Previously on this blog I covered my personal reasons for exploring Orthodox Christianity, and summed up some of the history of Christianity and the differences between Protestantism and Orthodoxy. I promised future posts expanding on some of the differences between the two traditions, so I thought I would start by addressing the fourth difference I listed: That of Authority. How do we know what is true? How do we know the difference between what comes from God through his Spirit, and what is just a bunch of guys making it up as they go along?
The idea of Sola Scriptura (“the Bible alone”) as the Authority really is the cornerstone of evangelical Protestantism. It’s been interesting in my interactions with Orthodox and my readings of Orthodox writers to note that, for whatever reason, they have a very difficult time grasping this concept. They see something akin to chaos, or no authority, or that every man becomes Pope of themselves. These are bad arguments, because of course most Protestants do not see it this way. The Bible transcends personal opinion, and even the whims of Protestant ministers and pastors. A preacher who deviates from the Bible will soon find his congregation diminished of faithful Christians and anyone but pliable sheep, and other preachers denouncing him. This is why Protestants are not as “fragmented” as many Orthodox suppose. The Word itself is regarded as the driver of what happens, and everything is judged against it. The Bible is what ties everyone, and everything, together.
However, this view was never something I felt entirely comfortable with, for several reasons. Firstly, it seems awfully restrictive of the Holy Spirit to restrict Him to 66 books and no more. There’s plenty that the Bible doesn’t tell us, and therefore plenty of scope for the Spirit to enlighten us on those matters. Secondly, it became pretty clear to me that you could quote Scripture and make it mean almost anything you wanted it to mean, and to say that your interpretation had to correlate with other passages of Scripture was a dubious yardstick. And thirdly, if churches were genuinely sola scriptura, there would be plenty of things that they would allow and plenty that they would not do. The Bible, for example, does not explicitly forbid fornication, paedophilia, slavery or polygamy, but there are very few evangelical protestant churches that would say these were not grievous sins.
These realizations led me to, around 2000 or so, largely reject evangelical protestant theology and withdraw from involvement in a church. I embraced a more Barthian view of Scripture and spent the next ten years living in a rather foolish and dissolute manner. What brought me back was a recognition of the complete failure of that individualist Christianity in my life. Broke, despairing and separated from my wife and children, I realized that doing it all myself was not working. I needed to be saved. I needed the Church. And I decided that, whatever the Church had wrong, it had more right with it than what I could do on my own.
What I was looking for was more than just intellectual salvation. I was looking for a practical way I could live as a Christian, and bring Jesus into my daily life. I was looking for methods by which I could be healed from my worst impulses here and now on this earth. This was one of the reasons I had cause to start examining Orthodoxy.
So what is the Orthodox view of Divine Authority? I have had a couple of people ask me, on hearing that I attend an Orthodox church, whether it is “biblically based”. If you really think about it, this is a pretty silly question, but let me state first of all that yes, the highest authority in Orthodoxy is the Bible – the 66 books we all know and love. Nothing in Orthodox belief and practice can contradict the Bible or be “un-biblical”. The difference is that in Orthodoxy, the Bible is not treated as a set of texts that almost literally fell from the sky into our laps. Yes, the Bible is inspired, but it is inspired for a reason: It was written and put together by the Church. The Bible is a product of the Church, not the other way around. The Church had existed for about twenty years before James the Just wrote the first book of the New Testament. It had existed about twenty more before the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) were written. By the time the Apostle John wrote his five books to round out the canon, the Church was almost seventy years old. Throughout this period (and beyond), having no “instruction manual” as it were, the apostles and others close to Jesus first became the Church at Pentecost, and then established through their preaching and practices what is now known as the Holy Tradition – a set of beliefs and practices that sprang from the teachings of Jesus and, afterwards, from the Holy Spirit.
This Holy Tradition is the sole intermediary of Divine Authority in Orthodoxy. The gospels and epistles of the New Testament were circulated and adopted because they agreed with the Tradition, not because they formed the basis of the faith by themselves. So any doctrine or theology is measured not against the text alone, but on its consistency with the Tradition – the teachings and practices that are known to have always been part of the Church. This is reassuring, because it means there is something to refer back to when we interpret Scripture rather than (at best) cross-referencing Scripture, or relying on Protestant tradition dating back only 500 years.
Note that this Tradition is not embodied by specific individuals or Bishops or even in the office of Bishop itself. It is a concept that encompasses the whole Church throughout the ages, and what it teaches and does, so it is not subject to fallen men and their whims. This is a very important point, because individual leaders, even right down to the original apostles, are fallible and sinful. It is only collectively, through the whole (catholic) Church, that the Holy Tradition is embodied and the Spirit of God enlightens us.
Vincent of Lerins summed it up pretty well in 434AD:
“I HAVE often then inquired… how and by what sure and so to speak universal rule I may be able to distinguish the truth of catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical pravity; and I have always, and in almost every instance, received an answer to this effect: That… we must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways; first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the catholic Church.
“But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? For this reason, – because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters.
“For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of ecclesiastical and catholic interpretation.
“Moreover, in the catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. …This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.”
So you see that, as with Protestantism, the Bible is “complete, and sufficient of itself for everything”. But with Orthodoxy, we add to that a standard by which we can know objectively what Scripture tells us. In fact, I would argue that Protestants too, by and large, interpret Scripture according to a tradition. It just isn’t the same one, and it is more subjective.