Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Unintended Reformation

I recently finished a really interesting book I've been meaning to read for a long time, so now of course I'm going to tell you about it. The book is The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society by Brad Gregory, a professor of early modern history at Notre Dame. Professor Gregory's principal argument in this book is that "the Western world today is an extraordinarily complex, tangled product of rejections, retentions, and transformations of medieval Western Christianity, in which the Reformation era constitutes the critical watershed." In other words, as the subtitle suggests, he argues that the Reformation, a religious movement meant to revitalize and re-sanctify western Christianity, had an unintended but instrumental role in giving birth to the modern, secular society we live in today.

As an introductory point, he argues against the traditional, supersessionist view of modern history, in which "the distant past is assumed to have been left behind, explanatorily important to what immediately succeeded it but not to the present." Rather, he argues, much of the distant past has not been left behind, but continues to influence the present through its continuing ideas, values, worldviews, and institutions. "If this book's argument is near the mark," he says, "we cannot understand the character of contemporary realities until and unless we see how they have been and are still being shaped by the distant past."

Three Problems

Gregory sums up the argument of his book with three basic problems faced by early modern Christendom. First, late medieval Christianity was increasingly troubled by a gulf between the ethical prescriptions of the Christian faith and the actual practices of its followers, even (and especially) the clergy. This was a problem that reform-minded Christians hit on for centuries before the Reformation, but Luther and his contemporaries took the minority opinion that the church's problem was not simply moral, but doctrinal: the church was failing in its struggle against corruption and sin not simply because of personal or institutional failings to live up to its vision, but because of actual doctrinal error in its teaching. The solution, they thought, was to base the teachings and practices of the Church on Scripture alone, apart from manmade traditions which had led to the present muddle.

Yet this introduced a new problem: turning to the Bible as the sole authority for matters of faith and practice did not produce a renewed Christianity as the reformers hoped, but multiple, conflicting Christianities based on incompatible (but "authoritative") readings of Scripture, which fought with force of arms for more than a century and with words for far longer. In his second chapter Gregory expounds pretty exhaustively on the plurality of doctrinal claims that arose among the Protestants, even within ten years of the 95 theses. "From the early 1520s," he says, "those who rejected Rome disagreed about what God's word said. Therefore they disagreed about what God's truth was and so about what Christians were to believe and do." To list some of his examples:
  • In 1522, Andreas Karlstadt disputed Luther's disdain for the book of James as well as his views on the nature of the Old Testament, oral confession, the Eucharist, and the permissibility of religious images.
  • Luther and Melanchthon famously parted ways with Zwingli over the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
  • Between 1525 and 1527, nine different reformers published twenty-eight treatises against Luther's view of the Lord's Supper, leading to the Marburg Colloquy in 1529 and the split between Lutheran and Reformed Christianity.
  • Zwingli disagreed with his former Zurich colleagues Hubmaier and Grebel about the biblical basis for infant baptism. The early Anabaptists sharply denounced other reformers' practice of infant baptism, again on biblical grounds. In Grebel's words, "the baptism of children is a senseless, blasphemous abomination against all scripture."
  • Leaders behind the German Peasants' War repudiated Luther's distinction between "the Gospel" and social, economic, and political concerns, arguing for a stronger connection between the two. After the failure of the Peasants' War, by the late 1520s, the Anabaptists began dividing rapidly over a host of doctrinal issues.
  • Other attempts to distinguish true Christian teaching from false based on evidence of fruits of the Spirit, direct testimony from the Spirit, or reason were similarly unsuccessful; Protestants disagreed about what exactly the fruits of the Spirit looked like, how reason was to be used in formulating Christian truth claims, and what the Spirit was "saying" to them at the moment.
A few especially powerful summary statements from Gregory, again supporting the point that sola scriptura was (and still is) the source of a great deal of doctrinal pluralism among Protestants:
Christians who rejected the authority of the Roman church and its truth claims, notwithstanding certain alliances and reconciliations (such as the Lutheran Formula of Concord) among some of the constituent groups, never exhibited anything remotely resembling agreement about their own, alternative truth claims. It is thus misleading to say that "Protestantism itself splintered into rival denominations, or 'confessions,'", as if there ever was some point in the early Reformation when anti-Roman Christians had agreed among themselves about what scripture said and God taught. There wasn't. (p. 91)
Had Protestants simply disagreed about the interpretation of Scripture as such, their disputes would have remained much more circumscribed than they became. But more was sought—and needed—because the principle of sola scriptura itself did not yield the desired result. The would-be solution for reforming the late medieval church immediately became an unintended, enormous problem of its own, one different in kind from the problem of how to close the gap between the Roman church's prescriptions and late medieval Christians' practices. ... in addition to their continuous doctrinal disagreements with defenders of the Roman church before and after the Council of Trent, Protestants disagreed among themselves on multiple fronts. They disagreed about the meaning and prioritization of biblical texts, and the relationship of those texts to doctrines regarding the sacraments, worship, grace, the church, and so forth. They disagreed about the broad interpretive principles that ought to guide the interpretation of scripture, such as the relationship between the Old and New Testaments or the permissibility of religious practices not explicitly prohibited or enjoined in the Bible. They disagreed about the relationship among the interpretation of scripture, the exercise of reason, and God's influence in the hearts of individual Christians. And they disagreed about whether (and if so, to what degree) explicit, substantive truth claims were even important to being a Christian, with some spiritualists and alleged prophets radically relativizing the place of doctrines in Christian life. (pp. 109-110)
This problem of doctrinal pluralism among Christians and the resulting contentions (up to and including warfare and executions) that produced little progress towards resolving their differences gave rise to a third problem: "how was human life among frequently antagonistic Christians to be rendered stable and secure?" How could Europe be saved from completely fragmenting along confessional lines? How could future Thirty Years' Wars be prevented?

Gregory's chapters two through six follow the pattern of these questions pretty faithfully in five different areas of late medieval life: truth claims/answers to what he calls "Life Questions" ("serious questions about life, with important implications for life"), the institutional church and its relationship to the state, moral/ethical norms, the economy, and academia. Before the Reformation, each of these things was guided and shaped teleologically according to the faith and teachings of the late medieval Catholic Church. None were perfect, but all were unified and defined by the Church and its Christological vision of what constituted the "good" (virtuous) life.

The reformers, then, saw in the Church's failure to live up to its ideals in these things evidence not just of moral weakness, but systemic doctrinal error. Their goal was to replace human traditions and the false teachings of the Church that had accreted over the centuries with authentic Christianity as laid out in the Bible, the only ultimate ecclesial authority. Due to the unintended problem of Protestant pluralism, however, they did not succeed at this task, but instead added to Roman Christianity numerous Christianities that, because of their mutually contradictory claims, frequently clashed with each other in their visions for "biblically" transforming each of these areas of life.

By the mid-seventeenth century, weary from thirty years of confessionally-motivated bloodshed, many Europeans not at the front lines of their respective Christendoms began to look away from Christianity and its seemingly endless disagreements for a stabilizing principle that would produce societal unity rather than division. Despite their claims to the contrary, early modern Christians effectively excluded themselves from the discussion of what "Christendom" would look like because of their inability to agree on it. But increasingly, people realized that reason might be able to answer questions on life and ethics, that the liberal state could defuse religious conflicts by permitting freedom of worship and mandating tolerance, that modern capitalism and consumerism could meet peoples' needs and even make them quite happy with the "goods life", and that universities actually did much better when they were not protecting religious traditions from free inquiry. With little choice and plenty of motivation, early modern western society learned to function without the Church(es) at its center.

So answers to the "Life Questions", no longer based on Christian truth claims, are now highly pluralistic; the consensus of our culture is to believe whatever you like and live however makes you happiest, as long as you tolerate others' beliefs and lifestyles. The state has power over the churches (even if it uses that power to mandate religious tolerance and pluralism in the guise of "freedom of religion"), harkening back to the magisterial reformers' turn to secular magistrates for protection and civil enshrinement of their beliefs. "The consumerist cycle of acquire, discard, repeat now makes up the default fabric of Western life in the early twenty-first century, regardless of how one assesses it and whether or not one resists it." And knowledge, especially academic knowledge, is considered secular and academic by default, in contrast to religious "opinions". Gregory argues that this is so not because secularism somehow rose up and displaced Christianity as the ideological matrix of the modern western world, but because during the Reformation Christianity retreated from its central position in society into doctrinal controversies and polemicism. Much like how the Church itself rose to fill the space left by the fragmented Roman Empire, so now secular reason came in to take the place once occupied by a now-divided Christendom. Christianity is supposed to apply to and transform all of society, you say? Well, which Christianity?

Excluding God

Gregory's first chapter is different. In it, he explores the origins of the secular, scientific worldview that is so commonplace today as to make atheistic materialism virtually a given in many scientific and academic circles. In this way of thinking, science and religion are seen as being in conflict, with science having gained the upper hand since the Enlightenment. The idea of God is unnecessary and untenable because the advance of science has rendered him useless, "disenchanted" the world. The claims of religion are seen as antithetical to and disproven by the claims of science. He cites Max Weber for an example of this kind of thinking:
And today? Who today still believes—aside from certain big children whom one can indeed find in the natural sciences—that the findings of astronomy or biology or physics or chemistry have something to do with the meaning of the world or indeed could teach us something about it? By what path could one come upon the trace of such a "meaning", if any is there? If the natural sciences lead to anything and are suited to belief along these lines, it is to make the notion that there is a "meaning" of the world die out at its roots! And to conclude: science as a way "to God"? Science, this power expressly antithetical to religion? No one today in his heart of hearts is in doubt that science is antithetical to religion, whether or not he admits it to himself.
And this way of thinking its not today presented as one philosophy among many: it is widely taken as absolute bedrock truth in our culture, on the basis of which religious truth claims can be disregarded out of hand. Gregory says, "the assumptions about God, nature, and science that dominate contemporary intellectual life ... are widely regarded as ideologically neutral, obvious truths rather than seen for what they are: ideologically loaded, contestable truth claims based on unverifiable beliefs." In this chapter he traces the trajectory of western thought regarding the relationship between God and the "natural" world.

Western Christian thinkers up through Aquinas gave prominent place to what is known as an "apophatic" view of God: mysterious, transcendent, rationally, incomprehensible, beyond all of our attempts to describe him. Of course some knowledge of God is possible through what he has revealed to us, but "central Christian claims about God—the reality of his providence, the fact of his grace, the compatibility of his will and power with those of each human being—are unavoidably and irreducible mysterious." God existed in an entirely different, mysterious way than we flesh-and-blood creatures do, but rather than making him remote or totally unknowable, make possible his divine immanence and knowability through all things. Gregory refers to something like this as a sacramental view of reality. Apophatic theology is still alive and well in the Orthodox Church; the twentieth-century theologian Vladimir Lossky wrote of God's counterintuitive transcendence of being, knowledge, and everything else we know:
Now God is beyond all that exists. In order to approach Him it is necessary to deny all that is inferior to Him, that is to say, all that which is. If in seeing God one can know what one sees, then one has not seen God in Himself but something intelligible, something which is inferior to Him. It is by unknowing that one may know Him who is above every possible object of knowledge.
Later, he quotes St. John of Damascus:
God, then, is infinite and incomprehensible, and all that is comprehensible about Him is His infinity and incomprehensibility. All that we can say cataphatically [positively] concerning God does not show forth his nature, but the things that relate to his nature.
But in the west, two medieval Christian thinkers planted the seeds for the eventual end of the sacramental view of God in western culture. The first was John Duns Scotus, who believed that God had to share at least one predicate, namely existence, with everything else in order to be knowable at all. "Insofar as God's existence is considered in itself and in its most gradual sense, Scotus agreed [with Avicenna] that God's being does not differ from that of everything else that exists. ... Scotus's move made God, in Robert Barron's phrase, 'mappable on the same set of coordinates as creatures.'" According to Scotus, God belonged to a more encompassing reality along with his creatures and and does not "exist", but exists in it in the same way that do.

The second was William of Occam, who extended Scotus' idea of metaphysical univocity (applying the concept of "existence" to God in the same sense as to creatures) and more thoroughly rejected the views of Aquinas, who had still held to something like an apophatic approach to theology. In his nominalist theology, God is not an abstract essence or "the sheer act of to-be" but a discrete thing, however much he differed from every other entity. Occam also contributed his well-known principle of heuristic parsimony, "Occam's razor", the idea that explanations of natural phenomena "ought not to multiply entities beyond necessity." Scotus' metaphysical univocity and Occam's razor, Gregory argues, put in place the intellectual pieces for "the domestication of God's transcendence and the extrusion of his presence from the natural world." Again, these ideas are opposites of the classical Christian consensus even into the post-Schism west; continuing Lossky's quote of John of Damascus, "God does not belong to the class of existing things: not that He has no existence, but that He is above all existing things, nay even above existence itself."

Added to these major pieces were the Renaissance revivals of three major philosophical traditions, which were not adopted wholesale but partially and ended up contributing to the parting-of-ways of theology and science in the late medieval era through to the seventeenth century. From Platonism came the idea of mathematics as an explanatory language—for the physical world rather than the transcendent world of forms. From Stoicism came "a view of nature as homogeneous and deterministically governed by forces"—though without the pantheist underpinnings of "mutual sympathies". And from Epicureanism came a focus on the uniformity of efficient, natural causes with no reference to final causality—though with a physics based on Stoic determinism rather than random collisions between atoms.

But all of these philosophical and theological developments were largely confined to the academy. The central claims of Christianity were not based on any philosophy but on the testimony of God's salvific actions in history, reinforced by the familiar rhythm of the church and her traditions. These new philosophical ideas might have been assimilated into her thought as Aristotelianism had been, "so long as the church's teaching, preaching, worship, devotional practices, and prayer continued to convey and embody the faith's central truth claims."

But if the nature and meaning of God's actions, how Christians were to live, or Christianity itself were called into question, then these ideas might be able to transform the conversation about God's relationship with the world in unexpected and un-Christian ways. This is what happened in the Reformation. As in the other chapters, the continual doctrinal disagreements among Protestants and Catholics effectively made explicitly Christian claims about God and the natural world untenable; again, which Christianity? With little in the way of consensus in the foreseeable future, what was left were confessionally neutral ways of understanding the created world: empiricism and reason. The sidelining of Christian truth claims and the front-and-center inclusion of philosophy in this task turned out to be fertile ground for assumptions of metaphysical univocity and the principle of parsimony. In other words, science and reason did not "disprove" any theological claims, as is commonly supposed. Rather, incompatible views of different Christian confessions about the meaning of God's actions effectively removed theology from its place as, in Aquinas' words, "queen of the sciences". The tenuous alliance between science and theology was broken because "theology" was no longer a singular, coherent thing like the growing body of scientific knowledge.

The Protestant denial of Roman sacramentalism also had unintended consequences, since it tended to involve univocal metaphysical assumptions of which the reformers may not have been aware. As usual, Gregory says it better than I could (can you tell I enjoy his writing style?):
A "spiritual" presence that is contrasted with a real presence presupposes an either-or dichotomy between a crypto-spatial God and the natural world that precludes divine immanence in its desire to protect divine transcendence. But in traditional Christian metaphysics the two attributes are correlative: it is precisely and only God's radical otherness as nonspatial that makes his presence in and through creation possible, just as it had made the incarnation possible. (Otherwise, Jesus would have been something like a centaur—partly human and partly divine, rather than fully human and fully divine.) The denial of the possibility of Christ's real presence in the Eucharist, by contrast, ironically implies that the "spiritual" presence of God is itself being conceived in spatial or quasi-spatial terms—which is why, in order to be kept pure, it must be kept separate from and uncontaminated by the materiality of the "mere bread".
Some more quotes illustrating how the modern "conflict" between science and religion came to be, shaped by univocal metaphysics and Occam's razor:
Having sidelined theology, scripture, tradition, and religious experience as source of knowledge about God, the reason exercised by nearly all leading seventeenth-century thinkers, whatever its particular manifestations or emphases, assumed a univocal metaphysics. God existed—and thus, analogous to creatures, God was an individual ens, an entity within being, or God was in some way coextensive with the totality of being. The entire category of God's actions in history had been unintentionally paralyzed by doctrinal controversy. Hence reason—including observation and experiment—bore the full burden of the endeavor to understand God's relation to the natural world. Therefore all theology that sought to avoid confessional controversy had to be natural theology, based on reason alone.
To be sure, God remained important in the reflections and natural-theological theorizing of many scientists throughout much of the nineteenth century.  But whether individual scientists continued to insist on his integral relationship to the natural world, relegated him to a remote first cause, or denied his existence altogether, the combination of two ideas had rendered him expendable. The first was the metaphysically univocal conception of God as a highest being among others: this brought God within the same ontological and causal order as his creation. The second was Occam's razor: if God was unneeded to account for causal explanations of natural phenomena, there was no reason to invoke him. A clear corollary of this notion was methodological naturalism. God simply no longer had a place in the workings of the world, whether spatially or causally: if all natural events were adequately explained by natural causes, God was redundant. So however unrepresentative at the time was Laplace's famous quip to Napoleon in 1802 when asked about the place of God in his physics—"I have no need for that hypothesis"—the leading French physicist of his day proved to be prophetically prescient.
Despite cascades of (post-)Enlightenment propaganda to the contrary, the mathematization of ordinary natural processes could entail no exclusion of God's alleged, abiding, mysterious presence in and through them. That required metaphysical univocity and Occam's razor: if a natural cause explained a natural event, it was though, there was nothing supernatural about either. Therefore, as post-Newtonian deists believed, once all the regularities of nature were understood to have natural causes, God could be no more than a remote first cause. Nor, despite generations of (post-)Enlightenment polemics denouncing allegedly primitive superstitions, did the discovery of laws that explain natural regularities exclude the possibility of extraordinary actions by God. That, as we shall see, required a dogmatic, unverifiable belief that natural laws are necessarily and uniformly exceptionless, such that miracles as traditionally understood were impossible. But if, having absorbed and taken for granted metaphysical univocity, one imagined that God belonged to the same conceptual and causal reality as his creation, and if natural regularities could be explained through natural causes without reference or recourse to God, then clearly the more science explained, the less would God be necessary as a causal or explanatory principle.
The key point is not, as is commonly but wrongly believed, that the empirical investigation of the natural world made or makes a transcendent God's existence increasingly implausible. It is rather that this presumption depends historically and continues to depend on a conception of God as a hypothetical supernatural agent in competition with natural causality ... In diametric contrast, with the Christian conception of God as transcendent creator of the universe, it is precisely and only because of his radical difference from creation that God can be present to and through it. This is the metaphysics that continues to underlie and make possible a sacramental worldview, against supersessionist conceptions of history, in combination with any and all scientific findings.
But as with Newtonianism in the eighteenth century, (neo-)Darwinism can be troubling to Christians on scientific grounds only if they have a univocal conception of being and reject a sacramental view of reality. 


After reading The Unintended Reformation, I have a new appreciation for Bishop Ware's statement in The Orthodox Church that "[Orthodox Christians] have known no Middle Ages (in the western sense) and have undergone no Reformations or Counter-Reformations; they have only been affected in an oblique way by the cultural and religious upheaval which transformed western Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries." Obviously to turn to Orthodoxy is not to simply rewind the clock five hundred years, for (at least in America) it exists within the religiously pluralistic society forged in the fallout of the Reformation. But it at least offers one Christianity among many that is unique in its freedom from the distorting influences on western faith unintentionally brought about by the Reformation.

This book powerfully confirmed several of the doubts about the basis of Protestantism that I already had confirmed by Orthodox teaching. Specifically, about the unsuitability of sola scriptura for producing a (single) rule of faith and the misguided, factious nature of attempts to recreate Christianity "from the ground up". Such methodologies are fertile ground for disagreement and controversy which, as Gregory shows time and again, can have disastrous effects that no one wanted.

The book was also very distressing. For though it expertly disagnoses the historical origins of modern, western secularism, it offers little idea of how, or if, the hundreds of Christianities out there can be reunited or how the secularization and pluralization of society can be reversed. Should Christians even desire these things? Even as I am increasingly able to believe in the unity of the Orthodox Church, The Unintended Reformation reminds me of a broader, ecumenical kind of unity among all Christians that has been missing for over a millennium before the Reformation, for which I still long and pray.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

My Journey, Part 12: Bridging the Cracks

This is part 12 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

With the basic issues of ecclesiology and Tradition explained, I can get to how I really began to realize that the Orthodox tradition holds the answers to my questions and doubts about the gospel and the Christian life.


I saw many of my scattered trains of thought on epistemology reflected and completed in Orthodox thought. The distinctiveness of the eastern mindset from the western one common to Catholics and Protestants is hard to summarize, but it pervades Orthodox theology like a breath of fresh air. Most basically, it is not so heavily skewed towards rationalism and legalism (the need to find laws and patterns governing everything). The tendency to treat theology as something of a science is entirely alien to the Christian east. The eastern church has had no rediscovery of Aristotle, no Scholasticism, no Reformation, and no Enlightenment; thus, it has preserved something much closer to the thought world of the apostles in its theology, untouched by the destabilizing effects of all of these developments and the distortions they introduced to western theology. I get the feeling that evangelicalism is always seeking to "go back" to the thought life of the early church, trying to reconstruct from the Bible what was once natural. Orthodoxy has no need, because it is still there.

This was a welcome answer to the problems I was realizing modern ways of thinking were causing as I tried to apply them to the Bible. A common pattern with Orthodoxy is that it does not directly answer my questions and doubts, but shows why they are based on wrong assumptions or axioms. Again, as Ware says, Orthodox tend to start from different questions than Protestants and Catholics (I will get into the specifics of this next time regarding the gospel).
Our different, modern context causes many parts of the Bible to raise questions that the authors weren't aware of and make no attempt to answer. (2013-9-29)
I began to realize that modern rationalism informed by the Bible is not the only (or even the best) starting point for a Christian looking to discover the things of God. I wrote this entry not long before discovering how Orthodoxy makes few compromises with modernism.
Instead of viewing everything through my rational, modern perspective, I have to be willing to step outside it and realize it's not the right way to view the supernatural. Modernism tends to stick its nose where it doesn't belong. (2014-2-23)
Truth, as viewed through the Orthodox tradition, is a much more holistic thing. It is unequivocally associated with the divine Logos, that is, the person of Christ (Jhn 1:1,14; 14:6; 17:17), something I had previously mentioned as a possibility, but whose implications I couldn't begin to grasp. To know Christ himself (not just about him) is to know truth. (Col 1:15-20, Heb 1:1-3) The utmost revelation of God to man was not the inspiration of the books of the Bible, but the Incarnation, the "Christ-event" to which they all testify. To live rightly in the truth, according to Orthodoxy, is both to know truth and to do truth. Knowing a truth is not logically prior to "applying" it, as in Protestant thought. As St. John Chrysostom preached, "Virtue is really true, vice is falsehood." (Sermon on Philippians 4:9) This also establishes a solid basis for conversation with nonbelievers, as the equation between Christ and truth goes both ways. Peter Bouteneff writes, "Everything that is true, whether or not it is said by a Christian, is true because of Christ; anything that is approaching truth is approaching Christ. And everyone who is doing the truth is making some kind of approach to Christ, whether or not they name him as Christ."

This is a minimal outline of the Orthodox approach to epistemology. It has been tremendously refreshing for me to discover. Evangelicalism's "bad habit" of placing doctrinal, propositional truth ahead of experiential truth (if only in logical priority) is not universal. There was a way out of the constant struggle to truly "know" the truth and then "apply" it, in which I was increasingly feeling trapped as the truth I was supposed to "know" increasingly didn't even make sense.
We come to know God primarily through experience, not propositional truth. What if the purpose of the Bible is to allow us to experience the life, death, and resurrection of Christ? It's so beautiful, makes so much sense of everything—it must be true. And that, to me, is the Christocentric hermeneutic. (2013-5-6)
Though I came to this realization rather subjectively, it is surprisingly close to Orthodox teaching I would look into a year later. I wrote similarly about this deeper, Christocentric, (unknown to me) Orthodox view of truth again:
What if the point of Scripture is not to simply tell us what to believe, but to enable us to encounter Christ? And we've been mistaking a shallower, more visible purpose (correct belief) for the ultimate one (conformity to Christ's image) and if we seek this ultimate purpose, we will find correct belief "thrown in"? (2013-5-10)
I got the sense that Protestants are always trying to faithfully reconstruct the "biblical" Christianity of the early Church from the Bible. Months before I found the Orthodox alternative to this quest, I was becoming pessimistic about it, longing for a more immediate experience of Truth.
Jesus' death and resurrection were not abstract spiritual objects to the disciples—they were there. They were real. Have we lost that, so that we only teach the gospel instead of experiencing it together? It is from this experience that the New Testament was written. If we simply try to study the writings rather than trying to get beneath them to the apostles and Christ, we are getting the gospel secondhand. (2013-11-10)
These entries all express a desire for a more experience-focused form of Christianity in which the gospel is something lived as well as taught and believed. I see Orthodoxy as the fulfillment of this desire; experience is not subordinated to belief nor belief to experience, but both are treated as essential and indivisible from the personal truth of Jesus. Correct belief (the titular orthodoxy) is treated as essential, but never at the expense of experiencing Christ and becoming like Him. Of course evangelicals also desire to live the gospel out, but is its emphasis on teaching, proclaiming, accepting, and believing the gospel portraying it as something that begins in the head and then must be "worked out" in the rest of life?

Another entry describes my confusion about evangelical teaching. As I questioned and looked into teachings about the "gospel" (which, again, I will cover next post), so often the answers were largely rational derivations of the doctrine from Scripture. Such biblical proofs were assumed to establish them as "true", and having found the truth it was then our job as faithful believers in the truth to live it and love it. I felt as though my heart and intuition were being excluded from in any way shaping my understanding of what was true; the result was a gospel that I could maybe (not always sincerely) say I "believed", but could not meaningfully live on. I expressed a desire for a bigger, more inclusive view of "truth" based on my understanding of the holistic Greek term for "heart", καρδια. Similarly, I again unknowingly journaled my desire for an Orthodox epistemology here:
I don't need the gospel to 'make sense' logically so much as I need it to capture my heart and imagination. (2014-2-7)
Before I began to look into Orthodoxy, I was increasingly tending towards a postmodern view of truth, as I wrote here. My confusion about supposedly "biblical" doctrines was making me painfully aware of how subjective even the best biblical interpretation can be, and so I was becoming skeptical that the "true" interpretation was really knowable, at least through the prescribed methods. I was beginning to see the distance that often existed between reality (which I still very much believed was "out there") and our descriptions of it.
I see [the Calvinism-Arminianism debate] as more about our descriptions of reality and how they must fit into our chosen logical frameworks than about the underlying reality being described itself, which stubbornly remains the same whatever we say about it. Deep down Calvinists and Arminians do know this I think/hope, even if they don't acknowledge it. This approach is arguably more objective than the modernist one. (2013-7-11) 
Now, though, I think the answer is to draw from Christian tradition preceding modernism, rather than trying to forge a path beyond it into the unknown.


Back to the journal entry marking the start of my confusion about the Christian life.
If we grow in relationship with Christ just to help other people know Him, that's circular and pointless. I want it to be more authentic, more real than that. What is the life of Christ? What is the death of Christ in us? ... So much of the time this seems like just idea manipulation, pointless exercises. How do I 'plug into' God and make sense of it? (2011-11-30)
Again, Orthodoxy answered such confusion in two ways: first, with a more immediate idea of theology and truth that doesn't seek to "know" and "apply" them separately, and second, with a gospel vision that actually connected with me, captured my heart and my imagination, that I didn't have to struggle to make sense of. This gave me hope for overcoming the head-heart divide that for years seemed basic to my faith.

One other thing that really helps overcome this divide is the total absence of any "faith vs. works" dichotomy in Orthodoxy. Rather, Orthodox theology is rigorously Incarnational. This is seen powerfully in the theologies of communion and baptism, which (far from being ways to "earn grace" from God) are viewed as concrete ways that God instituted (as Jesus in the flesh) for us to receive His freely-given grace. In the eastern, sacramental worldview, spiritual realities are not cleanly separable from physical ones. Inward belief and spiritual experiences are not logically prior to (or simply outwardly manifested though) visible realities. Orthodoxy views people holistically; we are fallen as whole people, so Jesus redeems us as whole people, and so as whole people we participate in our new life in Him. (I will unpack this more two posts from now)

One other element of Orthodox spirituality that is helpful is its unabashed synergism. There is no ongoing debate over monergism vs. synergism, whether we have to somehow respond to God and somehow contribute to our salvation or whether it is most truly God who accomplishes everything in us. Instead of monergism's dualistic dichotomy between our inability and God's total sufficiency, synergism believes that cooperating with God's grace poses no threat to His sovereignty, but instead gives Him glory as the One who leads and teaches us, His children, to grow and develop into Sons and Daughters of the Kingdom (and as the one who gave us freedom to choose in the first place). Before, I had seen synergism as only a minority view within evangelicalism or the domain of the Wesleyan tradition, considered unorthodox by many; imagine my surprise to learn that it is ancient tradition in Orthodoxy! Again, well before looking into Orthodoxy I expressed my preference for a fully synergistic Christian spirituality
In reformed teaching we are just (presumably interchangeable) passive, imperfect straws through which the spirit blows. But this view misses much. We will get praise from God—for what we have done with what we have been given, for how well we've obeyed. (2013-3-16)
When debating providence, it's important to remember that an action need not be solely God's doing or ours; rather than God regenerating us independently before or after we repent, they can be one and the same action. (2013-5-14)
I should mention that Orthodox theology of synergism is not at all the same as Arminian theology, which I tended towards but never felt comfortable fully embracing, as I explained here. Rather, as I had explained to me in this discussion, Orthodoxy is absent of the Reformed (both Calvinist and Arminian) focus on making a "decision" to have faith in Christ and what exactly is involved in this decision on the divine and human sides. Because of this, Orthodoxy has no understanding of prevenient grace as a necessary component of redemption, as Arminianism does. The commenter who explained it to me said something which I realized perfectly described how I came to be convinced of Orthodoxy: I never really "made a decision" for it, but became convinced as I realized it was what God had been leading me to through all my questions and searching. Here is what he said:
Another telling example to demonstrate the difference here might be how Orthodox converts typically don't say: "I made a decision to follow Christ and accept Jesus into my life" as Protestants often do. Rather, they are more inclined to say "It feels as though I have been guided home all along without ever knowing it". This to me is roughly the key difference: that Orthodoxy resists this "decisionist spirit" and its individualism in favor of the Holy Spirit and divine communion. This formulation is perhaps still too simplistic, but the surface here arguably reflects the theological depths.
One other thing is that the concept of our faith as a "relationship with God" is somewhat relativized in Orthodoxy. No one denies that we do enjoy a "personal relationship' with God—but there is much more to the faith than this. The corporate and historical dimensions of our salvation are at least as emphasized as the individual and personal, which is a most welcome development. It bypasses the occasional tendency of evangelicalism to overapply (or apply overly literally) the "relationship with God" concept by viewing our Christian faith as somehow analogous with our interpersonal relationships, as I noticed in this entry.
I think we allow our relationship with others to inform our 'relationship' with God more than the other way around. What do we miss by construing faith in these terms? (2013-11-4)

Bridging the cracks

The different (at some points radically so) vision of epistemology and spirituality offered by Orthodoxy helped show me that many of my questions and doubts about the gospel had no answers because they were based on faulty preconceptions. Simply to ask them was to misunderstand. When I look at how eastern theologians and church fathers handle Scripture, I am often helped to find ways around my doubts, to question my questions. For example, I found an alternative to the oversystematic, "spiritual object" thinking that so often made reading the Bible more disconcerting than life-giving for me. Orthodox theology turned out to be the "relational theology" that I desired but couldn't clearly define.
Spiritual object thinking tends to miss how the various parts of our salvation and new life can paradoxically combine—God's grace and our effort/works, the divine inspiration and humanity of Scripture, the divinity/humanity of puts these concepts in airtight compartments. We can talk about how they interact as from a distance, but this doesn't go far enough, as a relational model does, which views them as dynamic parts of a relationship. It also leaves the question of how to apply things like 'life by grace' rather open to hidden tradition. Relational theology sees these things as their own application. (2014-1-5)
There is much less emphasis on rationalistic explanation or systematization and a much greater acceptance of mystery in Orthodoxy. "Mystery" here is not meant as a way to push a counterintuitive doctrine or interpretation of a passage past  peoples' conscience or intuition, but to refer to things like the Incarnation, the Eucharist, or Baptism—times and ways in which God enters into our surroundings that are truly, gloriously beyond our understanding. Again, this fulfilled what I wrote in this entry:
I don't need the gospel to 'make sense' logically so much as I need it to capture my heart and imagination. (2014-2-7)
In the eastern vision, it does.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

In Praise of Braid

After replaying the classic puzzle game Braid this weekend, I realized I've barely even mentioned it here! Clearly this must be rectified. Even more than similar works like Portal, Braid sublimely demonstrates how games can be more than mere diversions. Instead, it is a work of art.

The easy first bit of the game.
Braid is a platformer puzzle game with mechanics similar to those of the classic Mario franchise. You run around two-dimensional worlds, climb ladders, stomp enemies, solve puzzles, and occasionally fight a boss. What distinguishes it is the time travel. Your avatar, Tim, possesses the ability to rewind time. Instead of relying on a store of lives to get him through danger, when killed he is obliged to simply rewind time to before his death and try again. The time mechanic is the core of Braid's fascinating, puzzle-based gameplay.

Sometimes the Mario homages are more blatant.
In the first world, the time mechanic simply allows Tim to complete some challenges and puzzles that would be infuriatingly difficult without it, like a blind leap into a pit with strategically-placed spikes. But in subsequent worlds, things get more interesting as more mechanics are added. Objects and characters that glow with green magic are unaffected by Tim's temporal meddling, moving normally as he is freezing or rewinding time. In one world Tim gains a shadow that repeats whatever actions Tim just rewound, allowing you to partner with yourself to solve some puzzles. In a particularly memorable world, the passage of time is directly tied to Tim's position; moving forward advances time, moving backward rewinds it.

One of the more action-packed levels.
Hopefully you can imagine the kind of brilliant, elegant, and diabolical puzzles this allows for. Beyond that, the gameplay is very simple: collect puzzle pieces and rescue the princess. But the time mechanic is so engrossing, so well-executed that the game doesn't need to consist of much else. Pictured below is my favorite puzzle: it took me around half an hour to figure out the simple solution for the first time.

One key, two locked is Tim going to get this puzzle piece?
Beyond the basic gameplay, there is plenty more to enjoy about Braid. The plot is minimal and unobstrusive, but surprisingly well thought-out. Books at the start of each world tell the nonlinear story somewhat cryptically, tying it in with whatever time mechanic is being introduced in that world. Other clues are filled in by the puzzle you assemble from each world's collectible pieces. As you progress, it draws you deeper, leading you to the possibility that the "princess" is more than just a literal damsel-in-distress... I won't spoil the ending, but it is a brilliant twist made possible only by the time mechanic, exemplifying the deep intertwining of gameplay and plot that Braid demonstrates (to say nothing of the secret ending...).

It gets much deeper from here.
The more artistic parts of Braid are what really complete it as an aesthetically fulfilling game. The game's licensed soundtrack is soft, beautiful, and pensive. As you rewind, freeze, or fast-forward time, the music stops or changes its speed accordingly, giving you satisfying audible feedback for your actions; there are also similar visual cues. The visuals are absolutely gorgeous, as the previous screenshots have shown; the game is vibrantly illustrated like a storybook brought to life, and each world has a distinctive visual theme. Mechanics, plot, and eye/ear candy all fit together incredibly well to create a game that is surprisingly emotive and immersive for being so short and two-dimensional.

The screen you are treated to at startup. A burning city never looked more beautiful...
Braid is only $10 on Steam, barring any sales.

Monday, November 10, 2014

My Journey, Part 11.3: Holy Tradition

This is part 11.3 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

In the last twothree posts, I've told how I came to stop believing sola scriptura, and with it much of my old Protestant take on the Bible. In this post, I'll try to explain the contrasting Orthodox concept of Holy Tradition.

What is Tradition?

The Greek word that translates to "tradition" is παραδοσις, paradosis, which means something that is handed over or passed down. The corresponding Latin word traditio has a similar meaning and is the basis for the English word. The thrust of these definitions is not that tradition is somehow artificial or fabricated, but just the opposite: tradition is delivered. preserved, passed down. Timothy Ware, again in his helpful book The Orthodox Church, says this about what Tradition is:
A tradition is commonly understood to signify an opinion, belief, or custom handed down from ancestors to posterity. Christian Tradition, in that case, is the faith and practice which Jesus Christ imparted to the Apostles, and which since the Apostles' time has been handed down from generation to generation in the Church. ... It means the books of the Bible; it means the [Nicene] Creed; it means the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils and the writings of the Fathers; it means the Canons, the Service Books, the Holy Icons—in fact, the whole system of doctrine, Church government, worship, spirituality and art which Orthodoxy has articulated over the ages. Orthodox Christians of today see themselves as heirs and guardians to a rich inheritance received from the past, and they believe that it is their duty to transmit this inheritance unimpaired to the future.
A few other definitions:
  • The Orthodox Church in America: Tradition is "the total life and experience of the entire Church transferred from place to place and from generation to generation. Tradition is the very life of the Church itself as it is inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit."
  • Elder Cleopa, in this interview: "Holy Tradition is the teaching of the Church, given by God with a living voice, a portion of which was later written down. ... Holy Tradition is the life of the Church in the Holy Spirit; and, in concord with the enduring life of the Church, it is a wellspring of holy revelation, and thus it possesses the same authority as Holy Scripture."
  • Fr. Sergius Bulgakov: tradition is "the living memory of the church".
  • Peter Bouteneff: "Tradition is an activity or dynamism; it is the 'handing down' or 'handing over' of faith and practice from one person to another, one generation to another. It is an ongoing activity, which is why we continue to speak of 'the living Tradition.'"
  • Georges Florovsky: Tradition is Scripture rightly understood.
  • Vladimir Lossky: Tradition is the unique mode of receiving the truth that is found in Scripture. "Tradition is not the content of revelation, but the light that reveals it; it is not the word, but the living breath which makes the word heard at the same time as the silence from which it came; it is not the truth, but a communication of the Spirit of truth, outside which the truth cannot be received. 'No one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit' (1 Cor 12.3)."
I should clarify that Lossky probably isn't opposing Tradition with Scripture in that last quote: he is opposing it with Christ himself, who is himself the Truth to which Scripture and Tradition both lead the believer.

The above definitions give a basic, but complete understanding of what Tradition is. I will emphasize a few salient points:
  • As I will explain shortly, the content of Tradition is more than just doctrines. It is also liturgies, prayers, the writings of the fathers, the councils, the lives of the saints, religious artwork, etc. The Bible is the most fundamental part of Tradition, but not the only part.
  • Orthodox speak of one Tradition as well as lesser traditions. Tradition is the rich, multi-aspect body of teaching and truth passed down through the Orthodox Church, which also passes down numerous small-t traditions. These may be beneficial or not, and are not infallible. You could say that Tradition is the life, experience, and memory of the whole Church, whereas traditions are held by parts of the Church. Ware writes, "many traditions which the past has handed down are human and accidental—pious opinions (or worse), but not a true part of the one Tradition, the fundamental Christian message. You may notice some similarities between the Orthodox definition of "traditions" and the Protestant view on all tradition.
  • What the apostles left, most basically, was Tradition. Until the New Testament was written down and widely circulated, the Church was led by Tradition, and it was by no means made irrelevant when the New Testament was completed. (The Church's authoritative decision on which books belong in the New Testament canon is also a part of Tradition) Again, Tradition is not simply a static body of words; it is living, dynamic, active. No body of writing, however divinely inspired, can fully replace it.

The role of the Bible

How does the Bible fit together with Tradition? In the first place, it is the product of Tradition. Tradition preceded both testaments of the Bible, which record it in writing. Consequently, the Scriptures are part of tradition. Let me say that again, because it is the most misunderstood thing about Tradition by Protestants:

The Scriptures exist within Tradition, not alongside or over it. Tradition is not a separate source for the Christian faith. The Bible is part of Tradition. Ware says of this, "there is only one source, since Scripture exists within Tradition. To separate and contrast the two is to impoverish the idea of both alike."

With that said, Orthodox also teach that the Bible is the center of Tradition. This is because the Scriptures, especially New Testament, and especially the four gospels, testify to Jesus Christ, the Truth and the content of the faith, the divine revelation to which all Tradition points. Every part of the Orthodox faith traces back to the central reality of Christ, and since it is to the mystery of Christ that the Scriptures witness (Luk 24:27, 44-45), they are the most important part of Holy Tradition. This is how Protestant critics of Holy Tradition are able to see sola scriptura in the writings of the early church fathers: everything goes back to the Scriptures for them not because the Bible is somehow set over the Church and Tradition, but because it witnesses to the transcendent reality of the gospel of Christ, the true content of the faith. Scripture, then, is an expression of the faith delivered from Christ to the apostles, not a constitution for the church or a collection of texts and statements to be assembled into a faith. I glimpsed something like this when I journaled:
The early church didn't believe in Jesus because of the Bible; they believed in the Bible because of Jesus. (2013-6-6) 
The Bible, in the Orthodox understanding, is not authoritative in and of itself. This is because the Bible does not "speak" on its own, independently of the Church. It must be interpreted to "say" anything; this is evident given how multiple interpretations, many of them wrong, can be (and, more often than not, have been) gleaned from virtually any part of it. It was inspired in its writing; likewise, it must also be inspired in its reading. So the Bible is only "authoritative" when it is interpreted authoritatively, namely by and within the Church. Interpretation of the Bible is not democratic; not everyone is equally qualified to do so. Christians can't be expected to automatically get the right meaning from the Scriptures when left to their own hermeneutical devices. As the Ethiopian eunuch asked Philip, "How can I [understand what I am reading], unless some one guides me?" (Acts 8:31)

Orthodox do not deny biblical perspicuity because they think God somehow spoke unclearly or inadequately through Scripture, but because they have a much deeper view of how the Bible "speaks" and operates within the faith than Protestants. Understanding the Scripture is much more involved than simply discerning the original intended meaning of the human author (which, even then, is not always evident) and then applying it. The point of Scripture is not just to reveal information, but to reveal Christ to the Church. The inspiration of Scripture doesn't simply mean, to Orthodox, that everything it says is true and that you have to believe it. It also means that Scripture is deep. As the Church has consistently confessed since its earliest days, the Scriptures have multiple levels of meaning, only the most basic of which can be uncovered by mere historical-grammatical exegesis.

Going deeper takes wisdom, discernment, and godliness. Not everyone is able to glimpse Christ as he truly is by reading the Scriptures, even the gospel accounts of him. (After all, the disciples were there and they still didn't understand what was happening) Further, being fallible and sinful we are prone to misreading Scripture and glimpsing a fabricated version of Christ, more often than not one who looks suspiciously like us and our preconceptions. (2 Pet 3:16 makes a similar point) Fortunately, we aren't merely left to our own devices when interpreting Scripture. Tradition in all its aspects and forms, is the Church's reading and application of Scripture, and its encounters of Christ therein. It guides those in the Church to interpret and live the Scriptures rightly, to experience Christ as he truly is (and not as we simply make him out to be in our pious opinions) through them. As St. Jerome said, "You cannot advance in the Holy Scriptures unless you have an experienced guide to show you the way."

Tradition includes many teachings, like the Trinity, that Protestants simply consider to be "biblical" and not part of "tradition". But even when something resembling our biblical canon became commonplace in the Church, it took centuries for the Orthodox understanding of the Trinity to be firmly established. The Trinity is "biblical" in that it is based on the Bible, but it also goes beyond the Bible, being based on careful interpretation. (And keep in mind that it is not even "biblical" to all Protestants, e.g. Unitarians and Modalists) Thus it is a product of Tradition, the Church's interpretation of Scripture, as well as Scripture itself, demonstrating their unity.

Perhaps the crucial difference in relation to the Bible between sola scriptura and Holy Tradition is ecclesiological: Tradition views the Church itself, rather than individuals within the Church, as the authoritative interpreter of Scripture. Being the body of Christ, the Church is personified to a degree. It was to the Church, the pillar of the Truth (1 Tim 3:15), that the promise of the Spirit to guide us into all truth (Jhn 16:13) was given. Sola scriptura is true, in a sense, but for the Church as a whole, not for individual, fallible exegetes. Protestantism arguably sees no distinction between the Church and the sum of its members; Orthodoxy does (1 Cor 12:27). Tradition is the right reading of Scripture, while Scripture determines what is of Tradition. This process is not merely a circle but a spiral, and again it is the Church as a whole that partakes in it, not simply individual interpreters.

Other parts of Tradition

As I mentioned above, Tradition includes many things besides the Scriptures, which are interpretations and applications of them. Peter Bouteneff, in his helpful book Sweeter than Honey, summarizes them.
  • Councils: At numerous times leaders in the Orthodox Church have met to seek a decision on some part of the faith—often to answer a pressing question that no one has answered before, or to seek a ruling on the orthodoxy of a questionable teaching that may turn out to be heresy. In particular, from the fourth to the eight centuries the Church convened seven ecumenical (involving the whole known world) councils, in which bishops representing the entire Church met. The creeds, definitions, and other decisions of these councils are considered dogmatic, infallibly true and binding on all Christians; these definitions include things like Orthodox Christology, the doctrine of the Trinity, the virgin birth, and the proper veneration of icons. Also, the decisions of local councils can be considered ecumenical if they are later accepted by the whole church (such as the New Testament canon).
  • Liturgy: The Orthodox Church is much less prone to making formal doctrinal statements and definitions than the Catholic Church. Rather, much of its theology is contained and beautifully expressed in its liturgies. The liturgy includes more than truths about God: it also includes, right prayer, right worship, and the Eucharistic partaking in the body of Christ. The liturgy is theology brought to life. The liturgy is also an expression of the unity of the Church; explains Bouteneff, "The fact that Orthodox Christians gathered almost anywhere in the world are singing and doing more or less the same thing (calendar differences notwithstanding) has a profound unifying effect on the Church. ... We are not singing anyone's opinion of new idea. We're singing words that have been tried and tested as true." As anyone who has been to an Orthodox divine liturgy (including me) will attest, it is profoundly scriptural; besides the readings themselves, many of the words are biblical quotations or allusions. I will write more about this a few posts from now.
  • Fathers: The fathers of the Church are understood to be those who faithfully convey the gospel, preserving what was entrusted to them, which is none other than the apostolic faith." The Church fathers (and mothers) were godly individuals steeped in the Scriptures and the sacramental life of the church, whose writings are acknowledged as invaluable expressions of the faith that has been held by all people at all times. Of course, since they are individual exegetes, they are not infallible, and their writings are decidedly less central to Tradition than the Bible. Nonetheless, their writings are precious for teaching from the Scriptures, defending the faith against challenges, and pointing the way to a greater understanding of the gospel.
  • Art: To the Protestant eye, the most striking thing about entering an Orthodox Church (once you get used to the incense) is the imagery. There are icons, paintings, stained-glass images, and other depictions of people from the Bible and the life of the Church. I will talk more about this in a few posts, but these images are not just for inspiration. They themselves depict the truth of Holy Tradition, albeit in pictorial format, for those who understand their significance. For example, this icon of the resurrection depicts important teachings of the Church about Christ's victory over death. He stands triumphant over the grave, with the gates of Hades (which he has broken out of) under his feet. He is pulling Adam and Eve out with him by the hand, and around him stand other saints of the Old Testament. At first I thought it looked bizarre, but now I've come to appreciate icons like these as different ways of conveying Tradition that go beyond words.

The preservation of Tradition

You may be asking (as I did): how do we know that the Church has reliably preserved Holy Tradition? How do we know it hasn't been corrupted somehow? Isn't it safer to stick with the Bible, whose original contents we can reconstruct to a high degree of accuracy? This is an understandable question for Protestants to ask, since most of their experience with Tradition tends to be with that of the Catholic Church, which Orthodox agree has corrupted the Apostolic teaching. I ask that you at least judge Orthodox Tradition on its own merits, not by association with the Catholic Church.

Orthodox believe the Church has reliably preserved Tradition because God has promised as much. The Church is "the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15), guided into all truth by the Holy Spirit (Jhn 16:13); Orthodox take these promises seriously. Christ is the head of the Church (Eph 1:22-23), which is his body (Rom 12:5, 1 Cor 12:27, Eph 4:16), "the fullness of him who fills all in all". The fullness of the apostolic faith, the true presence of Christ, the knowledge of the truth—for Orthodox, these things are not conditional; they are spiritual realities. Losing the apostolic Tradition would mean that the Church has ceased to exist, which Jesus promised cannot happen (Mat 16:18). Thus Orthodox see no period of corruption in the Church which was only rectified by the Reformation.

The essence of Tradition is that which has been believed throughout the whole Church throughout its history. In other words, Orthodox believe the Church preserves Tradition across both time and space. Councils, as previously described, serve to ensure that Tradition is consistent across the whole Church. Likewise, apostolic succession is a major way that Christ preserves the Church's teaching through time. Originally developed as a rebuke to heretics who claimed to have preserved "secret teachings" of Christ, apostolic succession bases the preservation of the faith on the unbroken chain of succession linking all Orthodox bishops to the apostles and, therefore, to the teaching of Christ. I will expand on this more from the Bible and the church fathers below.

This may not satisfy Protestants who prefer scientific assurance that the textform of the Bible we have reconstructed today substantially matches that of the original autographs; what more needs to be preserved? Orthodox teaching would respond, again, that merely preserving the text of the Scriptures in no way ensures the preservation of the whole Apostolic Tradition. By reading the Scriptures apart from Tradition, apart from the universal Church, it is easy (inevitable, even) to construct a faith (or many faiths) quite different from that of the early Church.

Clearing the air

I will take a moment to correct a few other misunderstandings I have seen regarding Tradition:
  • Holy Tradition is not the "traditions of men" against which Christ and the apostles warn (Mat 15:6; 1 Cor 2:4-5,10,13; Col 2:8; 1 Ths 2:13). Tradition is not "merely human" any more than Christ (the body of Christ) is. Elder Cleopa explains, "Holy Tradition is neither a tradition of men, nor a philosophy, nor some kind of trickery; it is the word of God which He personally delivered to us." Again, the Orthodox Church does not maintain a dualistic view of the Scriptures vs. every other source. In keeping with its incarnational theology of theosis (humanity taken up into the divine), the Tradition of the Church can be divine as well as human.
  • But even if the teaching of the Church is not merely human, neither it is entirely divine and infallible. As I mentioned above, Orthodox draw a distinction between Tradition and traditions, and between helpful traditions and false ones. Just as Christ was corruptible in his humanity but imperishable in his divinity, so the earthly Church is not totally immune to false traditions. In his handy book The Orthodox Faith, Fr. Thomas Hopko writes about this:
It is also important to recognize that there are also things in the Church which not only do not belong to Holy Tradition, but which are not even to be counted among its positive human traditions. These things which are just sinful and wrong are brought into the life of the Church from the evil world. The Church in its human form, as an earthly institution, is not immune to the sins of its unholy members. These deviations and errors which creep into the life of the Church stand under the judgment and condemnation of the authentic and genuine Holy Tradition which comes from God.
  • One major way I misunderstood Tradition was thinking it means that everyone in the Orthodox Church is supposed to believe exactly the same thing—submitting to the Church's one infallible interpretation of the Bible, regardless of conflicting voices from conscience or doubts. This is based partly on the Protestant view that each verse in the Bible has one correct interpretation and our job as interpreters is to find them. But again, Orthodox view the Bible as much deeper than this. Consequently, Tradition is much more than simply the one right way to read the Bible. John Breck describes patristic hermeneutics as being shaped by theoria, "an 'inspired vision' of divine Truth as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ and in the biblical witness to him." This mindset is not simply a set of right answers or interpretations to which Orthodox are constrained; rather, it frees us to read the Scriptures in a life-giving, Christocentric way that transcends the literal sense.

    Another analogy I came up with and hope is accurate is that Tradition is not like a single road or railroad tracks, but more like a set of guardrails to keep you from falling off the edges of Orthodoxy, and a compass to point you in the right general direction. (The guardrails and compass correspond, roughly, to dogma and theoria) So within Tradition, there is much freedom and room for questioning (just not for false teaching). Ware wisely writes, "It is absolutely essential to question the past. ... True Orthodox fidelity to the past must always be a creative fidelity; for true Orthodoxy can never rest satisfied with a barren 'theology of repetition', which, parrot-like, repeats accepted formulae without striving to understand what lies behind them."
  • Tradition also does not mean that anyone, layman or patriarch, gets to champion his or her personal interpretation of Scripture as the truly "Orthodox" or traditional one. We are all fallible; only the Church as a whole is infallible.

Biblical evidence for going beyond the Bible

Besides the aforementioned verses about the nonperspicuity of Scripture and supporting the preservation of tradition, the traditioning process itself is commanded by Jesus and Paul:
And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age." (Mat 28:18-20 RSV)
and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2Ti 2:2 RSV)
The faithful reception and preservation of Tradition is also commanded:
But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed. (Gal 1:8-9 RSV)
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter. (2Th 2:15 RSV)
O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, for by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith. Grace be with you. (1Ti 6:20-21 RSV) 
Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. (2Ti 1:13-14 RSV)
Any one who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son. If any one comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into the house or give him any greeting; (2Jo 1:9-10 RSV)
And other passages describe Tradition:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, (Luk 1:1-2 RSV) 
And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Act 2:42 RSV) 
I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you. (1Co 11:2 RSV) 
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." (1Co 11:23-24 RSV) 
Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. (1Co 15:1-6 RSV) 
For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man's gospel. (Gal 1:11 RSV) 
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. (1Th 2:13 RSV) 
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. (2Th 3:6 RSV) 
For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. (2Pe 2:21 RSV) 
Beloved, being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jde 1:3 RSV)

Historical evidences

Orthodox theologians can produce an abundance of patristic citations to show that the Church has held the centrality of Holy Tradition (and not something like sola scriptura) since its inception. The second-century church father Irenaeus of Lyons, writing in his book Against Heresies, spoke about the Valentinians (a heretical Gnostic sect of Christianity) and outlined the Orthodox understanding of Tradition, apostolic succession, and the necessity of reading Scripture with the Church:
But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. ... It comes to this, therefore, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition. (III.2.2)
It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to the perfect apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. (III.3.1)
Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere. (III.3.2)
Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church; since the apostles, like a rich man [depositing his money] in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth: so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life. (Revelation 22:17) For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account are we bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the thing pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the tradition of the truth. For how stands the case? Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches? (III.4.1)
Granted, the heretics Irenaeus was sparring against were anything but sola scriptura Protestants. They held that the apostles had secretly entrusted them with a strictly oral, Gnostic tradition, a "living voice" that supplanted even the Scriptures as their true witness. Yet I think his words also apply to anyone who would rely on the Scriptures but reads them in a way that contradicts the faith of the Church. Irenaeus does not simply equate the "tradition of the apostles", the rule of faith against which heresies are tried, with Scripture.

Irenaeus' contemporary Tertullian, in his Prescription Against Heretics, gave a similar description of Tradition, apostolic succession, and the continuity of Orthodox doctrine:
after first bearing witness to the faith in Jesus Christ throughout Judæa, and founding churches (there), they next went forth into the world and preached the same doctrine of the same faith to the nations. They then in like manner founded churches in every city, from which all the other churches, one after another, derived the tradition of the faith, and the seeds of doctrine, and are every day deriving them, that they may become churches. Indeed, it is on this account only that they will be able to deem themselves apostolic, as being the offspring of apostolic churches. Every sort of thing must necessarily revert to its original for its classification. Therefore the churches, although they are so many and so great, comprise but the one primitive church, (founded) by the apostles, from which they all (spring). In this way all are primitive, and all are apostolic, while they are all proved to be one, in (unbroken) unity, by their peaceful communion, and title of brotherhood, and bond of hospitality—privileges which no other rule directs than the one tradition of the selfsame mystery. (20)
From this, therefore, do we draw up our rule. Since the Lord Jesus Christ sent the apostles to preach, (our rule is) that no others ought to be received as preachers than those whom Christ appointed; for no man knows the Father save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal Him. (Matthew 11:27) Nor does the Son seem to have revealed Him to any other than the apostles, whom He sent forth to preach— that, of course, which He revealed to them. Now, what that was which they preached— in other words, what it was which Christ revealed to them— can, as I must here likewise prescribe, properly be proved in no other way than by those very churches which the apostles founded in person, by declaring the gospel to them directly themselves, both vivâ voce, as the phrase is, and subsequently by their epistles. If, then, these things are so, it is in the same degree manifest that all doctrine which agrees with the apostolic churches— those moulds and original sources of the faith must be reckoned for truth, as undoubtedly containing that which the (said) churches received from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, Christ from God. Whereas all doctrine must be prejudged as false which savours of contrariety to the truth of the churches and apostles of Christ and God. It remains, then, that we demonstrate whether this doctrine of ours, of which we have now given the rule, has its origin in the tradition of the apostles, and whether all other doctrines do not ipso facto proceed from falsehood. We hold communion with the apostolic churches because our doctrine is in no respect different from theirs. This is our witness of truth. (21)
But if there be any (heresies) which are bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles, because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [that first bishop of theirs ] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men,— a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles. (32)
I should note that Irenaeus and Tertullian probably didn't advocate for the apostolic succession of churches, per se. Rather, they believed in the apostolic succession of the faith. A church was not labeled "heretical" if it could not produce, as Tertullian said, "the roll of their bishops".  Rather, it was heretical if it held to a faith or a teaching at odds with the churches that could, especially the oldest churches that were directly founded by the apostles.

Finally, the fifth-century theologian Vincent of Lérins, in chapter 2 of his Commonitory, wrote the most direct early Christian rebuke I know of to sola scriptura, with which I think my main argument lines up exactly (emphasis added):
If I or anyone else wish to detect the deceits of the heretics or avoid their traps, and to remain healthy and intact in a sound faith, we ought, with the help of the Lord, to strengthen our faith in two ways: first, by the authority of the divine law, and then by the tradition of the catholic church. Here someone may ask: since the canon of the scriptures is complete, and is in itself adequate, why is there any need to join to its authority the understanding of the church? Because Holy Scripture, on account of its depth, is not accepted in a universal sense. The same statements are interpreted in one way by one person, in another by someone else, with the result that there seem to be as many opinions as there are people. ... Therefore, on account of the number and variety of errors, there is a need for someone to lay down a rule for the interpretation of the prophets and the apostles in such a way that is directed by the rule of the catholic church. Now in the catholic church itself the greatest care is taken that we hold that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all people. This is what is truly and properly catholic.
I couldn't have said it any better.

The personal angle

So those are the reasons why I feel confident that the Orthodox teaching of Holy Tradition is true. But as with sola scriptura, I should also ask the slightly different, more subjective question: how did I come to my current view on it? Why is it convincing to me? (Note that unlike the preceding sections, what follows are not so much arguments as reflections)

First, Orthodoxy tears down a lot of false dichotomies and modern biases I was tired of from Protestantism. Whereas sola scriptura imposes a dualistic separation between a divine Bible and the traditions of men, Orthodoxy is incarnational in its understanding of Tradition. Because the Church is the body of Christ, it can be more than a human institution. This also translates to a better balance between the human and divine natures of Scripture in methodology (ironic, given how much more spiritually Orthodox tend to interpret the Bible) that strongly affirms them both at once instead of affirming only the literal sense of Scripture backed by divine authority.

The Orthodox perspective on "authority" is also less dualistic; rather than a single, uniformly authoritative body of truth surrounded by human opinions, there are levels of significance both inside and outside the Bible. There is a lot more respect even for merely human traditions, rather than innate skepticism of them and a constant drive to get "back to the Bible". Rather than a quasi-foundationalist attempt to derive a complete Christian faith from the Bible (which never seems to work), Orthodoxy recognizes that the faith is living and present already, as it has been since the Great Commission. Finally, Orthodox theology is pleasantly center-oriented rather than boundary-oriented, concerned with seeing and living Christ rather than trying to figure out what everyone must believe to be considered "biblical" (because universal consensus on this already exists).

Orthodox theology is relatively untouched by Enlightenment rationalism (I will get into the epistemology of this next time). Tradition is readily acknowledged to be far more than doctrinal truth; ultimately, Truth is a person. It was tremendously refreshing when Bouteneff, in his book, started with this point and expounded on it at length rather than bringing it up at the end as a tantalizing possibility. Similarly, the Church is led by people (both Christ as head and the bishops), not simply a body of "truth" that no one can seem to agree on. Though Orthodoxy does still have seminaries, there is far less of a gap between church and academy than in Protestantism. Theology is done within the Church, for the Church, not alongside it.

I also find Holy Tradition historically convincing. (Remember that I first became interested in it by studying its history) Previous to learning about Orthodoxy I was pessimistic about being able to really know what the early Church believed. Did they have bishops or were they Presbyterian, or congregationalists? Did they hold a symbolic view of baptism? Did they believe in sola scriptura? In hindsight, trying to convince myself that the early Church was basically Protestant was intellectually dishonest of me. But I had to do so, because the alternative seemed to be that "true" Christianity was lost. No, it has not been lost—and there is no need to recover or rebuild it from perspicuous source texts, as if we were studying a past civilization as archaeologists. It lives in the life of the Church as it always has. There is a posture of humbly receiving from the past instead of skeptically passing judgment on it that I find much more amenable to the faith.

Finally, as I have said before, I was convinced of Holy Tradition because it works. By and large, it really delivers the unity on essentials of the faith and charitable disagreement on non-essentials that sola scriptura promises. Because the boundary between Orthodoxy and heresy is well-defined, there are virtually no continuing arguments on where it lies on such-and-such theological issue. (The current question of whether the Monophysite churches are really heretical might qualify) Orthodox are able to have deep discussions, even disputes on doctrine without sowing division. Tradition lets them have faithful confidence in their reading of Scripture, within the Church, without risk of becoming epistemologically arrogant.

(Yet another) name change

Once again, the name of this blog has become inadequate. I no longer consider myself a "faithful skeptic" because, by the grace of God, I now have an alternative to questioning things I'm taught out of a vague sense of uneasiness about them. I've realized that every journey of doubt has not just a starting point, but a destination—and that destination may be a place of greater, more wholehearted faith than before, just as I hoped. In my main post on doubt, I said, prophetically, "doubt is only temporary; one day it will become obsolete, and we will be all the more blessed for it!" Now I see this prediction (partially) fulfilled. God has richly answered my prayer to help me believe in Him, though I still have a lot of room to grow.

At its worst, doubt is a denial of faith, a refusal to trust and love our Father God as He wants us to. But at its best, doubt is a scalpel in God's hands, cutting away our beliefs and habits that are unworthy of Him. By suppressing doubt, we may prevent God from performing life-saving work on our hearts. But doubt is only temporary by design; it cannot (or at least should not) be allowed to keep cutting away until there is nothing left. I think I have entered a period of rebuilding and reevaluating my faith in the bright light of the Orthodox tradition, and simultaneously connecting it back to my old tradition.

While thinking about what to rename my blog for the third time, I was tempted to go with a totally nondescriptive name that could never again change, like David's Blog. But then something about Irenaeus' analogy of the mosaic hit me. Here is his telling of it again:
Such, then, is [the Valentinians'] 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. 
In like manner do these persons patch together old wives' fables, and then endeavour, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions. We have already stated how far they proceed in this way with respect to the interior of the Pleroma.
I realized that this analogy is quite descriptive of my journey through doubt. I experienced crashing waves of doubt caused by reading the Bible, yet not by the Bible itself but by how I was reading it. My presuppositions, the "big picture" I expected to put together from the Scriptures, were wrong. I was trying to assemble the Scriptures into the image of a fox, because that was what I'd been taught they were supposed to point to. I was further taught that this image was truly that of the king, even if it can be hard sometimes to see the resemblence. But in Orthodox Tradition I see the true image of a king, the way to read the Scriptures and put the mosaic together rightly as I'd wanted to do all along. In light of this, I decided that my blog's new name will be εἰκών βασιλέως (or in English, "Image of a King"). May it record my progress as I learn to read the Scriptures so as to assemble them into this image.

The name has added significance because of a souvenir I brought home from my trip to Europe. The trip came right as I was beginning to take an interest in Orthodoxy. Interestingly, each week of the trip took us through a historically different part of Christianity: Lutheran Germany, Catholic Italy, and Orthodox Greece. In Greece, I was of course interested in learning more about Orthodoxy "in its native environment". So on my first day in Athens, when I had some free time, I found a shop where I purchased a museum copy of a beautiful Christ Pantokrator (Christ Almighty) icon. I've used it in my morning prayers ever since, and I'm happy to be able to name my blog after it.