Scripture and Tradition

For the sake of trying to be more specific, rather than referring to Trinitarian Theology as the term used to describe what it is Perichoresis Australia and the USA are declaring, more specifically, what we are trying to bring to modern Christianity is the gospel that was understood in the mind of the Ancient Church which is the foundation of Trinitarian Theology. Some people may not realise that what they assume to be the gospel they may hear from the pulpit in their local fellowship is far removed from what it is those early Christians believed in those first few centuries. Many times in the early church writings the Apostolic and later fathers of the ancient church made their appeal to Scripture and Tradition. When we use the term today, some may reject this for fear of buying into something other than the Protestant/Evangelical tradition such as the Roman Catholic Church’s own interpretative tradition. No single church has a monopoly on Scripture and Tradition. This is far from the case and a discussion on this I think is warranted to clear up what is meant by Scripture and Tradition. It is the the Rule of Faith that stands outside all denominations as the touchstone for which truth is drawn from.

There was a time in our recent history where the Egyptian text could not be translated into our modern language. An engraved stone was found by Napoleon’s army at the turn of the 19th century while digging foundations for a new fort. The soldier in command realised the importance of this discovery. On the stone was inscriptions in three languages, one in hieroglyphics, coptic and ancient Greek. The inscriptions of the three languages were eventually pieced together and the mystery of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic were unlocked. The Rosetta Stone became the touchstone for understanding the ancient Egyptian language and provided a way for the correct interpretation of this ancient text. In the same way, this was very much the purpose of Scripture and Tradition. When encountering dubious claims put forward by the many heresies of the early church, they appealed to Scripture and Tradition as a means of rejecting their ideas.

As Christianity began to impact on the more educated circles of the Mediterranean society, there was interest from the many circles of the academic community. Some embraced the gospel in its entirety as being the answer to all they had previously studied. Others however were interested in certain aspects of the message but felt there needed to be some form of correction. In this culture, it was normal to present ideas and put them forward for debate. When the Christians came onto the scene, it may have been perceived that a new kind of “theory” or “thesis” was put forward. Some would have considered the new and strange of ideas of the gospel and promptly rejected it with definite reasons presented as an “antithesis” or a counter-theory. Others still would propose a blending of the two ideas, i.e. Pagan/Christian theory which is called a synthesis or a blending of two theories. The problem the academics in this ancient period encountered is the position of the Christians was not open to negotiation. The Christians believed God has come as this Man, Jesus Christ, of which they were just mere witnesses of His majesty. Their role was to deliver His message through the Apostles as prophesied in the Old Testament which foreshadowed His coming and testified in the New Testament which were eye-witness accounts giving clear meaning to His coming. They delivered the message using the whole scope of Scripture giving clear revelation of this monumental event. In them we find the intimacy of contact between God and the Apostles through their written testimonies. No other single or group of human beings had this privilege. This meant that what the Apostles had was first hand while all others were not even close to second, third hand meaning their understanding of the truth of God had no grounds whatsoever.

From the very early days of the Church it was both Scripture and Tradition that helped her to stay true to what was delivered into their hands from the Apostles who, in turn, had the message of the Gospel delivered to them by Jesus Christ in Person. The Creator of heaven and earth was standing before them. This is the One who is before all things and in Him all things consist and are held together. The saw Him with their eyes, they touched with their own hands and the heard Him with their own ears. This is the only One who knows the Father and this is the only One the Father knows. Enormous value therefore was placed on the Scriptures, especially what we now know to be the New Testament.

Much of the documents were widely available not just to the Christians around the world, but to the many heretics in various areas. Christians held that these Scriptures had their primary Source in the Person, the Words and works of Jesus Christ bringing the right context for how Scripture was to be interpreted. Thus it was by revelation that the truth was to be approached with God Himself in the Person of Jesus Christ who is the ultimate source of our revelation and the one who mediates it to us through Himself by His Spirit. This revelation was entrusted to the prophets and to the eye-witnesses of the Incarnate Word, the apostles, and ultimately passed onto the church. What the Lord entrusted to, the apostles declared and the fathers safeguarded is what is usually understood to be the tradition. In addition, we must take into account what the prophets proclaimed in the Old Testament about Christ’s coming in advance was also coupled with what the apostles preached after He came. When the apostles read the Scriptures after the resurrection and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, they now had a bias and their eyes were enlightened by the revelation of Jesus Christ. When the gospels were written along with the epistles, these texts were soon given equal regard to the Old Testament as Holy Scripture. Their particular method of exegesis and interpretation rested on the fact of who they claimed Jesus Christ to be and the whole scope of these Scriptures used collectively to show His claim to be valid. What appeared to be understood to be tradition was the teaching that corresponded with all that Jesus Christ taught.

During the second century, the battle between the Gnostics and the Christians was in full swing. While the ancient Christian community held fast to the testimony of New Testament Scripture so what was declared throughout the world was identical with those of Jesus Christ Himself, the Gnostics exploited it to their own end claiming they had access to a secret apostolic tradition of their own. The lineage of the gospel was precisely through the Apostles, who received it from Christ and then Christ who Being God come to us in Person, bringing with Him and in Himself the only precise and accurate knowledge of God. The oral transmission of the Gospel by the Apostles in an open and public way was given as much credibility as the Scriptures themselves. In his fifth book of Against Heresies, Irenaeus said that the Barbarians had received the faith without the letters: To which course many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendour, shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent. Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed; and they do please God, ordering their conversation in all righteousness, chastity, and wisdom. If any one were to preach to these men the inventions of the heretics, speaking to them in their own language, they would at once stop their ears, and flee as far off as possible, not enduring even to listen to the blasphemous address. Thus, by means of that ancient tradition of the apostles, they do not suffer their mind to conceive anything of the [doctrines suggested by the] portentous language of these teachers, among whom neither Church nor doctrine has ever been established (3.4.2). If you read this carefully enough, you will also see one of the formal statements made often by the fathers that would some 150 years or so later be formalised into what we know to be the Nicene Creed.

The tradition was understood not be a pick and choose according to one’s whims. The only authority was to embrace all that the Apostle’s testified to in the whole scope of the New Testament Scripture. In essence, Scripture and Tradition worked hand in hand and was not suppose to be contrasted against one another. The oral tradition was accepted as valid only if it was in harmony with what was testified in the Scriptures.

Apart from their refusal to accept the divinity of Jesus Christ, the characteristic trademark for the heretics was to use a string of Scripture verses to support their “super gospel”. They felt the gospel was reserved only for those who were enlightened with “special knowledge”. One could hear their argument and if it did not appear to make sense, it would only be because one hadn’t quite grasped what they would call “special spiritual enlightenment,” reserved for those who were chosen by God “to see.” In much the same way, this is how the 5-point Calvinism, as well as its bedfellow, the followers of Arminius, of the 17th Century works. If one does not embrace this teaching, it is only because they were not chosen “to see” or used their so called “free will” not to see, this “special knowledge” by God and are elected to perdition. Once the divinity of Jesus Christ is undermined or disregarded altogether, the fixed point through which all the ways and works of God was drawn from loses its force. The knowledge no longer rests on God Himself in the Person and work of Jesus Christ but on the fantasies and imaginations of human beings. The glory of God uniting Himself to humanity at the Incarnation begins to fade into insignificance.

The battle against Gnosticism continued into the third century. So much so that it started to have an impact on the school in Alexandria. Clement and his student Origen began to use language that had subtle characteristics of of the Gnostics. Their writings took an over-emphasis of tapping into a spiritual way of understanding where only the elite of the church were able to understand. By turning certain aspects of theology into a “special knowledge” meant the student had to conform to a set of ambiguous premises narrowing an understanding that was universal towards a particular way reserved only for those who could get it. There grew a duality between the elite clergy and the rest who were not spiritual enough to understand. It was out of this way of thinking using a set of fixed theories and hypotheses that Origen’s heresy of universalism was birthed. This cause and effect kind of language and thinking which Origen attempted to inject into Scripture and Tradition was firmly rejected by the later ancient theologians. Universalism today still has the same Gnostic way of thinking and this “special knowledge” appeal that draws so many people in. This is not to say that Origen did not respect tradition and Scripture. When push came to shove with the heretics he faced, it was Scripture and Tradition through which he defended the faith. Later theologians respected the brilliant mind of this man but often said that Origen was too puffed up with his own brilliance and took things too far.

Around about this time the Roman church was slowly beginning to be regarded as the proper custodians of the Apostolic rule of faith. However, it was the formulation of the Nicene Creed in 325AD and its expansion in Constantinople in 380AD that was the full expression of it (Epiphanius Ancoratus 118). In addition, though it took some decades for the Creed to be universally accepted as the one creed that expressed all that was believed from the beginning, its content concisely summed up what is meant be tradition and the means of interpreting the Scripture in the right way. By solidifying the belief in the unity of Being of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit through the controversial phrase homoousios to Patri, though not scriptural in its origin, this phrase expressed all that Scripture and tradition had to say. It is at this point in history where there is harmony between what the whole church believed between Scripture and Tradition and how the gospel was expressed and taught.

Now I am not waving the banner of the Roman Catholic Church nor any other church for that matter. The Banner I wave is the Scripture and Tradition that is concisely summarised in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and the writings in support of it from the Apostles, through the fathers leading up to this period, and those who continued to defend it beyond this period. Athanasius says in Ad Afros 4 “This enables us to see, brethren, that they of Nicaea breathe the spirit of Scripture, in that God says in, ‘I am that I am,’ and through Jeremiah, ‘Who is in His substance and has seen His word;’ and just below, ‘if they had stood in My subsistence and heard My words:’ now subsistence is essence, and means nothing else but very being, which Jeremiah calls existence, in the words, ‘and they heard not the voice of existence. ‘ For subsistence, and essence, is existence: for it is, or in other words exists.”  In this way, the fathers of this council believed that one must subordinate Scriptures through the mind of the Apostles and to that of Jesus Christ, who is God of God.

The Bible does not necessarily stand alone and with the great movements of the ancient church as well as the reformation, it was through the interpretive tradition of the ancient church that both were helped to steer on course. It is knowing in Jesus Christ we see God fully disclosed in His Words, His Person and His work who is of the same being with the Father. The whole scope of Scripture rests on Him as her own touchstone. The Niceno/Constantinopolitan Creed was formulated as a concise definition of the tradition that was held since the very beginning through the many and various formal statements from many of the fathers through the ages of this early period. If any denomination has a statement of belief that falls short of the whole scope of Scripture in the same manner in which the ancient church held so dearly, then one can be sure they have fallen into the trap of the Gnostic mindset and have lost touch with reality. The church firmly believed in the full implication of the Incarnation. That is, when Jesus Christ was born, God united Himself to all humanity. It is our duty as Christians to embrace this in its entirety and not withdraw in fear at its shocking and reverberating impact on all humanity.