image with the sign of Myriobiblos

Main Page | Library | Homage | Seminars | Book Reviews





Internet Dept.



Previous Page
Grant R.Osborne

The Many and the One: The Interface Between Orthodox and Evangelical Protestant Hermeneutics (1)

Scripture and Tradition

Basil the Great stated that Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition are “equal in value, strength, and validity,” having the “same power where piety is concerned.”(23) Thus Papadopoulos concludes, “Our Church seeks to emphasize that the light of the Holy Tradition is equally indispensable along with the Holy Scriptures for the complete and true comprehension of the Christian truths.”(24) As we have already seen, the Orthodox believe that Scripture can only be understood within the context of the Church of the Church, for the Church carries on the Apostolic Kerygma and gives it expression. The heart of the Church is Tradition. Florovsky points out that this was the view of Origen, Irenaeus, and Tertullian: “The appeal to Tradition was actually an appeal to the mind of the Church, her phronema… And the witnesses from the past could appropriately demonstrate the permanence of the Holy Church’s faith.(25) Tradition in this sense is the expression of the mind of the Church and forms her very lifeblood. Moreover, the Fathers of the Church have a special place, for it was they who both transmitted and preserved the Apostolic truths, thus providing a core of authoritative teaching in the Church.

Current liturgical celebration is based on the formative work of the Church Fathers, the councils, and the creeds.(26) In fact, many have recently called for a return to patristic studies as part of the resurgence of Orthodoxy theology.(27) Breck describes Scripture and Tradition in terms of the Spirit’s activity. Scripture has “revelatory inspiration,” as the sacred writers communicated God’s revelation to the Church. Tradition has “anamnetic inspiration,” the “living memory” by which revelation is authoritatively interpreted and made accessible witness to the “incarnate person of the Word of God.”(28)

Papadopoulos describes three phases in the Tradition of the Church: Apostolic Tradition, expressed in the New Testament; Holy Tradition generally, as the Fathers of the Church and the Church as a living organism develop the theological tradition and express it in her ongoing religious life; and the dogmatic Tradition via the Ecumenical Synods, that make authoritative declarations and give a seal of legitimacy to the theological tradition. In the ecumenical councils the Bishops become “the hermeneutical criterion of the consciousness of the Church” and make dogmatic decisions on difficult issues. In all of this, “the Church in the totality of her members, working and reflecting under the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, acts infallibly, and remains the guarantee of the authenticity of the Holy Tradition.
(29) The emphasis here is on the whole Church acting as the preserver of truth. Florovsky points out that councils are capable of error: “A large ‘general’ council may prove itself to be a ‘council of robbers’ (latrocinium). Or even of apostates…. The opinions of the Fathers are accepted, not as formal subjection to outward authority, but because of the inner evidence of their catholic truth.”(30) It is the Church universal that oversees the dogmatic conclusions of the Fathers and of the councils, and it is in “ecumenical consensus” that infallibility resides.

While the Bible and Tradition are both infallible, they are not equal in authority. The Bible provides the content that tradition interprets. Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of the Church, and the apostles are the successors that build on that stone (Heb. 3:10-11). Holy Tradition has validity depending on its relationship to the received teaching transmitted by the Apostles in Holy Writ.

The New Testament is the primary object of the Holy Tradition of the Church and for this reason it cannot be considered a part of it. The Apostolic teaching is not tradition, but the sacred source of Tradition. Holy Tradition possesses and interprets Apostolic teaching.(31)

The stages from revelation to Christian life are Bible, Tradition, Church, with the Church preserving and applying the teachings of Bible and Tradition to the life of the people of God past, present, and future. Yet the Bible oversees all truth and forms a control for both Tradition and Church.

The central place of Scripture in Orthodox theology can be exemplified by the increasing number of Orthodox scholars in every discipline (32) who call for a greater openness to higher criticism. Yet as is the case with evangelical scholarship, (33) this is a cautious call, mandating an optimistic rather than pessimistic attitude toward the historical data. Ford notes several kinds of “false presuppositions” that are unacceptable: that interpreters can be completely objective; an evolutionary view of history that assumes modern interpreters can unlock Jesus’ teaching in ways his own disciples could not; a view of radical discontinuity between Jesus and the early Church, between Judaic and Hellenistic sources, and between the prophetic and the legal/cultic.(34) The call is for an informed, positive use of the grammatical-historical and historical-critical methods in developing biblical and dogmatic conclusions.

The primary difference between the Orthodox and Protestant lies in the exact place

and understanding of Tradition in the life of the Church. The Orthodox criticize the emphasis on sola scriptura in post-Reformation Protestantism as an over-reaction to the Catholic magisterium. The argument is that without Tradition the true historical message or Scripture cannot be appreciated, for the hermeneutical criterion becomes the Church of the present without the guidance and wisdom of the Church of the past. Scripture can become merely a series of Iiteralistic prepositional statements cut off from Church life.(35)

There is a great deal of truth in this criticism, but it is important to realize that "tradition" plays a complex but definite role in evangelical theology. It is true that many have completely rejected tradition in reaction to the Catholic magisterium. However, it is mere pretence to think that one can “reject” tradition. Since “tradition” means a set of established beliefs inherited from the past leaders of a movement, every denomination and Christian leader inherits a traditional belief system that is in many ways binding. Those who reject any notion of “tradition” are all the more controlled by these inherited views because they are not interacting with these dogmas consciously but are presupposing them unconsciously. Brown states that,

it is neither scientific nor possible to ignore tradition and to attempt to understand theology anew every year or every day.... If the church erred by smothering Scripture in tradition, much contemporary scholarship, especially evangelical scholarship, errs by dissecting the Scripture out of the body of believers and the body of belief, by cutting it out of and away from its place In the life -i.e., the tradition- of the company of believers.(36)

In recent years a growing number have been calling evangelicals to return to their patristic roots. One of the most vocal has been Robert Webber, who calls for a “biblical and historic faith” and states that an overemphasis on personal piety to the neglect of church and sacrament has led evangelicals to forego its past roots in favour of an inward and individualistic religion.(37) The solution is to return to the historic faith in terms of both worship and tradition, and this means to the “rule of faith” (redefined as the creedal tradition ) of Iranaeus and Tertullian. Webber calls for a new reformation: 1) The historic belief and practice of the church must be separated from human systems of theology. 2) Apostolic tradition, not the doctrine of verbal inerrancy, is the actual authoritative basis for Christian truth. 3) The “authoritative substance of Christian truth” stems from Scripture and is found in the early creeds; “it is the key to the interpretation of Scripture.” 4) The living church, not individualistic approaches, is the true receiver and preserver of truth; thus “what the church has always believed, taught, and passed down in history” should have primacy. 5) The task of the present church is to formulate the faith so as to remain “faithful to the original deposit.“(38) This movement has been quite controversial in evangelical circles but nevertheless remains influential.

A great deal has been written lately on the place of historical theology in theological formulation. I have argued elsewhere for a twofold purpose of historical theology: to show how individual doctrines have developed throughout church history, and to trace the origins and development of one’s own confessional tradition.(39) Muller adds two others: awareness of how one’s own presuppositions cohere with the assumptions of past ages, and the ability to observe doctrine in its original formative context as a control on present understanding.40 Evangelical scholars have long been aware of the critical role tradition plays in all biblical and theological decisions.

The primary difference is not in the role of tradition but in the binding power of tradition in interpreting Scripture. In tracing the relation of tradition to theology, a continuum may be drawn from Catholicism, in which tradition is a critical, at times binding, interpreter of Scripture in theological decisions; and evangelicalism, in which tradition provides models for theological decisions but is not binding in the final analysis. The extent to which traditional formulations are binding in evangelical groups is difficult to ascertain and differs from group to group. It is true, for instance, that in many Reformed circles Calvin and Augustine are indeed binding, and the same is true for Wesley or Arminius in many Arminian denominations. In other words, in most evangelical groups, as in Orthodoxy, the views of the founding fathers are at times treated as virtually infallible. Yet at the theoretical level, evangelicals try to be aware of the fallibility of all interpreters, past as well as present.

On the whole, evangelicalism gives no more preference to ancient scholars than to present commentators; from Chrysostom to Augustine to Aquinas to Calvin to the scholars of the current age, all are theoretically given equal weight as interpreters to the Biblical data. As Erickson says, tradition does not have legislative authority, establishing a final statement of theological truth, but judicial authority, depending on the extent to which the tradition faithfully utilizes and elucidates the biblical teaching.(41)


1. This paper is an outgrowth of a presentation to the Society for the Study of Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelism at Wheaton College, September 25, 1993. I would like to thank Keith Wells, a member of the Society and reference librarian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, for his invaluable help in researching this paper.

23. Concerning the Holy Spirit, 27,66, as quoted in Papadopoulos, “Holy Tradition.” 41.

24. Papadopoulos, “Holy Tradition,” 41 Tradition, creed, and sacrament all partake of this. Breck, The Power of the Word, 13, states, “From the perspective of Orthodox Christianity, the relationship between Word and Sacrament, proclamation and celebration, must be explained in such a way as to stress the fundamental unity between the two… to preserve and affirm what we may call the ‘kerygmatic’ character of the Sacrament and ‘sacramental’ character of the Word.”

25. Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition, 98. It is important to realize that for the Orthodox, Tradition does not constitute a “magisterium” or “Rule of Faith” similar to Catholic dogma. Rather, it is part of the life and voice of the Church. As Meyendorff (“Light from the East,” 348) says, “One of the consequences of the absence in the Orthodox Church of permanently infallible magisterium is that universally accepted formal definitions of faith are brief and rare.” The purpose of dogmatic formulations is protection from heresy, and therefore concerns the “essentials” of the faith.

26. On the history, character, and sources of Orthodox liturgy, see Robert F.Taft, The Byzantine Rite (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992); Hans-Joachim Schulz, The Byzantine Liturgy, tr. Matthew J. O’Connell (New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1986).

27. See P. Chrestou, “Neohellenic Theology at the Crossroads,” Greek Theological Review 28 (1983), 39-54.

28. Breck, The Power of the Word, 106-107. For a good brief discussion on the development of the creeds, see Geoffrey Wainwright, “The Sermon and the Liturgy,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 28 (1983), 337-49 (esp. 340-42).

29. Papadopoulos, “Holy Tradition,” 44 (cf. 44-46).

30. Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition, 52-53 9 (cf. also 96-97). Prokurat discusses infallibility in terms of both the Fathers of the Church and the councils “in retrospect” produce infallible doctrine. See also Meyendorff, “Light from the East.” 346-48, who notes the seven councils that fully express the tradition of the Orthodox Church: Nicea I (325), Constantinople I (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (680), and Nicea II (787). In addition, local councils have given expression to universal truths (1341, 1351, 1675, 1872). At every stage it was the consensus of the Church and not just the council that produced the authoritative dogma.

31. Papadopoulos, “Holy Tradition,” 53-54 (cf. also 41,49). Clapsis, “Scripture, Tradition, and Authority,” states that the “relation between Christ and Apostles makes the latter the norm and origin of all later proclamation and binding for the church’s identity.” However, it is debated whether or not Scripture is part of Tradition. Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 197 (cf. pp. 195-99), states, “But in reality there is only one source, since Scripture exists within Tradition. To separate and contrast the two in to impoverish the idea of both alike” (italics his). See also Nikos Nissiotis, “The Unity of Scripture and Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox Contribution to the Prolegomena of Hermeneutics,” The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 11 (1966), 183-208.

32. In Old Testament studies, see Paul Tarazi, Introduction to the Old Testament, Vol. 1 (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991); and George Barrois, “The Notion of Historicity and the Critical Study of the Old Testament,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 19 (1974), 7-22; in New Testament Studies, see Veselin Kesich, The Gospel Image of Christ Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1992); and Mary Ford, “Seeing But not Perceiving; Crisis and Context in Biblical Studies, ”St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 35 (1991), 107-25; and in theology see Petros Vassiliadis, “Greek Theology in the Making: Trends and Facts in the 80siVision for the 90s,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 35 (1991), 33-52.

33. For a recent example, see David Alan Black and David S. Dockery, New Testament Criticism and Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991).

34. Ford, “Biblical Studies.” 110-113.

35. See Breck, The Power of the Word, 32-36; and Meyendorff “Light from the East,” 346.

36. Harold O.J. Brown, “On Method and Means in Theology,” in Doing Theology in Today’s World: Essays in Honour of Keneth S. Kantzer (Grand Rapids: Zonderban, 1991), 147-69 (esp. 167-68).

37. Robert E. Webber, Common Roots: A call to Evangelical Maturity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 13-17

38. Webber, Common Roots, 248-49 (cf. pp. 117-30).

39. Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1991), 265.

40. Richard A. Muller, “The Role of Church History in the Study of Systematic Theology,” in Doing Theology in Today’s World: Essays in Honour of Kenneth S. Kantzer (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 77-97 (esp. 87-88).

41. . Erickson, Christian Theology, 258. See also Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 146, who says “the Fathers in general appeal to an ongoing community-testimony to apostolic faith and practise which is both public and testable in the light of truth-criteria of coherence, continuity, and performative endorsement of the common faith.” See also his discussion of the differences between Origen and Chrysostom on pp. 167-73. For a fascinating treatment of the non-legal, “charismatic” nature of the Ecumenical Councils, see Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition, 96-97, 103.

Previous Page