A Meeting Place for Evangelicals, Reformed, and Orthodox Christians

Category: Tradition (Page 2 of 17)

A Frank and Friendly Conversation

A Friendly Conversation

A reader wrote the following:

Dear Sir,

I really appreciate this article. I come from a Reformed background. I am one who laments that Protestantism has made so many sects. Yet, I want to ask a very simple question and its not out of spite, I am really curious to know more about how Eastern Orthodoxy holds things together theologically, what happens when the Church Fathers conflict with the Scriptures? The Fathers themselves had different ideas and were not all of the same mind on every issue. The Roman Catholic Church has its Magisterium. The trouble with their position is that they claim their teaching does not err. As much as I have sympathy for your position related to the severe weaknesses of Protestantism in regard of creating sects (which didn’t have to happen), as a Protestant Sola Scriptura seems to be a necessary conclusion even if it is messy.



My Response

Thank you for your blunt questions and your willingness to engage us here! I have broken down your questions into three points with my response following.


1) How does Orthodoxy holds things together theologically?

What unites Orthodoxy is Apostolic Tradition. Apostolic Tradition consists of written Tradition (Scripture) and unwritten Tradition (the oral teachings and praxis of the Apostles) (2 Thessalonians 2:15; 2 Timothy 1:13-14). Unlike Protestantism which insists on the “Bible alone” (sola scriptura), Orthodoxy teaches that Scripture is to be understood within the context of the Church, primarily in the matrix of its Liturgy, the Church Fathers, and the Ecumenical Councils.


Fractio Panis — 3rd century Roman catacomb painting

One good example of how oral Tradition complements written Tradition can be seen in the Eucharist. All early Christian worship services had the Eucharist and all early Christians believed in the real presence — that Christ’s body and blood are truly present in the Eucharist. This was an implicit understanding shared by the early Christians. According to Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107) it was the Gnostic heretics who denied the real presence in the Eucharist viewing it as symbolic (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 7.1).

Zwingli vs. Luther at the Marburg Colloquy – 1529

This belief in the real presence was transformed into a precise formula in the West during the Middle Ages resulting in the distinctive Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. In the East, the Orthodox position was that the real presence was a mystery. When the Protestant Reformers sought to reform Christian worship on the basis of sola scriptura, they ran into the problem of how to interpret Jesus’ words: “This is my body.” Were the words to be understood literally or symbolically? Not having oral Tradition to fall back on, Luther and Zwingli reached an impasse and parted ways. One has to wonder whether sola scriptura was the underlying cause of Protestantism’s earliest church split. One also has to wonder whether sola scriptura is the reason why Protestantism never had a shared common worship.



Orthodox Liturgy in Russia

Oral Tradition can also be seen in the understanding that Christian worship was to take place on Sunday, was to have the Eucharist, and follow a liturgical order (see Justin Martyr’s First Apology 65-67). There is no explicit Scripture passage that mandates a liturgy with the Eucharist every Sunday. These are all part of oral Tradition that emerged alongside the Bible. It is important to keep in mind that the biblical canon and the Liturgy emerged simultaneously within the early Church, both are the result of the Church being led by the Holy Spirit. Thus, oral Tradition plays an important part in the unity of the Faith as Scripture.

All Orthodox parishes today follow the same Liturgy. The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom provides a rich hermeneutical context for understanding the Bible. I strongly recommend you attend the Liturgy for several Sundays—at least 6 to 8—taking note of Scripture being expressed in the prayers and hymns in the Liturgy. The Liturgy is beautifully complex, multi-layered and multi-sensory, involving whole person, body and soul with the goal of drawing the worshiper closer to God.

The Liturgy with the church calendar provides another commonality among Orthodox parishes across the world today as well as providing a historical link to the early Church. This calendar is not a piece of paper hanging on the wall, but rather a schedule of services, prayers, and hymns to be used on designated days. Through the feast day services Orthodox parishes around the world remember the lives of the saints and important historical events. When I was a Protestant I learned church history through reading books but as an Orthodox Christian I learn church history through attending services. In Protestantism, church history tends to be specialized knowledge, not shared knowledge as in Orthodoxy. This shared understanding of church history and the saints is another factor to Orthodox unity. Without knowledge of family history, we become susceptible to becoming isolated individuals intent on developing our own identities.

First Ecumenical Council – Nicea AD 325

Another source of unity is Orthodoxy’s adherence to the Seven Ecumenical Councils. At these Councils major heresies were refuted by the Church Catholic. There have been other later councils that while not considered Ecumenical have been universally received by Orthodox churches, for example, the 1623 Council of Jerusalem which rejected Calvinism. Another unifying factor is the Nicene Creed which we recite every Sunday. The Nicene Creed, while it does not define every point of theology, nonetheless provides the parameters of what all Christians are obliged to believe. When Orthodox Christians recite the Nicene Creed we are affirming the teaching authority (magisterium) of the Ecumenical Councils, especially the first two. Orthodoxy’s objection to the unilateral insertion of the Filioque is indicative of Orthodoxy’s adherence to the conciliar approach to doing theology. The conciliar approach underlying the Nicene Creed is radically at odds with the Protestant theological method which is based on sola scriptura.

Then there is the episcopacy which consists of a living, historical chain of bishops who trace their spiritual lineage back to the original Apostles. The bishop as the recipient and guardian of Apostolic Tradition also oversees the local liturgical celebrations. No priest can validly celebrate the Eucharist apart from the bishop’s authorization (Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8). Keep in mind that this authority is a covenantal authority. When Christ said: “This is the blood of the New Covenant,” he was implying that Christianity would be a covenant community with a covenant-based leadership. In many ways the authority of the Orthodox Church traces back to the Last Supper, whereas Protestantism’s authority traces to the Reformers in the 1500s taking the Bible as their starting point for their theologizing. However, the problem with the Protestant approach is that the Reformers took into their hands a covenant document (the Bible) without a validly conferred covenant authority to interpret it. Protestants lack this covenant authority because they rejected the historic episcopacy. Lacking the historic episcopacy, the magisterium (teaching authority) in Protestantism shifted to either the university which in the nineteenth century became captive to the European Enlightenment Project or to untethered religious entrepreneurs beholden to nobody except themselves. Theological fragmentation and denominational disarray were the inevitable consequences. This is a sign of Protestantism’s lack of covenantal basis. Because Protestantism rejects apostolic succession, it lacks not only covenantal authority to interpret Scripture but also covenantal unity essential to being part of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church confessed in the Nicene Creed. The local bishop through right teaching and right worship ensures the Orthodox Church’s covenantal unity.


2) What happens when the Church Fathers conflict with the Scriptures?

The first thing to note is that just because a Christian thinker lived long ago does not make him a Church Father. Only a select group of men recognized for their teachings and their holy lives have been honored by the Orthodox Church as “Church Fathers.” This recognition is expressed principally through the church calendar in a feast day honoring their service to Christ. There are some early Christians who had brilliant minds but were not regarded as Church Fathers, for example, Tertullian and Origen.

When you say “conflict with the Scriptures” you would need to be more specific. It might be you are thinking of some early Christians who held eccentric views. Or it might be that you, as a Reformed Protestant, might be siding with the minority viewpoint. For example, if you believe that Scriptures affirm the iconoclast position, then you are favoring the minority position. It might also be that you have not critically considered the problematic aspects of the iconoclast position. When I was a Protestant, I assumed that the icon was the weakest point of Orthodoxy until I took a fresh look at Scripture and read carefully the early Christians’ defense of icons. See my article: “The Biblical Basis for Icons” in which I found that icons do not necessarily conflict with Scripture. In any event, it is a matter of record that the pro-icon position was ratified at the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicea II 787) and iconoclasm was condemned as heretical. Also, you need to consider that iconoclasm is not universal across Protestantism and that it represents only an extreme end of the Protestant spectrum. Where Orthodoxy is united on the issue of icons, Protestantism is not.


3) The Church Fathers themselves “had different ideas and were not all of the same mind on every issue.”

Your observation is quite accurate that there was quite a bit of diversity among the Church Fathers. Nonetheless, what they had in common was striking when compared to Protestantism. Early Christian theology was essentially liturgical theology. It was not so much written down on paper as it was sung out loud during the Liturgy. The early Church viewed the Eucharist as the central feature of Sunday worship and all affirm the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist. Another common element was the understanding that Christianity was based on oral Tradition received from the Apostles and safeguarded by the bishops. The episcopacy was the norm in early Christianity. Protestant forms of church government like congregationalism and presbyterianism were not the norm. Among the early Christians there was some disagreement as to how to reconcile Jesus being the Son of God with Jewish monotheism. This question became a major crisis with the emergence of the Arian heresy. This heresy was refuted at the Council of Nicea (325). It was for his articulate defense of Jesus’ divinity that Athanasius was recognized as a Church Father. Cyril of Alexandria would be recognized as a Church Father for his defense of Mary as the Theotokos (God-Bearer). It was at the Fifth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople II, 553) that Nestorianism was condemned as heretical and recognition of Mary as Theotokos be made part of the Liturgy. The iconoclast controversy was precipitated by Emperor Leo III’s edict against icons. For his defense of icons John of Damascus would be recognized as a Church Father. It was at the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicea II, 787) that iconoclasm would be formally condemned as heretical. The early Church encountered numerous heresies and dealt with them through councils–local, regional, and ecumenical—with the assistance of bishops who would later be recognized as Church Fathers. It is not as if conflicts emerged the Church Fathers and were resolved at Ecumenical Councils; but rather heresies surfaced and the bishops came together to deal with these heresies and in the process certain men who played a key role in the upholding of the Apostolic Faith would come to be recognized as a “Church Father” just as an “ordinary” Christian who suffered martyrdom would be recognized as a capital “s” Saint.

Another important aspect of Orthodox unity is the patristic consensus. This “consensus of the Fathers” is usually a reference to the bishops of the Church speaking collectively via an Ecumenical Council. Just as the Holy Spirit guided the Jerusalem Council so likewise he guided later Councils into the truth (cf. Acts 15:28; John 16:13). Please keep in mind that while there have been many church councils, only a few have been recognized as “Ecumenical Councils.” Individually the Church Fathers may err but collectively they bear witness to the Apostolic Faith. Orthodox theology does not seek to neatly and systematically answer every theological question possible in a comprehensive manner similar to the Westminster Confession. of Faith While we remain steadfast on matters of dogma like the Trinity and Christology, there is diversity in other matters like soteriology and eschatology. As an Evangelical in a liberal mainline denomination it distressed me to see pastors and theologians calling into question the dogmas of Christology and the Trinity, and fundamental assumptions of human nature, the Fall, and our salvation in Christ. Since becoming Orthodox, it is a tremendous relief to find myself on the same page on the core dogmas of the Faith as the Orthodox priests I meet. I did not have that certainty when I was Protestant. Whenever I met a UCC minister for the first time, I first needed to feel out their theological orientation: Was he or she a Liberal, an Evangelical, or a liberal Evangelical? The parameter of Orthodox’s Holy Tradition gave me a safe harbor and a sense of integrity that I felt was missing during my time as a Protestant.


What I appreciate about Orthodoxy is how the Church Fathers are very much among us today. The Church Fathers influence how we understand our Faith. When I make reference to Church Fathers like Irenaeus of Lyons, Athanasius the Great, Basil the Great, or John Chrysostom, Orthodox Christians understand who I’m referring to. The Church Fathers are not remote figures in the past but our companions of faith. Recently my priest concluded his sermon with quotes from two Church Fathers and then closed with ”Holy John Chrysostom pray for us! Holy Basil pray for us!” For my priest Father Alexander, the Church Fathers are part of great cloud of witnesses who surround us right now.


Orthodox Liturgy in Overland Park, Kansas – YouTube video

Closing Thought

I’ll leave you with this thought. In comparison to meticulous neatness of the Reformed confessions, Orthodox theology is messy and at times fuzzy. However, when it comes to the fundamental core dogmas and worship practices of historic Christianity, Orthodoxy is coherent and stable, while Protestantism is becoming increasingly theologically incoherent, liturgically anarchic, and bereft of historical memory. I suspect that you have had little direct experience with real, live Orthodoxy. I would urge you to spend time getting to know living Orthodox Church and come back again for further engagement. In other words, let keep talking to each other!

Robert Arakaki



Sola Scriptura’s Epistemological Problems – Summary

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Sola Scriptura’s Epistemological Problems (4 of 4)

A Response to David Roxas (3 of 4)  See also: (2 of 4) and (1 of 4)


Within the Protestant tenet of sola scriptura are significant epistemological problems.  I list them below and describe how Orthodoxy addressed these problems.

First, if Scripture is divinely inspired but interpreted by flawed, fallible men, then how do we know that we have the right interpretation and not some heretical misinterpretation?  Most Protestants would answer in one of two ways.  They might assert: “It makes perfect sense. It’s logical.”  A more sophisticated version of this takes the form of: “By using the most advanced tools of scientific exegesis we can objectively ascertain the meaning of the biblical text.”  Or, they might say: “The Holy Spirit showed me the true meaning of Scripture.”  Both answers point to Protestantism’s individualism and subjectivism, especially when these interpretations are assessed against church history.

In their struggle against heretics the early Church Fathers did things differently.  They cited written Tradition (Scripture) which they had received from the Apostles, and they interpreted Scripture according to the oral Tradition which they also had received from the Apostles. Irenaeus raises the question of how to find the truth when there is a doctrinal controversy.  He writes:

Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches? (Against Heresies 3.4.1; ANF pp. 416-417; emphasis added)

In the above passage, we see that Irenaeus would not have commend sola scriptura as a means for resolving theological controversy. He recommends that we look to the “most ancient Churches.”  Then he notes that if the Apostles did not leave us a written record on disputed topics, then we ought to follow the tradition handed down to their successors, that is, the bishops.  Athanasius the Great made a similar appeal to Tradition.  In his letter to Bishop Serapion he writes:

In accordance with the Apostolic faith delivered to us by tradition from the Fathers, I have delivered the tradition, without inventing anything extraneous to it. What I learned, that have I inscribed conformably with the holy Scriptures; for it also conforms with those passages from the holy Scriptures which we have cited above by way of proof. (§33; emphasis added)

While Athanasius speaks highly of Scripture, he would not have advocated Protestantism’s sola scriptura.  Rather, what we find is Tradition with Scripture as taught by Orthodoxy.  Athanasius commended the passing on of Tradition by the Church Fathers, something that Protestants do not advocate.


Zwingli and Luther at the Marburg Colloquy (1529) – two rival interpretations of the Bible

Second, if Scripture is the true revelation from God, how do we deal with competing interpretations of the Bible?  Within Protestantism there are those who believe the Bible teaches double predestination while other sincere Protestants affirm free will; some believe in a literal one-thousand-year reign of Christ on earth, while others prefer to understand Revelation 20 as symbolic; and some Protestants believe that miracles have ceased, while others believe that charismatic gifts are with us today.  The plethora of conflicting interpretations of the Bible has given rise to thousands of Protestant denominations – all of them claiming fidelity to sola scriptura. This raises the question as to whether truth is multiple or whether there is one reading of Scripture that is true and all others are wrong.  If there is only one true interpretation, then how can we find our way among the many readings within Protestantism?

Orthodoxy understands Scripture within the framework of the patristic consensus, the Divine Liturgy, and the Ecumenical Councils.  All these interrelate organically.  The early Church Fathers, for the most part, were bishops who celebrated the Divine Liturgy every Sunday and who expounded Scripture in the Liturgy.  The Church Fathers who attended the Ecumenical Councils likewise, for the most part, were bishops — successors to the Apostles.  We need to keep in mind that at their ordination, they were charged with safeguarding what the Apostle Paul called “the good deposit.” (2 Timothy 1:14)

Orthodoxy does not have systematic theology texts like those in Protestantism.  The closest thing Orthodoxy has to a systematic theology is the Divine Liturgy.  Every Sunday I hear the Church’s teaching on Christ being fully divine and fully human, his saving death on the Cross, his Resurrection, his Second Coming, the kingdom of God, and God as Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The Liturgy provides Orthodoxy a doctrinal stability that has served it well for two millennia.


Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms – “Here I Stand!”

Third, sola scriptura is implicitly individualistic and thus anti-Church.  There is within Protestantism a strong distrust of the Church having the authority to interpret the Bible.   Many Protestants believe that they as individuals have the Holy Spirit and that the Holy Spirit guides them individually to the “true meaning” of the Bible, no matter that this “new insight into the Bible” is at odds with so many others. This individualistic attitude has troubling implications.  Can you imagine a first-year medical school student rejecting the teachings of the faculty? Or a local attorney putting his personal interpretation of the Constitution over the precedents set by the Supreme Court?

This third assumption in effect constitutes a rejection of the promise of Pentecost.  When Jesus promised the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room Discourse, he used the plural you.  As one person noted humorously that Jesus was using the Southern “Y’all” form of “you.”  The plural you points to the Holy Spirit being given to the Church as a corporate body, not to individuals.  This is the basis for the Church’s authority to define doctrine for its members.

But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you [ὑμᾶς] all things and will remind you [ὑμᾶς] of everything I have said to you [ὑμῖν]. (John 14:26; NA28)

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you [ὑμᾶς] into all truth. (John 16:13; NA28)

In Acts 2, we read how the Holy Spirit descended on the assembly of believers.  In Acts 13, we read how the Holy Spirit guided the Church in Antioch to consecrate Barnabas and Paul to the missionary calling.  In Acts 15, we are told that the Holy Spirit guided the early Church through its first theological crisis (Acts 15:28).  In all three instances we see the Holy Spirit guiding the early Christians as a corporate body.  To assert: “I have the Holy Spirit and others do not,” manifests an individualistic attitude that is so contrary to the spirit of humility and solidarity that runs through the Bible and what it teaches about the Church.

Orthodoxy believes that the Holy Spirit was present in the early Church guiding the early bishops as they celebrated the Eucharist, discerned which writings were to be regarded as inspired Scripture, and expounded on the true meaning of Scripture.  The Holy Spirit later guided the Church Fathers as they refuted heresies, and made historic rulings at Ecumenical Councils.  Holy Tradition in its varied forms – the Liturgy, the episcopacy, the Nicene Creed, the Ecumenical Councils, the patristic consensus, all inspired by the Holy Spirit – has given Orthodoxy a doctrinal stability and profound spirituality that has served it well for two millennia.


Seminarians Studying (“We Need a Neo-Evangelical Shakedown“)

Fourth, sola scriptura is implicitly secular.  Among many Protestants is the belief that the Holy Spirit was active during the lifetime of the Apostles, especially during the writing of the New Testament, but once the New Testament was completed and the last Apostle died, the Holy Spirit then retreated into heaven.  Shortly after that, the Church fell into ritualism, false teachings, and spiritual darkness until the Protestant Reformation.  (See Ralph Winter’s BOBO theory.) Protestantism’s rejection of the papacy led to a greater reliance on the human intellect. Among many Protestants, notably in the Reformed tradition, is the belief that the right understanding of Scripture is best guaranteed through knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, textual criticism, and a good training in scientific exegetical approach acquired at seminary. They then supplement all this by keeping up with the latest trend in biblical scholarship.  In doing so, they place academic scholarship ahead of and in place of the Church, despite Christ’s promise that He would send the Holy Spirit, who would lead them into all Truth.  This attitude has led many Protestant Reformers and present day Evangelicals to disregard the teachings of the Church Fathers and Ecumenical Councils when these contradict their own interpretation of Scripture. From the Orthodox perspective this attitude is tragic as we consider the Church Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils the Holy Spirit’s gift to the Church founded by Christ. As noted earlier, to reject the Church Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils is to reject the promise of Pentecost.

Tragically, the conclusion we draw from the findings presented above is that sola scriptura’s individualistic, modern epistemology, by rejecting Orthodoxy’s sacramental, Holy-Spirit-inspired hermeneutics, contradicts historic Christianity and the Scriptures that they claim to revere.  Lord have mercy.

Robert Arakaki


Recommended Readings

Robert Arakaki.  2012.  “Pentecost and the Promise of God Fulfilled.” OrthodoxBridge (29 June 2012)

Robert Arakaki.  2016.  “Early Church Fathers: Babies or Giants?OrthodoxBridge (10 June 2016)

Robert Arakaki.  2014.  “Calvin and the ‘Fall of the Church.'” OrthodoxBridge (29 January 2014)

Ralph D. Winter.  1981.  “The Kingdom Strikes Back: Ten Epochs of Redemptive History.


Sola Scriptura’s Epistemological Problems (2 of 4)

Early Christian Worship

A Response to David Roxas (2 of 4)  (1 of 4)

Can Christianity Exist Apart From Oral Tradition?

David Roxas asked:

1. Absent a body of oral tradition and the corpus of the church Fathers, which both developed over centuries and which the Fathers themselves did not have (Irenaus [sic] was not reading the Cappadocian Fathers nor was he celebrating the liturgy of Chrysostom) what is the source of Christian knowledge of God, the law, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ? From whence did the later developed corpus of the Fathers and the oral tradition receive it’s knowledge of the Gospel? (Emphasis added.)

Answer: To assume the absence of an identifiable Tradition for the first hundreds of years – that the Church Fathers presumably had no access to – betrays a woeful ignorance of Scripture and church history. In light of what the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy about safeguarding the deposit of oral Tradition (see my prior article), it is impossible for the Church to have existed apart from oral Tradition.  As a matter of fact, it is contrary to Scripture!  The issue is not whether there was an oral Apostolic Tradition.  Rather, the question should be: What evidence is there of oral Apostolic Tradition closer to the time of the Apostles than a fourth century witness like Basil the Great?

Ignatius of Antioch (c. 98/117)

One important source is the Didache which dates to A.D. 100.  We learn from the Didache: (1) the threefold baptism (7.1), (2) only the baptized may be allowed to partake of the Eucharist (9.5), and (3) Christians were expected to keep the Wednesday/Friday fasts (8.1).

Another important witness to oral Tradition is Ignatius, the third bishop of Antioch, whose death has been dated to either A.D. 98/117.  From Ignatius we learn: (1) a baptism or celebration of the Lord’s Supper needed the bishop’s approval to be valid (Smyrnaeans 8.2), (2) the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper (Smyrnaeans 7.1), and (3) the threefold order of bishop, presbyters, and deacons (To Polycarp 6.1).  It is important to keep in mind that Ignatius was bishop over Antioch, Apostle Paul’s home church! (Acts 13:1-3)  Ignatius’ connection to the New Testament can be seen in the tradition that he was the child on Jesus’ lap when he said: “Let the children come to me.” (Matthew 19:14-15)



Justin Martyr (c. 100-165)

Then there is Justin Martyr (c. 100-165) who in his First Apology (Chapters 65-67) described early second century worship as taking place on Sunday instead of the Jewish Sabbath (Ch. 67), being liturgical (see “the prayers” in Ch. 65), and affirming the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist (Ch. 66).

. . . so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. (First Apology Ch. 66)

What we have here is oral tradition that describe the application of New Testament teachings.  What we do not see here is biblical exegesis like that favored by Protestants.  The Didache, Ignatius’ letters, and Justin’s apologia all touch upon practices which are quite unfamiliar to modern day Protestants but familiar to Orthodox Christians.  For example, as a Protestant I did not know of the Wednesday/Friday fasts observed by Orthodox Christians.  After I learned about the Orthodox fasts, I was pleasantly surprised to find Orthodoxy’s ascetic disciplines supported by the first century Didache.  So likewise, I was pleasantly surprised that Irenaeus’ belief in the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist (Against Heresies 4.18.5; ANF p. 486) agreed with that of Ignatius of Antioch.

Father John Whiteford – a former Protestant, now an Orthodox priest – describes how reading Ignatius made a profound impact on his theology.

I also began reading the Fathers themselves, not just reading about them, with the occasional quotation one might encounter. Coming from Protestant assumptions, the earlier the Father was, the more trustworthy he was likely to be. One of the earliest Fathers to be found outside of the New Testament is St. Ignatius of Antioch. He was a disciple of the Apostle John, was consecrated Bishop of Antioch by St. John himself, and martyred in the arena of Rome in 112 A.D. So I read his seven epistles with great interest, and was again and again struck by the fact that he was not a protestant [sic]. (Source)

Another important early witness to the Scripture-in-Tradition paradigm is the early Latin apologist Tertullian (c. 155-c. 240).  In De Corona, chapter 3, Tertullian describes some of the Christian practices not mentioned in Scripture, e.g., triple immersion baptism, receiving Holy Communion from the hands of the priest, memorial services for the dead, and making the sign of the Cross.  Apparently back then, there were some who insisted in a very Protestant manner that there be biblical justification for these Christian practices.  Tertullian refutes them by posing the question:

For how can anything come into use, if it has not first been handed down?  Even in pleading tradition, written authority, you say, must be demanded.  Let us inquire, therefore, whether tradition, unless it be written, should be admitted.  Certainly we shall say that it ought not to be admitted, if no cases of other practices which, without any written instrument, we maintain on the ground of tradition alone, and the countenance thereafter of custom affords us any precedent.  (De Corona Ch. 3, ANF p. 94; emphasis added)

Here Tertullian admits outright that there is no explicit biblical warrant for these practices because these are grounded in unwritten Tradition.  For Tertullian the lack of biblical proofs is no obstacle for following these customs.

If, for these and other such rules, you insist upon having positive Scripture injunction, you will find none.  Tradition will be held forth to you as the originator of them, custom, as their strengthener, and faith as their observer.  That reason will support tradition, and custom, and faith, you will either yourself perceive, or learn from some one who has. (De Corona Ch. IV, ANF p. 95; emphasis added)

Where Irenaeus refutes sola scriptura implicitly, Tertullian refutes it explicitly on the grounds that Christianity follows tradition along with Scripture.  It would not be until the idea of oral Apostolic Tradition came under direct attack in the fourth century that Basil the Great (330-379) felt obliged to list them in his classic On the Holy Spirit (see Ch. 27 §66).

To sum up, oral Apostolic Tradition does not comprise a corpus parallel to Scripture.  Rather, early Christianity comprised a totality: Scripture, a received way of worship, a received moral code, a received set of spiritual disciplines, and a received church structure.  All these informed the early Church’s understanding of Scripture.  This ancient Christian way of doing things continues on today in Orthodoxy.

As a religion, Orthodoxy is centered around the Liturgy and the Eucharist.  A strong similarity can be seen between Orthodoxy and first-century Judaism which likewise was almost entirely centered around the sacrificial worship of the temple in Jerusalem.  The text-centered religion that Protestants favor would be alien to the first century Judaism, Jesus and Paul were acquainted with.  Protestantism’s text-centered religion more strongly resembles rabbinical Judaism which emerged in the wake of the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.  Where Orthodoxy represents a continuation of the Judaism of the Bible, Protestantism is rooted in post-biblical rabbinical Judaism.  See Gabe Martini’s article: “The Temple Cult and Early Christian Worship.”


Who Made this List?

Is the Biblical Canon Holy Spirit Inspired?

Many Protestants who assert sola scriptura are unaware of the multiple debts they owe to the early Christians.  One debt is the physical Bible.  The clergy of the early Church were responsible for the preservation of the physical copies of the Bible.  During the early persecutions, the Roman authorities knew that to destroy Christianity they needed to destroy the copies of the Bible.  Early Christian clergy hid the sacred Scriptures during the week and brought them to the liturgical gatherings on Sunday.  For a cleric in the early Church to hand over Scripture to Roman authorities was a grave sin.  The early Christians also faced the challenge of discerning which writings were to be read as Scripture during the Sunday worship and which writings were to be left out.  This spurred the making of a list of writings recognized as divinely inspired and authoritative Scriptures which would in the biblical canon we have today.

Another debt Protestants owe the early Church is the biblical canon. Many Protestants stress that the writings of the New Testament were all written by the end of the first century, but what they fail to note is that there were many other writings (including some so-called Gospels) that were in circulation at the same time.  Thus, one of the challenges facing the early Church was discerning which writings were apostolic and which were not.  Irenaeus of Lyons faced this challenge when the Gnostics circulated their heretical version of the Gospel.  To combat this Irenaeus fell back on oral Tradition to discern right doctrine.  He writes:

For if what they [the Gnostics] have published is the Gospel of truth, and yet is totally unlike those which have been handed down to us from the apostles, any who please may learn, as is shown from the Scriptures themselves, that that which has been handed down from the apostles can no longer be reckoned the Gospel of truth. (Against Heresies 3.11.9; ANF p. 429; emphasis added)

At this early period when there was no definitive listing of apostolic writings (canon) — no Bible book with a table of contents in the front.  Irenaeus fell back on what he had received from his predecessor, Polycarp, the disciple of Apostle John.  Because the “Gospel” the Gnostics propagated was unlike anything he had received, Irenaeus was obliged to reject them outright.  Here we see how the biblical canon emerged out of a traditioning process.

By the end of the second century, a consensus emerged around the four Gospels and Paul’s letters, but it took much longer for a consensus to be formed around Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, the letters by John, and Revelation.  A consensus emerged gradually with respect to the exclusion of the Shepherd of Hermas and 1 and 2 Clement from the New Testament.  It was not until the late fourth century that the biblical canon was formally closed by the Church.  Athanasius’ listing dates to A.D. 367 about the same time as the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, and between the First Ecumenical Council (Nicea I in A.D. 325) and the Second Ecumenical Council (Constantinople I in A.D. 381).  In the Latin West, similar lists were disseminated by Augustine of Hippo (On Christian Doctrine, Chapter 8 §12-13) and Saint Jerome (Prologue to the Book of Kings).

With respect to the biblical canon, Protestants must ask themselves whether the early Church was guided by the Holy Spirit in the determination of the biblical canon? Or was the biblical canon the result of church politics?  A divinely inspired Bible requires a divinely inspired listing (canon) but then this assumes that there was a spiritually vibrant Church led by the Holy Spirit in the first four centuries. The Church of the fourth century that finalized the biblical canon is the same Church that held the First and Second Ecumenical Councils that formulated the Nicene Creed.  The fourth century was also a time when Church Fathers like Athanasius had to defend the Gospel against the heresy of Arianism.  The fourth century was also the time of great Church Fathers like Athanasius the Great, Ambrose of Milan, John Cassian, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus.  Can we not say that the Church Fathers were guided by the Holy Spirit in defending the Faith against heresies? Protestants may want to ignore or even deny that there was a vibrant Holy Spirit inspired Church during the first four centuries, but if we assume a compromised Church riddled with heresies then how can we have confidence in the biblical canon? Such an understanding of the early Church does not reflect the historical evidence, nor does it respect Christ’s promise of a continuing Pentecost in the Church.

Robert Arakaki



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