Dealing with Scripture and Tradition (and things in between)

I will never forget when I had first read through the Bible in its entirety as a high schooler. My stepfather (who was not a Christian) asked me, “Well, are you done now that you’ve read that book?” As a fundamentalist evangelical Christian, this was unthinkable. The Word of God is living and powerful (Hebrews 4:12), it is a lamp unto my feet (Psalm 118/9:105), and I was sure that God would speak to me and guide me more and more clearly the more that I devoted myself to reading the Bible. There was so much truth to discover in the Holy Scriptures. That is why I was dismayed when I heard about Catholics and Orthodox and their traditions. It was as if that clear message from the Bible was obscured by the “traditions of men” (Col 2:8), something which Our Lord Himself decried again and again in talking to the Pharisees (Mar 7:9). However, I grew to learn that this was something that I now believe to be a false distinction. Instead of pitting tradition, the Church, icons, and the like as the enemies of the Scriptures, I came to see the Scriptures and tradition as threads woven from the same loom. God was working through history and His people to bring salvation and the truth to the world through these various and harmonious truths. But how did this journey of faith come about for me?

To think about this more clearly, let’s state the obvious: Catholics and fundamentalists do not agree on everything. We disagree on many points about salvation, the saints, how we should pray, how the church should be organized, and more. Much of this disagreement arises precisely through the fact that Tradition is a strong influence on Catholics, and Martin Luther and others decried this appeal to Tradition against the Bible. After the Protestant Reformation, both sides of this divide have accused one another of heresy. Both feel that they are on the right side of history, and that the Word of God is their ally to demonstrate this. We may feel that we are at an impasse when such strong words of opposition are spoken. But is that truly the case?

If we are honest with ourselves and each other, we must confess that even Catholics and fundamentalists do not agree on everything among themselves. Recently, there was a synod in Rome discussing the Catholic Church’s pastoral approach to issues surrounding the family, and it is clear that some parties disagreed with one another, which is nothing new in Church history. On the fundamentalist side, there are also disagreements about how we should live our lives in union with God, which is one reason why there are so many denominations even within the group of Christians who are fundamentalists. Depending on how strictly we define ourselves, there may be more or less diversity and agreement in how we understand our faith in God, but suffice to say we have flavors of both Catholics and fundamentalists. Let’s dig deeper to particular Christian communities and consider that even within a specific congregation, we have our pastors and we are commanded by Scripture to submit to them (Heb 13:17). And yet, as we journey through our faith we will come to see ourselves disagreeing with one another as congregants, and with our leadership. We can submit to someone of course, and yet disagree with that person. But the Scriptures give us an even higher calling. The Apostle Paul urges us to be of one mind and judgment (1 Cor 1:10). In the case of Catholic Christians, Tradition influences our understanding of the truths of the Bible and all of life. Part of that Tradition includes the belief in the Divine Inspiration of Scripture. The Papal Encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu opens with these words: “Inspired by the Divine Spirit, the Sacred Writers composed those books, which God, in His paternal charity towards the human race, deigned to bestow on them in order ‘to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice: that the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.’ This heaven-sent treasure Holy Church considers as the most precious source of doctrine on faith and morals.”

In the case of fundamentalist Christians, the Bible itself is the final court of appeal both to life and to understanding the Bible’s meaning. Scripture interprets Scripture, through the whole context of the Bible. This can only be possible if we hold to what is known as the perspicuity of Scripture. When Martin Luther objected to some Catholic practices, he felt that his ultimate court of appeal was the Bible. We could argue about which principle of understanding the faith is better in that it is more Scriptural, more consistent, more logical, and the like. There is much to be said in that area, but I would like us to focus on the idea of agreement.

In my journey of faith, my first strong disagreement over Biblical interpretation was the nature of the rapture. When I presented my first pastor with my disagreement over how to understand the passages used to advocate for a pretribulational premillenialist perspective, I will never forget his response to me. “Jonathan, just ask yourself. Did Paul teach a ‘pretrib’ view? If he did, then we have to hold to this perspective.” I was stunned because my whole point in challenging this perspective was from within the framework of asking asking the same questions: What did Paul really think? What did the Bible as a collection teach with regard to eschatology? I knew in my heart of hearts that I had searched the Scriptures to see what was true, just as the Bereans had done (Acts 17:11), and yet I was no longer won over by the arguments that the Bible taught pretrib eschatology. This experience was amplified and repeated on multiple occasions in my own life, and in reaching beyond the small community in my childhood town I came to realize that Christians who hold to the Bible alone do not come to the same conclusion on a multitude of topics.

Let’s shift gears and consider a different example, where I’ve experienced discord in a Catholic context. As Catholics we do not hold to the Bible alone as our guide for the truth. With St. Paul, we consider the Church to be the pillar and ground of Truth (1 Tim 3:15). The Church has given many things held in common by Protestants and Catholics, such as the most basic Creeds which come to us from the earliest councils, the Canon of Scripture (with some Old Testament books not fully agreed on), basic calendar understandings surrounding Christmas and Easter, and more. But of course there are additional things taught by the Church’s Tradition not held to by Protestants. Nevertheless, if I am fully honest I must also include the fact that the Tradition must be interpreted. One poignant area of difference that is worth considering is the issue of married Priests. In the East, this was upheld by and large, with Eastern Catholics living outside of the East being a key exception. This difference of whether men called to the priesthood should live as celibates was so dividing in the U.S. that thousands of Eastern Catholics left communion with Rome when told that they could not have married priests. Agreement is not guaranteed for those who hold to the Bible alone, or to those who hold to a Tradition which includes the Bible.

Thus, the issue is not that one of us (the Catholic) has a guide that leads us to perfect unity and the other (the Protestant) is doomed to disagree. This is something that some apologists have arguably exploded in trying to draw some Protestants to the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. But if we step back, we realize that as people on a journey of faith, hope, love, and truth, we are all at different places. We open our hearts to those whom we trust, and respond to God’s call to grow on this journey towards perfection in Christ. When a Catholic or Orthodox Christian trusts Tradition, we not only trust our pastor, we trust Councils and decrees that come from the same group of Christians who gave us the Bible. When an Evangelical Christian trusts the Bible, they likewise trusting their pastor and their pastor’s interpretation of the Bible. We could doubt each other and in cynicism (or sincerity) accuse one another of being heretics on the road to damnation. The Catholic Church’s calling to unity in documents such as Lumen Gentium won my heart and mind over. When they broached the topic of agreement and union, the description of the world was complicated and that description matched my own experience of my life in Christ perfectly.

In closing, the journey to Biblical truth can be oversimplified, but if we do so we miss the goodwill of many. The Catholic recognition of spiritual life outside the confines of Her visible communion speaks to the complexity of life. Tradition is part of the framework of historic Christian faith, and if we see that as part of our interpretive grid, we will not see it as a foreign intruder. Instead, Tradition is a guide to uphold and magnify the Holy Scriptures that fundamentalists and Catholics alike extol.


(Part of) What we think about when we think about the Holy Trinity

“Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us.”-The Trisagion

The Holy Trinity is upheld as a central Christian doctrine by Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox alike. At the same time, the Byzantine Tradition has a distinct manner of prayer not seen so often by Western Christians such as Roman Catholics and Protestants, and this is exemplified by the Trisagion Prayer quoted above. When we think of the Holy Trinity in the prayer life of Byzantine Christians, references to the Trinity predominate, and we may ask why that is the case. Is it just to reinforce the dogma of the Trinity, or is there a spiritual message which speaks to our hearts? As we shall see, the latter is more often true. In reflecting upon this, we can not only understand why the Byzantine spiritual traditions have this characteristic, we can also find a message worth meditating upon and practicing in our life of prayer that we are all called to as Christians.

Let’s start by thinking about the sign of the cross. Western and Eastern Christians alike use this gesture to unite ourselves physically to the historic event which wrought our salvation, and while this is most clearly linked to the second Person of the Holy Trinity, the sign of the cross tends to come to us in the liturgy when the Trinity is named. Thus, in the Latin Rite it is said at the beginning and end of Mass, when we hear the words “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”. Additionally, this action is done by many at the absolution and at the Holy Gospel, where words of life, healing and forgiveness take us to the same cross. In the Byzantine Tradition, the sign of the cross comes to us even more frequently in the Divine Liturgy, but there is a similar spiritual source and inspiration. Beyond personal preferences or recollections during the liturgy that lead to making the sign the cross, we make the sign of the cross as a community when we are especially penitential (e.g., at the pre-communion prayers as we say ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner…” and ‘Remember me, O Lord…”) and when we sing or hear “Father, and Son and Holy Spirit”. But there are other occasions when the Persons of the Trinity are not explicitly mentioned, and yet the Trinity can be seen. Sometimes this is a simple fact that a prayer is repeated three times, which points us to the ‘Threeness’ of the Trinity. For example, we make the sign of the cross each of the three times that we sing ‘Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Glory to you, O God!”, and there is both a triplicate nature to those three acclamations, just as there are three Alleluias in each acclamation. Here, we see oneness in the three Persons of the Trinity because we praise each Person of the Trinity with the same words. Another prayer with a different message would be the Trisagion, where the one Holy God (Father), Holy and Mighty (Son), Holy and Immortal (Spirit) is called upon in what could simply be three dimensions of who God is, but is actually a reflection of the three Persons of the Trinity. The Father is not solely God, nor is the Son the only Mighty one, and the Spirit is not the only Immortal Person of the Trinity. But we emphasize these dimensions of divinity and may arguably see that the three persons of the Trinity manifest the words God, mighty, and immortal in their own ways and emphases. God the Father is Father for the Trinity and all of creation. Thus, as the “head” of the Godhead we see God uniquely in the Father. The Son is the one who conquers (IC XC NIKA means “Jesus Christ conquers”) sin and death. The Holy Spirit is the one who dwells within us and brings life to the world. So while we profess that each of the three Persons of the Trinity are God, mighty, and immortal, we see the Trinity’s complexity and uniqueness in the sequence of prayers known as the Trisagion. The way that we pray as Byzantine Christians makes both explicit and implicit references to the Trinity on many occasions and in many ways. These references point us to the oneness and Threeness and bring this truth to life, when we reflect upon our prayers.

Let’s step back to an even more basic consideration with regard to an explicit reference to the Trinity. When we pray the words “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”, do we meditate upon the singularity of the word “name”? This comes to us directly from the Bible, where Christ utters the same words in the context of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19). There are three persons who have one name! The Byzantine response to this mystery of the Holy Trinity is that we should revel in this mystery that can be seen on so many levels. What does this cause us to do for our spiritual life? I would like to consider two consequences of this view of the Trinity.

First, we are called to pause and see God in all of life. When God is not viewed as the Father, we do not have a loving leader who brings us guidance. When God is not viewed as the Son, we do not have a condescending love who rescues us from our deepest distress. And when God is not viewed as Spirit, we lack that transcendent love who is “everywhere present and filling all things”. Each of these aspects come to us in the Trisagion, however. The word “Holy” unites the three Persons of the Trinity into the one holy Godhead of the undivided Trinity. And yet the words God, Mighty, and Immortal distinguishes them. As complex beings, we yearn for a King who is mighty and life giving. Dwelling upon God who is enthroned on high, God who is saving us by death, trampling death, and the God who is everywhere present meets every need of our own complexities. We will see God in tragedy because He is a King who will judge the world to make things right. We will see God in sin because He has ultimately conquered it. We will see God at all times and in all places and all people because He abides in all places.

Secondly, meditation upon the Trinity will bring us to realize that mystery is everywhere. So often our analytical approach to life robs us of the fullness of truth in life. As just one example of many, consider church governance and structure and the Nicene Creed, which calls the Church “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic”. In the Byzantine Tradition, we often hear of the Church described in both a singular and a plural sense. One example would be the standard Ambon prayer which states, “Preserve the fullness of your Church…Grant peace to your world, to your churches…” For many, the idea that the Church could be one flies against the diversity and disagreements of history. We are not all uniform, nor should we be. But if we see uniqueness and yet absolute unity in the Trinity, this will not be so unsurprising. For others, the idea that the Church include an element of “many-ness” is unattractive or confusing, particularly among some who want a monolithic hierarch, or among Protestants who think that they are the only ones who interpret the Bible correctly. Particularly for many Eastern Christians, this complexity is somewhat second nature. We think of our own particular Church’s history, and we not only commemorate other leaders but we understand that our roots are complex. Bishops coming into and falling out of communion with others is a vivid experience, and our diversity of liturgical practices, musical styles highlights that while there is much in common even among Byzantine Christians, there are many unique features within Byzantine Christianity, and yet we can still see the oneness of our faith. Worshipping the undivided Trinity calls us to have that vision of seeing oneness and “many-ness” at the same time, and gives us a more nuanced view than a simple either/or mindset. This issue of complexity can be extended to questions of science and faith, mercy and judgment, celibacy and marriage, lay people and clerics, masculinity and femininity, and so much more. In each case, worshipping the Trinity is the answer because we are drawn towards mystery and away from an either/or mentality.

In conclusion, the Byzantine manner of prayer calls our attention to the Trinity not because this is a strict dogma, nor is it a way of bringing confusion. Instead, this is our grid of understanding God in His deepest mysterious being, and it is our path to best understand ourselves, our neighbors and the world at large. By delving deep into the spirituality of the Byzantine Churches, we are brought to the threshold of a complex reality that makes sense of most difficult issues that we face, and provides hope for our future where these problems are conquered by the God who is Holy, Mighty and Immortal. Glory to Jesus Christ!