As we began attending St Peter’s, a local Antiochian Orthodox parish, we were immediately confronted with how foreign Eastern Orthodoxy is to western Evangelicalism. In many ways, we discovered profound beauty and holiness that are absolutely missing in most Evangelical churches. Eastern Orthodoxy is incredibly multi-sensory. In Orthodox worship, one smells the incense, sees the icons, candles and vestments, tastes the bread, and chants the prayers and hymns. In addition, one also venerates the cross, icons, and Gospel Book, crosses oneself, makes prostrations, and greets others with a holy kiss, all the time standing through most of the service. When you complete an Orthodox worship service, you not only feel like you’ve prayed and worshipped deeply, but you also feel like you’ve visited an art museum, seminary and a gym. Every part of your being is impacted by awe-inspiring beauty, divine holiness, theological profundity and historical depth. (Debbie and I joked after our journey through Lent and Holy Week that we need to start working out so we’re in shape for next year’s Pascha season.)
But along with the beauty and holiness, we also came face-to-face with concepts and stories that continue to evoke one question, “Where is that in the Bible?” Expressed in that question is a significant clash between a Protestant worldview and an Orthodox worldview.One of the values deeply ingrained in me as a Protestant was sola scriptura, literally “by scripture alone.” This doctrine teaches that the Scriptures are the singular authority in all matters of faith and practice. In this view, the Bible is self-interpreting and the final authority of Christian doctrine. At a practical level for most Protestants, sola scriptura equates to a deep personal belief in Scripture’s final authority. And conversely, a rejection of sola scriptura equates to a similar rejection of Scripture’s authority.
Viewing Eastern Orthodoxy through the lens of sola scriptura can cause many Protestants to conclude that Orthodoxy does not value the Bible. This is an unfortunate and a completely incorrect conclusion.
Orthodoxy values Scripture deeply. For example, when practiced fully, during the course of Matins (morning services) and Vespers (evening services) the entire Psalter is recited each week and twice a week during Lent. The Old Testament is read at Vespers. The Gospel climaxes Matins on Sunday mornings. At the Liturgy, a special Epistle and Gospel reading are assigned for each day of the year, so that the entire New Testament (except Revelation) is read at the Eucharist. It has also been calculated that the Liturgy contains 98 quotations from the Old Testament and 114 from the New. Scripture saturates every Orthodox service because Orthodoxy view Scripture as the verbal icon of Christ. All of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, are first and foremost about Christ. So the Gospel Book has a place of honor on the altar and it is carried in procession at the Liturgy. All of this is to say that Orthodoxy practices a deep respect for Scripture.
While Protestantism attempts to view Scripture by itself, Orthodoxy values, reads, interprets and practices Scripture as part of its larger Holy Tradition. For the Orthodox Church, Holy Tradition is simply the ongoing life of God’s people. It’s the living continuity with Christ, the Apostles and the Church of ancient times. It’s the life of Christ within his Body passed on through the ages.
Unfortunately, the idea of tradition often carries a negative connotation for many western Evangelicals. I used to view tradition as blind allegiance to an old custom or practice that now carried little relevance, meaning or life. But I’m now learning and experiencing the vibrant life of Christ that is Holy Tradition. And within this Holy Tradition, at the most prominent place, are the Scriptures. For Orthodoxy, Scripture and Holy Tradition are not two separate sources of authority. Scripture was written and passed down as part of its Holy Tradition.
So what forms Holy Tradition? Holy Tradition is composed of Holy Scripture, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, the lives of the Saints, the Divine Liturgy, the Holy Icons, the Church Hierarchy, and the Church architecture. But Orthodoxy also recognizes that not everything received from the past is of equal value. Holy Scripture, the Creed and the doctrinal declarations of the Ecumenical Councils hold a prominent place in Holy Tradition. These are considered absolute and unchanging. The other elements of Tradition do not carry the same authority.
In addition, Orthodoxy recognizes that not everything from the past is necessarily true. At this point, Orthodoxy distinguishes between Tradition and tradition. Many traditions are simply wise and pious opinions, not universal statements of truth. As Timothy Ware declares in his book, The Orthodox Church (much of which this post draws), “It is absolutely essential to question the past.” The Church, as Christ’s Body, must exercise discernment.
In my opinion, the perceived conflict that most Protestants have with sola scriptura versus Holy Tradition is actually a conflict between the private individual’s right versus accountability to the Church.
As with all values, sola scriptura did not emerge in a vacuum. Rather, it was one of the ways the Reformers attempted to correct some of the abusive practices and authority within the Roman Catholic Church (abuses not found in the Eastern Orthodox Church). The doctrine of sola scriptura removes the absolute right of interpreting Scripture from the Church and places it in the hands of the private individual. Consequently, the attempt to correct one abuse eventually led to another — the priority of the private individual exercised in every aspect of the spiritual life. In this light, a person’s interpretation of Scripture is correct simply because he or she believes it’s correct. So at a practical level, sola scriptura implies that the private interpreter is the actual authority in all matters of faith and practice. While Scripture is the source from which the individual constructs his or her private interpretation, it is the individual who makes the final determination of what he or she believes. The individual is his or her own final authority.
So the real issue that many Protestants have with Orthdoxy’s Holy Tradition is not whether Scripture and Holy Tradition are contradicting authorities. Rather, the issue is whether the individual or the Church is the final authority in regards to matters of faith and practice.
As I have journeyed toward Orthodoxy, I have had to come to terms with this issue. Over and over I have to answer penetrating questions. Will I cling to my own privately constructed theology or consent to the collective wisdom of the Church’s Holy Tradition? Was my interpretation of Scripture that I had forged together from miscellaneous influences and my own limited intelligence superior to the interpretation of the truly Holy, Apostolic, and Catholic Church? Who could I trust to lead me in the way of salvation and toward the likeness of Christ — myself or the Church that has faithfully preserved the Gospel and life of Christ for 2000 years far better than any other Christian expression?
Over the last several months, I have felt like Jacob wrestling with the angel of the Lord. I now realize that my attempts to wrestle on behalf of my private theology, private piety, and private spirituality was more an act of defiant pride than anything else. And as I have learned to humbly recognize the Church’s authority, I have found her to be like a loving Mother, nurturing me with her fullness, wisdom and holiness in ways I never would have experienced on my own.
And I have discovered that humbly yielding to the Church does not mean blindly and unthinkingly accepting everything. The Church trains us into the mind and life of Christ, so there is plenty of room for critical discernment and personal responsibility for what I believe and practice. But now I do this within an ecclesiology that naturally supports proper belief and practice. And as I do this, I experience Christ’s life.
To be continued…