On Redefining Tradition

traditionCraig Blaising [excerpt taken from Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism]

“The [Eastern] Orthodox extend the locus of divine inspiration and authority beyond the Scripture to the Church itself, specifically to the decisions of the ecumenical councils, but more generally and on a practical level to the entirety of [Eastern] Orthodox tradition. For all practical purposes, this means that church tradition is not correctible by Scripture. Rather Scripture is ruled by Tradition, which defines its message and application.

The [Eastern] Orthodox usually defend their view by arguing the primacy of the Church over the Scripture: the Church existed prior to the New Testament Scripture and was itself the source of Scripture. As it was the source of Scripture, so it was the source of the Tradition that integrates and applies Scripture. . . . The [Eastern] Orthodox believe that the actual history of the canon and the beliefs and practices of the early church support this view. However, I do not believe that this reading of early church history is correct. [Amen – RAS]

The problem is that the [Eastern] Orthodox blur the New Testament and early patristic distinction between apostolic and episcopal authority. Ephesians 2:20 says that the Church is founded on “the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (ESV). This is said in a letter in which an apostle directs the church to his writings in order to understand the mystery of Christ, a matter revealed to apostles and prophets (Eph. 3:3 – 4). This same apostle stipulated that bishops must hold to the faith as he taught it, and warned that the time was coming when some would depart from that faith. In fact, both Paul and Peter warned that heresy would arise within the church and directed the bishops and teachers to Scripture (Acts 20:28 – 32; 2 Tim. 3:1 – 4:8; 2 Peter 1:12 – 2:3; 3:1 – 18) — which those apostles saw as inclusive of their own writings (1 Cor. 2:6 – 13; Eph. 3:1 – 4; 2 Peter 1:12 – 21; 3:1 – 2, 14 – 16) — in fulfilling their charge of guarding and proclaiming the faith. The early Christian episcopal writings express this same sense of dependency and obligatory faithfulness in their regard for and use of Scripture, and this was especially evident in the Church’s early response to heresy.

The [Eastern] Orthodox are particularly concerned about the problem of heretics misusing Scripture, and so they appeal to Tradition as a guard against such distortion. The problem is, however, that Scripture-twisting heresies normally arise not outside but rather inside the Church. The New Testament warns of the problem of discovering heresy present within the episcopal and teaching structures of the Church, a problem that would have to be dealt with not by appealing to one set of episcopal authorities over against another but by appealing to Scripture. . . .

The Arian controversy, which is viewed as pivotal by present-day [Eastern] Orthodox and Evangelicals alike (as well as Roman Catholics), is a case in point. Arius claimed to be doing nothing more than passing along the Tradition that he had been taught. The Arian heresy was discovered existing within the teaching structure of the fourth-century Alexandrian church and was then found to be favored by bishops and teachers in other churches as well. The controversy was formally settled (though Arianism continued an historical presence) on the basis of biblical authority through an intensive debate over the meaning of Scripture. All the documents bear witness to this. The Nicene Creed was drafted as a concise statement of what Scripture taught on this issue. As Athanasius makes clear in his Defense of the Nicene Creed and his Letter to the African Bishops, it was the objective of the council to use the acknowledged language of Scripture. This carried over into the actual construction of the statement, which is a remarkable composition of biblical words, phrases, and allusions collated into the structure of 1 Corinthians 8:6. Athanasius also makes clear that the council’s regard for the authority of Scripture led it to address the matter in this way. When they did use the nonbiblical word homoousios and the phrase ek tes ousias tou patros, the referential meaning of those words was explicitly tied to a collection of biblical texts, so that the meaning of the phrases, and thus of the creed as a whole, would be, in a derivative sense, exactly the meaning of the Scripture. The creed functioned in the same way as expressions of the rule of faith in earlier patristic writings. The rule of faith was not the imposition of a doctrinal rule upon Scripture but the exposition of a rule inherent within Scripture.

Between the fourth and eighth centuries, however, a not-so-subtle shift of authority took place within the Church, a shift that is starkly evident when one compares the language of the First Council of Nicaea (325) with that of the second (787). The Second Council of Nicaea addressed the doctrinal issue of venerating icons in [Eastern] Orthodox life and liturgy, a practice that had developed within the Church to the point that it was regarded as a problem, was challenged, and was even proscribed by some on the basis of biblical prohibitions against idolatry. Whereas the First Council of Nicaea dealt with its controversy solely upon biblical authority, the second council spoke solely on the basis of episcopal and popular tradition, a tradition that is found neither in the New Testament nor in the earliest days of the Church. It was a practice that developed within the Church. Not only did the council authorize this practice solely upon its own tradition, but it went on to declare Tradition itself as a Holy Spirit – given, sufficient basis for any doctrine and practice and anathematized “anyone who rejects any written or unwritten tradition of the church.” By that act and with that express teaching, the Second Council of Nicaea formalized a departure from the tradition of sole biblical authority in doctrinal matters that was evidenced by its earlier namesake. Contrary to apostolic teaching and early episcopal practice, it legislated for the Church a new conception of Tradition, one that is, in principle, immune from biblical correction.

The issue is not the existence of Tradition per se. We all have traditions. Not only are they unavoidable; they are quite necessary. At their best, they offer familiar and accepted ways of expressing faith and obedience to Christ. In fact, we expect that in the Church’s life and worship, there will be traditional ways of speaking and acting that reflect the constancy and continuity of the unchanging gospel and the abiding canon of Scripture. Scripture gives instruction on the unchanging faith and unchanging character of life in Christ Jesus, who is the same, yesterday, today, and always. So we should be able to see in and through our traditional practices continuity with the New Testament church.

Developments do take place in traditional practices. This is true even in [Eastern] Orthodox liturgy. Certainly the liturgy is old, but [Eastern] Orthodox liturgy in its current form was not performed by the earliest church. Nor has it been practiced in exactly the same way among various [Eastern] Orthodox churches past or present. Differences have developed in time and in different regional contexts, not to mention certain doctrinal differences, as seen for example between Eastern and Oriental Orthodox. New Testament uses of leitourgeo and leitourgia do not refer to a performance of liturgy like that of the [Eastern] Orthodox today. The New Testament usage is quite interesting and clarified by Paul in his epistles. The apostolic work of proclaiming the gospel, conversion, and then the growth of the Church into maturity in Christ was seen as a leitourgia or “priestly service” in which the Church is offered up to Christ as a holy, living sacrifice. It was not the offering up of a sacrifice on behalf of the Church (as in the Catholic performance of the Mass) or the performance of a scripted service (as in [Eastern] Orthodoxy) but evangelism, conversion, and edification in godliness through apostolic teaching directed toward the formation of a holy communion that presents itself to Christ now and at his coming.

Developing Tradition is not a problem in itself unless it is found to act as a hindrance to a fully formed biblical faith and wholehearted obedience to God’s Word. This is something Jesus found in the Judaisms of his day. The only way to guard against this is to focus first and foremost on Scripture, submitting our traditions to the Word of God either for reaffirmation, renewal, or reformation. . . .”

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