultimately against the nature of Tradition itself. It is as united as the Church; there can be no picking and choosing.

Eck's challenge

Protestants like to quote Luther's simple statement of the principle of sola scriptura which he gave at the debate in Leipzig: "A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it." Much less popular (for some reason) is the response of his opponent, Johann Eck. (Emphasis added)
But this is the Bohemian virus [referring to the Bohemian proto-reformer, Jan Hus], to attach more weight to one's own interpretation of Scripture than to that of the popes and councils, the doctors and the universities. When Brother Luther says that this is the true meaning of the text, the pope and councils say, 'No, the brother has not understood it correctly.' Then I will take the council and let the brother go. Otherwise all the heresies will be renewed. They have all appealed to Scripture and have believed their interpretation to be correct, and have claimed that the popes and the councils were mistaken, as Luther now does.
Why, objectively, was Luther right and, say, Pelagius wrong? What gave Luther any more of a right to interpret Scripture against the teaching of the Church than Marcion? What guarantee have we that, by following Luther (or any other Christian leader promoting their own rule of interpretation), we are not plunging into heresy like the followers of Arius?

St. Irenaeus, when responding to Valentinianism (an early Christian gnostic sect) and its use of the Scriptures to support heresy, made a famous analogy:
Such, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavour to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked are in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions. Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king's form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king.
I'm not saying that all Protestants are like the Valentinians. But both follow the same dangerous approach to the Scriptures, that is, following one's own interpretation of them wherever it may lead rather than the "rule of faith" established by the apostles and passed down through the churches. This rule of faith, the teachings of Tradition on how to properly interpret the Scriptures, is the likeness of the king in Irenaeus' analogy, the guide to correctly assembling the mosaic. It is the universal faith, the teaching of the whole Church, which leads us to the truth, not simply whatever we think the text says. To disregard it and blaze a trail of one's own (or to follow those who do so) is to court heresy, false teaching and worship, and abusive theology and practice, institutionalized examples of which are plentiful even within American Protestantism.

Peter Bouteneff, referring to Irenaeus' analogy:
If Scripture inexorably produced the rule of faith from itself, it would be impossible to emerge from it reading it with the portrait of anything but the King. The apostolic witness—what the apostles preached based on how Christ taught them to understand the Scriptures—is what produces the rule, or canon, of faith. ... Holding to the rule of faith, then, naturally enables the Christian to reconstruct the mosaic of the King correctly, even as it also serves to unite him or her to the true church. Irenaeus readily admits, however, that Scripture does not present explicit solutions to all questions or completely penetrate the mysteries (e.g., of theodicy, the angels, the incarnation,  or the economy in general).
The Scripture itself does not explicitly rule on whatever matter of doctrine we may wonder about. Scripture alone is not sufficient for matters of faith or practice; it has to be interpreted, and if the present state of Protestantism is any indication, relying on your own judgment beholden to no other authority than the Bible is not a solution at all. The Bible does not, cannot, is not meant to establish a rule of faith; rather, the rule of faith guides the interpretation of the Bible and allows sound interpretations to be discerned from faulty ones. But which rule of faith is correct? Orthodox identify it with Holy Tradition, the subject of the next post.

More resources

Many Orthodox have written about sola scriptura and its differences from the Orthodox view of Tradition. Here are some articles I found helpful while composing this one.

A long article on the shortcomings of sola scriptura and summarizing the Orthodox approach to truth

Argument that solo and sola scriptura are effectively the same
Response of another blogger to the previous article

Another Orthodox critique of sola scriptura

Postcast by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick explaining sola scriptura and its differences with Orthodoxy

Several recent blog posts by Fr. Stephen Freeman, one of the Orthodox bloggers I follow, roughly centering around sola scriptura and Tradition:
A contrast between Protestant and Orthodox ways of treating the "Bible"
Follow-up addressing criticisms of the previous post
The "grammar" of faith, or how Orthodox Tradition is broader and much deeper than the Bible
Critique of the democratic assumptions undergirding sola scriptura
The concept of "authority" as understood in Orthodoxy

Q&A with Elder Cleopa on Scripture and its proper use in the Church
Q&A with Elder Cleopa on Holy Tradition and the sufficiency of Scripture

Finally, Orthodox-Reformed Bridge (a site in dialogue with Reformed Christianity form an Orthodox perspective) has a a fairly lengthy four-part series critiquing sola scriptura: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

Friday, October 17, 2014

My Journey, Part 11.1: Sola Scriptura

This is part 11.1 of my rebooted series on my journey from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. The full series can be found here:

1Back to the beginning
2Cracks appear
3Questions multiply
4Questioning the "gospel"
5The big question
6A better hermeneutic
7Explorations in epistemology
7.5Excursus on oversystematization
8Back to the gospel
9The new direction
10Ecclesiological foundations
11.1Sola scriptura
11.2The insufficiency of Scripture
11.25Addenda on sola scriptura
11.3Holy Tradition
12Bridging the cracks
13.1Orthodoxy and Genesis 1–3
13.2A Better Atonement (Against Penal Substitution)
13.3Faith Alone?
13.4The Colour and the Shape of the Gospel
14Worshipping with the Church
15Mary, Saints, Baptism, and Other Odds/Ends
16Looking Back, Coming Home

This post explains the most important change in my thinking as I shifted from evangelicalism to Orthodoxy: the change from a Protestant understanding of the Bible to an Orthodox one. More than any other, this was the issue that convinced me about Orthodoxy. I am going to be as thorough and careful as possible in explaining my reasoning for rejecting sola scriptura and embracing the eastern understanding of Sacred Tradition. For this reason, the post has been split into three parts. In this part, I'll explain and defend the doctrine of sola scriptura as best I can. In the next, I'll explain why I no longer find it believable. In the third part, I'll describe Tradition as I understand it now.

What is sola scriptura?

Sola scriptura (Latin for "Scripture alone") is a central and distinctive part of Protestant theology. Basically, it is the teaching that as the divinely inspired word of God, the Bible is the ultimate authority in belief and practice for the Christian; that is, Scripture alone gets the final word in these matters. Based on sola scriptura, Luther said, "a simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it."
  • Inspiration: First and foremost, sola scriptura means that the Bible is inspired by God, so that its words are not merely human words but the very words of God himself. "All scripture is inspired by God", says 2 Tim 3:16-17, "and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." 2 Pet 1:20-21 says that "no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God." The Bible is truly unique in this manner. Wayne Grudem writes, "The Bible alone is the Word of God written. There are no other written words of God anywhere else in the entire world. And the Bible in its entirety is the Word of God written. Every single bit of this book in the original documents has a fundamentally different character from every other bit of writing in the entire world." The Bible is God's self-revelation to us, a much-needed message of truth and salvation.
  • Perspicuity (clarity): Sola scriptura also holds that Scripture is perspicuous, that is, clear and understandable rather than confusing or muddled, at least regarding matters of salvation. This means that the Bible's message of salvation is freely available to anyone who can read it and whose heart is open to God's voice.  This is a corollary of inspiration, Scripture's being the word of God; why would God speak to his people in an unclear way? "For God is not a God of confusion but of peace." (1 Cor 14:35) No pope, council, bishop, or other external guide is needed to unlock the meaning of Scripture; it is available to everyone who sincerely seeks it. The Westminster Confession says that "those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them."
  • Authority: Third, it means that the Bible is not merely informative but authoritative in matters of faith and practice. Everything the Bible says must be accepted as the truth, everything it promises can be relied on, and everything it commands is morally normative for us. This is also a corollary of inspiration; the Bible is God's word, and God does not (indeed, cannot) lie (Num 23:19, Pro 30:5, Tts 1:2), and his promise proves true. (Psa 18:30) It is unthinkable that God would mislead or misinform us in his inspired word. (Whether the Bible can err in nonsalvific matters of science or history is beyond the scope of the present post) Regarding this the Westminster Confession says, "The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God." Again, Scripture is alone in this regard; or more accurately, though there may be lesser theological and ecclesial authorities in a Christian's life, the Bible stands above them all and judges them all; because it is God's inspired word, nothing else can override or contradict it.
  • Sufficiency: Finally, sola scriptura believes that the Bible, and the Bible alone, is sufficient for all matters of faith and practice. Its message, and the truths that can be reasonably inferred from it, give us everything we need to know to live and worship as Christians; we don't need to look anywhere else to find anything necessary to our faith. Regarding this, the Westminster confession states that "The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men." This is not a denial of the usefulness of traditions, creeds, and theological writings old and new, but these things are only true and valid insofar as they align with what Scripture says. They never reveal anything new, as if man could add to the word of God, but may be helpful for elaborating on what the Bible says. Again, recall that 2 Tim 3:16-17 says that "All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." Scripture is sufficient to lead us to a complete faith, so we need look nowhere else. Anything not found in Scripture or inferred from it is not binding on the Christian.
In summary, sola scriptura means that the Bible alone is necessary and sufficient to establish the Christian faith in its belief and practice, and to govern God's Church. Everything that is obligatory for all Christians to believe is found in it, anything not in it is thus not essential for being a Christian. In all of this, the Bible is able to stand alone as the inspired word of God. It needs no supplement and needs no church or council to establish its authority; it is self-contained and needing nothing from man, like God himself.

A brief history of sola scriptura

Though others had similar ideas before him, the German monk Martin Luther is the most influential exponent of sola scriptura to those who hold it today. Knowing the historical context from which sola scriptura arose is helpful for knowing its purpose and meaning.

Luther grew up during a time of great trouble in the Church. The papacy was corrupt; it had endured centuries of schism and heavily political clashes with kings and rivals. More recently, several popes seemed more interested in the arts than in wisely heading the Church. Corruption was also widespread among lower-level prelates, who were not above using their positions for personal profit, at the cost of the poor they were supposed to defend. Even worse, the Church's theology seemed to be corrupt. It actively stoked parishioners' hopes for heaven and fear of hell to drive people to the sacraments, rationalizing problems in this life by explaining that it was only a training ground in righteousness for the next. A variety of means were introduced to speed the faithful along the path to salvation which seemed to have no biblical foundation, such as the seven sacraments, pilgrimages, relics, indulgences, and heavenly intercession from Mary and the saints.

This theology of salvation drove a young Martin Luther, who was plagued with thoughts of his own sin and unworthiness, to an Augustinian monastery to pursue holiness as seriously as possible. He tried every measure that his superiors prescribed, but nothing seemed to be able to ease his conscience. He was tormented by thoughts of his own unworthiness compared to God's perfect holiness. How could anyone stand before such a perfect judge? It was then that Luther had his "evangelical experience", the realization of justification by grace through faith. The Reformation had begun.

This, however, put him in a bind with his order and with the Church in general. Luther believed that the Bible truly taught justification by faith, yet it contradicted the Church's teaching about salvation, which it claimed was consistent with the biblical teaching. As in his above-quoted statement from the debate at Leipzig, Luther rejected the authority of the Church as the interpreter of Scripture, which he felt it had corrupted and misused. The Church would no longer be over the Scripture, free to misuse and add to it, but rather Scripture would be over the Church, establishing the rule of faith alone. As this paper argues, Luther did not completely reject the idea of tradition, but held that the Bible, not the Church, was the arbiter of it. Only traditions that were supported by Scripture would be allowed. The word of God was not subject to the traditions of men.

Protestants today continue to apply Luther's ideas. They continue to defend the sufficiency of Scripture alone over against any competing authorities such as the Church or tradition. Sola scriptura means that the Bible must never be subordinated to these things, and its authoritative teaching must never be added to. The result would be a return to the teachings of medieval Rome, which are found nowhere in the faith of the apostles as witnesses by Scripture.

The case for sola scriptura

God's word and human tradition

The first thing to observe is that the Bible draws a strong distinction between the words of God and the words of man. Paul warns the Colossians about being led astray by human tradition: "See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. (Col 2:8) In the beginning of his letter to the Galatians, he says that "For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man's gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ." (Gal 1:10-11) Similarly, God warns Jeremiah about prophets who don't speak the word of the Lord: "Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes; they speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD." (Jer 23:16) In a few more words, Paul tells the Corinthians:
and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. ... God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. ... And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit. (1Co 2:4-5, 10, 13)
He congratulates the Thessalonians for their discernment of the word of God from the word of men: "And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers." (1 Ths 2:13) Jesus criticizes the pharisees for their elevation of human tradition over the word of God: "So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God." (Mat 15:6) And, of course, the two verses that most clearly testify to the inspiration of the Bible make clear that this means it is the word of God rather than of man.
...from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2Ti 3:15-17)
First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (2Pe 1:20-21)
The import of these verses is clear: God wants us to be on our guard, distinguishing between human and divine words, never allowing the former to impinge on the latter. Furthermore, God expressly commands us not to add to his word (Deu 4:2, Rev 22:18-19).

The apostolic tradition

In light of this, what do we make of the fact that the New Testament often mentions (and clearly ascribes importance to) tradition? (1 Cor 11:2; 2 Ths 2:15, 3:6) We must draw a distinction between human tradition and inspired tradition. The tradition of teaching and belief that was central to the early Church was the apostolic tradition, the word of God in oral form, which testified to Jesus, the truest Word of God (Jhn 1:1, Hbr 1:1-2, Rev 19:12). Jesus appointed his apostles as his chosen representatives to the world and the early Church after his ascension. As he said to them, "He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me." (Mat 10:40) It was the true testimony to Jesus Christ from the men who knew him best, to whom he promised his Spirit to teach them all things and remind them of what he taught them. (Jhn 14:26) After Jesus' ascension, his apostles had everything they needed to pass on his gospel uncorrupted to the early church. This is how Paul can say that "the gospel which was preached by me is not man's gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ" (Gal 1:11-12), even though he was likely instructed in the basic gospel by the disciples at Damascus after his conversion (see Acts 9:19). What Paul means in his letter to the Galatians is not the immediate means by which he came to know this gospel, but its ultimate source: Jesus Christ himself.

But the apostles did not stay forever. Soon enough they died, often violently. How was the gospel, the apostolic tradition, the true testimony to the living Word of God, to be preserved after their passing? The answer: in writing. The New Testament is simply the apostolic tradition in written form. We see evidence for this in 2 Ths 2:15: "So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter." What Paul means here is not that the apostolic tradition exists in two parts, an oral part and a written part. Rather, he is saying that the oral and written parts are equivalent; they have the same content. In 1 Cor 4:6 he also commands us "not to go beyond what is written", which means that anything in the oral tradition not in Scripture would thus be in conflict with it. The two kinds of tradition are thus in agreement. The written tradition is simply the continuing form of the oral tradition, preserved well beyond the lifetimes of the apostles. It is to this form of the apostolic tradition that we must hold fast today. Subsequent traditions of the church aren't intrinsically bad, but they are merely human traditions and are only acceptable if they are in agreement with Scripture.

We get further evidence that the apostolic tradition is coextensive with Scripture in the writings of the early church fathers. We never see them appeal to another source of authority than the Scriptures (such as extrabiblical tradition) in refuting heresy or establishing the basic doctrines of the faith. The great ecumenical councils, which formulated the orthodox understandings of Christology and the Trinity (among others) do not base their decisions on tradition or the "authority of the Church", but on the Bible. Even the apostles themselves, when writing Scripture, seemed to prefer to appeal to Scripture (the Old Testament) rather than their own authority. Jesus himself, when tempted by Satan (Mat 4:1-11), refutes him with Scripture. Is any more evidence necessary for the sufficiency of Scripture alone as the objective standard for establishing true belief, governing the Church, and leading men to salvation?

The clarity of Scripture

Since Luther took great pains to free Scripture from the need for interpretation by the Church, a bishop, or any other human authority, I will say a bit more about its perspicuity. In this extended passage from 1 Cor 2, notice how Paul contrasts "lofty words or wisdom"/"plausible words of wisdom"/"the wisdom of men" with the simplicity of this gospel of "Jesus Christ and him crucified."
When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him," God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what person knows a man's thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit. The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1Co 2:1-14 RSV)
True, this wisdom of God is "secret and hidden", but not because God spoke confusingly. Rather, it is hidden because people reject God's word even as they rejected God himself: "None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory." What is needed to understand the gospel. this apostolic tradition that Paul proclaimed to the Corinthians, is not some special qualification or authority in the Church, but simply the Spirit who is given to all believers: "And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit. The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned."

Similarly, in Psalm 19:7-9 David says of the law (word) of the Lord:
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever; the ordinances of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether.
Look especially at the second affirmation: "the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple" or the similar Psa 119:130: "The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple." This ties in well with the previously-mentioned argument for perspicuity based on God's nature. Scripture is his word, and we can trust that if God speaks to us he means to be understood, not just by a religious elite but by everyone, since he "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim 2:4) You don't need some special understanding to read God's word; it imparts understanding to the reader.

More circumstantially, notice how whenever Jesus corrects someone's reading of the Old Testament, he never seems to sympathize with them or pass any blame onto the Bible's being hard to understand. He always asks "Have you read...?", not "Haven't you understood...?" (See Mat 12;3,5, 19:4, 21:42, 22:31) In Luk 24:25 and Jhn 3:10 he rebukes people for not understanding the Scriptures, not because he is being callous but because Scripture is not, in itself, hard to understand; it shouldn't be hard. We also have abundant evidence that the New Testament epistles were written to be read to the whole congregations of the churches in their destination cities (1 Cor 1:2, Phil 1:1, Col 1:2; see also Col 4:16), again indicating that these epistles were not too difficult for the ordinary people of the churches to understand.

This does not mean that there are not difficult parts of the Bible or that we will understand everything in it, but its message of salvation is never out of reach, even from the simple. And even then, not not everyone will immediately understand this. The great obstacle to our understanding God's word resides not in our head, but in our hearts. A darkened mind is the consequence of a darkened heart (Rom 1:21). In 2 Pet 3:16, Peter does acknowledge that "There are some things in [Paul's letters] hard to understand", but this is not because they are simply unclear but because "the ignorant and unstable twist [them] to their own destruction"; again, the problem is with peoples' disposition, not God's word. Again, as in the 1 Corinthians verse, the illumination of the Spirit is all that is needed to understand.

Whither tradition?

Regrettably, some overzealous Protestants take sola scriptura to mean that all "tradition" is simply bad, and we should reject it all and rely on Scripture alone. This view is often (derogatively) called solo scriptura to distinguish it from the more moderate view. Aside from its failure to contend with the aforementioned value placed on certain "traditions" in the New Testament, this view simply overapplies the reformers' anti-tradition rhetoric. Again, Luther was not categorically opposed to tradition, just the traditions of the Roman Catholic church that were contrary to the Bible. His goal was not to destroy tradition, but merely to set it in its proper place under the direction of Scripture. Therefore, he only got rid of the tradition that he considered unbiblical (unlike the later radical reformers).

There is nothing wrong, then, with getting in touch with the historical and traditional roots of the Christian faith—not just post-Reformation theologians, but the whole history of the Church, "for all things are yours" (1 Cor 3:21). But in this we must be discerning. Sola scriptura means that Scripture is our infallible guide to tradition, not the other way around. No human tradition is infallible, and tradition is only valid insofar as it is supported by Scripture, but in this capacity it is still helpful and authoritative (or rather given authority by its alignment with the Bible), and it can be a rich source of wisdom and perspective. My systematic theology text by Millard Erickson lists four values of tradition: it can give us insight into the Scriptures, help us to detect the essence of doctrines, help us put our beliefs in cultural and historical perspective, and help us relate to those of differing viewpoints.

Request for comments

My reason for writing this post was to make sure I have understood sola scriptura and the arguments for it before I start explaining why I disagree. As my thinking drifts farther from its old evangelical home, I am acutely aware of the potential for misunderstanding and attacking a straw man version of the doctrine. So, I invite any of my more theologically-minded readers to comment on anything I missed or got wrong before I proceed.