Yesterday afternoon I wrote a brief response to a graphic posted by CRI promoting an Eastern Orthodox critique of the principle of sola scriptura, the teaching that the God-breathed Scriptures are the sole infallible rule of faith for the church. This belief, echoed in the earliest centuries in many patristic citations, was encrusted by human tradition during the medieval period, only to come to full light in the gracious work of God we celebrate this year known as the Reformation. I pointed out that the Eastern Orthodox writer was not accurately representing the belief she was critiquing. In reality, what she was describing has been likened to solo scriptura, the idea that the Scriptures exist separate from God’s redemptive purposes, separate from the Church, and distinct from the authoritative proclamation of the Gospel. It is very common for Roman Catholic apologists to misrepresent sola scriptura in this fashion. The actual doctrine focuses upon the nature of Scripture and its relationship to the Church in God’s purpose.
After finishing a lengthy edition of The Dividing Line today, I was sent a link to an article posted by Hank Hanegraaff on the BAM Facebook page. This is a little unusual, as I do not think Mr. Hanegraaff is real big on social media. But evidently the comments in response to the graphic came to his attention. I would like to present his words, and respond, for as far as I know, my response to the graphic, and the words of the Eastern Orthodox writer, Frederica Mathewes-Green, was the longest and most widely noted (it was shared, as of this writing, 153 times). Here is Mr. Hanegraaff’s statement:
The Bible Answer Man Facebook page is monitored and managed by CRI’s research staff. However, today I wanted to personally make a post on our page.
Just a few random thoughts:
It has been interesting to read the commentary on yesterday’s Quote of the Day by my friend Frederica. I have come to know her as a Christian of extraordinary depth and conviction. Moreover, she is an enormously gifted writer who makes deft qualifications in order that the reader might understand.
As such, her comment on Sola Scriptura is carefully qualified by the word “literally.” Though I do not presume to speak for Frederica, I am quite certain that in writing for a popular audience, she did not suspect anyone would interpret her in a technical confessional sense.
As I frequently say as host of the Bible Answer Man broadcast, “Words and phrases are not univocal; they are equivocal—meanings often vary based on context and the “frames and filters” of listeners. In an age of hermeneutical chaos (interpretive free-for-all) Frederica’s words ring true—“Everyone believes that some interpretations of the Bible are better, more accurate, than others.”
We would all do well to consider the value of at least occasionally crawling out of our own psycho-socio-epistemological echo chambers so as to hear the intent of a thought before responding in knee-jerk fashion with well-worn mantras.
April 19, 2017
What are we to make of this statement? Well, I decided to see if I could find the source of the original quotation, and, thankfully, I was able to do so. You can find the entire Facebook post (I had honestly expected it to be from a book, but unfortunately, the CRI graphic did not bother to tell you what context the words were written in) here:
I have been away from the internet for several days, and only today saw the Baptist Press article reporting that one of…
Posted by Frederica Mathewes-Green on Tuesday, April 18, 2017
Now, what is important to note is that this post is in reaction to BAM being removed from a radio network. Hence, its context is exactly that of the differences between Orthodoxy and (believing) Protestantism. But what is most important is that the author goes on to present her understanding of the tradition that Orthodoxy claims to maintain, and that in direct opposition to sola scriptura, at least as she understands it (I note I pointed out deficiencies in that understanding in my previous article). Let’s look at some of her statements to see if we were really living in an “psycho-socio-epistemological echo chamber” or if, maybe, just maybe, some of us have been dealing with attacks upon sola scriptura for long enough to recognize the modus operandi?
First we note that Frederica is, in fact, a wonderful writer. Very easy to follow, and very clear. Even before the citation used on the BAM Facebook page, we read this:
Since no one has the authority to change those prayers and hymns, the faith remains the same. What the grannies remember is what their grannies remember, and on back through time. A person who advocated changes could only demonstrate that he had left the Church.
This is the idea of the constancy of tradition, and surely, since the 8th century or so, the formal tradition of the Eastern church has been quite constant. Of course, prayers and hymns can change in how they are understood by succeeding generations. Anyone reading Ignatius of Antioch today, for example, is in danger of importing thoughts and concepts that would be foreign to the original author. Sameness in form does not guarantee sameness of content and meaning, and, what is more, a misplaced confidence that such sameness guarantees consistency of truth over time may be the most effective way of ever keeping someone from actually knowing the truth. Every Muslim I know is certain the Qur’an is identical today to the words delivered to Muhammad in the early seventh century. That certainty may be strong, but there is often a difference between certainty and truth.
Immediately before the cited text, this sentence appears: “The faith *constitutes* the Church. The faith *itself* is the authority.” This is definitely “orthodox Orthodoxy,” but again, what if it is in error? What kind of objective, external standard could exist to bring about correction? One is truly left to wonder, or simply to accept the idea that nothing could possibly change, therefore, do not be troubled!
Then we have the cited text (I will not repeat it, assuming the reader has already worked through the preceding article). The quotation was immediately followed by this sentence, “The question is: where do you get your interpretation?” Please note that the idea that there is an objective meaning of the text available through the careful and diligent exegesis thereof is not the first option offered (if it is offered at all in Orthodoxy). As you can guess, the tradition of the Orthodox Church is going to be the final offering, but first we need to hear how this former Episcopalian views other options. We read:
Protestants often look back to one or several of the Reformers: Calvin, Luther, etc. But these men lived only 500 years ago. What’s more, they were the inheritors of a deeply-established theology based on reading the Bible in Latin translation.
There is no question that the Vulgate deeply influenced Western theology in the medieval and Reformation periods. None whatsoever. And surely Calvin’s commentaries have been deeply influential, and rightly so. But remember, Calvin was a patristic scholar, and quite able to read the early fathers in their original languages. And he was an exegete, as his commentaries clearly indicate, who plied his trade with a rich patristic knowledge at hand. But we continue on with Frederica’s presentation:
The early church, on the other hand, were people who spoke bible Greek (koine Greek) in their everyday life. It was the language of commerce, as English is today. The authors of the New Testament were members of that community, and wrote with that same community in mind, picturing them as their audience. The early-Christian interpretation of the Bible is going to be more accurate than that of other Christians–no matter how learned or sincere–who lived at a distant time and place.
While it is quite true that the New Testament was written in koine Greek (which is why so many of us emphasize learning that language!), and it is likewise true that the primary text of the Old Testament used in the early Church was the Septuagint, also a work in Greek, what does NOT follow is the assertion that this means the earliest Christians will have the most accurate interpretation of the Bible. This is simply historically untenable. Not only did some of the earliest writers not even have the entire canon of the New Testament (Justin Martyr comes to mind), but we find numerous works of highly questionable theology, even from an Orthodox viewpoint, in the generations immediately after the Apostles, and written in Greek. The claim is simply not verified by any meaningful reading of the Apostolic Fathers or the Apologists.
Then comes the real authority claim:
More-recent Bible interpreters are simply at a disadvantage, in comparison with the early church. This is not a claim that the early church was more holy than Christians today, only that they had a distinct advantage when it comes to understanding the Bible. Theirs is the interpretation held by the Orthodox Church.
Aside from a rather naive view of how Bible translation is done today, the reality is that we possess more information upon which to do Bible translation today than was in the possession of anyone only a hundred years after the time of the authors themselves. How so? We have access to documents of many kinds from across the area where Greek was spoken. We have access to cognate languages and linguistic studies that preceding generations did not have. We can read in the days of Origen, for example, of controversies over the meaning of certain terms, or the readings of certain manuscripts, that we are able to solve today with a broader perspective than they had at the time. Ironically, when it comes to the actual text of the New Testament, the Orthodox Churches are well behind the curve, so to speak, in the study of the textual tradition of the very Greek manuscripts their predecessors helped to preserve. Further, Orthodoxy has a “squishy” canon, a less than dogmatic understanding of what actually constitutes Scripture. It is very odd to see such things put in conjunction with such a sure statement, “Theirs is the interpretation held by the Orthodox Church.” But even the statement has to be very throughly question: what interpretation, exactly? Whose? Given that each writer is admitted to be fallible (a point Frederica herself raises and acknowledges), then when they differ, which is the “true” interpretation? Anyone who reads the early Fathers knows how often they differ from one another on a plethora of issues. The assertion that the Orthodox Church holds to a singular interpretation that somehow represents the interpretation of “the early church” is simply too vague to carry the necessary weight. Orthodox piety, prayers, liturgy, and practice, may have deep roots in antiquity, but in the form we see today, we are looking at a solid half millennium after the Apostles as the true period of solidification and codification. Long post-Constantinian.
But I conclude my review by noting that after saying it is dangerous to allow just anyone to interpret the Bible, the answer given for this danger is, “Well, accept our interpretation, since it is that of the earliest followers of the Apostles.” I’ve heard that claim before, somewhere. Oh yes, it is in just about every Papal encyclical ever written. And it was the claim of the Reformers as well, for they claimed to be going back to the early church and getting past the accretions and papal pretensions. And the radical reformers likewise claimed to be going back to the Apostolic period. Every revivalist movement in the 1800s, such as the Campbellites, made the same claim. The Mormons make it, too, as do the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And on and on and on it goes. It is nothing new.
So we do just give up and say no one can get back to the Apostolic message? No, for thankfully, we possess an entire library of Apostolic writings. It is called the New Testament. If you wish to know Apostolic Tradition, read Apostolic writings! Yes, in their original language! In their original setting! Doing proper and in-depth exegesis! But do not subjugate the Apostolic documents to codified traditions that originate from the seventh or eighth centuries after Christ as if that will “save” us from those who mishandle God’s Word. That is, itself, a mishandling of God’s Word as well.