Friday, May 20, 2005

"That's Just Your Interpretation"

Was reading a friend's blog--he's become a staunch Evangelical Protestant over the years I became Orthodox--and the idea came up that we non-Protestants have no right to say to Protestants that a certain verse of Scripture is "just their erroneous interpretation," for after all, we as Roman Catholics and Orthodox (we're always getting lumped together) have to interpret the infallible decisions our churches issue (which, in his eyes, apparently happens all the time), thus moving the pesky issue of "personal interpretation" down a notch, but by no means removing it entirely, as is our claim.

From Tertullian, a second century bishop who later lapsed into heresy and renounced ideas like the following, on the reason for uniformity of doctrine within the Early Church:
It is not believeable to say that the apostles were either ignorant of the whole scope of the message which they had to declare, or that they failed to make known to all men the entire rule of faith. Let us see, then, whether--even though the apostles proclaimed it simply and fully--the churches, through their own fault, proclaimed it differently than had the apostles. You will find that the heretics put forward all these suggestions of distrust.... Suppose, then, that all churches have erred. Suppose that the apostle was mistaken in giving his testimony. Suppose that the Holy Spirit had insufficient concern for any one church as to lead it into truth--although He was sent for this reason by Christ.... Suppose also, that He, the Steward of God, the Vicar of Christ, neglected His office, permitting the churches for a time to understand differently--to believe differently--than what He Himself was preaching through the apostles. If so, is it likely that so many churches, and they so great, should have gone astray into one and the same faith? No accident distributed among many men leads to one and the same result. Error of doctrine in the churches must necessarily have produced various results. However, when that which is deposited among many is found to be one and the same--it is not the result of men, but of tradition. Can anyone, then, be reckless enough to say that the ones who handed on the tradition were in error?
While there were very real controversies in the early Church over various things--the exact layout of the Trinity, the church calendar, the exact way in which Christ was divine--many of the "big issues" Protestants raise are answered uniformly by this tradition of the universal Church. I know it was personally this consensus that made me make the jump from Baptist to examine the ancient apostolic communions' claims. While I do grant that it ultimately was *my* (perhaps erroneous? Not that I can tell, but...) decision to join the Orthodox Church, I find some comfort in knowing that, in all the Churches that follow this tradition--only 3: The Orthodox, the Catholics, and the Non-Chalcedonian churches--this former Evalgelical's "big issues" of
  • baptismal regeneration (yes)
  • infant baptism (yes)
  • salvation by faith AND works (theosis and synergy in the ancient Church)
  • eternal security (no such thing--we keep the free will to disobey and leave)
  • the Real Presence (oh yeah)
  • Episcopal Church government (St. Ignatius of Antioch)
  • Apostolic Succession (a must)
  • liturgical worship (by 110 AD it was universally recorded)
  • the promise of the Lord to lead His Church in all (that's ALL) truth, victorious against the gates of hell (taken seriously)
  • prayers for the dead and to the departed saints (St. Polycarp and catacomb walls)
  • use of imagery in worship (catacombs and churches)
  • the role of the Theotokos (Mary) in our salvation (the new Eve)
  • the Deuterocanonical books (not given a "free pass" by all the fathers, but highly honored as, at worst, a "second canon," a mere step down from Scripture)
...all of these were answered with one voice by the early Church. No need to interpret; the answer's right there.

This is the interpretation of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church -- and the 2 heresies that have since split from Her yet still attempt to honor the Tradition (which says something about the clarity of said Tradition!). If an individual--much less a whole confession!--reads differently into any of this, they have a sure recourse; the receptors of the apostles' own words--who sat at their feet for years and heard elaborations of the Christian faith from them--all show us if we err in these matters. Thanks be to God for His Church and the confession and traditions--whether by word or by epistle (2 Thess. 2:15)--of the apostles on which She was founded.


Rhology said...

I hate to say it again, but...

That is YOUR interpretation of what the Early Church said. It is not infallible, by your own admission.

You might try taking a different track in your argumentation, if you want to make an impact.

Grace and peace,

David Bryan said...

Yes, that may be true--I had to read the Fathers and arrive at conclusions myself. My delight was considerable when I found a Church who's felt this way all along and had been waiting for me...

Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that, on all these stances the Early Church takes (according to "my interpretation") Scripture is used as a proof, as it should be. There exists, then, an ancient interpretive body of work aimed towards the Scriptures which is very much at odds with Evangelical thought, according to my thinking. On the other hand, Evangelicals, while very quick to defend their views using Scripture, are (in every discussion I have had) either not familiar enough with the Fathers to discuss their views or forced to jettison the Fathers because they simply cannot harmonize Evangelicalism's views with those of the Early Church.

The matter, then, for Evangelicals becomes this: if this is merely my interpretation--or, at the most, that of my Church--of the corpus of the Fathers works, there should be a reasonable way to harmonize the views of the Early Church on the subjects I listed in the post with those of contemporary Evangelicalism.

I welcome you to read the Apostolic Fathers (Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaus of Lyons, Justin Martyr, Hyppolytus, Polycarp) as well as folks like Clement of Alexandria, Tatian, Origen and Tertullian (these last two before their respective slips into universalism and montanism, of course), Lactanius, Cyprian of Carthage, and the Apostolic Constitutions. After reading these, I welcome you to provide either proof of their complete disagreement with each other on these matters, or (even better) proof that they, instead, would be much more familiar with the contemporary Evangelical approach to things. My guess is that you will have your work cut out for you.

But that could just be my interpretation. *wink*

The Rambler said...

One thing about all of this that bothers me, is that we have these arguments to begin with.

What I mean by this, is that there's something obnoxious about the idea that an obscure, partial oracle (or oracles) are somehow being dropped from the sky, and we have to all fight and scrap to figure out what it means.

After all, just what is it that people are adhering to? What is it that they're converting to? What doctrine? Something that we all need to figure out as we go along? Or something enduring?

This is the whole problem that I have not only with Protestantism (which is distinctively western, in the "bad way"), but with "Protestanitzed" religion in general - the idea that we're all "interpreting", figuring things out, rather than entering into a received tradition. Frankly, if it's all that uncertain, it's probably not that critical we pay attention to it.

The only time the Fathers got in the business of argumentatively demonstrating things from Scripture, was when they were addressing those who had somehow gone astray, but took the holy books with them. In other words, heretics.

OTOH, such scrutinizing and proof-texting, whether it be of the Bible or the Fathers, should not be something that has to go in inside of the Church. That's not a good sign - a Church should know what it believes.

Protestantism, by it's very nature (or should I say, natures?), is not a continuing form of Christianity, but an error begotten from the excesses of another error. We (Orthodox) know what salvation is, and Who Jesus Christ is. If one is arguing over things this simple, or thinks they must be divined through the scrutinizing of Scriptures, then this just betrays the fact you're still on the outside looking in.

Rhology said...

Yes, I see what you are saying, Rambler. It is a definite problem to scrutinise the Scriptures, especially b/c, when one does so, one finds that the Orthodox position on a wide variety of topics is not represented. The Evangelical position, by contrast, is.
I guess it's hard for me to take that kind of statement seriously, since it entails a willful blindness to the foundations of faith.

Grace and peace,

Aaron said...


i left Evangelical Protestantism for the exact opposite position. I felt like the Orthodox view of the scriptures was very straightforward and didn't allow for side stepping or back peddling from what Christ was saying in the Gospels for example. I felt like so many of the "tough" verses were dodged in protestantism or interpreted shabbily while Orthodoxy just took them head on.

I'm not here to debate per say, because that is really unfruitful in this setting...face to face is more often fruitful for both individuals. So, i say all this to encourage you to take caution in closing your mind to scriptural weight of Orthodoxy.

In the Risen Christ,

David Bryan said...

"I guess it's hard for me to take that kind of statement seriously, since it entails a willful blindness to the foundations of faith."

Again, Alan, if you are looking for foundations, look to those who received the apostles' teaching first-hand, through face-to-face spiritual life. They're not only foundations of THE Faith, but are foundations built ON faith.