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.

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Orthodoxy and Biblical Studies and the OSB

Gabe posted some thoughts on Orthodoxy and historical criticsm a few days ago, which I only got to this morning. What’s interesting is that I was having a similar discussion with a friend just this past Sunday.

The general notion is this: biblical studies, the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation, and the like, is something in which Orthodox have little expertise. One will not find on the Seminary Co-op bookshelves massive tomes on Q or intertestamental apocalypgtic or multi-volume biblical commentaries on Ecclesiastes put out by Orthodox scholars.  To the degree that there are Orthodox commentaries on biblical books, they run more along the lines of St. John Chrysostom, or demonstrably lack a well-wrought critical approach. One gets something like sermonizing or a simple restatement of the text: in today’s view, hardly a commentary. This is the general notion at least, and though I don’t have a lot of connections with modern biblical scholarship and Orthodox academics, I am sure whatever exceptions there are to this generalization, they prove the rule.

I have personally, due to my educational background, probably had slightly more exposure to these matters in academia than has Gabe (though infinitely less than his very intelligent wife). Nonetheless, like Gabe, I probably tend to approach these matters along the lines of Fr Seraphim Rose (one of my patrons) or Fr Michael Pomozansky (whose book on Orthodox theology from St Herman’s Press is a wonderful volume). That is to say, I tend to take the approach that a generationally-renewed understanding of how the Church has interpreted Scripture and the Church’s view of Scripture is far more important than memorizing our Wellhausen and reconstructing our Q.

So the problem for Orthodox is this: if it is the case that Orthodox simply do not have the capability to engage in these sorts of activities, do they still attempt to continue to do so or do they retreat into some level of insularity?  And is it worth it to even attempt to develop Orthodox expertise in modern biblical studies?  Do Orthodox develop a rigorous biblical studies methodology that is uniquely Orthodox (assuming that the foundations in St John Chyrsostom, St Augustine et al do not rise to the level of a science of “Orthodox biblical studies.”  And by science here I do not mean what is popularly thought of by “science” as a mathematically exact enterprise, but rather I mean simply an organized and coherent body of thought.)

Which brings me to my discussion with a friend on Sunday and the Orthodox Study Bible.

Let me first say: I like the OSB.  Although I’m not like perhaps many OSB users in that I have the ability to read the original biblical languages and so can “double check” translational issues on my own, the OSB is the English Bible I use primarily.  And I get so very tired of the many posts in the blogosphere trashing the OSB.  Whether or not the criticisms are valid (and some are), the spirit of many of the posts doesn’t seem quite right.

But, I do admit the OSB has problems.  And as I articulated it to my friend, I think the problem with the OSB (at least insofar as the Old Testament is concerned) is it was the attempt to do two massive projects at once: to achieve an adequate translation of the canonical OT into English and to compose a useful study Bible.  I think it is generally agreed that overall the translation efforts fell below the mark, and the notes, while perhaps better than the original NT notes, still end up lacking.

Argument has been made as to whether the whole “study Bible” approach is even Orthodox.  I’ll leave that question to the blogospheric dilettantes.  But I will say that those responsible for the OSB, if they were wanting to put out a product competitive with other Protestant versions, should have had the patience to follow the general trajectory of Protestant study Bibles: first focus on an adequate translation.  Then prepare a useful study Bible.

It has been intimated, and I hope it’s true, that the production of the OSB, with its flaws, was more a prudential matter of finance and marketing than anything else.  And that the present edition lays the groundwork for substantive revisions and improvements for later.  I certainly hope the revisions and improvements do come.

In the meantime, the question remains as to whether the Orthodox should pursue the science of biblical studies.  If they do I think it obvious that it not be simply the Orthodox entering the arena of modern biblical studies and trying to “stand athwart” it yelling stop, nor trying to “Orthodoxize” it up.  But, rather, to formulate a uniquely Orthodox methodology that is at once rigorous and faithful.  Whether that can be done anytime soon is the question.

A New Review of the OSB

Although I’ve not been following all the blog-reviews of the OSB–especially since so many of them were done by Orthodox converts who opined on what true Orthodoxy was all about; blech, leave me out of that discussion–I did want to call to your attention the sort of review I prefer: translational/textual.

R Grant Jones, on Sunday just past, posted his “review in progress” of the OSB and makes translation notes of errors/mistranslations and other such things in an extensive table on the books of Genesis and Exodus. Well worth the read, and some very, very good points made.

Seen and Unseen

In a previous post, I remarked on the struggle of the Christian who is anchored in the world of seen and unseen realities. Our deacon approached me last night at Vespers and gave me a psalm which highlights this struggle, Psalm 36 (37 MT), here, in part:

Hope in the Lord, and do good, and dwell on the earth, and like a shepherd shalt thou be fed with its riches. Delight thyself in the Lord, and He will give thee the askings of thy heart. Disclose unto the Lord thy way, and trust in Him, and He shall bring it to pass. And He shall bring forth thy righteousness as the light and thy judgement as the noonday. Submit thyself unto the Lord and supplicate Him; fret not thyself because of him that prospereth in his way, nor because of a man that doeth iniquity. Cease from wrath and forsake anger; fret not thyself so as to do evil. For evil-doers shall utterly perish, but they that wait on the Lord, they shall inherit the earth. And yet a little while, and the sinner shall not be, and thou shalt seek for his place, and shalt not find it. But the meek shall inherit the earth and shall delight themselves in an abundance of peace. . . . By the Lord are the steps of a man rightly directed, and His way shall he greatly desire. When he falleth he shall not be utterly cast down; for the Lord upholdeth his hand. I have been young, and now indeed I am old, and I have not seen the righteous man forsaken, nor his seed begging bread. All the day long the righteous showeth mercy, and lendeth, and his seed shall be unto blessing. Decline from evil and do good, and dwell unto ages of ages. For the Lord loveth judgement, and He will not forsake His holy ones; they shall be kept for ever. . . . Wait on the Lord and keep His way, and He shall exalt thee to inherit the earth; when sinners are utterly destroyed, thou shalt see it. I have seen the ungodly man highly exalted and lifting himself up like the cedars of Lebanon. But I passed by, and lo, he was not; and I sought him, and place was not to be found. Keep innocence, and behold uprightness, for there is a remnant for the peaceable man. But the transgressors shall be utterly destroyed together, and the remnants of the ungodly shall be utterly destroyed. But the salvation of the righteous is from the Lord, and He is their defender in a time of affliction. And the Lord shall help them and shall deliver them, and He will rescue them from sinners and will save them because they hoped in Him.

He also pointed me to the commentary of our priest, Father Patrick.

In this psalm, one part of the soul admonishes the other, reminds the other, cautions the other, encourages the other. And this inner conversation of the human spirit takes place in the sight of God, the giver of wisdom.

This inner discussion is rendered necessary because of frequent temptations to discouragement. As far as empirical evidence bears witness, the wicked do seem, on many occasions, to be better off than the just. By the standards of this world, they prosper.

Our psalm is at pains to insist, however, that this prosperity is only apparent, in the sense that it will certainly be short-lived. As regards the workers of iniquity, “they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb . . . For evildoers shall be cut off . . . For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be . . . For the arms of the wicked shall be broken . . . The transgressors shall be cut off together.”

The suffering lot of the just man is likewise temporary and of brief duration. He need only wait on the Lord in patience and trust: “Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He will give thee the desires of thy heart. Commit your way unto the Lord, and trust in Him, and He shall bring it to pass . . . But the salvation of the righteous is of the Lord; He is their strength in the time of trouble. And the Lord will help them and deliver them; He will deliver them from the wicked and save them, because they trust in Him.”

This, then, is a psalm of faith and confidence in God, without which there is no Christian prayer. It is also faith and hope under fire, exposed to struggle and the endurance that calls for patience. After all, “faith is the substance of things hoped for” (Heb 11:1), and “We were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope . . . But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance” (Rom. 8:24, 25). Our psalm is a meditative lesson on not being deceived by appearances, and a summons to wait patiently for God’s deliverance. (Father Patrick Henry Reardon, Christ in the Psalms [Conciliar Press], p. 72)


  • “For with God nothing will be impossible.” (Luke 1.37)
  • So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16.31)
  • And when He had come into the house, the blind men came to Him. And Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to Him, “Yes, Lord.” Then he touched their eyes, saying, “According to your faith let it be to you.” And their eyes were opened. (Matthew 9.28-30)
  • So Jesus said to them, “Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” (Matthew 17.20-21)
  • When Elisha’s servant arose early and went out, the army was there, surrounding the city with horses and chariots. And his servant said to him, “O master, what shall we do?” So he answered, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are greater in number than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed, and said, “Lord, open the eyes of the servant and let him see.” And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he was now able to see, and he beheld the mountain full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha (4 Kingdoms 6.15-17)
  • Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit. (James 5:16-18 )

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