Scripture, Canon, Tradition: A Flawed Apologetic

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.

10 thoughts on “Scripture, Canon, Tradition: A Flawed Apologetic

  1. Well said. Perhaps the only thing I would venture to add– because I agree that Scripture didn’t simply arise out of tradition at some point in time, but was alive in the Church itself in some part from the beginning –so what of the integral role of the scripture within the liturgical function of the Church…how does this add to proposed apologetic… forgive my lack of question marks.

  2. I’ve long thought that this approach to the question is a bit off.

    Mind you, I think what you’re grappling with is actually the difference between how one expresses this issue in the context of apologetics versus how one would express is in catechesis. Different things get emphasized.

    Anyway, what preceded all of it is the regula fidei mentioned by Irenaeus. It’s the faith given by Christ to the Apostles and passed on from them which is the content and source (depending on what angle one prefers) of all tradition, including Scripture. I certainly do regard any opposition between Scripture and tradition to be misguided. What is needed is a proper understanding of what actually constitutes the tradition. That’s the Rule of Faith, which existed before, during and after the production of the New Testament. Indeed, understood correctly, it precedes even the Creation itself.

  3. Thank you, Father.

    I’m speaking narrowly of apologetics here. Whether or not my comments apply to catechesis is another matter I’m not prepared to address, though I don’t on first blush think that they wouldn’t apply. I agree that the aims of apologetics are quite different than those of catechesis (sadly, this was not a difference that was apparent to me as an Orthodox wannabe, in catechesis, or very soon after chrismation).

    I think I would argue that the “bottom line” as it were is always and everywhere the regula fidei, but that different contexts and aims would result in different emphases.

    That said, however, I’m of the view that what you “win” them with is what you “win” them to: apologetics is presumably in many cases the precursor to catechesis. If one has a distorted view (assuming I’m right here and such an apologetic is something of a distortion) from apologetics, one is bound to carry such a view into catechesis. Fundamentalism of any sort, whether that of the biblical fundamentalists, or that of the traditionalist fundamentalists, does not seem to me to be worthy of one espousing the Orthodox Faith, the regula fidei.

    Again, I know there are appropriate nuances here, and it is not my intention to be critical of anyone personally.

  4. I do sometimes make the point myself, i.e., that the NT canon was probably not fully formed until roughly the 4th century. My point in making it, though, is to emphasize that the Church does not function according to sola scriptura, that there had to be something else vivifying and regulating Church life than a simple appeal to “what the Bible says.”

    For me, at least, when I make the point, it is precisely in order to win listeners over to the much broader understanding of the authority in Church life to which Scripture is a central witness. The question in discussions of Scripture and Tradition (I choose the and here for apologetic reasons; one could perhaps most correctly use in or maybe even as) is where authority is and how it is exercised.

    Anyway, the critical difference between apologetics and catechesis is that the former is not only describing the faith but it may well also be criticizing heterodox doctrines. That is usually the aim in bringing up the question of the formation of the canon, i.e., to show the historical untenability of sola scriptura.

  5. Perhaps if I reframe my question, again with no question marks… At what level was the scripture used from the beginning, certainly the OT scriptures were used. What about narratives.. eyewitness accounts of Christ’s ministry. I think that is profoundly significant, that not much Gospel-wise was written until close to the end of the apostolic age, when perhaps the number of eyewitnesses were waning. Forgive my lack of eloquence and lengua apologetica, but even if I knew it, I wouldn’t use it, that’s just me…

  6. CL:

    My apologies if it seems I’ve ignored you. I was on vacation for a week and a half and have been catching up at work and getting back in to the routine.

    In reading over my post I think I failed to make a couple of things clear. The Church definitely had the Old Testament Scriptures which it used (and I subscribe to the view that they had a full canon, rather than that later defined or developed by the Jewish council of Jamnia). My post was meant to be narrowly focused on the New Testament as Scriptures.

    I do very much agree that the “oral” Tradition, the witness of the eyewitnesses of the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord, and it’s transmission to the faithful by the faithful is central to this discussion.

    One thing that I did not make clear enough is that even though I ascribe to a more “Trobisch-ian” view of the canonization of the New Testament Scriptures, the fact remains that your “average” Christian up until the era of modern printing would not have had reasonable or ready access to the NT Scriptures (or any Scriptures) outside their recitation and chanting in the worship services.

    The sola scriptura debate often gets bogged down into the textual vs the oral, when in fact, even with a defined canon the experience of most Christians was that of the oral experience of the Scriptures.

    I hope that addresses the matter in which you had some interest.

  7. Excellent post. Recently Bart Ehrman has used the argument that the early church “had no scripture” before canon as an an attempt to call “proto-orthodoxy” entirely into question. But Ehrman’s claim is untrue. Scripture was recognized as scripture long before official canonical pronouncements, both widely[1] and early.[2]

    To simply say the scriptures created the Church, or that the Church created the scriptures is to present a picture not so much entirely wrongheaded as incomplete and inadequate. The two grew up together.
    [1]“Statistical studies of the frequency of citation (relative to length) of early Christian writings demonstrates that from the second century onward, the Gospels, and the principal Pauline letters were cited with very high frequency, that the other books eventually included in the canon were much less often called into service, and that books ultimately excluded from the canon were used very little (Stuhlhofer, Der Gebrauch der Bibel von Jesus bis Euseb: Eine statistisch Untersuchung zur Kanongeschichte (Wuppertal: Brockhaus, 1988)… Thus the NT canon that finally took shape appears fairly to reflect which writings had in the earlier period consistently claimed the attention of the church and proven most useful in sustaining and nurturing the faith and life of the Christian communities. To this extent the canonization of early Christian writings did not so much confer authority on them as recognize or ratify an authority that they had long enjoyed, making regulative what had previously been customary. The catalogs of the fourth and fifth centuries are for the most part articulations of a consensus of usage that had arisen through the practices of the preceding centuries, and they are aimed to exclude rather than to include” (H. Gamble, “Canonical Formation in the New Testament” in Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter, Dictionary of New Testament Background (2000), p. 192).

    [2] 2 Pet 3:15f. evidently counts the apostolic writings of Paul on a par with the OT Scriptures; ‘So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures…” In 1 Tim 5:18, Deut 25:4 is cited first as ‘Scripture’, and there follows, connected only by kai. (“and”) a saying which is known as a saying of Jesus (Lk 10:7). Even if the second quotation were not meant to be included under the heading of Scripture, something new is nevertheless expressed in this connection by its place immediately after the citation. Here we may see the beginnings of a development, in the course of which the words of Jesus (“I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” [Matt 9:13; Mk 2:17; Lk 5:32] cited in 2 Clem 2:4 as graphe. (“Scripture”), and then also the letters of Paul (2 Pet 3:16) became authoritative in their own right alongside the old holy writings. R. Mayer, “Scripture,” in Colin Brown, ed., DNTT, vol. III p. 492. As Gottlob Schrenk notes, the Johannine writings make a clear claim to be writing sacred literature: “When quoting the OT, John almost always uses the introductory gegrammenon, and in 20:31, when speaking of the aim of his own writing, i.e. to awaken faith, he can use a word which elsewhere he reserves for OT Scripture, namely ge,graptai. Indeed, in the previous verse (v. 30) we already find the expression: a] ouvk e;stin gegramme,na evn tw/| bibli,w| tou,tw. This solemn statement is striking… there is no less solemn emphasis on the testimony of writing in 1 Jn (Cf. if the ina statements in 1 Jn 1:4; 2:1; 5:13; and the repeated grafw and egraya).” Gottlob Schrenk, “gra,fw, grafh., gra,mma, eggrafw” in Gerhard Kittel, ed., TDNT, vol. I, p.745. “According to Col 4:16 and 1 Thess 5:27, Christian writings were also read in services… grafw is used frequently, and is great importance, in the book of Revelation… He who would not fail to attain what is promised must, therefore, read (aloud) and hear this writing without adding or taking away anything (Rev 1:3; 22:18f.) As far as the letters to the seven churches are concerned, they are dictated to the visionary by the Son of man himself (Rev 1:10 ff.; chs. 2 and 3)…” (R. Mayer, op cit). Early in the apostolic period “the sayings of the Lord came to be given the same authority as the OT (cf. the Sermon on the Mount, also 1 Cor 7:10; 9:14; 11:23)… the ‘I say unto you’ caused great changes in the whole concept of authority, especially in relation to the validity of Scripture” (Gottlob Schrenk, ibid, p. 757). “Clearly the words of Jesus are treasured [in the writings of the early apostolic fathers] as of supreme authority parallel to, and indeed exceeding the authority of the OT.” (D. A. Hagner, “Apostolic Fathers,” DLNTD, p. 87. I. Howard Marshall has observed that an overt stylistic similarity between the book of Acts and the Septuagint Scriptures suggests Luke was self-consciously writing Scripture in the book of Acts (cf. also the “Scriptural” beginning of Mk 1:1 with the word Arce ( alluding to Gen 1:1 (LXX ); “It seems that Matthew has developed an intentional parallel to the five books of Moses” (Howard Clark. Kee, What Can We Know About Jesus? (Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 97, etc. Full treatment of this subject is beyond the scope of this brief essay). From the early second century the Apostolic Fathers referred to NT documents as scripture (Poly Phil 12.1; 1 Clem 2.4; Barn 4.14; Justin Dial.Tryph 100-103); there was considerable discussion about the term theopneustos (“God-breathed”; e.g. T. Flavinus Clemens Alexandrinus of Athens (Stromata VII, 16, 101, 62nd century, AD; c.f. many other examples are found in Gottlob Schrenk, op cit, pp. 742-773).

  8. Benedict Seraphim said:

    …the fact remains that your “average” Christian up until the era of modern printing would not have had reasonable or ready access to the NT Scriptures (or any Scriptures) outside their recitation and chanting in the worship services.

    This is sooo true. When this finally dawned on me it was yet another 10 inch nail in the sola scriptura position.


    To strengthen your position, was not Polycarp’s letter one of massive amounts of NT quotations? Would he have been quoting something so unfamiliar to his readers? I think not.

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