Sola Scriptura
In the Vanity of Their Minds:
An Orthodox Examination of the Protestant Teaching (Part 3)
by John Whiteford
(Sola Scriptura is the belief that the Bible alone reveals all of God's truths.)

The Orthodox Approach to Truth

When, by Godís mercy, I found the Orthodox Faith, I had no desire to give Protestantism and its "methods" of Bible study a second look. Unfortunately, I have found that Protestant methods and assumptions have managed to infect even some circles within the Orthodox Church. The reason for this is, as stated above, that the Protestant approach to Scripture has been portrayed as "science." Some in the Orthodox Church feel they do the Church a great favor by introducing this error into our seminaries and parishes. But this is nothing new; this is how heresy has always sought to deceive the faithful. As Saint Irenaeus said, as he began his attack on the heresies current in his day (the 2nd century):
"By means of specious and plausible words, they cunningly allure the simple-minded to inquire into their system; but they nevertheless clumsily destroy them, while they initiate them into their blasphemous opinions....Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than truth itself." (A Cleveland Coxe, trans., Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. i, The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), p 315.)

Lest any be mistaken or confused, let me be clear: the Orthodox approach to the Scriptures is not based upon "scientific" research into the Holy Scriptures. Its claim to understand the Scriptures does not reside in its claiming superior archaeological data, but rather in its unique relationship with the Author of the Scriptures. The Orthodox Church is the body of Christ, the pillar and ground of the Truth, and it is both the means by which God wrote the Scriptures (through its members) and the means by which God has preserved the Scriptures. The Orthodox Church understands the Bible because it is the inheritor of one living tradition that begins with Adam and stretches through time to all its members today. That this is true cannot be "proven" in a lab. One must be convinced by the Holy Spirit and experience the life of God in the Church.

The question Protestants will ask at this point is who is to say that the Orthodox Tradition is the correct tradition, or that there even is a correct tradition? First, Protestants need to study the history of the Church. They will find that there is only one Church. This has always been the faith of the Church from its beginning. The Nicene Creed makes this point clearly, "I believe in... one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church." This statement, which almost every Protestant denomination still claims to accept as true, was never interpreted to refer to some fuzzy, pluralistic invisible "church" that cannot agree on anything doctrinally. The councils that canonized the Creed (as well as the Scriptures) also anathematized those who were outside the Church, whether they were heretics, such as the Montanists, or schismatics like the Donatists. They did not say, "Well, we canít agree with the Montanists doctrinally but they are just as much a part of the Church as we are." Rather they were excluded from the communion of the Church until they returned to the Church and were received into the Church through Holy Baptism and Chrismation (in the case of heretics) or simply Chrismation (in the case of schismatics) [Second Ecumenical Council, Canon VII].

To even join in prayer with those outside the Church was, and still is, forbidden [Canons of the Holy Apostles, canons XLV, XLVI]. Unlike Protestants, who make heroes of those who break away from another group and start their own, in the early Church this was considered among the most damnable sins. As St. Ignatius of Antioch [a disciple of the Apostle John] warned, "Make no mistake brethren, no one who follows another into a schism will inherit the Kingdom of God, no one who follows heretical doctrines is on the side of the passion" [to the Philadelphians 5:3].

The very reason there arose a Protestant movement was that they were protesting Papal abuses, but prior to the Roman West breaking away from the Orthodox East these abuses did not exist. Many modern Protestant theologians have recently begun to take a second look at this first millennium of undivided Christendom, and are beginning to discover the great treasure that the West has lost (and not a few are becoming Orthodox as a result). (In fact, a recent three volume systematic theology, by Thomas Oden, is based on the premise that the "ecumenical consensus" of the first millennium should be normative for theology [see, The Living God: Systematic Theology Volume One, (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), pp ix ó xiv.]. If only Oden takes his own methodology all the way, he too will become Orthodox.)

Obviously, one of three statements is true: either (1) there is no correct Tradition and the gates of hell did prevail against the Church, and thus both the Gospels and the Nicene Creed are in error; or (2) the true Faith is to be found in Papism, with its ever-growing and changing dogmas defined by the infallible "vicar of Christ;" or (3) the Orthodox Church is the one Church founded by Christ and has faithfully preserved the Apostolic Tradition. So the choice for Protestants is clear: relativism, Romanism, or Orthodoxy.

Most Protestants, because their theological basis of Sola Scriptura could only yield disunity and argument, have long ago given up on the idea of true Christian unity and considered it a ridiculous hypothesis that there might be only one Faith. When faced with such strong affirmations concerning Church unity as those cited above, they often react in horror, charging that such attitudes are contrary to Christian love. Finding themselves without true unity they have striven to create a false unity, by developing the relativistic philosophy of ecumenism, in which the only belief to be condemned is any belief that makes exclusive claims about the Truth. However, this is not the love of the historical Church, but humanistic sentimentality. Love is the essence of the Church. Christ did not come to establish a new school of thought, but rather, He Himself said that He came to build His Church, against which the gates of hell would not prevail (Matthew 16:17). This new community of the Church created "an organic unity rather than a mechanical unification of internally divided persons". (The Holy New Martyr Archbishop Ilarion (Troitsky), Christianity or the Church?, (Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1985), p. 11.) This unity is only possible through the new life brought by the Holy Spirit, and mystically experienced in the life of the Church.

Christian faith joins the faithful with Christ and thus it composes one harmonious body from separate individuals. Christ fashions this body by communicating Himself to each member and by supplying to them the Spirit of Grace in an effectual, tangible manner.... If the bond with the body of the Church becomes severed, then the personality which is thereby isolated and enclosed in its own egoism will be deprived of the beneficial and abundant influence of the Holy Spirit which dwells within the Church. (The Holy New Martyr Archbishop Ilarion (Troitsky), Christianity or the Church?, (Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1985), p. 16.)

The Church is one because it is the body of Christ, and it is an ontological impossibility that it could be divided. The Church is one, even as Christ and the Father are one. Though this concept of unity may seem incredible, it does not seem so to those who have gone beyond the concept and entered into its reality. Though this may be one of those "hard sayings" that many cannot accept, it is a reality in the Orthodox Church, though it demands from everyone much self-denial, humility and love. (The Holy New Martyr Archbishop Ilarion (Troitsky), Christianity or the Church?, (Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1985), p. 40.)

Our faith in the unity of the Church has two aspects, it is both an historic and present unity. That is to say that when the Apostles, for example, departed this life they did not depart from the unity of the Church. They are as much a part of the Church now as when they were present in the flesh. When we celebrate the Eucharist in any local Church, we do not celebrate it alone, but with the entire Church, both on earth and in heaven. The Saints in heaven are even closer to us than those we can see or touch. Thus, in the Orthodox Church we are not only taught by those people in the flesh whom God has appointed to teach us, but by all those teachers of the Church in heaven and on earth. We are just as much under the teaching today of Saint John Chrysostom as we are of our own Bishop. The way this impacts our approach to Scripture is that we do not interpret it privately (II Peter 1:20), but as a Church. This approach to Scripture was given its classic definition by St. Vincent of Lerins:
"Here, perhaps, someone may ask: Since the canon of the Scripture is complete and more than sufficient in itself, why is it necessary to add to it the authority of ecclesiastical interpretation? As a matter of fact, [we must answer,] Holy Scripture, because of its depth, is not universally accepted in one and the same sense. The same text is interpreted differently by different people, so that one may almost gain the impression that it can yield as many different meanings as there are men.... Thus it is because of the great many distortions caused by various errors, that it is, indeed, necessary that the trend of the interpretation of the prophetic and apostolic writings be directed in accordance with the rule of the ecclesiastical and Catholic meaning.....In the Catholic Church itself, every care should be taken to hold fast to what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. This is truly and properly ĎCatholic,í as indicated by the force and etymology of the name itself, which comprises everything truly universal. This general rule will be truly applied if we follow the principles of universality, antiquity, and consent. We do so in regard to universality if we confess that faith alone to be true which the entire Church confesses all over the world. [We do so] in regard to antiquity if we in no way deviate from those interpretations which our ancestors and fathers have manifestly proclaimed as inviolable. [We do so] in regard to consent if, in this very antiquity, we adopt the definitions and propositions of all, or almost all, of the Bishops. (St. Vincent of Lerins, trans. Rudolph Morris, The Fathers of the Church vol.7, (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1949), pp. 269-271.)

In this approach to Scriptures, it is not the job of the individual to strive for originality, but rather to understand what is already present in the traditions of the Church. We are obliged not to go beyond the boundary set by the Fathers of the Church, but to faithfully pass on the tradition we received. To do this requires a great deal of study and thought, but even more, if we are to truly understand the Scriptures, we must enter deeply into the mystical life of the Church. This is why when St. Augustine expounds on how one should interpret the Scriptures [On Christian Doctrine, Books i-iv], he spends much more time talking about the kind of person the study of the Scripture requires than about the intellectual knowledge he should possess: (St. Augustine, "On Christian Doctrine," A Selected Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. series 1, vol. ii, eds. Henry Wace and Philip Schaff, (New York: Christian, 1887-1900), pp. 534-537.)
1. One who loves God with his whole heart, and is empty of pride,
2. Is motivated to seek the Knowledge of Godís will by faith and reverence, rather than pride or greed,
3. Has a heart subdued by piety, a purified mind, dead to the world; and who neither fears, nor seeks to please men,
4. Who seeks nothing but knowledge of and union with Christ,
5. Who hungers and thirsts after righteousness,
6. And is diligently engaged in works of mercy and love.
With such a high standard as this, we should even more humbly lean upon the guidance of holy Fathers who have evidenced these virtues, and not delude ourselves by thinking that we are more capable or cleverer interpreters of Godís Holy Word than they.

But what of the work that has been done by Protestant Biblical scholars? To the degree that it helps us understand the history behind and meaning of obscurities, to this degree it is in line with the Holy Tradition and can be used.

As Saint Gregory Nazianzen put it when speaking of pagan literature: "As we have compounded healthful drugs from certain of the reptiles, so from secular literature we have received principles of enquiry and speculation, while we have rejected their idolatry..." (St. Gregory Nazianzen, "Oration 43, Panegyric on Saint Basil," A Selected Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, series 2, vol. vii, eds. Henry Wace and Philip Schaff (New York: Christian, 1887-1900), p. 398f.) Thus, as long as we refrain from worshiping the false gods of Individualism, Modernity, and Academic Vainglory, and as long as we recognize the assumptions at work and use those things that truly shed historical or linguistic light upon the Scriptures, then we will understand the Tradition more perfectly. But to the degree that Protestant scholarship speculates beyond the canonical texts, and projects foreign ideas upon the Scriptures- to the degree that they disagree with the Holy Tradition, the "always and everywhere" faith of the Church, they are wrong.

If Protestants should think this arrogant or naive, let them first consider the arrogance and naivetť of those scholars who think that they are qualified to override (and more usually, totally ignore) two thousand years of Christian teaching. Does the acquisition of a Ph.D. give one greater insight into the mysteries of God than the total wisdom of millions upon millions of faithful believers and the Fathers and Mothers of the Church who faithfully served God, who endured horrible tortures and martyrdom, mockings, and imprisonments, for the faith? Is Christianity learned in the comfort of oneís study, or as one carries his cross to be killed on it? The arrogance lies in those who, without even taking the time to learn what the Holy Tradition really is, decide that they know better, that only now has someone come along who has rightly understood what the Scriptures really mean.


The Holy Scriptures are perhaps the summit of the Holy Tradition of the Church, but the greatness of the heights to which the Scriptures ascend is due to the great mountain upon which it rests. Taken from its context, within the Holy Tradition, the solid rock of Scripture becomes a mere ball of clay, to be molded into whatever shape its handlers wish to mold it. It is no honor to the Scriptures to misuse and twist them, even if this is done in the name of exalting their authority. We must read the Bible; it is Godís Holy Word. But to understand its message let us humbly sit at the feet of the saints who have shown themselves "doers of the Word and not hearers only" (James 1:22), and have been proven by their lives worthy interpreters of the Scriptures. Let us go to those who knew the Apostles, such as Saints Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp, if we have a question about the writings of the Apostles. Let us inquire of the Church, and not fall into self-deluded arrogance.

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