Another letter

Yeah, I know a year ago I said there would be no new letters, but something happened recently that I wanted to capture. We just baptized our fourth child, and for the first time my father came to an Orthodox service. He’s never encountered Orthodoxy in the flesh, as it were, and really hasn’t read anything about it either as far as I can tell. He’s been leaving it alone, and we’ve been soft peddling around him. Well, going to an Orthodox infant baptism service has a way of challenging my pentecostal, anabaptist father like probably nothing else could. Well, maybe an Akathist to the Theotokos.

Anyway, after about a week of bubbling over what he saw he started sending some questions. Out of respect for his privacy I won’t post his emails without his permission, but I wrote him a rather lengthy response that I wanted to save. The context should be discernible based on what I wrote.

Here it is:

Perhaps I was unclear in what I was saying. Let me try another tack. The fundamental issue between Protestants and Orthodox is the issue of Scripture and Tradition. The formal principle of the Reformation was Sola Scriptura, the Scriptures alone as the authority for Christians. Luther used this philosophy as a means of divesting from the Catholic Church. His reasons for doing this aside, the idea that Scripture stands somehow apart from the tradition of the Church was a novel idea. You can’t find this in Scripture or in the thinking of the Church up to that time.

This is such a fundamental to Protestant thought that it’s almost impossible to think about Christianity aside from it. I know I had to struggle for a very long time to see how the philosophy not only undermines Christianity, but actually undermines the very Scriptures we all love. As a start it is good to at least see that Sola Scriptura is not the only way to be “Biblical”, not the only way to love Scripture, not the only way to respect the authority of Scripture. We care for Scripture best when we recognize that we must fight diligently to preserve its original intent, and equally important, the context.

The context of Scripture is the life of the Church. If we don’t know what the Church did, and how it understood Scripture, we will not understand Scripture. We will instead misappropriate it into our own theological constructions that bear little resemblance to the original.

The Tradition that Orthodoxy talks about is the whole teaching of the apostles, which includes Scripture as the primary piece. We don’t pit Scripture against Tradition. They are not two separate things. Nothing trumps Scripture, but Scripture doesn’t give us the entirety of the life of the Church. We know from the historic records that remain from the early Church, as well as common sense, that there is much to being Christian that isn’t codified in Scripture. The Scriptures are obviously not an exhaustive how-to manual on Christianity. Also, as hard as this may be to understand and accept, they aren’t the end-all-be-all for Christian truth.

The Scriptures didn’t fully exist until almost 70 years after Christ, and they weren’t universally recognized as Scripture for almost 300 more years. During that time the Church thrived under the persecution of Rome and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Nowhere in that time will you find an individual approach to Scripture as a means to finding truth. They had been delivered the truth, and they guarded it as a common deposit. And during that time they had episcopal structure, prayed with the dead, baptized infants, used iconography, understood the Eucharist as the body and blood of Christ, etc. The very men who collected and preserved Scripture and proclaimed the most core tenets of our faith practiced a Christianity that is almost unrecognizable to the modern Protestant.

One thing I had to recognize as absolutely true is that Scripture is read with widely differing interpretations. You read Scripture and see the doctrines and practices of the Assemblies of God. A baptist reads them and finds perseverance of the saints and the cessation of the charismatic gifts. A calvinist finds predestination. Lutherans find infant baptism and the salvation army finds no baptism whatsoever. The episcopalians determined that the prescriptions against homosexuality have been misunderstood and are no longer binding today. The Anglicans just voted to allow women bishops. The Catholics see purgatory.

How is this all possible? Simple. We don’t read Scripture. We read Scripture in our given tradition. You have a tradition that has been given to you, and no matter how much you try to read Scripture with fresh eyes, you will see it in a context that guides your interpretation. Go read John 6:25-70. It used to be that I read that and just thought about how Jesus is the spiritual food of salvation. Now I read it and I see clearly the real presence of His Body and Blood in the Eucharist. It’s plain as day, but most Protestants will deny that all day long, not because the text isn’t clear but because it collides with their tradition. This was the universal understanding of the Church for the first 1500 years.

What we really have is competing traditions (understanding of the faith). The Orthodox tradition has a lineage and a history. It is stable and traces itself back to the apostles. It is verifiable. The Protestant situation is schism after schism after schism. No one cares whether it is verifiable or not. Once Luther unleashed Sola Scriptura, anyone had the right to disagree about the meaning of Scripture and walk away. That’s why we have 40,000 denominations today. Protestants lack any effective mechanism to provide unity and resolve conflicts in doctrine. Because of that we’re now taught in college that only the “core” things really matter. Of course, we can’t really say what those core things are exactly. But basically it’s that Jesus loves us and will save us. Everything else is contested. That situation is unacceptable to me.

It’s not possible that we can have a live and let live attitude when it comes to the truth. We must look at the working of God in history and let it inform our practice of the faith. We have to respect the way Christianity has been defended and codified by men, in every generation, led by the Holy Spirit. This isn’t such an alien practice, after all. Despite the railing against history and tradition, Protestants have their own councils, and write their own creeds.

Look at the history of the Assemblies for a great example. The original group contained trinitarians and also modalists (a heresy). When some began baptising in only the name of Jesus it caused a panic and at the fourth general council [here I’m referring to Assemblies of God General Councils, not the Ecumenical councils] they had to formally address the issue. The trinitarians were the majority, and drew up formal statements supporting the historic trinitarian doctrine. A third of the members left and formed oneness pentecostal churches. You can either take that as a cautionary tale about schismatic action, or a demonstration of how the Holy Spirit works through the consensus witness to preserve the truth. Both are true.

So right in your own denomination you can find historic definitions of the faith (though only 100 years old). You find creeds. You find history. Denying that action of the Holy Spirit in the Assemblies would open the door, again, to the modalist heresy, and so many others.

I like to work with what’s called the Vincentian Canon. This is a nice little truth checker first written out by St. Vincent of Lerins in the 400s. It makes a lot of sense. He says:

“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.”

That’s the standard I’d like to use in further discussions. Whether we are talking about the views of Scripture, the Eucharist, saints, icons, baptism, or Mary, let’s look for what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.

Focusing just on Sola Scriptura, here’s some questions I have:

  1. Where is SS found in Scripture? My contention is that it is not found in Scripture, and is anti-Scriptural.
  2. Where does Scripture say that it is the sole authority for Christians? I cannot find this sentiment anywhere in Scripture. Instead I find the opposite. ex. 2 Thes 2:15
  3. What does Scripture say is the foundation of the truth? In 1 Tim 3:15 Paul says the Church is the foundation and pillar of the Truth, not written Scripture.
  4. How do we know what writings comprise Scripture? Answer: the consensus witness of the historic Church. In other words, Tradition! Otherwise you can choose whatever you want. This is interesting, because that’s EXACTLY what Luther did.
  5. Does Scripture say to respect or avoid tradition? Tradition is used throughout the New Testament. When it is used by Paul it’s almost always a positive thing. The NIV translation does a really dirty thing. When the greek work paradosis is used in a negative way they translate it as “tradition”. When it is used in a positive way, they translate it as “teaching.” Yikes! Paradosis just means “the content of instruction that has been handed down.”

And some verses of Scripture I find illuminating:

2 Tim 2:2 – The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

Note that it doesn’t say “write these things down to pass them on.” That is the tradition process described perfectly. Passing on the faith is an active thing from generation to generation, and relies upon the consensus witness of the Church, not an individual reading of Scripture.

1 Cor 11:2 – Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.

Phil 3:17 – Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us.

Phil 4:9 – The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

There’s the tradition process again.

2 Tim 1:13-14 – Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you.

2 Thes 3:6 – Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us.

Again, no mention of just letting Scripture be an authority.

And my favorite…

2 Thes 2:15 – So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.

That’s enough on Sola Scriptura for now. Let me quickly address some of the other things you mentioned that bothered you.

You said, “No where in scripture does it say we are saved though Christ and tradition or history.” That’s true, but as I hope I’ve shown, tradition is the passing down of the apostolic faith. It let’s us know how to read Scripture and live as part of His body authentically. We are saved by Christ, but people can’t be saved unless they hear, and they should hear the truth. That is the traditioning process.

You said, “There are major biblical issue in my reading from the articles off the Greek Orthodox website.” I thought the same when I first started looking at the doctrinal differences, but when I spent time with each one of them I found that there were no issues I couldn’t resolve. Hopefully we can work through some of them together, and I can at least show you my thinking, even if in the end you cannot agree.

You said, “ie. praying to Mary or needing her to intercede for us before God.” Mary is a tough nut to crack for most Protestants, but here again there is no issue that can’t be resolved. This email is already too long as it is, so I won’t go into a full defense of the relationship of the living and the dead in Orthodox thought, or the place of Mary. I’ll leave it to this. Mary is not co-equal with God. She is not a co-redemptrix. We don’t hold the same sort of doctrinal ideas about her as the Catholic church does. She is considered to be a special woman, the mother of God, blessed among women, and she is asked for her intercession. She is included in some of our prayers, but she doesn’t feature very prominently or in ways that somehow conflate her with God. We have evidence of prayers to Mary as early as 250AD. I can write more on this in another email.

You said, “Infant baptism has no biblical substance or backing.” I very much beg to differ on this, and this is another email altogether. Scripture is friendly to this practice, and we have record of infant baptism going all the way back to the first generations of Christians. I’m sorry to say that the modern evangelical take on baptism, following in the theological thought of the radical Reformers, is very much out of step with the historic understanding and practice of baptism. Even today you still find infant baptism in all Protestant denominations that follow from the magisterial reformers (Luther + Calvin).

You said, “holy water has nothing to do with salvation or my living a successful Christian life.” Water used in baptism is holy. Baptism has everything to do with salvation and a successful Christian life.

You said, “Paul would disagree with saying the gifts of the Spirit are not necessary today or ended with the apostles.” I don’t know of any Orthodox bishop or theologian that holds with a cessationist view. The Orthodox Church is full of the Holy Spirit and miracles. There are some people that have a gift for speaking in tongues, but it is not practiced in the liturgy.

And finally you said, “spitting on the ground at the dedication represents no power in defeating Satan or demons.” Don’t get caught up on a specific action. God works how He wills. The spitting has cultural significance to Orthodox Christians (and Jews). It’s an insult and repudiation. We repudiate the devil in a really offensive way. Is the spitting particularly important? No, but the repudiation by a child of God, a member of the Body of Christ, is devastating. I’ve been in plenty of pentecostal services where we “stomped on the devil.” Do demons really hate shoes hitting the floor hard? On another level, the Orthodox Church is very much aware of the effect of the use of the physical in the actions of God. So, sometimes God acts through water, and we call it holy. Sometimes God acts through other objects. It’s ok. It’s all throughout the Bible.

My goal is to articulate as clearly as I can reasons for being willing to have an open mind. It took me years to process these things, and the most I can really do for you is to try to help you see that there’s another side to the argument. Maybe you will be able to rest easier knowing that we’ve thought this through thoroughly, and have strong reasons for our decision to become Orthodox. I’d love for you to become comfortable enough with Orthodoxy to be able to participate in the Holy Week + Easter services. You haven’t been through an Easter until you’ve been through Orthodox Holy Week. 🙂

Love you,
Mark

[Ed: For further reading here’s an interesting post recently made on the same subject, on the blog Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: http://orthodoxyandheterodoxy.org/2014/08/11/7-reasons-that-reading-the-bible-tradition/]

Another letter