Wednesday, 13 May 2009

An Eastern Orthodox approach to Scripture

The blog Ora et Labora, authored by an Eastern Orthodox priest, has two interesting posts on the Orthodox approach to Scripture and Tradition. They consist of a translation of a Russian article written by Saint Hilarion (Troitsky), Archbishop of Verey (+1929). It is clearly written and contains much that is worth reading, especially for Protestants such as myself. Here are the two instalments:

Holy Scripture, the Church, and Scholarship I
Holy Scripture, the Church, and Scholarship II

(I've been told that there are two more posts in the pipeline)

A dialogue seems to be brewing on the second post between myself and the well-informed Orthodox blogger Kevin Edgecomb. My main issue turns on Hilarion's accusation that Protestants have lost Holy Scripture in their attempt to read it outside of the church, because the subjectivity of their unregenerate minds (my phrase) has simply produced a cacophony of interpretations which have little to do with the message the Spirit himself originally wished to communicate. The remedy to this is to interpret the texts within the context of church tradition, in strict non-contradiction of its established doctrine (which, Kevin has informed me, is as inspired as Scripture itself).

I can largely go along with this (except that Scripture ought still function as a critical norm), as I have posted on numerous occasions (see, e.g., my post: The relationship between exegesis and dogma, though I do wonder whether traditional Protestant and Orthodox theology are so radically different ...). My issue is with the apparent certainty that Hilarion believes Ecclesial tradition guarantees the interpreter of Scripture. He says that one can recite the whole of Scripture off by heart and still be far from salvation. True. But doesn't this also apply to Church Tradition? Surely one can recite all the creeds and Church Fathers off by heart and still be far from salvation. That is because salvation depends on one grasping the substance to which these various forms of witness point and not on the form of the witness itself. Neither Scripture nor Tradition guarantees our salvation, but the living Christ alone, who, in the Spirit, reaches out to us through Scripture and Tradition (and other media too, I believe) and creates the necessary epistemological conditions for a life lived in the mystery of the Gospel. As Hilarion rightly says (with my addition in parenthesis ... if I may be excused for supplementing a saint!):

[Either a] book [or tradition] ... could not and cannot save mankind. Christ is not a teacher, but precisely the Savior.
In short:

1) the accusation of subjectivity cuts both ways;

2) it's not about the Bible nor about Tradition, it's about the living Jesus.
For two related threads, see my translation of an article on the regula fidei by Bengt Hägglund and my unfinished thread: Faithful and Critical Exegesis. The series of video lectures on this issue by leading Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson is also relevant to this, though I still haven't listened to them yet.


Felix Culpa said...

Thank you for linking to these posts. Please bear in mind that I've translated and posted only about half of St Hilarion's article; there are two more installments to come, which I hope to have ready within the next few days.

I'll respond to the points you raise later today on the original post.

Esteban Vázquez said...

Phil, I'm delighted to learn that you're approaching these subjects from the vantage point of your commitment to that canonical project. As you know, I believe such an engagement to hold a great deal of promise.

My apologies that I am currently unable to meaningfully reply to your comments over on my blog, as my laptop's keyboard is still not working. I tell you, though, that I've had three posts in mind for some time that would directly address your questions. Curse my technical limitations!

Phil Sumpter said...

Cheers Felix, I look forward to your posts and comments (and I've updated this one).


I believe such an engagement to hold a great deal of promiseSo do I! I look forward to your postings and responses. An Orthodox take on LXX Ps 23 is extremely interesting to me.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I apologize for having forgotten to keep checking that post for replies!

I think your question is, "What guarantees Tradition is correct?" For us, it is the Holy Spirit which has inspired the various Fathers and Councils, as I described before. The synodal/canonical tradition is a self-correcting entity in that sense, as the canons define Orthodoxy, and the canons were established by universal approbation of the bishops of the Church, in inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Anything that contradicts those canons and the dogmas described in them is not Orthodox, and obviously not inspired by the same Holy Spirit. This would be the case of any interpretation of Scripture that is contrary to the dogmas and canons, as well. God simply would not inspire a contradiction of His earlier inspired instruction. The person claiming such inspiration that contradicts tradition would therefore be considered mistaken. If they insist upon their private interpretation, they become heretics, and may be marked by the Church as such.

But such an understanding of "how to determine Orthodoxy" or of "proper understanding of Scripture" is not equivalent to salvation. Not at all. Salvation is not an intellectual act, as the above is. Salvation is an existential change effected by God Himself in our lives. God became human in order to save the human condition through divinizing it. Inasmuch as we are members of His Body, we are also saved in that same divinization, theosis. The Body of Christ is the Church, the Orthodox Church with its dogmatic theology and understanding of all manner of things. It is a package deal. God in His mercy may work in other ways and places with various people, but the ideal and the only proper way that we know of in the Church, the default option, is found in the Church, where salvation is certain. Outside it, God may or may not be working with someone. Inside it, God certainly does. And part of that work is expressed in the intellectual and spiritual training accomplished by the dogmatic statements in our liturgies, hymnology, and in the Church Fathers.

On the "infallibility" of the Church Fathers, there is really no such thing. Various works of different Church Fathers are often stated to be inspired and perfectly expressive of dogma, but not every single work of every father named. Even when the writer is simply named, in which case one might think that all the writings of such an author are receiving blanket approval, the context of the synod will show that it is typically referring to a particular work that was either explicitly named and/or read in the synod, or one that is obviously relevant to the issue at hand.

I hope that helps!

Phil Sumpter said...

Thank you Kevin, that was very helpful. You answered my actual question in the second paragraph, which is: "what gurantees that we have a saving knowledge of the reality of which tradition is speaking?" (rather than, "What guarantees Tradition is correct?"). I'll have to mull over that for a bit. I'm in the process of discovering the salvific significance of the incarnation through the works of people such as Karl Barth (Reformed), Robert Jenson (Lutheran), and Douglas Farrow (Anglican). Theoretically, I'm writing a doctorate in Old Testament, so really I should be spending my time reading OT related stuff! Though this is all relevant, as my doctorate is on Psalm 24, which is an Ascension Psalm. Jesus did ascend in the flesh, after all (I've posted on patristic reception of this Psalm here and here, in case you're interested).

I also found your last paragraph helpful. I had got the impression that the church held that the Church Fathers themselves were inspired, in the same way that Paul was. You seem to be saying something different - that there works are subjected to some kind of theological critique in order to verify whether they are inspired or not. Is that right? If so, what are the criteria? Do the creeds function as a critical norm for the evaluation of patristic literature, for example? Does Scripture function as a critical norm for the evaluation of the Creeds (e.g. the dispute about the filioque clause)?

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I'm glad your question finally sank in. I admit to being a bit dim lately. I've been trying to shake off a cold/flu/cough for nearly two weeks.

I love this: Theoretically, I'm writing a doctorate in Old Testament, so really I should be spending my time reading OT related stuff! "Theoretically"! You crack me up!

It's within the Synodal/Conciliar framework of the Ecumenical Councils that the inspiration of the various writings of various Church Fathers is explicitly stated. For example, several different works by various Church Fathers are proclaimed canonical, i.e. inspired and binding, by the second canon of the Quinisext Council in Trullo (692, under Justinian II), which council itself was proclaimed Ecumenical (universally binding) in its time and in the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicea II, 787, under Constantine VI and St Irene), which was attended by the vast majority of bishops, and the decisions of which were unanimously implemented in the Orthodox Church. Contrast this with, say, the writings of Origen, who many consider a Church Father, but whose every work was anathematized in the Fifth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople II, under St Emperor Justinian in 553). Aside from the set of writings (which interestingly also include lists of what we would call different biblical canons) listed in Trullo canon 2, there are mentions throughout the acts (where preserved) and canons of the various councils. And then, in addition to this, there is (which I hadn't mentioned before as it unfortunately slipped my mind) the approbation as inspired granted to writings which are used in liturgical and semi-liturgical contexts. The former includes all the liturgies and hymnography of the Church. Many writings of various Church Fathers appear in these. In semi-liturgical usage we find various writings used for the training of monastics: St John of Sinai's Ladder of Divine Ascent, St John of Damascus Barlaam and Ioasaph, The Evergetikon, The Ascetical Homilies of St Isaac the Syrian, The Philokalia, The Lausiac History, The Catecheses of St Theodore the Studite, the writings of St Symeon the New Theologian, and many more besides. Such works are approved as inspired within the monastic communities through their age-long proven effectiveness in helping to instill and maintain holiness in devoted monastics.

But, although Scripture is considered a part of Tradition and not a separate entity, it is still considered a very specially inspired part of Tradition, and is always a kind of touchstone for reality throughout the other various writings considered inspired. But there's no mechanism whereby, say, the Triads of St Gregory Palamas are held up to Scripture in some kind of detailed checklisting manner to approve its inspiration or validity (though in the case of St Gregory, he did undergo this kind of treatment in three separate councils which approved his theology in preference to that of his opponents, though the "mirror" his theology was held up to was by majority Patristic rather than Biblical). But it is certainly the case that Scripture, particularly the Gospels (the physical book of which plays an iconic role as Christ in every liturgy) are considered the inspired books par excellence. The body of inspired works in the Tradition of the Orthodox Church is like an ancient Byzantine crown: Scripture is the central diadem, with other works depending from it like pearls on chains of gold--all of them together comprise the crown, which is Tradition. The interconnection and inter-reliance is there. As Scripture is quoted by and explained by various other works, so also those works are validated by the Scriptures themselves, and their inspiration stems from life within the same Spirit which inspired the Scriptures. But it is all one crown, belonging to one King, made to His specifications.

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Kevin,

thanks again for keeping up the dialogue. I've been in England for the past week, hence the late response.

I don't think you are being dim at all. This dialogue is very informative. I'm interested in working out a "Christian" hermeneutic, so taking Orthodoxy into account is vital for me. It's just so alien ...

You've touched on the heart of the matter in your comments, so thank you, but I still feel like it was a brush stroke ... I still need to clarify a lot: i.e. what is, exactly, the nature of the relation between Scripture and Tradition in Orthodoxy? Until I get the Orthodox position clear in my head, I'm not too convinced it is so utterly different from that of Protestantism (which, as I understand it, also has a place for Tradition).

First, you recognise,in some sense, a qualitative difference between Scripture and Tradition. For a start, the two exist as distinguishable entities with names. You call it a "very specially inspired part of tradition," but what does that mean? In practice, it sounds as if the two entities are collapsed into each other, as one seamless cloth. But if the cloth is so seamless, why "privilege" (somehow) one part over the other? You yourself use a diadem metaphor, which, despite the integrity of its parts, still consist of distinct parts with distinct functions. Just what is the function of Scripture vis-à-vis Tradition? You say the following in answer:

1) Scripture is "is always a kind of touchstone for reality ." I like this phrase, though I'm not sure what it means. I guess I'm having a conceptual difficulty here and need to see this in practice.

2) "Scripture is the central diadem, with other works depending from it like pearls on chains of gold." Here you use the word "depending," again implying some kind of hierarchy. I don't see how this works out in practice, based on what you have said and what I have read so far in the article linked to in the post.

3) "those works are validated by the Scriptures themselves." Again, this sounds so Protestant. It sounds as if the Tradition is held up to a greater authority, and that it stands or falls on the basis of its conformity to that authority.

I probably being overly analytical as usual. I don't want to burden you with questions that require an essay to answer, so perhaps you could point me to literature on the matter? Are there any works on Orthodox hermeneutics. I know that Childs (a great fan of Calvin) was inspired by Andrew Louth's Discerning the Mystery, so perhaps that would be a good place to start. Theoretically, however, the theory part of my diss is over and I have to get on with actual exegesis.