Saturday, November 1, 2014

My Journey, Part 11.25: Addenda on Sola Scriptura

This is part 11.25 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

A few addenda

In the discussion ensuing from my attack on sola scriptura, I realized a few other reasons why I no longer hold to it, which I'll mention in brief here instead of simply editing into the previous post.

First, equating the New Testament with the apostolic tradition implies that the apostles who didn't write or contribute to Scripture (Andrew, James the son of Zebedee, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddeus, Simon the Zealot, and possibly Matthias) left no legacy of their own. Either their teaching was not part of the apostolic tradition, or it consisted entirely of things written by the Scripture-writing apostles. I find this hard to believe. Given how much the situations and contexts of the other New Testament writers affect their expressions of the gospel (Matthew's prophecy-conscious presentation of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, Luke the Gentile's presentation of him as the savior of all humanity, Paul's Pharisee-turned-apostle perspective, James practical, pastoral teaching, etc.), it is very hard to see how, say, Simon the Zealot had nothing unique to contribute to the apostolic tradition from his own context.

Second, as I may have implied last post, every Christian is part of some kind of tradition, even those who would deny it. Reformed Christianity is a Christian tradition with its own dogmas, its own rule of faith that sets the parameters for how its members read Scripture and is authoritative for that tradition. So is Wesleyan Christianity, broadly speaking, or Lutheranism, or the Anabaptist movements. They would be quick to point out that their dogmas, their rules of faith, are based on Scripture—but so would Eastern Orthodoxy! None of these rules of faith are read directly from Scripture (the Bible is not a catechism), but are the result of (and the reason for) different interpretations of it. In light of this, the question at hand is not properly "Scripture or tradition?", but "Which tradition interprets Scripture truly?".

Third, in response to Catholic/Orthodox arguments that the number of denominations or divisions in Protestantism demonstrates the unworkability of sola scriptura, Protestant apologists often like to point out the divisions within Catholicism and Orthodoxy, as well as their Great Schism from each other in 1054. If Protestants can't agree on what Scripture says, it seems equally true that Christians who believe in an authoritative church and Holy Tradition can't agree on what they say, either.

Let me address these two kinds of division separately. First, divisions within Orthodoxy. These include things like schisms over which calendar to use, whether to use leavened or unleavened bread in the Eucharist, minor details in the liturgy, etc. I would respond to these accusations in three ways.
  1. A Protestant telling an Orthodox Christian that his church is divided is a bit like a Unitarian telling a Calvinist that his tradition is incoherent and jumbled. Or, to use a biblical analogy, it is like pointing out the speck in your neighbor's eye while blind to the plank in your own eye. More to the point, the Orthodox view of Tradition does not deny that the Church is full of sinful, imperfect people who can be prone to disagreement. This is just as true for Orthodoxy as it is for Protestantism. But, as I have explained, Orthodox see the Church as more than the sum of its members. It is the divine body of Christ, into which its human members are joined through the mystery of the Incarnation. This makes it possible, at least, to distinguish between schisms from the Church and schisms of the Church, though not merely empirically but by faith. At least to Orthodox, a small minority of believers breaking away from the majority consensus is easily distinguishable from the Church itself dividing due to irreconcilable differences on an issue. It does not prove that the Church itself is divided or that its teaching is confused, only that the people in it are still sinful and in need of grace.
  2. Protestant attempts to demonstrate the disunity of Tradition impose on it the same notion of democratic perspicuity that they impose on Scripture itself, a view that is not held by Orthodox. Due to the larger body of writings, practices, and other sources it involves, Tradition is even less of an "open book" than Scripture is. Thus these arguments will fail to be convincing because they proceed from assumptions considered wrong by those they seek to convince, somewhat like an atheist attempting to show that the Christian Scripture is full of contradictions. (After all, Scripture, like the Church, is a reflection of the incarnate Word of God, diverse in its humanity but one in its divinity)
  3. While Protestants like to point to the relative pettiness of reasons for division among Orthodox as evidence of the absurdity of manmade tradition, I would interpret this fact in a different way. If the biggest things Orthodox have seriously disagreed over since the Reformation are liturgical calendars, the kind of bread to use in the Eucharist, or the precise way to make the sign of the Cross, then they agree on everything of substance! That's great! Clearly this Church has a settled understanding of the essentials of the faith.
Second, divisions of Orthodoxy from other traditional forms of Christianity, namely Catholicism and Oriental Orthodoxy. As I said in my post on ecclesiology, these schisms remain my two biggest standing disagreements with the Orthodox teaching of the Church's indivisibility. I have no answer for them right now. Yet I don't consider them deal-breakers. Why is this? Well, I agree with the Orthodox Church in these schisms and believe its position is in continuity with the apostolic church. I don't believe that Jesus established St. Peter and his successors as infallible monarchs over his church (the incredible corruption of some historical popes makes this hard to see), and I believe that the Chalcedonian definition provides the best, fullest description of the mystery of the Incarnation. These reasons are subjective, but I don't think it's possible to objectively "prove" that a given church is the "true" church any more than it is that Christianity is true. This does not mean it isn't possible to know the truth about these things, simply that no one can be argued to that truth.

Finally, in response to the Protestant argument that sola scriptura Christians differ on non-essential matters but are led by the Holy Spirit to the truth on matters of salvation: if you define the "essentials" of the Christian faith as those beliefs on which sola scriptura Christians agree, you are quickly left with little of real substance. Sure, there may be broad agreement on, say, the Nicene Creed, but behind its words wildly different beliefs can be held. How is God the Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible, and does it matter? How did Christ's incarnation work out our salvation? Are the crucifixion and resurrection equally important in this, or is one of them the decisive completion of salvation? In what manner will Christ come again to judge the living and the dead, and does that matter? Does the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father alone, or from the Father and the Son? How is the Church one, holy, catholic, and apostolic; and if so, how? How is the one baptism for the remission of sins to be administered, and what is its meaning? I believe these questions are important and not simply matters of individual conscience. The Orthodox Church can offer one consistent, "biblical" answer/set of complementary answers to the essential questions and clearly distinguish which ones these are. Can Protestants?

Reflection on my story

I experienced this confusion about "non-essential" teachings of the Bible firsthand, and it was a major factor in my own rejection of sola scriptura. As I've previously told my story, a major driver of my journey of faith has been my growing questions and doubts about the "gospel" as I've been taught it within evangelicalism. I started facing questions like:
  • Atonement theories: Why did Jesus have to die on the cross? What did his death accomplish, both objectively and subjectively? How do the crucifixion and resurrection tie into this?
  • God's providence: How do God's sovereignty and our freedom intersect in our faith and salvation? Does God accomplish everything apart from our contributions, or do we cooperate with his grace somehow?
  • Soteriology: Is salvation to be thought of primarily in individual or corporate terms? Is there a prominent legal dimension to it, or does it consist of something else? Can we lose our salvation, or were we never really saved if we fall away? Is salvation an instantaneous event or somehow more distributed?
  • Origins: Were Adam and Eve historical people who introduced sin and death into the world by committing the first sin? If not, where did sin and death come from?
  • Theodicy: However it happened, was the fall a tragic and unintended disaster or is it somehow part of God's greater plan? That is, is God working to restore the creation to its former perfection, or is it part of his ongoing creation of something even better?
  • The law: Why was the Mosaic law given? How is it fulfilled in Christ? How are faith and obedience to the law (or, more generally, "works") related? How do the testaments fit together?
Later, after my big crisis of doubt, I started searching for different answers to these and other questions. These answers were often at odds with the ones my church held (which, after all, were what prompted my doubts). In light of sola scriptura, there were a few ways to explain this discrepancy:

I was wrong. My church's theology was correct, at least on the essentials, and my questions were based on personal sin or misunderstanding. This was the approach I took until around last February, when I realized that suppressing my doubts and questions, pretending to myself that they weren't well-founded, would never make them go away and was eroding the life of my faith as God ceased to make sense to me. Since then, this option has been closed for me. I had never been able to wholeheartedly affirm things like Calvinism or penal substitutionary atonement, even when I wanted to and sought to understand them as biblically as I could. I couldn't deny the problems I saw with them without compromising my theological integrity and my belief in God's basic goodness, which was not under any question. Submitting to evangelical tradition would be a much bigger compromise of my conscience than to Orthodox tradition.

These questions are about non-essential doctrines, on which differing opinions are to be expected. Then what is essential? The biblical authors certainly didn't seem to consider things like the workings of God's providence or the nature of salvation to be merely matters of godly speculation. They seemed to have strong views on these things and to expect their readers to as well. My conscience, my reading of Scripture in sincere pursuit of the truth of God, had led me to some seriously differing conclusions than the Reformed-evangelical tradition I was a part of. If I simply set aside any matter on which there was disagreement as "non-essential", what remained was so minimal and anemic as to not even qualify as a "gospel". It was also intolerably relativistic. As I explained when I started this series, my questions had progressed so that I wasn't even sure what the gospel was anymore, only some things it probably wasn't. Clearly I was lacking an understanding of the "essentials" of the Christian faith.

My church was wrong (and maybe I was too). This was the option I had pretty much settled on when I started the present series on the gospel. I sought to clearly define the things I disagreed on and seek out better answers to my questions that I didn't have to force myself to believe.

But necessary as this quest seemed, I started to feel uneasy about it. Striking out on my own to seek the truth of Scripture, apart from any tradition I knew of, far from a glorious exercise of my sola scriptura rights, felt terribly individualistic, even narcissistic. My lack of trust in established traditions seemed to imply that God's promise to lead his people into the truth applied only to me, and no one else, that he had instead simply left them to their own (insufficient) ability to figure things out. How was I so much smarter than all the theologians and exegetes I was sparring with, both past and present? Regardless of how much "biblical" sense whatever answers I found made to me, how did I know that they were actually true? You see, by this point, I was acutely aware of the difference between what the Bible actually says and how we interpret it. I couldn't see how I could trust that my interpretations were any more reliable or true than those of my former tradition. I was tired of simply judging things as my fallible eyes saw them. The "that's just your interpretation" defense I had used so many times on others turned back on myself.

Yet even if I didn't go it alone and sought another tradition, another denomination, another "church" with which to read Scripture, one that shared my new convictions, what did that prove? Instead of my interpretation against theirs, it was simply some other tradition's interpretation against theirs—two "churches" each reading Scripture in such a way as to make it say things congruent with their own convictions. How was this any more decisive? It simply kicked the theological problems I was having up to the institutional level rather than the individual. It seemed tribalistic, like simply seeking a tradition that would echo and validate my own convictions. There was nothing to commend, say, Methodism to me except that it made more sense to me. So I was disinclined to switch churches, but I also grew increasingly pessimistic and relativistic about the ability of any church or individual to read Scripture truly. It seemed like it was always just someone's opinion/interpretation against someone else's. What was there to assure me that any interpretation, besides being more pleasing to me, was actually true? Could we even know? So I journaled:
It’s not so much that Protestant traditions are the personal domains of individuals—although this does happen, and more traditions begin or are identified with a single person. The real issue is that choosing these traditions is highly individualized—it’s an a la carte approach to belief where we can easily surround ourselves with those we agree with. (2014-3-21)
Maybe you can understand a bit of my excitement about finding the Orthodox Church, then. Here was a tradition that articulated the answers I had been seeking about God, the Bible, and the gospel, better than any other I had heard from before. But even more importantly than this, its claim to being true rested on more than its own say-so. The legitimacy of Orthodox Tradition was not simply by fiat, but was based on history, on Orthodoxy's real, visible continuity with the Church that Christ founded on and through the apostles to celebrate, proclaim, and preserve his teaching. It was also based on the incredible, unbelievable (to my Protestant eyes so used to disagreement and confusion) degree of unity I saw among Orthodox. It was precisely the kind of unity that sola scriptura promised, but never seemed to deliver.

The most excellent way

Let me be clear what I do and don't mean by that. In the Orthodox tradition there is no simple list of doctrine that clearly answers all the above questions. There is no single "official" story on origins, or theodicy, or salvation. But there are also no conflicts concerning them between theological positions that resemble political camps. Instead, there is conversation between a number of different, complementary views and emphases, all of which may well be correct dimensions of the faith. The essentials have been clearly defined, the parameters for doing theology on these things set, so that we can be free to do so with the Church, not independently from it and so often against it. With my current understanding, I can only offer the barest sketch of how Orthodoxy handles my Protestant confusions:
  • Atonement theories: Orthodox teaching holds a combination of the Christus Victor, ransom, moral example, and substitutionary atonement theories (and probably has some other dimensions I'm forgetting). Penal substitution is ruled out, and I have a feeling Orthodox would also disagree with the governmental theory, though I don't know of any interaction with it. The crucifixion and resurrection are viewed largely as one event with neither getting an unfair share of the attention; to a lesser extent this is true of Jesus' whole life, and the Incarnation in general.
  • God's providence: Orthodoxy is unabashedly synergistic, like Arminianism (but without the influence of Reformed theology). Though the necessity of God's grace, administered inwardly and outwardly, is stressed at every point, people are expected to cooperate with God in working out their salvation (Phil 2:12-13). Far from there being an ongoing debate between two major "camps" regarding God's providence, Calvinism and the Augustinian view of God's sovereignty and predestination it holds are considered heterodox.
  • Soteriology: Salvation is more corporate and ontological than individual and legal. It is not an instantaneous event but growth in Christian righteousness, maturity, and union with God in all that he is. It does depend on our holding to God in love and faith, and can be "lost" if we deliberately turn away and reject him.
  • Origins: The Orthodox Church is not dogmatic about the historicity of Adam and Eve (though with its bias towards historical interpretations, it tends to speak about them as though they were historical people). What is more important than the literal truth of Genesis 1-3 is its spiritual truth, especially in light of Christ's redemptive role as the second Adam (Gen 5:12-21). The theology of Irenaeus, among others of the church fathers, offers a compelling vision for interpreting the origins accounts that doesn't depend on their historical truth,
  • Theodicy: Irenaeus also articulates a theology of the fall that is distinct from Augustine's and, again, does not depend entirely on its reality as a historical event to make sense of the human condition. Rather than through Adam, our predicament is fully understood only through Christ, eschatologically rather than historically. This most helpful blog post by Fr. Stephen Freeman explains this in some more detail.
  • The law: As I have explained, the New Perspective on Paul has done more than Orthodox theology to resolve my confusion on this point, but they are definitely not incompatible. When the "law" is spoken of in Orthodoxy, it is generally the "law" of sin and death that we are saved from rather than the Mosaic law, which was a redemptive (though incomplete) dispensation of God for the Israelites. Because the gospel accounts and their later interpretation through Tradition are much more determinative to the Orthodox understanding of the "gospel" than the epistles of Paul, there is much less of a law-grace dichotomy, which is what contributed to my confusion in the first place; it is set into its proper context, not front and center as the bread and butter of the gospel message. There is no dichotomy between faith and works in salvation; both are necessary and expected to accompany each other, and both are considered to be made possible by God's grace.
On some of these things, Orthodox teaching offers fairly clear and compelling answers. In all cases, though, the way to greater knowledge of the Truth is clear, and no one is required to choose sides against each other. This way is Christ, the heart and ultimate meaning of the Scriptures. Holy Tradition is, very simply, the life of the Church as it interprets them, inspired by the Spirit with Christ as the key. Scripture is still, in a sense, the church's authority for matters of faith and practice, but Scripture interpreted rightly. I will (finally) write more about what this means next time.

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