A Meeting Place for Evangelicals, Reformed, and Orthodox Christians

Geneva Bible and Sola Scriptura

The recent Reformed resurgence has given rise to a renewed interest in the Geneva Bible.  Many people associate Protestantism with the King James Version (KJV), but the neo-Reformed enthusiasts look down on the KJV which was produced under the sponsorship of King James and the Church of England.  They prefer instead the Geneva Bible that the Puritans and Pilgrims brought to the New World.  For them the Geneva Bible represents the truer Reformed understanding of the Bible.

As I read their enthusiastic promotion of the Geneva Bible I was struck by two claims: (1) the Geneva Bible being faithful to sola Scriptura and (2) the Geneva Bible as the spiritual foundation for American democracy.

Knox and Calvin, as well as the other Reformers, wanted the Bible to speak for itself. The Geneva Bible fulfilled that need. It nurtured liberty of conscience and freedom of thought. A generation of men and women raised on this Bible would not tolerate tyranny in church or state.   [Emphasis added; Source: Kirk Cameron]

The Pilgrims and Puritans preferred the Geneva Bible over the King James Bible, not trusting the king’s purported good faith. The Geneva Bible was brought over on the Mayflower, and it is not an exaggeration to say that the Geneva translation and footnotes were the biblical foundation for the American Republic.    [Emphasis added; Source: Kirk Cameron]

This posting is the first of a four part review of the Geneva Bible.  For my research I relied on Harry S. Stout’s “Word and Order in Colonial New England,” which appeared in The Bible in America (1982), edited by Nathan O. Hatch and Mark A. Noll.


Scripture IN Tradition

There is a certain irony in the claim: “Knox and Calvin, as well as the other Reformers, wanted the Bible to speak for itself,” when the Geneva Bible is famous for its extensive commentary of more than 300,000 words.  This made it a veritable a mini theology library accessible to the common readers of the time.  What we see here is an English translation of Scripture encased in the Reformed theological tradition.  This is no stand alone Bible but a Bible embedded in a specific Protestant tradition.  This is much like how Orthodoxy understands the Bible.  For Orthodoxy the Bible must not be read independently but understood in light of Apostolic Tradition.

As a study bible the Geneva Bible was not all that unusual for its time.  Luther’s German translation included theological commentary as did Olivetanus’ French translation. Prof. Harry Stout noted that what would have been unusual at the time was a popular translation without commentary.  This practice of inserting marginal notes refutes the contemporary imaginings of popular Evangelicalism of sola Scriptura: the Bible all by itself.  Keith Mathison labeled this distorted understanding: “solo Scriptura.”  As originally understood by the Reformers, sola Scriptura meant Scripture understood in light of the best exegetical tools and theological research available and unfettered by subservience to papal authority.  But this massive set of commentary notes raises the issue: Which particular theological tradition is being affixed to the Scripture text?    

The Geneva Bible marked the beginning of the Protestant practice (tradition) of making study bibles.  Some of the more popular modern versions are the Scofield Study Bible and the Ryrie Study Bible, both are based on JN Darby’s dispensational school of theology.  More recently, there have appeared specialty bibles like the Charles F. Stanley Life Principles Bible and the John F. MacArthur Study Bible.   All these bibles set an interpretive commentary alongside the very text of Scripture.  This commentary is without question a tradition—a set of teachings and practices that guide and define a particular faith community.  The Protestant Reformers were not averse to the notion of tradition.  But one has to wonder about the proliferation of Protestant study bibles when they offer conflicting interpretations of the Bible.


The-Orthodox-Study-BibleIn 2008, the Orthodox Study Bible was published by Thomas Nelson.  Like the Geneva Bible, the Orthodox Study Bible has extensive commentary notes.  Where it differs is that the commentary notes draw on the early Church Fathers.  This is significant.  The early Christians were admonished to hold fast to Apostolic Tradition both in written and oral forms (2 Thessalonians 2:15), and to ensure its transmission to future generations (2 Timothy 1:13, 2:2).  This is the biblical basis for capital “T” Tradition.  Because of the early Church Fathers’ proximity to the Apostles and their commitment to the traditioning process, we can be confident that the patristic exegesis of Scripture is faithful to the Apostle’s understanding of what Scripture meant.  In contrast to this, the Geneva Bible draws on an exegetical tradition that date back to the 1500s, i.e., the Protestant Reformation.  In other words, the commentary texts of the Geneva Bible ground the reader in a theological tradition that much more recent than that of the Church Fathers.  It then becomes a question why one would prefer a four hundred year old tradition over another that is almost two thousand years old.  


Sola Scriptura and Vernacular Bibles

The Protestant principle sola Scriptura gave rise to the need for vernacular translations.  The original Reformers were able to read Scripture in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, but they wanted to make the Bible accessible to the common people.  This quest for the vernacular arose in part to Rome’s ecclesiastical tyranny and the widespread biblical illiteracy among the laity.  Stout wrote:

At that time vernacular Bibles were still in their infancy, and ordinary people had no ready access to the Word of God in an intelligible and affordable edition.  Until that need was met, the Reformation ideal of sola Scriptura would remain just that: an ideal with no realistic prospect of implementation in a living society.  The exiles’ proposed translation, then, represented the necessary precondition for a biblical-based culture organized solely on God’s ordinances (1982:20).

This need for vernacular translations is characteristic of Western Christianity.  In the West the Bible was in a dead language, Latin, and was thus inaccessible to the vast majority of society.  In the Byzantine East significant parts of the population were still conversant in Greek.  Furthermore, Orthodoxy has a tradition of translating into the vernacular dating to the ninth century when Kyril and Methodios sought to evangelize the Slavs.

The anomaly of an English translation being named after a city situated outside England reflects the circumstances in which it originated.  The Geneva Bible was the work of Anthony Gilby and William Whittingham who fled the persecution of the pro-Catholic Queen Mary to Geneva.  There they produced an English translation, working in concert with other leading Reformed scholars of the day like Calvin and Beza.  It is important to keep in mind that at the same time other vernacular translations were being undertaken in French, Spanish, Italian, as well as English.

The first printing of the entire Geneva Bible, Old and New Testaments took place in 1576.  It became widely popular and went through some 150 editions from 1576 to 1644.  Its popularity was due not only to the clarity and vigor of style but also its extensive commentary notes. The Geneva Bible was also notable for its technical innovations.  The numbering of verses, cross referencing of verses, detailed introductions to each book, in addition to maps, woodcut illustrations, and indexes all made for a very influential and popular study bible.


Altering the Biblical Canon

Another innovation introduced through the Geneva Bible was the exclusion of the Apocrypha (the deuterocanonical books).  This change took place with the 1599 version; earlier versions of the Geneva Bible contained the Apocrypha.  From a historical vantage point, the English Puritans were pioneers in this unprecedented tampering of the biblical canon.  For the first 1500 years the Christian Bible contained the Apocrypha.  Even among Protestant translations the exclusion of the Apocrypha was an anomaly.  Luther’s German Bible and Olivetan’s French Bible both contained the Apocrypha.  All English Bibles printed in the sixteenth century contained a section or appendix for the Apocrypha: Matthew’s Bible (1537), Myles Coverdale Bible (1538), and the 1560 Geneva Bible.  The King James Bible which was first printed in 1611 likewise contained the Apocrypha.  What probably accounts for this change was the growing radicalism of English Puritanism which sought the purify not only church and society, but also the biblical canon.

The Puritans’ exclusion of the Apocrypha has had a tremendous impact on the Protestant understanding of the Bible.  The Protestant Old Testament ends with Malachi which dates to the fifth century BC resulting in a sizable gap between the Old and New Testaments.  However, the Apocrypha contains later works like Sirach which has been dated to 180 BC and 1 Maccabees which has been dated to 104 BC.  Thus, if we include the Apocrypha in the Old Testament then we find a significant reduction in the gap between the Old and New Testament periods.  If the gap between the Jewish Bible and the Christian New Testament is miniscule then one’s understanding of salvation history changes from one based on discontinuity to one based on continuity.  One becomes more open to viewing the New Testament as the extension and culmination of Old Testament salvation history.  I would conjecture that the Puritans’ exclusion of the Apocrypha may have inadvertently laid the groundwork for dispensationalism’s dichotomy between the Age of Law (Israel) and the Age of Grace (the Christian Church).



The Geneva Bible is instructive for our understanding of the Protestantism’s  sola Scriptura.  Contrary to what many Evangelicals think, the original Protestant Reformers’ understanding of sola scriptura was more along the lines of prima Scriptura than solo Scriptura.  Thus, the early Protestants had no problem with providing extensive commentary notes to the biblical text.  They assumed that their interpretation of the Bible was identical to that of the Apostles.  However, historical and theological scholarship have found that the Protestant Reformation to mark a break from the historic Christian Faith of the first millennium.  Protestantism’s novelty can be seen in its understanding of sola Scriptura, the Eucharist, and in the case of the Puritans, their rejection of the episcopacy and the Apocrypha; all of which puts them at odds with the early Church.  Thus, the Geneva Bible marked not a return to the early Church but the start of a new religious tradition, Protestant Christianity.  Furthermore, the Geneva Bible opened the way for the proliferation of study bibles mirroring Protestantism’s denominational confusion.  Thus, the Geneva Bible exemplifies the consequences of Protestantism’s sola Scriptura.

Robert Arakaki

Next:  The Geneva Bible and the City on a Hill


  1. Fr. John Morris

    An excellent article. Although the Protestant Reformers proclaimed the doctrine of sola scriptura, they did not hesitate to persecute those whose Biblical interpretations differed from their interpretation. The classic case is Zwingli, who wrote that the Bible is self-interpretating and that one does not need the Tradition to understand the meaning of the Bible, but did not hesitate to persecute and even advocate the execution of Anabaptists.
    Regardless of their stated beliefs, every Protestant denomination has their own tradition. The arrangement of their worship space, how they worship, their basic doctrine and administration of the parish and diocese of whatever higher level of administration that they have, is just as much a tradition as our Holy Tradition. No one really believes in or practices sola-scruptura. Their tradition may be that of their particular denomination or adherence to the teaching of a popular pastor like Joel Osteen.

  2. Serena

    In a debate between a Catholic and Protestant over sola scriptura, the Protestant asked what sacred tradition needed to be followed that was not in the Bible. My thought was the celebration of Christmas and Easter, but the Catholic promptly replied with “You’re holding it’. Meaning the Bible itself, the bible does not tell us what books belong in the bible!

    • robertar

      Good point!

  3. David

    Excellent introduction Robert. As I began my inquiry into Orthodoxy (after 33+ years decidedly Reformed/twice a Ruling Elder) I was certain I believed and had practiced Sola Scriptura. The Bible was THE only infallible authority for both individual Christian and Christ’s Church. This was clearly an apriori presupposition for me.

    Then I listened to Dn Michael Hyatt’s three-part podcasts, then read your four-part critique that include Keith Mathison’s book. I pondered over the fact that Sola Scriptura is an extra-biblical assumption we bring to the Bible. I also thought over the history of the Cannon itself not even begun to be written for at least 20-yrs after the Resurrection. It became clear to me that Sola Scriptura (did Luther & Calvin use this term?) must ultimately be understood within the context of a particular Tradition. Fr. John above it right. The Reformed Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Southern Baptist, Covenanter Reformed, Contenantal Reformed, Roman Caltholics ALL have well developed Traditions — through which they understand Scripture. These traditions show up in their Commentaries, Confessions, Sermons, and bible studies.

    Sadly, it seemed only the Orthodox were honest enough to admit it! The Geneva Bible is a great place to challenge our Protestant Christian friends to think. It’s not a matter of IF…Tradition…but WHOSE Tradition is most plausible? Another way to ask this is “Did the Holy Spirit teach the Apostles a Tradition they passed on to Timothy and their other disciples…that was seriously flawed and full of error and superstitions? Or did the Apostles and early Church Fathers get it right from the Holy Spirit?

    • Benjamin Cutler

      Sadly, it seemed only the Orthodox were honest enough to admit it!

      I don’t know if I would go quite that far. Roman Catholics admit to tradition too. And at the very least mainline Protestants tend to admit to Tradition (even if they may downplay how much tradition influences their interpretations of the Bible).

      • Prometheus

        I agree that the Catholics admit tradition easily as much as the Orthodox. The more liturgical Protestants admit tradition to some degree, but it can usually be over-ruled by one’s interpretation of scripture. It is the average fundamentalist or even evangelical who isn’t even aware that they have a tradition. I speak as one who was in the same boat once.

  4. Charlie

    And what of the Old Testament? The LXX or the Hebrew text(s)?

  5. Erik

    It might be important to note that:
    “Orthodox Bibles always contain the “canonical” and “deuterocanonical” books of the Old Testament because all are needed to rightly understand the Scriptures and be fully equipped in the Church. Orthodox Christians are aware of the difference in witnessing authority between the “canonical” and “deuterocanonical” books of the Old Testament. Sometimes, the “deuterocanonical” are called “canonical” in the sense that they belong to the corpus of the Holy Scriptures, not in the sense that they have the same level of authority as those who are undisputed. The Pan-Orthodox council of Jassy (1642) confirmed that these books are “genuine parts of scripture.” The Orthodox meaning of “deuterocanonical” is somewhat different from its use in Roman Catholicism. In Orthodoxy, “deuterocanonical” means included in the Bible since the beginning as part of the Septuagint but of lesser authority. In Roman Catholicism, “deuterocanonical” means confirmed in the canon at a later time (in a “second” phase) but of the same authority.” (Catechism of the Orthodox Faith)

    Thus it might be considered that the Reformed/Protestant elimination of the Apocrypha from the body of the Bible was more of a reaction to or rejection of Roman Catholicism’s view. In my humble opinion as a Continuing Anglican, I think the Apocrypha should be included in the body of the Holy Bible, but relegated to a separate section like it was in the earliest copies of the LXX so as not to bestow on it the same level of authority as the other books.

    • Prometheus


      The Orthodox, from all I’ve read, don’t separate between the books. Scripture is scripture. Traditionally they are not like the Anglicans who allow the “apocrypha” to be read, but not used for doctrine. There are some modern Orthodox who are starting to make this claim, but traditionally, they were all just scripture. That is not to say that all scripture is as central as other scripture. Obviously the gospels have primacy of place.

      • Erik

        It might be better to say that historically the Eastern Orthodox treatment of the Apocrypha has just not been consistent. Some have claimed equal authority for all the texts, others render respect but do not grant them the same level of authority (like the text I quoted), and still others have outright rejected the Apocryphal books. For example, Early Church Fathers like Cyril, Athanasius, and Jerome rejected them. Or take these questions and answers from Metropolitan Philaret’s 19th century catechism, which explains that the Apocryphal books are not to be counted as part of the canonized Old Testament because they are not found in the original Hebrew.

        “33. How do St. Cyril and St. Athanasius enumerate the books of the Old Testament?
        As follows: 1, The book of Genesis; 2, Exodus; 3, Leviticus; 4, the book of Numbers; 5, Deuteronomy; 6, the book of Jesus the son of Nun; 7, the book of Judges, and with it, as an appendix, the book of Ruth; 8, the first and second books of Kings, as two parts of one book; 9, the third and fourth books of Kings; 10, the first and second books of Paralipomena; 11, the first book of Esdras, and the second, or, as it is entitled in Greek, the book of Nehemiah; 12, the book of Esther; 13, the book of Job; 14, the Psalms; 15, the Proverbs of Solomon; 16, Ecclesiastes, also by Solomon; 17, the Song of Songs, also by Solomon; 18, the book of the Prophet Isaiah; 19, of Jeremiah; 20, of Ezekiel; 21, of Daniel; 22, of the Twelve Prophets.

        34. Why is there no notice taken in this enumeration of the books of the Old Testament of the book of the Wisdom of the son of Sirach, and of certain others?
        Because they do not exist in the Hebrew. “

      • Erik

        Forgot questions 31 and 32:
        “31. How many are the books of the Old Testament?
        St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Athanasius the Great, and St. John Damascene reckon them at twenty-two, agreeing therein with the Jews, who so reckon them in the original Hebrew tongue. (Athanas. Ep. xxxix. De Test.; J. Damasc. Theol. lib. iv. c. 17.)

        32. Why should we attend to the reckoning of the Hebrews?
        Because, as the Apostle Paul says, unto them were committed the oracles of God; and the sacred books of the Old Testament have been received from the Hebrew Church of that Testament by the Christian Church of the New. Rom. iii. 2.”

        • Prometheus

          Thank you for your citations, Erik. I will have to look into this more. I agree that the Orthodox have not always been consistent in this. It may be because there has never actually been a definitive church statement as to the contents of scripture (cf. The Canon of the Bible and the Apocrypha in the Churches of the East by Hovhanessian, p.4; you can see this free at Amazon). The Orthodox have not felt the need, yet, to draw clear boundaries, though the fact that certain books are “out” and certain ones “in” is clear. Some are not so clear, such as 4 Maccabees. I find the catechism of Metropolitan Philaret somewhat odd on this point, particularly since, in my own reading about OT canon, I have not seen any clear consensus among the fathers on certain books, but that the so-called deuterocanon is every bit as much scripture as the rest. But again . . . ad fontes. I will have to go back and reread my sources on the OT canon.

          Thanks again for the challenge, Erik.

          PS Typically the word Apocrypha for the Orthodox includes books that are not part of what Protestants call Apocrypha, rather Pseudepigrapha

      • robertar


        Thanks. I didn’t quite know how to answer Erik’s questions. I’m still learning about the the so called Apocrypha. One thing I did notice was that certain deuterocanonical books like the Wisdom of Solomon are read out loud during the Matins service. For an Orthodox Christian that’s a very powerful witness to the Church’s acceptance of that book as Scripture with a capital “S.”


        • Anastasios

          Then, there’s also the fact that the Oriental Orthodox churches tend to view the question of canonicity as somewhat adiaphora, since they have different scriptural canons despite remaining in communion with one another! (E. g., the Ethiopian Orthodox canon numbers 81 books and is the longest of any traditional church.)

          • robertar

            Thanks Anastasios! I knew the Ethiopian Orthodox had a longer canon, but I didn’t know it was that long! I haven’t met any Ethiopian Orthodox Christians but I hope one day I will so I can ask questions about their canon. I think they’re crosses are beautiful.


      • RVW


        St. Athanasius’ “39th Festal Letter” is important here. In it, he states, “There are, then, of the Old Testament, twenty-two books in number.” He’s just rejected what he terms “apocryphal” books, but we shouldn’t automatically assume that what he meant by the term is what we mean by the term, especially since he connects Jeremiah and the epistle of Baruch as one text.


        “But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read; nor is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings.”

        Here we have a shortened list of what we call the Apocrypha, plus the Didache (“The Teaching of the Apostles”) and Hermas (“The Shepherd”). While these aren’t included in the Canon, they are useful for catechesis. A subtle, yet key distinction. This tends to put Athanasius not in the category of those who reject the Apocrypha (as we understand it), but rather one who views a tiered structure of inspiration and usefulness in the Church.


        • Erik

          Sorry, having re-read my second post I realize I stated something poorly. Even though I mention some Fathers as rejecting them altogether and then immediately cite Cyril, Athanasius, and Jerome as rejecting them, what I meant to say was that these three simply rejected them as being part of the Hebrew canon. The reason I say this is because the citation I used in the first post was actually commentary on Metropolitan Philaret’s catechism. So when Philaret lists Cyril, Athanasius, and John of Damascene’s reckoning of the OT canon as being 22 and excluding the others, the commentary goes on to explain that Philaret and the Fathers were not excluding them from all usefulness, but only from the more authoritative level of the Hebrew canon that counts as the proper OT. Thus, this is why they are referred to as deuterocanoncial and not canonical in what it deems the Orthodox, as opposed to the Romanist, sense of the word.

          So in short, I agree with you that Cyril, Athanasius, and Jerome would all fall in what you aptly describe as the tiered level camp, or maybe what we could call the ‘via media’ camp 🙂 In fact, that is why I used that position in my first post because in my limited knowledge of Orthodoxy this seemed to be the majority view. Perhaps I’m wrong about that, but it is the view I endorse and what is found in the 39 Articles – “And the other books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine…”

          • Prometheus

            In my understanding (please correct me, those of you who are Orthodox), the Orthodox do not “establish doctrine” according to scripture the way the Protestants do. The lack of consistency in doctrine in Anglicanism (this I say from experience) is precisely because doctrine continuously needs to be “re-established” by whoever is engaging in theology. The advantage is that you can get people with widely differing views to worship together in one place (e.g. Calvinist and Arminian; Paedo-baptist and Credo-baptist; sacramentalist and non-sacramentalist; high church and low church – will these two actually worship together?).

            The Orthodox have doctrines that are the teaching of the church, passed on by tradition, and supported (not established) by citations from the scriptures, church councils, fathers, etc. They do not need to “establish doctrines.” The doctrines are already clear and may not be directly in scripture at all (think icons). So to compare the 39 articles’ view of the deutero-canon with the Orthodox view is somewhat misleading. In fact, there are scriptures in deutero-canon from which it is easy to find justification for certain doctrines in both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches (e.g. prayes for the dead). If it is justification one is looking for, I believe that the Orthodox would feel comfortable justifying their stance from deutero-canonical books in much the same way that Protestants justify their beliefs through the proto-canonical books.

            There are many problems with defining as scripture the Hebrew books that the common era Jews took into their canon. 1) The Hebrew Canon was not set by the time the church began 2) the church or churches used the “deutero-canonical” books as scripture 3) for those who say that only the books in Hebrew count, we must remember that some of the “Hebrew” canon was in Aramaic, that some of the deutero-canonical books were in Aramaic (e.g. Tobit), and that there is no a priori reason for assuming that the canon of either testaments is limited to one language (why, after all, can the New Testament be in Greek, but none of the Old Testament?).

            That said, the exact limits of the canon seem to be less important to the early church than keeping with the tradition that had been handed on to them. The defining of Biblical canons was a way to safeguard the tradition – to enable people to know, in part, what tradition was legitimate. But there were other ways, including ecumenical councils, apostolic succession, etc -some of which were much older than the tradition of a Biblical canon.

            I’ll get back with more when I get a chance to look at my books on the formation of the canon.

          • robertar


            You made a very good point about Orthodoxy not establishing doctrine on the basis of what the Bible teaches. Orthodoxy thinks in terms of a Tradition received from the Apostles. Scripture is part the Apostolic Tradition along with the oral component like the shared understanding as to what Scripture meant. I think the best way to describe the Orthodox attitude towards Scripture is the phrase “kata graphe” which is mentioned in the Nicene Creed. In the Nicene Creed we find the phrase: “the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures.” This points to Scripture and the rest of Tradition being congruent with each other. You can also find the phrase “kata tas graphas” (according to the Scriptures) in I Corinthians 15:3 and 4. You can find my discussion of “according to Scripture” and sola fide in my article: Contra Sola Scriptura Part 2.


        • Erik

          I might also suggest that Athanasius’ listing of books in the Festal Letter you cite might be an e.g. rather than i.e. listing because there seem to be quite a few unaccounted for that I don’t think anybody attaches to other books. I could definitely be wrong on that though.

        • Canadian

          Notice Esther relegated to secondary status 😉
          What Prometheus says below is true that the ancient church was not in a panic to have a strict canon but to guard the Tradition, which will eventually include a defined canon. The fact of an ebb and flow of canonical identity doesn’t pose a problem.

        • Erik


          “You made a very good point about Orthodoxy not establishing doctrine on the basis of what the Bible teaches.” This is definitely a statement that makes the Reformed mind cringe a little 🙂

          Three questions please:
          – Does the EO Church distinguish between doctrine and dogma?
          I’m wondering about this because I’m trying to reconcile your statement with other EO statements I have read about this topic. For example, one statement I have read associated with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is that:
          “All the dogmas of the Church are “Biblical,” i.e. based on the Bible. The dogmas of the Church are nothing else but an authoritative presentation of the revealed doctrine, both for didactic and also apologetical purposes.” (http://www.goarch.org/ourfaith/ourfaith8038#sthash.3gJZyZHk.dpuf)

          – Is it not true that teachings and practices must at least harmonize with Scripture?
          – If teachings and practices must at least harmonize with Scripture, then would it not be an overstatement to say that doctrine is established irrespective of what the Bible teaches?

          • robertar


            Maybe I should have written: Orthodoxy does not establish doctrine on the basis of Scripture alone. Scripture does play a role in the formulation of doctrine in Orthodoxy. As a matter of fact it plays a very important role in Orthodoxy. All one has to do is read the early Church Fathers’ writings like St. Basil’s “On the Holy Spirit” or Athanasius the Great “On the Incarnation.” So please don’t think that Scripture doesn’t play a role in Orthodox theology; it does in fact play a very important role in Orthodox theology, just not the way the Reformed understand the role of Scripture in doing theology.

            Orthodoxy does make a distinction between doctrine and dogma. One good example of a doctrine that is not a dogma would be Augustine of Hippo’s teaching on the double procession of the Holy Spirit. Many Eastern Orthodox Christians would take issue with that but it has never been formally condemned by the Orthodox Church. So one could say that Augustine’s is a doctrine held by some. With respect to the Filioque clause, Orthodoxy is united on the Filioque clause as an uncanonical alteration of the Nicene Creed. But the divinity of the Holy Spirit is a dogma (essential and fundamental teaching) of the Church. One cannot be Orthodox if one denies the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

            As for that quotation from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese site (goarch.com), I have no problems with it. If I were to take it strictly and literally, I would have problems with it; but I and others often speak loosely at times. I’m sure if you were to sit down and ask a Greek Orthodox priest what that sentence meant, I’m sure that would affirm that their doctrine does not arise from a scientific exegesis of Scripture alone but from a reading of Scripture in the context of Holy Tradition. But my recommendation here is that you contact a local Greek Orthodox priest, show the priest the quote and my comment and ask them if there is any discrepancy between the two. And as a follow up question, ask the priest: “How does the Orthodox Church establish a doctrine or practice?”

            You asked, “Is it not true that teaching and practices must at least harmonize with Scripture?” The answer is: Yes. That’s implied in the Greek phrase “kata graphe” (according to Scripture). And that is why I wrote blog posting that show how the teaching and practices of Orthodox are congruent with Scripture. But as St. Basil points out in “On the Holy Spirit,” there’s a lot that is not mentioned in Scripture that are part of the Church’s oral tradition (section 66).

            You asked, “If teachings and practices must at least harmonize with Scripture, then would it not be an overstatement to say that doctrine is established irrespective of what the Bible teaches?” I think it all depends on what you mean by “establish” and “irrespective.” But I think that the word “irrespective” is rather strong especially when a teaching or practice is shown to be harmonious with respect to Scripture. If you have something specific in mind, feel free to bring it up and we can discuss the matter further.


          • Erik


            You answered my questions. If the EO distinguishes between doctrine and dogma then your clarification of not establishing doctrine on the basis of Scripture alone accords what the GOA site claims in total about Tradition and Scripture. It is my understanding that the EO establishes doctrine and practices through the Holy Tradition of the Living Church, which is the surest repository of truth – both written and unwritten. One follow up question though, would it then be accurate to say the any Dogma (or an essential teaching of the faith without which salvation is not possible as opposed to merely a doctrine or practice) must have a basis in Scripture, or can a Dogma also be derived from unwritten Tradition and given validity as long as it doesn’t contradict Scripture?

            By the way, I love the dialogue here; it is so much more civil and informative than what you see on many other sites.

          • robertar


            First of all, I want to say that I’m pleased to hear your comment about the civility on this site. It’s something that we all need to safeguard.

            I would have to disagree with your understanding of dogma as an essential teaching on which one’s salvation depends. The word “salvation” is a very loaded term that can be understood in a number of ways. I would not say that one’s relationship with Christ depends adhering to all the dogmas of the Church. The OrthodoxWiki entry “Dogma” says nothing about our eternal destiny being contingent on our subscribing to the dogmas.” Our salvation depends on our faith in Christ and our obedience to Christ. Our relationship with Christ is intertwined with our relationship with his covenant community, the Church. The Church is our Mother; she teaches us through the Liturgy of the Word and the church fathers, she nourishes us through the Eucharist, and she protects us from heresy through the Councils. I explained to a friend of mine: “Heresy is not so much having wrong theology as being unwilling to be corrected by the Church.” In light of that if I met someone whose theology was questionable in addition to challenging them I would also urge them to consult with their priest or bishop. Every Orthodox Christian is accountable to the local priest who represents the bishop the official guardian of Holy Tradition. At the same time each lay member is also a recipient and guardian of Holy Tradition. There is no such thing as an independent Orthodox Christian. An independent Orthodox Christian is like an AWOL soldier wandering alone in the desert. That soldier needs to return to base and report to their CO. Thus, becoming Orthodox is like enlisting in the army.

            Let me bring up a practice that has dogmatic status in Orthodoxy and that is the veneration of icons. I’ve shown in previous postings that the biblical, patristic, and archaeological evidences point to images (icons) are part of Old Testament worship and part of early Christian worship. But the evidence for the veneration of icons, e.g., the kissing of icons, seems to be quite sparse. This is something I want to investigate further. I suspect that practice of venerating icons is something that flourished along with the veneration of Mary as Theotokos in the fifth century. Some questioned these practices which resulted in the fourth, fifth, and seventh Ecumenical Councils. So when we come to the Seventh Ecumenical Council we read: “to these [icons] should be given due salutation and honourable reverence.” (NPNF vol. XIV p. 548). With that the issue of whether or not icons should be venerated has been decisively settled by an Ecumenical Council. This is the teaching of the Church Catholic.

            I remember when I was a Protestant and I went up after a service to kiss the icon of Christ, then the cross held by the priest and the priest’s hand. As an Evangelical and Japanese American the culture shock of that first time almost gave me a heart attack. As an Orthodox Christian I’m now used to kissing the Bible, icons, crosses, and being kissed by other church members. To understand the importance of the venerating of icons, we need to grasp the sacramental worldview of Orthodoxy. Icons have a sacramental quality and in that sense they are windows to heaven. They are more than just illustrated Sunday School lessons. Icons are a means by which we honor Christ and enjoy our fellowship with the saints in heaven.

            If you have a hard time accepting this practice, my advice is that you give yourself time and take things slowly. Orthodoxy is more a way of life in the Church than a neatly organized theological system. Watch how Orthodox Christians live out their Christian discipleship. Talk with a priest. Read up on the issue. And pray. Ask for the Holy Spirit’s guiding you into all truth (John 16:13).


          • Prometheus


            It is interesting that you shy away from the word “salvation.” The reason I say this is because part of the reason people are asking these questions has to do with salvation. And since the Orthodox view of salvation seems to be process-oriented, why would they have a hard time saying that believing in the dogmas of the church affect salvation? Unless your caveat about the need to be corrected by the church has to do with salvation (i.e. you can unwittingly believe the wrong things, but not continue purposely in the wrong belief).

            Also, Robert, are there not dogmas in the Orthodox Church that cannot strictly be derived from scripture? Perhaps that is what you meant when you said, “Orthodoxy does not establish doctrine on the basis of Scripture alone. I think it could be safe to say that dogmas are defined (not invented) by the Church, through the leading of the Holy Spirit, and in concert with Holy Tradition.

            To everyone: When I look at the early church, I also see something that somewhat reminds me of Orthodoxy (and strikes me as pertaining to the whole reason why the early church wasn’t terribly concerned with a fixed canon): “for the men of the NT, the OT, though authoritative, was no longer the communicator of salvation . . . Only the preaching of Jesus Christ as crucified and risen communicated salvation in the Christian sense” and “Christian use of the OT was highly selective and designed especially to clarify or confirm Christian beliefs. According to Shires, the real motivating force of the NT, then, is not the OT but rather the experiences of Jesus.” (The Biblical Canon by Lee Martin McDonald, p.208). What I mean by connecting these outrageous quotes with the Orthodox Church is that while the scriptures testify to and support and are part of the Tradition of the church, the importance is the truth that scripture (and the rest of tradition) testifies to, not the tradition itself. So, for the early Christian, the gospel was not contained in books, but in the message of the church – which had books that it used.

            Maybe I can clarify by an illustration from my own understanding of people coming to faith. One of my main critiques of sola scriptura particularly as it is used in witnessing, is that I don’t believe that most people come to know Jesus through verbatim quotes from the Bible. They are told the message and the story. If my assessment is correct, then, while the scriptures contain the message and point to how to take that message seriously, people can encounter Jesus, the Word of God, apart from scripture (what Protestants usually call the Word of God).

            At this point I bow my head in failure . . . because I don’t know if I am communicating well what I am trying to say. 🙂

            Anyways, the Church preaches the good news, the gospel, whether or not it is using “the Bible.” I think that this is why the Liturgy, the saints, not to mention the sacraments, are so important to the Orthodox Church. The Bible is not the locus of salvation or the faith, the church is.

            Have I said anything worthwhile here?

          • robertar


            You asked some very good questions here. First of all, the word “salvation” is a very loaded term, especially in a discussion across two quite different theological traditions. We use the same terms but attach different meanings and operate from different paradigms. If I shied away from the word “salvation,” it was because I did not want Erik to misunderstand me. If I were in direct face to face conversation with Erik, I would be watching his facial reactions very carefully. I would also be asking follow up questions to make sure we are on the same page. Since this is an Internet dialogue there are serious constraints on all parties in the conversation. What I wanted to avoid was giving the impression that one’s eternal destiny depends on being theologically correct, i.e., adhering to all the dogmas of the Church. Dogmas and doctrines are important but they are not the whole picture in Orthodoxy. There’s participation in the Liturgy, following the ascetic disciplines of the Church, using the prayers of the Church for one’s personal prayers, doing acts of charity to others, striving towards inner purity and confessing one’s failings in the sacrament of confession, loving the saints. Many of the babas and the yayas (old ladies) in the Orthodox Church wouldn’t be able to give a good explanation of the dogmas of the Church but their faithfulness in attending the services and all around helpfulness is a much more powerful witness to Orthodoxy than an intellectual Christian. If someone were to ask me if they should read up on church history and the dogmas of the Ecumenical Councils, I would not discourage that person but I would encourage him or her to attend the Liturgy, pay attention to the prayers and hymns, to cultivate a personal rule of prayer, and to live out one’s life in humility and charity.

            If someone were to ask me if a Protestant who just died is going to heaven, my answer is: “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.” If someone were to ask me if a longtime Orthodox Christian who just died is going to heaven, my answer would be the same: “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.” It’s a mystery because I have no idea of the person’s relationship with Christ at the time of their death. But I can confidently assert that Jesus Christ saves all those who put their trust in Him. I can confidently confess: “He is Risen! Trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”

            The word “faith” can be understood as intellectual assent or as relational trust. Both are essential for saving faith in Jesus Christ. Like Protestantism, Orthodoxy sees intellectual assent to doctrines about Christ as essential to being a Christian. The relational element is just as important in Orthodoxy. To become an Orthodox Christian one must join one’s self to Christ in baptism, that is, one must accept Christ as Lord and renounce Satan. To be an Orthodox Christian means trusting Christ’s Church and submitting to her. The dogmas are useful for intellectuals like me. My local parish priest does not have to do all sorts of reading or contact his seminary profs if we ever have differences of opinion. All he has to do is point to the dogmas of the Church and the matter is settled.

            One problem I see in Protestantism’s sola scriptura is that there are often competing interpretations of the Bible. Even now I read on the Internet about pastors and seminary professors accused of becoming liberal or compromising the Evangelical faith. This results in a civil war where one side wins and the other loses. One of the tragedies of Protestantism is that old controversies are frequently resurrected and long buried civil wars refought all over on new terrains. For Orthodoxy disputes about Christ’s divine nature, his humanity, the role of the Virgin Mary, the divinity of the Holy Spirit have all been settled.

            Yes Orthodoxy sees salvation as a process, but don’t forget that for Orthodoxy salvation is relational–one must be in union with Christ and his Church. That is why partaking of the Eucharist is so important. If salvation is union with Christ then receiving Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist is essential to our salvation. Right worship is just as important as right doctrine. For an Orthodox Christian to willfully stay away from the Eucharist is to jeopardize one’s salvation. I don’t fret about people I see in church who don’t go up because that’s the job of the parish priest. I assume that the priest knows more about what’s happening with that parishioner than I do.

            And with respect to your question about a dogma not strictly derived from Scripture, what do you think about my example about the veneration of icons?

            OK, I’ll stop here. 🙂 I hope I’m not rambling and that I’ve answered your questions.


          • Canadian

            You said:
            “So, for the early Christian, the gospel was not contained in books, but in the message of the church – which had books that it used.”

            This is clearly seen in the Acts 17 example of the Bereans, which is the farthest thing from a support for Sola Scriptura.
            In 17:2-3, St Paul is preaching to unbelieving Jews telling them a thing so strange to Jewish ears…..that the Christ had to suffer and rise again. He later moves on to Berea with the same message, which the noble Bereans check for in the OT scriptures. Did the Christ have to suffer and rise? But that was not the gospel, it was groundwork for the gospel. The saving gospel message, hidden from the foundation of the world, and was new divine revelation, in which the Berean’s had to place full trust in the words of this stranger Paul was “This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ!”

  6. Jason

    Great article!

    In reference to the Puritan relationship to the Apocrypha and its disappearance (or rather, censorship) from the Geneva Bible, I have also read that this was instead a move made by the heirs of Christopher Barker. Barker secured the Royal monopoly on printing Bibles from his patron, Sir Francis Walsingham, in 1577. After Barker died in 1599, his heirs set up an agreement with Dutch printing companies for subsequent printing of the “1599” text, sans the Apocrypha. These counterfeit 1599 versions were printed with that date as late as 1640. The imprint also includes that the books were printed in London, however they were printed in Amsterdam. This agreement between the Royal and Dutch printing companies was covert, and the Puritans knew nothing of it. For whatever reason, the counterfeit 1599 Geneva Bibles were to take over the market, and falsify the fact that the Apocrypha was ever there in the first place. Eventually, all Protestant versions would exclude them, as we see today.

    Unfortunately, some go to great lengths to “prove” why the Apocrypha are not “God-inspired,” etc., with these explanations being embarassingly circular in logic and downright errant. See the following link, or search online for “Apocrypha biblical” (it will be on the first page of results) for an example of this:

    As for why there was a covert effort to suppress the Apocrypha (and I don’t buy this title for these books, but am using it in context with the above post), I think it is rather obvious, considering what is included among them: prayers for the dead, interactions with angels, prominant deference to Holy Tradition, among other things.

    Here’s to hoping that future scholarship will lead to a more broad understanding of the fact that the exclusion of these books was really an error, and erode this skewed perception against their inclusion among Scripture. Looking forward to the next installment!

  7. William Tighe

    This may be of interest to those who have commented on this thread:


    It has been a long time since I have read Sundberg’s book, but I do recall that he discusses at length the OT Canon of St. Athanasius. He claims, IIRC, that the saint lists the books of the “Jamnia Canon,” but also that he includes, e.g., Lamentations and Baruch under “Jeremiah,” and also that throughout his writings he cites other books, e.g., Eccesiasticus, as “Scripture.” In other words, while he may follow the rabbis as to the number and names of the OT books, it is not necessarily to be assumed that he agrees with them as to their contents.

  8. Prometheus

    Thank you, Robert and Canadian.

    Robert, I see that you were willing to finally say that your salvation can be at stake over “truth.” That is sort of what I was getting at. If one rejects the churches dogmas one should have cause for concern. As for “the old ladies” I agree. One does not have to have a thorough knowledge of all the ins and outs of theology to be connected to the church or to Christ. But one should be willing to submit to the dogmas proclaimed.

    I went to an Anglican church in which I was informed by the priest that one of the parishioners believed in oneness theology (basically modalism). I confronted the pastor on this and he said that if she is willing to say the creed, he can give her communion. Now whether or not she actually believed in oneness theology or not, what would you say my response should be? a) “Please don’t be spreading information about others in the parish that could damage relationships?” b) “I think you should explain to her that in order to be considered a Christian she needs to accept the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (not necessarily understand it); a leader in the church has the responsibility to inform people of the true faith” c) Do nothing, its not my problem.

    Of the people I talked to in the church (about modalism, not about this woman), they all said that it was no big deal . . . in fact, I had one who argued that the heresy of dispensationalism was worse than modalism! Many evangelicals are more devoted to the solas than to the doctrine of the Trinity. That was another response I received.

    • robertar


      I am glad that I was able to assure that one’s salvation can be at stake over truth. In a way I find this exchange somewhat ironic in light of the fact that I used to contend for orthodox truth in the liberal United Church of Christ.

      The Anglican priest’s response that so long as the parishioner was willing to say the creed he would give her communion sounds like what I know about Anglicanism. There’s a dangerous disconnect here. The mind and the body need to be in synch if we are to be integrated beings; this is what salvation in Christ is about.

      With respect to the parishioner who has modalistic beliefs, I think it would be best if you were to ask an Orthodox priest or several priests how they would handle the situation. This will give you a better understanding as to how Orthodoxy functions to safeguard the truths of the Faith while also seeking to promote the spiritual health of its members. The pastoral response is just as important as the theological response.

      I’ll give you my thoughts about how an Orthodox priest could respond to this situation. First of all, option (a) is not acceptable; it’s just sweeping the problem under the carpet. Second, option (c) is just as bad; it puts the parishioner’s spiritual health at risk; heresy is not static, it’s dynamic and can metastasize. With respect to option (b) I think the priest should: (1) have a discussion so that the parishioner can understand the difference between Modalism and the Trinity, (2) point out the various elements of the Liturgy that affirm the Trinity so as to exclude any sense of Modalism, and (3) continue meeting with her to discuss the matter. He could ask her to pay closer attention to every mention of the Trinity in the Liturgy and to make the sign of the Cross every time she hears the Trinity in the Liturgy. Making the sign of the Cross is a powerful teaching device! The key here is gentle persuasion rather than laying down the law. Hopefully, the priest will not have to lay down the law and deny her access to the Communion chalice.

      There are other elements for a priest to consider. For example, is the parishioner listening to a popular TV evangelist who is propagating Modalism? If so, he can instruct her to stop watching that TV program and stop reading that sort of books. If her ability to differentiate between Modalism and Orthodox Trinitarianism is limited, I think the priest should instruct her not to discuss theology with others, to faithfully attend the Liturgy, follow the teachings of the Church, and to go to confession regularly. He could also advise the parishioner to visit a monastery and find a spiritual director who will give him/her close personal attention to her spiritual condition. This is where obedience to the pastoral authority of the Church is so important for our salvation.

      I urge you to discuss the matter with an Orthodox priest, this will give you a better understanding of how Orthodoxy work than just reading about it on the Internet.


      • Prometheus

        Thanks for the reply, Robert. As I would have hoped, you take such questions seriously.

  9. Prometheus


    I found some quotes that I think might explain why our understandings of Orthodoxy do not match (via Metropolitan Philaret). I don’t know what the latest deal is, but here’s what I do know.

    “The position of Eastern Orthodox Churches regarding the canon of the Old Testament is not at all clear. On the one hand, since the Septuagint version of the Old Testament was used throughout the Byzantine period, it is natural that Greek theologians . . . should refer indiscriminately to Apocryphal and canonical books alike. Furthermore, certain Apocrypha are quoted as authoritative at the Seventh Ecumenical Council held at Nicaea in 787 and at the Council convened by Basil at Constantinople in 869. On the other hand, writers who raise the issue regarding the limits of the canon, such as John of Damascus and Nicephorus, express views which coincide with those of the great Athanasius, who adhered to the Hebrew canon. During the centuries following the definitive break between East and West in 1054, when Pope Leo IV excommunicated Patriarch Cerularius, the subject of the canon lay dormant; for while the theologians waxed furious over such controversies as the lawfulness of eating cheese in Lent, there is no sign of a dispute as to the canon of Scripture.
    “At the time of the Reformation much more definite positions were taken, pro and contra. Certain more enlightened priests, who had fallen under suspicion of heretical leanings toward Protestantism because of other teachings, saw fit to emphasize the distinction between canonical and Apocryphal. For example, in 1622 a Greek prelate, Z. Gerganos, who had studied at Wittenberg, published a Catechism in Greek which clearly reflects the position of the Synod of Dort in 1618, when the position represented in the Belgic Confession was reaffirmed. In 1625 another Greek theologian, named Critopoulos, who had studied at Oxford, drew up a Confession of Faith which is in close agreement with Anglican views on the canon.
    “By way of reaction, other leaders of Eastern Orthodoxy found it expedient, in confessions of faith and in decrees of synods, explicitly to place the Apocryphal books on a level with the canonical books. The Synod of Jassy (1642) condemned the illustrious Cyril Lucar of Constantinople, who had published a confession of faith which adhered to the ancient Hebrew canon, and in the following year the Catechism of Peter Moghila took a position opposed to that of Cyril. What was perhaps the most important synod in the history of the Eastern Church was convened at Jerusalem in 1672. Chiefly directed toward the continuing influence of Cyril and ‘the party of the Calvinists,’ the Synod expressly designated the books of Wisdom, Judith, Tobit, Bel and the Dragon, Maccabees (four books), and Ecclesiasticus as canonical.
    “The position of the Russian Orthodox Church as regards the Apocrypha appears to have changed during the centuries. During the Middle Ages Apocryphal books of both the Old and the new Testament exerted a widespread influence in Slavic lands. In the first Slavonic Bible to be published (at Ostrog in 1581), the Apocryphal books are distributed among the canonical books of the old Testament. In subsequent centuries Constantinople’s leadership gave way to the Holy Synod ruling from St. Petersburg, whose members were in sympathy with the position of the Reformers. Through a similar influence emanating from the great Universities at Kiev, Moscow, Petersburg, and Kazan, the Russian Church became united in its rejection of the Apocrypha. For example, the Longer Catechism drawn up by the Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow and approved by the Most Holy Governing Synod (Moscow, 1839) expressly omits the Apocrypha from the enumeration of the books of the Old Testament on the ground that ‘they do not exist in Hebrew.’
    “This Catechism was translated into Greek and had a wide circulation throughout Greece and in other localities where the position represented by Peter Moghila’s Catechism had previously held sway. As a result, there appears to be no unanimity on the subject of the canon in the Greek Orthodox Church today. Catechisms directly at variance with each other on this subject have received the Imprimatur of Greek Ecclesiastical authorities, and the Greek clergy may hold and teach what they please about it.” (An Introduction to the Apocrypha by Bruce Metzger (1957), pp.192-195)

    “As late as 1950 the Greek church authorized as its OT canon the entire Apocrypha, including 2 Esdras and 3 Maccabees (4 Maccabees was placed in an appendix). The 1956 Russian Bible has the same OT contents as the Greek Bible but with 2 Esdras and 4 Maccabees omitted.
    “The popularity of the Jewish biblical canon, that is, the twenty-four-book Hebrew Bible collection that obtained canonical status among early Christians, is undeniable. It is instructive, however, that all of the Christian lists of OT Scriptures in the fourth to sixth centuries differ slightly from the Jewish biblical canon. And even when they attempt to reproduce the Jewish biblical canon, most of these lists still omit the book of Esther and add the epistle of Jeremiah and Baruch.” (The Biblical Canon by McDonald (2007), p.210)

    • Canadian

      “For example, the Longer Catechism drawn up by the Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow and approved by the Most Holy Governing Synod (Moscow, 1839) expressly omits the Apocrypha from the enumeration of the books of the Old Testament on the ground that ‘they do not exist in Hebrew.’”

      Apparently, the Dead Sea Scrolls have Hebrew/Aramaic copies of at least Tobit, Sirach, Letter of Jeremiah, and Ps 151. And it seems many scholars think greek copies of other books have Hebrew originals. Rejecting them on the basis of language no longer seems tenable.

  10. Prometheus


    I don’t know if you are aware of this:

    “One curious feature of the Geneva Bible may be mentioned; alone of English Bibles it has the Prayer of Manasseh among the canonical books, between II Chronicles and Ezra. Its title is entered in the table of contents after II Chronicles thus: ‘the prayer of Manasseh, apocryphe.’ A note in the margin opposite the text of the Prayer itself informs the reader, ‘This prayer is not in the Ebrewe, but is translated out of the Greke.’ Why this special favor was shown to this Apocryphal prayer is not known.” (Metzger, pp.187-188)

Leave a Reply