The Orthodox Church and the Bible
What is the Relationship between the Scripture and "Tradition"?
In the West, among Roman Catholics and Protestants, Church Tradition and the Scriptures came to be viewed as two competing and distinct sources of faith and life. Thus, Tradition tended to be understood as something added to and extraneous to Scripture. This "tradition" was considered made up by men, specifically by the "Magisterium," i.e. the Pope with his bishops. Because of this, those whom we now call Protestants rejected Tradition, since it was seen as something more authoritative than Scripture that could be used to contradict or neglect the teaching of Scripture.
All of this is foreign to the Orthodox Christian understanding. In Orthodoxy, Church Tradition is simply the "deposit of faith" transmitted from Christ to the apostles and preserved by the Holy Spirit. It is the living faith of the Church, "the pillar and ground of truth" and "the fullness of Him who fills all in all."
Tradition and Scripture are not two differing sources of doctrine, but belong together. They express and witness to the life of the Church that has been passed down from the beginning. Tradition is not a "man-made" addition to or contradiction of the Scriptures. The word, tradition (In Greek, "paradosis," and in Latin, "traditio"), means precisely that which has been passed on.
And so the Apostle Paul attests to the Tradition of the Church when he confesses, "For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered ("traditioned") to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He as betrayed took bread..." (1 Cor. 11:23). He speaks of it in another way when he writes, "Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me..." (2 Tim. 1:13).
Due to the corruptions and conflicts that reigned during the years prior to the Reformation, many have become fearful of the idea of Church Tradition. But without Tradition there is no Bible.
At one time, there was no New Testament. The first letter of the N.T. was written about 20 years after Christ's resurrection, and the last Gospel was written almost 100 years after. The New Testament reflects what was taught orally. As the Apostle Paul states clearly: "Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or by our epistle [letter]" (2 Thess. 2:15).
Many are not aware that the early Church lived, prayed, and worshipped for over 300 years without a New Testament as we know it today. The Church did not fully agree on the canon of N.T. Scripture until the 4th century. Yet these early Christians were the most dynamic and devoted, the most united and disciplined.
What is it that held them together? Simply put, it was the living Tradition, i.e. the way of life and belief that was passed down and carefully guarded by the Church.
We see this expressed by one of the most revered bishops and theologians of the 3rd century, St. Irenaeus of Lyon (AD 125-202), a disciple of St. Polycarp, who himself was a disciple of the Apostle John:
"As I said before, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although she is disseminated through the whole world, yet guarded it, as if she occupied but one house. She likewise believes these things just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart; and harmoniously she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down, as if she possessed but one mouth. For, while the languages of the world are diverse, nevertheless, the authority of the tradition is one and the same" (Against Heresies, 1:10:2).
This perspective was not unique to Irenaeus, but universal in the early Church and now in the Orthodox Church. St. Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215) has this to say about the Church Tradition:
"It is necessary for men to abandon impious opinion and turn from there to the true tradition" (Miscellanies 2.530).
Again, it was not an appeal to the Bible, but to Holy Tradition, that was made by the early Christians:
"The teaching of the Church has indeed been handed down through an order of sucession from the apostles and remains in the churches even to the present time. That alone is to be believed as the truth which is in no way at variance with ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition" (Origen, The Fundamental Doctrines, 1:2, AD 225).
The Bible is a testament to the faith and Tradition of the Church, compiled and approved by the Church as it reflects the Church's faith. It is the book of the Church, written within the Church, by the Church, and for the Church. But one cannot find in the New Testament the entire Tradition of the Church. It was not meant to be a "users manual" for how to start and run a church.
For example, the N.T. does not tell us exactly how the Church is to worship. It gives us hints, but in no way does it provide instructions on how the Christian community is to worship. It does not even provide an outline. Even the primary Christian day of worship (Sunday) is not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament.
Is that because the Lord did not care how Christians worship? That is unlikely. This is the same Lord whose last words to His apostles were: "teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:20).
But the Lord did not write a book on "How to be a Christian." In fact He left no writings. He did not come to establish a book, but His Church, His Body, by which one could be joined to Him. He instructed His apostles who then instructed and guided living communities in The Way (Acts 9:2: 19:23).
Unless one has experienced the living, tangible, visible Tradition of the Church, than the teachings of the Scriptures will be difficult to put into context without imposing one's own experience upon it. This is why we are told, "No prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation" (2 Pet. 1:20).
The Church's Tradition was and is no secret. It could and can be freely seen by observing those communities that continue the apostolic Tradition. As St. Irenaeus observes:
"We should not seek from others the truth which can easily be received from the Church. For inner, as in a rich treasury, the Apostles placed in fullness all that belongs to the truth, so that whoever wishes can receive from her the water of life. She is the entrance to life" (Against Heresies, 3:4).
In the Orthodox Church teaching there is no contradiction, no tug-of-war, between Tradition and Scripture. The Holy Scriptures are a written expression of the Church Tradition, and certainly the highest and most revered. They are thus interpreted in the light of faith that has always been lived and believed in the Church.
© Fr. Michael Shanbour
What is the Orthodox Church view on the Bible?
The Orthodox Church has always encouraged the faithful to personally and fervently read Holy Scripture. She has only warned against private interpretation that falls outside the bounds of Holy Tradition, which even the Scriptures themselves teach (see 2 Pet. 1:20). To the contrary, the saints and fathers of the Church, both ancient and recent, exhort the faithful to regularly and reverently read the Scripture and apply it in their way of life. As an example, St. John Chrysostom (4th-5th c.), Archbishop of Constantinople, one of the most influential Church Fathers, preaches incessantly about the need for all Christians to read Holy Scripture. In his Homilies on Genesis, preached in the church of Antioch, he remarks:
"Reading the holy Scriptures is like a treasure. With a treasure, you see, anyone able to find a tiny nugget gains for himself great wealth; likewise in the case of Sacred Scripture, you can get from a small phrase a great wealth of thought and immense riches. The Word of God is not only like a treasure, but is also like a spring gushing with ever flowing waters in a mighty flood."27
His conviction about the benefits of the knowledge of the Holy Scriptures is so great that he quips, “The ignorance of Scripture is the source of all evil.”28
In the seventh century, another great Church Father, St. John of Damascus teaches the following:
"To search the Scriptures is a work most fair and most profitable for souls. For just as the tree planted by the channels of waters, so also the soul watered by the Divine Scripture is enriched and gives fruit in its season, viz., Orthodox belief, and is adorned with evergreen leafage, I mean actions pleasing to God. For through the Holy Scriptures we are trained to action that is pleasing to God, and untroubled contemplation. For in these we find both exhortation to every virtue and dissuasion from every vice."29
St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, a bishop and theologian of 19th-century Russia, echoes these sentiments, encouraging the faithful not only to read the Scriptures but to do so with attentiveness in a spirit of adoration:
"Read the Gospel with the greatest reverence and attention. Do not consider anything in it of little importance, little worthy of consideration. Every iota of it emits a gleam of life. Neglect of life is death."30
It is worth noting that for the bulk of church history the Scriptures were not often available to the average believer. Rather, Christians heard the Scriptures as they were read in church (see Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27). The Scriptures were then expounded upon by those gifted and ordained to preach and teach. So, keeping in mind the great value of reading Holy Scripture, we should also be reminded that not all have the gift of teaching (see 1 Cor. 12:27–30) and that Scripture comes alive in the gathering and worship of the whole church.
While it is true that the bishop (and through him the priest) has an official responsibility for teaching within the Body, the Orthodox recognize a charismatic gift of teaching that may be given to any one of the faithful, but particularly to those who have reached great sanctification.31 In Orthodoxy, theology is not mainly the result of intelligence or schooling or office; it is the fruit of true prayer and a pure heart.
Evangelicals generally hold to the belief that Scripture is “all sufficient.”32 This means there is nothing explicitly omitted from the Bible that is necessary for our salvation. Therefore, if it is not in the Bible, it is not of the Christian Church. In reality, however, evangelicals themselves adhere to various non-scriptural traditions that have no real basis in the Bible, and they often neglect those found in the Bible (e.g. weekly Holy Communion).
27 Robert C. Hill, Homilies on Genesis, 1–17 (The Fathers of the Church, Vol. 74), Catholic University of America Press, 1986, p. 39.
28 Homily 9, On Colossians.
29 “Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” NPNF, 9:89.
31 While this is true, we must also recognize that such a gift must be recognized both by the faithful and by the bishop responsible for such a person. In the Orthodox Church we place humility and obedience above spiritual gifts or talents. A very gifted person may lose his salvation due to pride expressed by unwillingness to submit to the authority that God ordained within the Church. e Scriptures clearly teach that not all Christians are called to be teachers (1 Cor. 12:29).
© Fr. Michael Shanbour
Does the Orthodox Church accept “Sola Scriptura”?
Orthodox Christians do not hold to the idea of “Solo scriptura” (the Scriptures only), something unheard of until the 16th century. Even Martin Luther who coined this phrase did not believe in it literally, but also held much Christian tradition not explicitly mentioned in Scripture. For the Orthodox, the guiding criterion for the faith and practice of the Church is apostolic tradition (2 Thess. 3:6). The Bible is the written tradition of the Church, while the apostles imparted oral teachings as well (2 Thess. 2:15). The early Christians understood that both written and oral tradition had equal authority in the life of the Church (2 Thess. 2:15). It is the Holy Spirit of God, not a Book, that Christ promised would guide the Church into all truth (John 6:3).
The Orthodox believe the Bible is God's word to man, inspired by the Holy Spirit and a reflection of the Word of God who became Man for our salvation. It is the measuring stick (Greek: "canon") of true doctrine and faith. But the Bible is not "self-interpreting" or open to “private interpretation” (2 Pet. 1:20). It is a collection of books written by a community, to a community, and for a community – the Church (Col. 4:16). And therefore it is most accurately understood and interpreted within that community.
The Church existed for many years before the compilation of the New Testament Scriptures, which was not agreed upon by the whole Church for more than 300 years after the Resurrection of Christ. The same Holy Spirit that inspired the writing of Scripture also inspired the Church to properly choose what books were to be included in the Bible.
If we accept the integrity of the New Testament we should also accept the reliability of the historical Church that created it. The Orthodox Church has always encouraged its members to know, to read, and to meditate on the Scriptures. In the Orthodox Church the Bible is interpreted according to the consensus of the Church in agreement with the faith handed down from the apostles. St. Vincent of Lerins (4th c.) summed up the Orthodox approach – that scriptural interpretation must be consistent with 1. "What has been believed everywhere,” 2. “at all times,” and 3. “by all."
© Fr. Michael Shanbour