My Thoughts on Infallibility

In my earlier post, I utilized three biblical texts to establish the foundation for the infallibility of the Church, Matthew 18:18-20, John 16:13, and 1 Timothy 3:15. (A fourth, Ephesians 4:16 was not meant so much to establish infallibility so much as to establish the Church’s sufficiency, given Her in Christ, for Her own maturity apart from, or at least not dependent exclusively upon, the Scriptures.) I did not, due to the parameters of the discussion, include extracanonical evidence (from the apostolic fathers and later Church writings) precisely because these would have been called into question. However, if it is true, as it is clear from Scripture that it is, that the Church has infallibility based on who She is, the Body of Christ, united inseparably to Him, then one may simply take the infallibility as fact and go on to support it with other texts.

The only passage which speaks of Scripture in similar lights is 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be proficient, having been thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Of course, the “Scripture” here spoken of is the Old Testament, but I have no quibble with those who want to apply this promise to the New Testament as well. Certainly Christians have, from the moment the New Testament writings individually were complete, viewed the canonical writings as on par with the Old Testament and equally inspired.

Now, the only ones who have a problem with the dual infallibility of the Scriptures and of the Church are those who have a reason to deny to the Church the infalliblity rightly and clearly given Her, to which Scripture testifies, those who must oppose (for whatever reason) the authority of the visible Church. (It is, after all, always easier to invoke the authority of the invisible Church by simply ascribing one’s own position to Her.)

Now this denial of the visible Church’s authority rests on a plurality of grounds, whether that be for the sake of the individual believer’s autonomous conscience, a suspicion of any and all earthly power (even and especially if wielded in and for the Church), a reaction to the abuses of the Western Church (i. e., the Roman Catholic Church), or to abuses of specific hierarchs (not themselves acting in the name of the Church, such as the recent scandals among certain hierarchs in the Church in Greece), or any other of a number of related reasons. But the result of all these denials to the Church the infallibility due Her is the replacement of the infallibility of the Church with the (practical) infallibility of the interpreter. The vacuum will not be denied. It will be filled with something or someone.

One may be as careful as one wants to avoid taking such a practically necessary step. But in the end, whenever there are two competing and contradictory interpretations of the infallible Scriptures, the issue will have to be settled on some authority. If that authority is not the charism of the Church, it will be the charism of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the individual believer. But what evidence could there be that the Holy Spirit has, indeed, spoken through this individual? Either such interpretations will be consonant with the historical understanding of the Church, or they will be innovations in whole or in part, which innovations are predicated upon the individual interpreter’s rationale. If they are consonant with the Church, then we have merely given a soft assent to the infallibility of the Church. If they are only one believer’s interpretation, or perhaps the interpretation of a group, we still have the phenomenon of an assertion of infalliblity to a particular interpretation wrought by a believer or segment of believers in contradistinction to the entirety of the Church as a whole.

This still, ultimately, begs the question as to how, if the Scriptures are infallible but not the Church, such infallibility passes to the interpretation. Answers such as its being consonant with the truth of the Scriptures only begs the question. Why should I trust such an interpretation when I, or the historical Church, reads the text differently?

Take, for example, the disagreement over the aforementioned texts as to the infallibility of the Church. That these texts do not apply to the Church and are not promises of infallibility cannot be resolved by those who appeal to the infallibility of Scripture over against the infallibility of the Church. For if I invoke the leading of the Holy Spirit on my interpretation, and if mine is fully consonant with the historical Church’s understanding of these texts, all I have in support of my thesis is numerical superiority; i. e., more Christians have believed what I’ve believed than have believed the opposite. But appeal to the majority is hardly a good argument. Otherwise, if my interpretation is not consonant with the historical Church’s understanding, I must somehow invoke an authority which undergirds my minority position–which may simply be the unsubstantiated assertion that the Church was wrong.

So, in the end, it simply comes down to one interpreter asserting his interpretation on their grounds, and another doing so on her grounds. But we are left with no resolution of the matter.

But of course, it is precisely the view that only the Scriptures are infallible that has led to the tens of thousands of schisms in the body of Christ: for if there is no mechanism for determining the mind of Christ in the Scriptures save individual interpretation, one only has the resort to allegiance of like minds.

Thankfully, those of us who affirm the infalliblity of the Church do not have to do so in opposition to the infalliblity of the Scriptures: we can have our cake and eat it, too. For we know that the mind of Christ is revealed in both the Church and the Scriptures, and both deserve our trust on matters of faith and practice. This has been manifested for us through the centuries. It is manifestly demonstrable that the Church has had a single mind on matters of dogma from the beginning. Schisms and heresies are not, to the contrary, demonstrations of uncertainty or double-mindedness. Rather, as has historically been demonstrated time and again, the Church has reiterated the single revelation given to Her in and by the Christ in the face of such heresies and schisms. We now have two millennia of such evidence, and it seems to me that ignorance (willful or no) of such history is the seedbed for denying to the Church the infallibility that rightly is Hers, and such ignorance is also the seedbed for schism and heresy.

[Edited for typos, grammar and clarity at 8:20 pm CDT.]

Hermeneutics and Infallibility, or, As Expected, the Impasse Has Quickly Been Reached: A Reply to Kevin

Kevin has taken the time to reply in a single post, “Epistemological Comfort Blankets,” to my last two posts responding to him. Regrettably, however, though Kevin has obviously taken time to carefully argue his point, he has not quite taken the care necessary to address the actual substance of my previous replies. But this may have less to do with his avoidance of the fundamental items in the debate and more to my own inability to carefully articulate what are those fundamental matters. So I am grateful for the opportunity to sharpen the focus.

Before I do that, however, I want to just briefly address some tangential matters so that I, myself, may not be accused of avoiding them, and also so as to clear them out of the way as so much distracting debris. First is the historical matter of iconography and the Church. If Kevin will peruse the information on the following links on icons, he will find that his own position cannot be substantiated:

Christian Iconography on 2002
Icon at Wikipedia
Byzantine Icons: General References: Byzantine Empire, History of Icons and Mosaics, Eastern Orthodoxy

That latter, especially, is a wealth of archaeological and scholarly information. I’m certain, however, that Kevin will remain convinced in his own mind that icons are an anti-biblical tradition unjustified from Scripture, since there is no Scripture that commands all Christians everywhere to venerate icons. Thus, his logical fallacy of assuming absence of proof as proof of his own position will once again be committed by him, though he has failed to actually delineate what constitutes proof and whether his rules concerning such constitution are themselves valid.

Finally, regarding cessationism and 1 Corinthians 13, I simply point him to this reasonable and logical exegesis which says it better than I could:

Questions Cessationists Should Ask: A Biblical Examination of Cessationism

Besides all which, aberrant interpretations such as the one he applies to 1 Corinthians 13 only take us further afield from the issues under discussion.

But now let us turn to the matters at hand, namely hermeneutics and infallibility. It will become clear, however, that the argument has reached an impasse beyond which it is likely not to go further. I have taken due warning from one of Kevin’s comrades-in-arms (in the comments here), however, and have no obsessive need to circle the axis of a dia-blog that has run out of tether. If we can advance the argument from here, well and good. Otherwise, I thank Kevin for the opportunity’s he’s given me to manifest the beauty and strength of the historic Faith once for all delivered to the saints and the Church which has been called both to guard it and to transmit it.

(A list of all the posts and replies between Kevin and myself follows at the very end of this post.)
Continue reading “Hermeneutics and Infallibility, or, As Expected, the Impasse Has Quickly Been Reached: A Reply to Kevin”

On the Priesthood and the New Testament

[The following is the substance of a second email I sent to a correspondent who asked me what New Testament justification the Orthodox have for their understanding of the priesthood.]

The reason I answered the question on the Lord’s Supper first is that, historically speaking, the functions of the offices/ministries of bishop, priest and deacon have flowed directly from an understanding of the Eucharist and not the Eucharist from that of the functions of these ministries. Once one understands that from the very time the New Testament was being written, from the first days of the Church, the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper were understood to be the Body and Blood of Jesus, it necessarily changes the way one looks at the New Testament evidence, such that it is, for these three ministries.

Another matter we must confront head-on with no dissembling is the simple fact that the New Testament does not really tell us all that much about these offices/ministries. We are not told, for example, whether the leadership of a local congregation must be one of a plurality of elders assisted by the deacons (which has been the typical Restoration Movement understanding), or whether one of those elders can serve in a full-time function as the primary pastor of the congregation, or even whether we can name an individual who is not an elder or deacon to lead the congregation on a full-time basis, whether we call that man—and it has always been a man among the independent Christian churches and among the a capella churches of Christ—a minister (a Latin synonym for the Hellenic deacon) or evangelist (which the New Testament says very little about), or even a pastor or teacher or pastor/teacher. To the degree that we dogmatize about these matters we are that much further from actually understanding what is “the New Testament pattern” for the Church.

That fact, that the New Testament is not all that clear about the functions of these various offices/ministries, is inescapably joined to another fact: If we are to properly understand what the New Testament does say about these things, we are going to have to look at the earliest history of the Church and the earliest Church writings to see what they say about these things and then offer reasonable inferences about what the New Testament says about these things in light of the later earliest historical realities.

That being said, I will limit my comments, as you asked, to the New Testament because there are, I think, suggestive elements in the New Testament that will lay the foundation for a case of understanding the New Testament polity of the Church as being the traditional historical threefold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons.

The normal texts that one looks at for the leadership roles in the Church are 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9. We also look to Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:1-4, James 5:13-16 and Acts 6:1-7. From these texts we learn more about who an elder or deacon is than we do what an elder or deacon does. We know that an elder shepherds the church (Acts 20.28; 1 Peter 5.1-4), visits and prays for the sick (James 5.13-16), preaches and instructs (1 Timothy 5.17; Titus 1.9), shows hospitality (1 Timothy 3.2; Titus 1.8), gives proper care and leadership to his own household (1 Timothy 3.4-5; Titus 1.6), guards the church from those who would destroy it by sin, divisiveness, or a false gospel (Acts 20.28; Titus 1.9; cf. Matthew 18.15-20). What we know of the responsibilities of a deacon is even less: Cares for and leads his household well (1 Timothy 3.12), and perhaps provides food for needy widows (see Acts 6.1-7), assuming it is possible to equate the Acts 6 deacons with the 1 Timothy 3 deacons. I need not here answer the question as to whether the “women” of 1 Timothy 3 refers to deacon’s wives or to deaconesses, and besides, even if it is the latter, the New Testament nowhere gives any specific function associated with such an office/ministry.

So there you have it. Nothing is said about elders and deacons in terms of the Lord’s Supper or in any other more specific things with regard to their ministry. We do not know, on the basis of the New Testament alone, whether or not they had functions associated pretty closely with what we now understand to have been the case by the end of the first century; which is to say that the bishop presided over the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper assisted by priests and the deacons (cf. the Epistles of Ignatios of Antioch c. A. D. 107). There is nothing in the New Testament that would forbid such functions, but very little that is suggestive of those functions as well.

I do think it important, before I get to the little that is suggestive of the roles of elder and deacon in the New Testament, to comment briefly on terminology. We both know how important it is in the Restoration Movement to use “Bible names for Bible things.” That is why we call it the “Lord’s Supper” because this is what Paul calls it in the Corinthians passages. It is why our churches prefer the terminology “churches of Christ” or “Christian churches,” as these reflect, we think, the better New Testament terminology. And, it is why we call presbyteroi “elders,” because that is what the New Testament term means.

That being said, however, it is a bit disingenuous that we don’t call our deacons “servants,” but instead transliterate the term. Also, though our Restoration Movement brethren object to the term “bishop” it is a perfectly good New Testament term. It is, in fact, what elders were called in Ephesus, “bishops.” In 1 Timothy 3, the office/ministry we usually call “elder” (presbyteros) is actually “overseer/bishop” (episkopos). So, too, in Acts 20:28, where Paul says of the elders of the assembly/church (as it says of them in v. 17) who have come out to meet him, “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [bishops, episkopoi]” over the flock. And in 1 Peter 5:2, Peter says to the elders that they must “exercise the oversight” (i. e., they must be bishops) over the flock of God. And in fact, Jesus himself is called, in 1 Peter 2:25, our Chief Shepherd and Overseer (or Bishop). So, in point of fact, there are bishops all over the New Testament, though, as has already been said, what we know of their functions is limited–and I will also readily admit that the New Testament does not make enough of a distinction between episkopoi and presbyteroi to be dogmatic about such a distinction. That distinction came as a later historical development.

However, there are at least some important suggestions made by Paul in Romans 15 that I think may, if not absolutely settling the matter, bring more to light than we currently have. In Romans 15:16, Paul notes that by the grace of God it has been given to him to “work as a priest” in the service of the Gospel. This is a hapax legomena, the only time this verb is used in the New Testament. Etymologically it is made up of the words for priest (hieros) and work (ergeo). But this provides us little help. After all, what does it mean to “work, or serve, as a priest in the service of the Gospel”?

Earlier in that verse, Paul calls himself a “servant of Jesus Christ.” This word for servant is leitourgos (from which stem our word liturgy is related). This word leitourgos is only used three other times in the New Testament, once at Philippians 2:25 in which Epaphroditus is called by Paul, his “minister” of his need. It is used in Hebrews 1:7, where angels are said to be God’s “servants” of fire. And it is used in Hebrews 8:2, where Jesus is called our leitourgos or servant of the sanctuary, the heavenly tabernacle not pitched by men. Indeed, when we look at the other related words to leitourgos, such as the verb, leitourgeo (I serve or minister), or leitourgia (service or ministry), leitourgikos (used only once of angels as ministering spirits in Hebrews 1:14), and leitourgos (used only once of the public servants in Romans 13:6), we see that the word group used in a somewhat generic sense of ministry and service. We do have an instance of the noun, leitourgia, used in Luke 1:23, to speak of Zachariah’s priestly service. But there is also one instance of the verb, leitourgeo, in Hebrews 10:11 that is also suggestive. There it speaks of the priests of the old covenant standing day by day “offering sacrifices” (our verb leitourgeo). This of course, is contrasted with the once and for all sacrifice that Jesus offered of himself that is far better.

So, it seems that we do have some strong warrant for tying Paul’s “working as a priest in the service of the Gospel” to the priestly ministry of Jesus himself whose once-for-all sacrifice of himself is the one offered in the true sanctuary in the holy of holies in heaven. I am not here tying the functions of bishops, priests or deacons to this verse in Roman 15 and the related verses in Hebrews. But I am saying that if Paul, whose ministry was of such a nature as I believe the New Testament to suggest, and if Paul was responsible for appointing elders in all the churches he established, and if the Lord’s Supper is to be a continual observance in the Church, then one can, on the New Testament alone, build a strongly suggestive case that the episkopoi, presbyteroi and diakonoi served the Body and Blood of Christ in the elements of the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.

It is, admittedly, only strongly suggestive. However, when one looks to the historical evidence, and especially to the earliest extrabiblical evidence we have (in 1 Clement and in the Epistles of Ignatios of Antoich), the case does become not only clear but unequivocal: bishops, priests and deacons were part of the original New Testament Church founded by the Apostles whose roles of service included their functions in the observance of the Lord’s Supper.

On the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament: A Reply to an Email Interlocutor

[The following is the substance of an email I sent to a correspondent who asked me what New Testament justification the Orthodox have for their understanding of the Lord’s Supper.]

Now, as to the Eucharist. There are essentially four or five texts we may consider: the passage in John 6, the institution narratives (taken together as one), and two places in 1 Corinthians (chapters 10 and 11).

I think if we start with those last first, the others will become more clear.

Take a look at 1 Corinthians 10:16ff. Here Paul juxtaposes the participation in the Christian Eucharist with the sacrifices of Israel and those of the Gentiles. His point is that Christians cannot partake of both the Lord’s Supper and the sacrifices of Judaism or those made to idols. But his reasoning is interesting. The Christians cannot do so precisely because there is a sharing in those sacrifices that apparently reflect actual and incompatible realities.

Note what he says in v. 16-17: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion [koinonia] of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion [koinonia] of the body of Christ? Because we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake [metechomen] from the one bread.” I will draw out the significance of this in a moment.

Then note v. 18: “Look at Israel according to the flesh: are not those who eat of the sacrifices partakers [koinonoi] of the altar?” Note the same word as used above.

Now look at vv. 20-21: “No, but that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not desire that you should have fellowship [koinonous] with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake [metechein] of the Lord’s table and of the table of demons.” Again, same words.

Here’s the force of my argument/interpretation from those verses. The participation, the fellowship, in these things must be a reality, else the whole prohibition looses its force. That is, just as we participate in the Lord’s Supper and that participation is a “real reality” so, too, is the participation in the now-obsolete Jewish sacrifices a real participation in the now-obsolete reality of animal sacrifices (i. e., that they cannot save forever) and the participation in demonic events a real participation in demonic reality. But if that is the case, then the partaking of the bread is a real fellowship in the Body of Christ, and the partaking of the cup is a real fellowship of the Blood of Christ. This koinonia is spoken of in terms of the unity of the Church, and it is the same sense of unity between bread and Body of Christ and wine and Blood of Christ.

When we turn to the next chapter, and read in light of these comments, it takes on fuller meaning. Note 1 Corinthians 11:27: “Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord irreverently will be guilty of the body of the Lord and of the blood of the Lord.” Now Paul has just given the institution narrative and quotes Jesus as saying, “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered unto you: that the Lord Jesus, during the night in which He was betrayed, took bread; and having given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which has been broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.'” Notice Paul didn’t say anything about Jesus speaking metaphorically, there was no allegorical interpretation put on it. He merely takes Jesus at his word. Indeed, he, too, by quoting Christ, identifies the bread with his Body and the cup of wine with his Blood, as we see in v. 27 previously quoted.

At this point, any exegesis of the institution narratives in the Synoptics will simply reiterate what has already been said by way of interpretation. But I make this note: to deny that Jesus really meant the bread was in some mysterious way His Body and the wine similarly His Blood is to say more than what Jesus himself said. Jesus did not speak in terms of metaphor and simile–nothing in the text justifies such an interpretation. Indeed, one has to have a presupposition against such an identification to be able to make that hermeneutical claim. And it is indeed an interpretive claim. A claim I do not think fits what Scripture actually says.

Finally are the words in John 6:35 and 48, “I am the Bread of Life”; v. 51, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world,” and vv. 53-58, “Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up in the last day. For My flesh truly is food, and My blood truly is drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not as your fathers ate the manna, and died. He that eats this bread shall live forever.”

I have heard the interpretation that this is all metaphorical and not meant to be taken literally. And yet Jesus nowhere softens his statement by making it a metaphor. Indeed, when this passage is taken in conjunction with Jesus’ words in the institution narratives, the implication is clear: he means the bread and wine to really be his Body and Blood in some way unknown to us, and that by feeding on these mystical elements of bread/Body and wine/Blood we will have the Life he promises because we are partaking of him who is Life.

And when one notes that historically up to the present that the first part of chapter 6, the feeding of the 5000, is interpreted Eucharistically, it is no wonder. We have Jesus’ words at the end of the chapter, the verb “eucharisteo” in the feeding of the 5000, and the whole context of the New Testament Scriptures on these things.

So this is the, to me, decisive evidence from the New Testament that the Orthodox understanding of the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper being really the Body and Blood of Jesus is indeed a New Testament belief, and a more New Testament belief than the Zwinglian one I was taught in the Restoration Movement churches of my youth and young adulthood.

A-Voiding the Word: My Response to Kevin’s Other Post

My dia-blog with Kevin on the Tradition continues.

I’m glad we do have points of agreement, so I am grateful to hear you say things like, “I wish everyone believed that the church’s life was something given to it by Christ; that this life is no mere doctrinal concept. To this extent, we agree.”

Unfortunately, while it is clear that you grasp the claims of the Orthodox Church, you mistake the actual force of those claims. For example, you say, in summarizing my points, “The Orthodox Church is the true church of Christ. It has a specific way of doing things, which it defines as its ‘Tradition.’ This, it claims, is given in infallible and unbroken form all the way from Christ. The proof of such a pedigree is found in the fact that it is this church that does these things.” This is, indeed, true. The Orthodox Church claims to be the true Church of Christ, that very Body Christ Himself founded on the Apostles and Prophets. As such, the Church’s Tradition is, then, that which is the Tradition of the Orthodox Church. All of this is consistent with my claims.

But just prior to that summation, you write, “This statement would be fine if ‘Tradition’ meant those beliefs and practices which exhibit the truths of the Gospel and are common to all those who profess the name of Christ. But it does not. It refers to the beliefs and practices of a specific denomination.” Here you slip. In point of fact, if the Orthodox Church claims to be the Church of Christ, She is not merely just another denomination, but is the sole visible Body of Christ. If the Orthodox Church thought of herself as simply the most pure of, the most correct of all other denominations, then she could not claim to be the Body of Christ, but only one branch among many. This in fact is precisely what she rejects about Herself, that she is merely one among many more or less correct “options.”

Similarly, you go on to extrapolate, apparently via logical categories, from the statement that if Orthodoxy and Orthodoxy alone has Life and is the Church, then no other denominations have any of this Life and are not the Church. This in fact is a distortion, nor is it logically required. It is true that the exclusivity of Orthodoxy’s claims to being the Church, seems to require that all other Christian groups are not the Church, but it is not true that Orthodoxy claims all else are dead.

Think of it this way. That the Orthodox consider themselves the Church of Christ is an exclusive claim. It either is the case or it is not. If it is the case, then no other church can make the same claim. And, to the degree that Orthodoxy is that which she claims (the Church), she is only witnessing to the truth She has been given. Orthodoxy does not make her claim out of pride, but out of the utmost humility. For Her to reject Her claim is to reject Her Lord.

However, when it comes to the claims about Life, the same dynamic operates (i. e., that this Life has been given to Her as a charge to keep), but the same conclusion of exclusivity does not operate. For the Body is the Body and not the Head. The Body has life only insofar as it is connected to the Head. But this property of Life does not inhere in the Body per se, but only by way of union. Thus, it is God who always is the source of Life. It is the Holy Trinity Who makes alive, and who are we to gainsay that which He enlivens? The Church does not dispense Life, or rather only does so in the way that Her Lord has given Her to do. But that she does so is only at the behest of Her Lord and through His very own Life and Power. So, does God enliven those who believe on the name of the Church’s Lord but yet who are outside Her doors? We can only offer a charitable and humble, “This is the Lord’s doing and we are made humble in our own eyes.” That is to say, that the Orthodox Church is the Church, which charge can be given no other body of Christians does not logically entail that there is no Life anywhere outside the Church’s doors. For God is everywhere, and everywhere God is there is Life for those who will accept it.

You then go on to state what you cannot substantiate on the basis of Scripture alone:

I am saying that Scripture sets the parameters both of the Gospel and of the Church. I am saying that Scripture gives no warrant whatsoever for a particular church to say, “plus all the things that we’ve been doing,” and then call this, “Life.” Even more, I am saying that Christ has given no such authorization. It is unthinkable that the One whom Scripure so fully reveals in the simplicity of the Gospel should have entrusted extra conditions for Life to a particular church with no indication that he had done so, no indication of what these conditions are, and no way of determining which church has this extra-Biblical but oh so essential truth.

Where does Scripture say that it does these very things? What do you make then of the authorization of Christ given to the Church to bind and to loose in Matthew 18:18-20? Doesn’t the very context there give the Church quite broad parameters in the matters of discipline to bind and to loose? What about St. Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 3:15 in which the Church is called the “pillar and ground of the truth?” Where in all of Scripture does Scripture say this about itself? What else can one make of Ephesians 4:16 where St. Paul indicates that it is in and among the very constituent members of the Body that it builds itself up into love into Him Who is the Head? Doesn’t this indicate that the Church has within Herself all that is necessary for maturing into the fullness of Christ? (Not, of course that She has this of Her own self, but that it is both given to Her in and by Her Lord and held and given back to Her Lord fivefold.) But where does it say in Scripture that Scripture has this capacity to bring the whole Church into full maturity in Christ? And doesn’t this all logically entail that the Church will necessarily incarnate these things in ways that must be “in addition” to what the Scriptures say? You’ll have a hard time arguing otherwise.

You then say, “I have seen particular churches throughout history fall into heresy or some other sin far too often to think that it can’t happen to any other church.” And this is indeed a great danger. But now let me ask you this? How do you know what is and isn’t heresy? Why, for example, don’t you reject the Trinity? I know you can infer it from Scripture. But you can also infer Arianism. How are we to decide between these two interpretations?

Furthermore, name one heresy that the Orthodox Church as a whole has espoused.

You then follow your statement on heresy with, “The only defense against this, and only sure way by which the Church will triumph agaisnt the gates of Hell, is to know the will of God as it has been given in Scripture.” But in point of fact, isn’t it the case that churches and groups have fallen into heresy precisely on the basis of their interpretation of the “will of God as it has been given in Scripture”? This is the largest problem with your entire thesis: you fail to take into account that there is never a case in which the Scripture is not interpreted. Or, to state it in the affirmative: every encounter with Scripture is interpretation.

In fact, I’m willing to bet that you read the Scripture almost exclusively in translation. Which means that you always encounter Scripture with two layers of interpretation between you and it: a) first your own presuppositions and worldviews and b) those of the translators. Even if you read the Scriptures in the original languages you will never divest yourself of a).

So it will always be the case that we will be asking the question, “Whose interpretation?” and “On what authority?” If you just naively assume that your interpretative methods are better than the Church’s, your interpretation better than Hers, you have not merely voided the Word, you have avoided it by enshrining your own mind and thinking over it–even if done naively and without malice.

Finally, you are right to note that if the Orthodox Church is the Church of Christ, then She is the pillar and ground of the Truth, She has been led by the Spirit into all Truth (John 16:13), then She cannot be in error, She is, in a word, infallible.

But your final conclusion is both illogical and deeply offensive: “It is a church that has outgrown the need both for humility and for repentance. I can think of nothing more devastating to the soul.” I wonder that you have the courage to say such a thing of a body of Christians who preceded you, who gave you your Bible, who gave you the standard of orthodox doctrine that you use every day, who kept and guarded the mystery of the Holy Trinity for you so that each day you can pray in His name, a body of Christians who have been persecuted and killed for the Pearl of Great Price they have been charged to keep. Though Orthodoxy claims to be the Church, she does not judge those outside her bounds as having outgrown the need for humility and repentance.

That being said, it is not a wonder that even in Her deep humility, Her sorrowful repentance, the very claim She has been given Her by Her Lord is offensive to you. It is a bracing jolt. It offended me when I first came across it. And it turned me off to Orthodoxy on my first very superficial encounters many years ago now. But there is no help for that. She cannot take out the sting without draining Herself of the Truth that is Hers.

Tradition and Scripture Continued: My Response to Kevin

Kevin continues our dialogue on Scripture. And I am duty-bound to respond–besides, he’s very polite, a good arguer, and we apparently both find this an interesting exchange. Now, let’s hope I can continue to do justice to the honorable parameters of our discussion.

(Justification from Properly Exegeted Scriptures–was “Sufficiency of Oral Transmission”)

You are right to note my failure to take account of your backing off of your thesis. And in fact, you make such distancing even more explicit when you write, “I am willing to extend this necessity for oral transmission of the Tradition for as long as the entire canon had not been made available.” But then you go on to claim that this does not entail an argument that Tradition is not limited specifically to the content of Scripture (which you clarify is both OT and NT, though we may quibble over OT canonical matters).

But I’m afraid that here you leave yourself open to the great weakness of your claim: what exactly is the “content” of the Scripture? I’ll stipulate, for the sake of our argument here, that the canon of the Scriptures is the Protestant 66. Is the content nothing more and nothing less than the verifiable propositions of (that which can be explicitly enjoined from) the Scriptures? Or is it also that which can be reasonably inferred from them? You have indicated in previous comments that you accept “examples of tradition justified from Scripture properly exegeted (and where they are not, such as Nicea II, we are required to ignore them).” But this simply leaves you wide open to the simple fact that if there is no contradiction between Tradition and Scripture–which is to say, Tradition is “justified from Scripture properly exegeted”–then you have no case. You must accept all those things you now think to be extra or additional.

I know, I know, you will stress the phrase “properly exegeted”–and I note that you dismiss Nicea II quite handily, but I suspect you have not read St. John of Damascus’ three treatises on the icons, nor the work of St. Theodore the Studite on the same matter, because both of these illumined gentleman do a great deal of “proper Scripture exegeting.”

But this really is the final rub, isn’t it? Difference in interpretation. I believe it entirely possible–though I am far from wholly competent to do it–to go through the Tradition and show its complete consonance in its entirety with properly exegeted Scripture. I know that there are some big issues in which this has already most ably been done: the nature of the Lord’s Supper, the necessity of an episcopal polity itself grounded in and on the reality that is the Lord’s Supper, the role of Mary, the nature of proper Christian worship, the communion of all the saints, and so forth.

But I suspect, which you indicate by graciously passing over the issues of asking the intercessions of the sainst in your response, that such justifications would not satisfy you because you would claim that “proper exegesis” has not been done. I am not without standing to ask: How do you know? Because that’s not the way you, or your denomination, or your denomination historically, or any other evangelical interprets Scripture? But how do these know? And why should not the fact that the entire Church historically understood the Scriptures this way count in light of your (presumably) contrary interpretations?

What if I want to use an allegorical interpretation as my primary exegetical tool? What if I decide the historical-grammatical is best? Or, what if I just want to go with what the Bible “says to me”? On the basis of your argument, how can you gainsay me? There’s nothing in Scripture that enjoins a particular interpretative method. And if we “justify from properly exegeted Scripture” a particular interpretive method we have only begged the question.

No, your argument has to be narrowed to the fact that Tradition is limited to the explicit (propositional?) content of Scripture. But then you have only checkmated yourself.

(Cessationism and Not Adding/Deleting–was “Sufficiency of Scripture for faith and practice”)

Since the extent of the OT canon is not necessary for the main argumentative points I wish to make, for the sake of this specific discussion, I’ll simply stipulate, as I did above, the Protestant 66. So I’ll not here take the time to substantiate my claims, and concede the limit.

Your cessationist intepretation of 1 Corinthians 13 is, and I mean no offense, fanciful in the extreme. “To teleion” does not mean the completed canon. The gender of the noun does not match the typical feminine of “e graphe,” and nothing in the context could be construed to actually refer to the Scriptures. More to the point, when St. Paul speaks of the Scriptures, he means the Old Testament, not the completed canon. There is nothing in the context to justify such a cessationist interpretation, and indeed, your uncertainty in your exegesis–“it appears,” “is a bit more illusive,” “it might be,” “whatever it is,” “the general idea”–does not lead to the dogmatic affirmation that “Scripture teaches its own sufficiency.” Besides all that, the fact that you affirm that this is the “cessationist” intepretation only begs the question: Why should I, or any other Christian, accept it? If I interpret “to teleion” as the Parousia, the coming age, who would you be to argue against it? Indeed, wouldn’t a better reading of v. 12 be that of the coming age? But I’ve dealt with exegesis above, so I’ll move on.

You mentioned the Revelation passage, itself an echo of that from Deuteronomy, and agreed that in context the prohibition against adding and deleting was primarily about Revelation but could be taken to refer to the whole of Scripture. And I would agree with that. But it’s a stretch to say: Don’t add to this book, or Don’t add to this canonical list, and then to go on to say, Don’t add any traditions either. First you would have to prove that was the original intent of the author, otherwise you’re begging the question. Second, you would have to prove that the addition of traditions that are “justified from a proper exegesis of Scripture” are not adding to the Scripture.

As a bit of an aside here, I found the riposte of the following absolutely and cleverly hilarious:

In the absence of an argument that would necessitate the validity of such a an oral tradtion beyond what was needed to supplement incomplete scripture, my claim that extra-Biblical traditions are invalid is not circular. Rather, your own attempt to justify a post-canonical practice by a narrower pre-canonical necessity is a red herring.

Well said! But let me add that you still commit a logical fallacy: assuming the absence of a proof for the opposing position as proof of your position. Touche!

To continue:

(The Foundation of Tradition and Scripture in the Holy Spirit–was “Limiting the Tradition to the Body of Scripture”)

When you write, “Tradition is not the foundation of Scripture nor is the reverse true,” you miscontrue what I said. You quoted me accurately, but substantiating the Scripture from the Tradition they had received from St. Paul is not the same thing as founding Scripture on Tradition. Scripture is, as I’ve said all along, part of the Tradition, not different from it, nor parallel to it. It’s all one cloth, with Scripture woven in over here, the Liturgy here, the Creeds here, and so forth. The whole of Tradition itself is founded in the Holy Spirit, and here I agree with you completely.

A brief reply to your comment, “The scriptural warrant for Sunday worship is found in Apostolic practice as recorded in Acts.” There is only one verse in Acts 20 that could possibly be construed as sanctioning the normal practice of Sunday as the primary day of worship. And even that verse is not explicit that this was the purpose for the meeting. But let’s grant that it is explicit about the day and it’s primacy for worship. We still have only the evidence that it was true of this particular congregation and not that it was a widespread practice in the Church. In other words, we get the primacy of Sunday from the extra-biblical Tradition–but of course not in contradiction to Scripture!

(The Stable Content of Tradition–was, “Obsolescence of Tradition Based on Completed Canon”)

You write of the attestation of Paul’s apostleship and say, “Arguably, these may be categorized as holy Tradition, but their function at the time does nothing to demonstrate the fuller tradition that you wish to advocate for today.” But there is no distinction between that which you agree “may be categorized as holy Tradition” and something else you call the “fuller tradition.” Your construing it in this way implies that Tradition is little more than centuries of accretion upon accretion.

I suspect, though you haven’t said so, that you think icons to have been something added to the Tradition sometime shortly before the end of the eighth entury A. D. But in point of fact, we have evidence of iconography dating back to the catacombs and first century practice. Or perhaps you think the whole doctrine about “Body and Blood of Jesus” in the Eucharist to have been a later addition, but once again, the New Testament makes these explicit claims (and these are attested to as early as the letters of St. Ignatios at the end of the first century/beginning of the second century A. D.). I could go on. In point of fact, the content of the Tradition has been pretty much stable from the time of the Apostles. Specific practices that exhibit that content do change and grow and subside dynamically through history, culture and languages, but the content remains the same. We may now have specific rules by which an icon is painted and displayed, but what it is and that it is venerated hasn’t changed in 2000 years. We may now serve the Communion in a gold chalice with a spoon, but the fact that it’s the Body and Blood of the Lord hasn’t changed in 2000 years.

In any case, thank you again, for your continued dialogue.

I’ll answer your other reply to my own account of Scripture and Tradition in another post. (We’ll probably have to combine these posts somehow to avoid further confusion and repetition!)

[Note: I edited the post for spelling and grammar about 9:00 am, and added one or two clarifying phrases for what were otherwise periphrastic nouns/pronouns.]

The Psalter According to the Seventy (CD)

I received in the mail yesterday, from Orthodox Christian Recorded Books, the Psalter According to the Seventy on a set of four CDs (scroll down the page).

From the jacket on the case:

The present recording is entirely ‘read’ or chanted in accordance with the way it is chanted during the divine services of the Russian Orthodox Church. There are separate tracks for each kathisma and each stasis, making it easy for the listener to forward through the recording to a favorite section of the Psalter. The reader names each psalm throughout so that the listener who is listening outside the context of the services, can be aware of exactly which psalm is being read . . . .

Each CD is about an hour and ten or fifteen minutes (the fourth is only about a half hour) long. The sound quality is excellent!

The Russian chant is essentially monotonic, which is an incredible aid to meditating on the Psalms.

The text can be found here. (Note: The psalster is divided according to the reading of the Kathismata according to each weekday–Kathisma 1, beginning with Psalm 1, is found at the end of Saturday; which is Saturday evening, or the liturgical beginning of the week.)

(I should note that Orthodox Christian Recorded Books provides “a special 20% discount to visually impaired persons.”)

My Account of Scripture and Tradition

[As is no doubt obvious from the previous week’s posts, this reflection has come out of the exchange I’ve had on the relationship between Scripture and Tradition. I’m thankful to Kevin who has pushed me to more concretely express my thoughts on the matter.]

The Tradition is that way of Life whose content and shape is Christ and was given by Christ to the Apostles and from the Apostles to the Christians to whom they gave it, and so on in unbroken succession down to the present age. This Life was and is no mere doctrinal concept but was and is Life, which is to say, it is all that makes a human being truly and fully human. So this Life given by Christ is His own, and is a way of living as much as it is the Life that makes living possible. As a way of Life it entails certain beliefs, concepts and wills. But it is not merely or purely psychic, or mental/volitional, but is, indeed, everything about what it means to be really and truly and fully human: speech and acts and all that we do with our bodies, as well as all our thoughts, emotions, words, and willing.

That Tradition was always present in full—nothing needed ever to be added to it, nor could anything ever be taken from it—from the very moment Christ ascended into Heaven and gave the gift of the Spirit to His Church. Because that Tradition was, and is, a way of Life, whose entire essence and content is Christ, it is a dynamic thing, always the same, yet ever concretely lived in specific ways of life. It does not change or adapt in its essence, since Christ Himself, Who is the Life of the Church, is the same yesterday, today and forever. But just as the exact same Gospel can be communicated in a thousand different languages without change or alteration, so this way of Life was and is expressed concretely in every place and people and language on earth. Because this Tradition is filled with the Life of Christ himself, it carries His authority, and is thus infallible. But this Tradition is not, nor ever could be, separable from the Church, for the Church Herself is the Body of Christ, and is filled with Christ in whom is the fullness of the Godhead. The Church’s Life, the Tradition, is thus not Her own but is always and only that which Christ gives her. Thus the Scriptures are not separate or separable from the Life of the Church, from Her Tradition, for the Scriptures are the Word of God, out-breathed by God in the Church, to the Church, for the Church. The Church wrote the Scriptures by the hand of God, and this Word given in and to and for Her is Her Life, for it is the Word of God. But Life is not opposed to Life, for it is all the same Life, which is to say, Christ. Christ is the shape and content of the Old Testament and the New Testament, and He is the shape and content of the Liturgy, the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, the teachings of the Church Fathers, the lives of His Saints, and so forth. The Church knows what is Life and what is not Life in all these things, for She knows the Lord Who calls Her by name and recognizes His voice. Thus, that which She takes up to Herself as Her Life is, indeed, Life.

It is true that the Scriptures have a unique place in the Life of the Church and are given special prominence, and this is due to their unique quality of being out-breathed by God. But while their authority may have a different shape than the authority of the Liturgy, or of the Creeds, or of the Councils, on account of their uniqueness, the quality of that authority remains the same, which is the Life of Christ, for all authority in heaven and on earth is His, and all things have been given Him by the Father. And it is because this authority the Scriptures have is of the Life of Christ that the Scriptures do not stand as an opposing authority to the rest of Tradition. For if it is true that the Scriptures are unique in their being out-breathed by God, it is still the Church that recognizes in them Her Master’s Voice, and claims them for Herself as what they really are: the Word of God. The Church does not make them Scripture so much as she recognizes them as such. Yet we must always speak of both realities as, in fact, true. The Scriptures were so out-breathed and the Church did discern them as such. Both historical realities must always be held together in the Truth as true. For even if the Scriptures were so out-breathed of God as they are, and yet the Church did not discern them as such, we would still be reliant on the Church to transmit to us the content of the Scriptures. The Church is ever the one who tells us what is this Scripture which is the out-breathed of God, given in the Church, to the Church, and for the Church.

According to Tradition, the Scriptures have a unique place in the Life of the Church, given their unique out-breathed status. Apart from the Tradition, this is something we would not know of ourselves. Indeed, we know this precisely because of how the Scriptures function, as a manifestation of what they really are, in the Life of the Church. The Scriptures are given prominence in the Life of the Church, in her Doctrine and her piety. In fact, certain of those Scriptures themselves are given additional prominence. Each Sunday we read from the New Testament Acts and Epistles, and we read from the Gospels. And to the Gospels are given a special prominence over the rest of the Scriptures, for they, unique above all the Scriptures, are a verbal icon of Christ. Now in a certain sense all the Scriptures are a verbal icon of Christ, for He is their content and the key to understanding them. But the Gospels focus uniquely on the Life of our Lord and are recognized as worthy of special attention. Still and all, we do not read from St. John Chrysostom’s Commentary on Matthew in the place of the Gospel of Matthew. Not because St. John is in opposition to the Gospel, or not worthy of contemplation, or has no authority, but because the Gospel of Matthew is unique, both in its authorship/Authorship and in its place in the Tradition.

In other words, in the classical conception of Tradition, there is no opposition, nor need there be, between Scripture and Tradition, and precisely because there is no opposition, each way of Life that is the Tradition (Liturgy, Scripture, Creed, etc.) can be given its due place and honor. We do not honor Scripture but disparage the Creed. Rather we honor Scripture as the Scripture and the Creed as the Creed, and both as the way of Life given the Church by and in and through Christ.

My Reply to Kevin re: Tradition and Scripture

[See the start of this thread and comments here.]

Let me take your points as you’ve presented them.

(Asking the intercessions of the “dead.”)

The Church has always interpreted Hebrews 12:1 (on the basis of the faithful of the Old Testament who have died and gone before us spoken of in chapter 11) as that the many witnesses are the “dead” who are alive in Christ God. Furthermore, Revelation 8:3-4 speaks of the prayers of the saints going up as incense before the Lord. In context, it is probably best to interpret these saints as the martyrs of 6:9-11 and 7:13-17. And while it is true that the content of their prayers are not manifest (except maybe for the justice of God to be realized as pace chapter 8, if the dead who are alive in Christ are witness to our struggles in the race set before us, it seems reasonable to conclude that they pray for us as well. After all, in this life they were charged by the Apostle Paul to offer “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings . . .on behalf of all men, on behalf of kings and all those who are in authority, that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. For this is good and acceptable before God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the full knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4). On what basis would they be free of this obligation simply because they are now with God in the heavenlies? These intercessions do not in anyway negate Christ’s mediation, for these prayers are offered precisely on the basis of such mediation, as Paul goes on to say, “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, the testimony in due time . . .” (1 Timothy 2:4-5). We no more short circuit Christ’s mediation to us by asking the prayers of our presently alive Christians brothers and sisters, than we do asking those who’ve gone before us, absent from the body but present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8), to pray for us.

More to the point, asking the intercessions of those who’ve gone before us is a practice directly testifying to the victory of Christ over death, that is to say, a faith in the Resurrection. It would seem that, despite good intentions, to forbid the invocations of the saints who’ve gone before us precisely because they have died is to deny the present reality of Christ’s victory over the last enemy. It means death is stronger than Christ. But Paul has something to say about that: Romans 8:37-39.
Continue reading “My Reply to Kevin re: Tradition and Scripture”