Orthodox Christian apologists, in defending the authority of the Tradition vis a vis the claims of adherents to the extrabiblical doctrine of sola scriptura typically prefer to assert that the canon of the New Testament used by sola scriptura adherents is itself a product of the culmination of Tradition in the fourth century . It is my view that such an apologia on precisely those grounds is unnecessarily hyperbolic and ultimately imbalanced.
In laying out my critique of the aforementioned apologia it is not my intent to personally criticize anyone who advocates just such an apologetical move. While I will attempt to demonstrate the weaknesses of such an apologetic, I am not claiming that it is false, only that it overly emphasizes certain of the historical facts and would do better with a different approach. Therefore advocates of such an apologetic are by no means playing false or doing something wrong. It is my view simply that there’s a better way.
First, let’s rehearse the apologetic. It is generally agreed among Orthodox Christian apologists for the Tradition that all the New Testament books were completed by the end of the first century, and likely written during the sixth through final decades of the first century. It is also a general consensus that St. Athanasius’ letter is the first extant document in which we have the complete New Testament canon as enumerated by one of the pastors and teachers of the Church. And the subsequent council at Carthage ratified this list. It is thus usually argued that the early Christians were without any of the New Testament books in the first two decades of the Church’s life post Pentecost, and that the Church lived and worshipped without a definitive canon for three centuries after Pentecost. These points are meant to argue the importance of Tradition as a living, active, stable and cohesive force in the life of the Church for maintaining fidelity to the Gospel and obedience to Christ. In summary, the argument is something like: Tradition is both prior in time and in origin to the Scripture, and indeed Scripture arose out of the Tradition as part of it, therefore it is both authoritative in itself and the Tradition is the interpretive framework for the Scriptures and not vice versa.
I don’t quibble with the historical facts as such. Nor do I differ with the general tenor of the line of the apologetic. I do however, think the attempt to emphasize the absence of the Scriptures, or at least the recognition of a canon of the Scriptures, over such a long period of time is an exaggeration that weakens the authority of the Scriptures and therefore the apologetic for the Tradition. I also think it’s unnecessary.
The first weakness in exagerrating something like a purported “absence” of the canon of the Scriptures from the life of the Church is that it simply assumes as correct the false dialectic of the adherents of sola scriptura. The adherents of sola scriptura, to motivate their claims, need a dialectic of opposition between Tradition and Scripture. This opposition may be a weak one, as in the case of some Lutheran apologists: Tradition isn’t bad, and we should follow it, unless of course, it “goes against Scripture” (or a hermeneutic of Law and grace, or Cross and glory). This opposition may be a strong one, as in the case of adherents to a so-called solo scriptura: nothing may be believed or practiced unless it can be demonstrated as having its origins directly in Scripture. Thus, if Orthodox apologists respond by emphasizing the absence of a canon of Scriptures from the life of the Church, they are by default falling prey to the same unbiblical dialectic. There is no need to do this. Scripture is authoritative. Scripture has an importance we are to reverence. We need not retreat into something like a solo traditio. The wonderful thing about Orthodoxy is that it very seldom has to succumb to a dialectic of opposition, but can affirm a both/and.
Such an exaggeration also weakens the authority of the Scriptures. Without getting into a pneumatology of Tradition, in simple let me just note that while Scripture and Tradition are not in opposition to one another, without a healthy reverence for the authority of the Scriptures we risk replacing Tradition with fallen tradition, much like the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. When the Law of Moses was held captive to various rabbinical exaggerations, it was our Lord himself who had to assert: do what they say, not what they do–they set aside the Word of God for the tradition of men.
A third weakness of such an apologetic betrays a presumption of a certain sort of fundamentalism underlying the argument. However, instead of a fundamentalism of the Scriptural texts, it is a fundamentalism of evidence of official pronouncements in the Tradition. As Orthodox apologists admit, there were many such pronouncements, even some by heretics, on what was and wasn’t in the canon of Scripture. And there were disputes over some of the books that were admitted into the canon. But that St. Athanasius wrote in the fourth century that the New Testament contained the same 27 books, is an implicit admission of a tradition predating his enscribing the list. That St Athanasius’ list bears resemblance to the one we use, and was affirmed at the subsequent council, only begs the question, why this one and not another? If our answer is that it was ratified by a council, then we are simply asserting that this is what we take to be the certification of the canon’s authority.
But if Scripture is inspired, as we Orthodox fully admit, then a council is not going to make it authoritative any more than it would make a rock a pigeon. It is authoritative by virtue of its inspiration and by its origin from an apostle (in broad strokes, Peter, Paul or John). Later codification of that is simply a recognition of what it is, not a creation of it. But if it is a recognition of what it is, then it has not changed it. And in that case, it is Scripture from the time of its creation. We have some evidence of this in the Scripture itself (witness St. Peter’s comment about the writings of St. Paul: 2 Peter 3:15-16).
So, let’s take a step back from this and come at it again. Let us affirm two things: that the New Testament Scriptures were inspired and authoritative from the time of their writing, by virtue of God and by virtue of the fact that they were written with apostolic authority; and let us also affirm that the Tradition is our authority for recognizing these realities. That is to say, God and his Apostles gave us the Gospel and with it the Holy Tradition, and the Holy Tradition bears witness to the Gospel. It is a mutual interdependence.
If this is so, then it would stand to reason that the Tradition would not leave us in the dark as to the authoritative writings of the New Testament for three centuries, nor would the Church go without for three centuries and then all of a sudden determine: what we need are some Scriptures. Rather, as the historical evidence witnesses, these books were in use by the Church during this entire time, and the later clarification of the canon was more a recognition of what was the case than an espousal of something new. St. Irenaeus gives witness of this in the late second century when he speaks of the four Gospels. Indeed, beyond seeking justification for the Tradition via official pronouncements, David Trobisch, in his First Edition of the New Testament offers different evidence that the canon of the New Testament was well established early on, by the end of the second century, fully a century and a half before what is usually asserted. (I summarize his argument here.)
Whether or not one accepts Trobisch’s argument, it demonstrates that we do not need to exagerrate the limited access to the New Testament books or the spread of the traditional canon to score a point over adherents to sola scriptura. In fact, by accepting Trobisch’s argument, we better show, I think, the concurrence of Tradition and Scripture in a way that maintains the authority of the Scripture and of the Tradition without separating one from the other or reinforcing a dialectic of opposition.
Of course we may and should stress the reliability of the Tradition in the face of criticisms of it. And we can certainly emphasize what Scripture itself says about Tradition. But we need not fall into the trap set by sola scriptura adherents and dialectically oppose, even discreetly, Scripture and Tradtion.