Tuesday, April 07, 2009

On Scripture and tradition

Today, I have been arguing religion. (Always a great way to start a blogpost, isn't it). During the discussion, my debatee said:

"At the root of this issue would seem to be dissatisfaction with the sufficiency of the Biblical witness. The Scripture is the best testimony we have available given its source and authority."

This, of course, is a rather eloquent statement of the doctrine of sola Scriptura.

As a former Southern Baptist, I know it well. The problem, for me, comes from a question that was posited to me by a good friend of mine who is a Catholic Christian:

"Where, [diezba], did the Bible come from?"

I responded, "It was assembled by the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit."

"Correct," he replied. "And that's exactly why I believe in the authority of Holy Tradition."

"Tradition!" I exclaimed. I knew better than to listen to someone who seemed to exhibit dissatisfaction with the sufficiency of the Biblical witness. The Bible is the Word of God. Period. End of line.

"Well, I just don't understand how someone like you, in whom I have seen the fruit of God's grace and Spirit, can resort to using 'tradition' as some sort of addition to the Bible," I replied sadly.

"Actually," I noticed him starting to smile, "if anything's an 'addition,' it's the Bible itself."

Immediately, my eyes went wide, my face flushed, and my ire was provoked. Such statements from an allegedly Godly friend?! How could he say such a thing!

Perhaps sensing the coming deluge of righteous indignation, my friend replied, "Whoa, now -- let me explain."

"Fine," was my one-word reply.

"You just told me a moment ago that the Bible was assembled by the church, correct?"

"Correct," I said.

"Do you remember when that was?" he asked.

I looked up, trying to wrack my brain for the date in question. I do hold a bachelor's degree in history, so this sort of thing is something I should remember.

But I didn't.

Slightly embarrassed, I replied, "Not exactly. I guess it was in the First Century A.D., right?"

"No," he said patiently. "Actually, there really was no authoritative list of what was in the Bible. We don't even have an historical list matching the books we currently recognize as the New Testament until Origen of Alexandria produced one in the Third Century -- and even then, there was a dispute about the canonicity of four of the books."

"Really?" I replied.

"Really," he said.

"Was there ever any sort of official endorsement of the canon we use today?" I asked.

"Well, sort of," my friend said. "In A.D. 367 -- that's the Fourth Century -- St. Athanasius (you know, of the Athanasian Creed?) gave a list of books that matches our New Testament, and he even used the Greek word kanonizomena: being canonized."

I looked thoughtful. "So I'll ask the obvious question: what was the Church using for Scriptures until then?"

"That's the point I'm trying to make, [diezba]. Before the Scriptures, the Church used the Old Testament -- and since they all spoke Koine Greek, they used the already-a-couple-hundred-years-old Septuagint translation of the Old Testament -- and they used the word-of-mouth transmission of Jesus' life, sayings, and teaching that we may call 'oral tradition.' Or, using the language of the Church, 'Holy Tradition.'"

* * *

Ultimately, it comes down to basic logic for me. We know, and Protestants agree, that the canon of the New Testament was established by various councils of the Church (i.e., groups of Bishops getting together to discern the will of God, such as the Synod of Hippo, the Councils of Carthage, etc.), and finalized around the middle of the Third Century A.D. But by what did they discern God’s will?

The answer seems obvious (at least it does to me now): there existed some understanding of the Christian Gospel and truth outside of Scripture, and by which the candidates for the Scriptural Canon were judged. How else would the consistency of the Didache and the Apostolic Fathers, written about 100 years apart, yet entirely concordant, be explained? How else would the bishops have been able to decide whether to include non-inspired letters and Gospels which had proliferated across the Roman world in the decades after toleration by the Empire?

Often Protestants argue that it was not tradition, but the guidance of the Holy Spirit that formed that canon of Scripture. But if the guidance of the Holy Spirit formed the Scriptures in the third century, by what were the churches guided in the years immediately after Jesus? They were guided by the teachings of Jesus and his Apostles that had been passed down, orally and through letters and writings, from the very first. Essentially, tradition just means “the way things are done.” Tradition can be seen as “oral Scripture.”

We must be careful to differentiate, as the Catholic and Orthodox Churches do, between Tradition and traditions. There is Tradition, which is the Deposit of the Faith given by Jesus to the Apostles and by them to their successors, the Bishops. There are also traditions, things that have accreted around the Church, the Bible, and the institution of Christianity over the vast centuries against which Christ has guarded his Church. The one, Tradition, was formative of Scripture; the other, traditions, are not to be upheld unless they conform to Scripture and Tradition.