October 24, 2020

Fr. Stephen Freeman: There Is No “Bible” in the Bible


Note from CM: Thanks to Fr. Freeman for giving us permission to post this excellent article from his blog. Please be aware that he states his points strongly and even overstates some things (in my opinion). I anticipate that some of you will take strong exception to some of his claims and interpretations. (Many of us, after all, are Christians who practice our faith in Reformation traditions.) I hope, as always, that we will keep our discussion civil and gracious.

However, overall I think this piece encourages us to look at the Bible from a different angle, an angle that can offer a  much needed corrective for the kind of naked biblicism we see in contemporary evangelicalism and elsewhere.

A number of years ago I recall being enthralled by a certain pastor’s motto that he used to impress the importance of Bible study upon Christians. “God gave us a Book,” he proclaimed. Now when I hear that, I picture the puzzled faces of saints across the ages. For it is only in the past 500 years that he could have said that to people who were actually holding a Book in their hands. Think of all the children of Abraham (biological and spiritual) who practiced the faith without a Book.

Of course, God’s people have always had words from God in some form to show them the way of life. But somehow, those words became THE WORD in a different way when put together between covers and made accessible to all in one volume. Living as a disciple has thus changed in many places from being an apprentice of Jesus Christ to being a student, from being a living, worshiping, missional member of the Church, which is the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1Timothy 3:15), to having and maintaining a “personal relationship with Jesus” through “what he says to me” in the pages of my Bible.

I’ve editorialized enough. Consider Fr. Freeman’s word today.

• • •

pillarThere Is No “Bible” in the Bible
By Fr. Stephen Freeman

There are certain ideas that, once introduced, tend to change how people think of everything else. This is certainly the case with the Bible. For of all the ideas about the Scriptures, the most recent is the notion of “the Bible.”

The word “Bible” simply means “book.” Thus, it is a name that means “the Book.” It is a particularly late notion if for no other reason than that books are a rather late invention. There are examples of bound folios of the New Testament dating to around the 4th century, but they may very well have been some of the earliest examples of such productions. The Emperor Constantine commissioned a large number of such copies (all produced by hand) as gifts to the Bishops of the Church. How many such editions is unknown, though it may have been several hundred. One of the four manuscripts dating to the 4th century may very well be a survivor of that famous group.

In the Church (and to this day in Orthodoxy), the gospels are bound as one book and the Epistles, etc., are bound as another. And these are only those books appointed for reading in the Church. The Revelation is not usually included in such editions.

The “Bible,” a single book with the whole of the Scriptures included, is indeed modern. It is a by-product of the printing press, fostered by the doctrines of Protestantism. For it is not until the advent of Protestant teaching that the concept of the Bible begins to evolve into what it has become today. The New Testament uses the word “scriptures” (literally, “the writings”) when it refers to the Old Testament, but it is a very loose term. There was no authoritative notion of a canon of the Old Testament. There were the Books of Moses and the Prophets (cf. Luke 24:27) and there were other writings (the Psalms, Proverbs, etc.). But writers of the New Testament seem to have had no clear guide for what is authoritative and what is not. The book of Jude makes use of the Assumption of Moses as well as the Book of Enoch, without so much as a blush. There are other examples of so-called “non-canonical” works in the New Testament.

Gray-Pillar-2It is difficult on this side of the Reformation for people to have a proper feel for the Scriptures. First, though we say “Scriptures” (sometimes) we are just as likely to say “Scripture” (singular) and always have that meaning in mind regardless. We think of the Scriptures as a single book. And with this thought we tend to think of everything in the Book as of equal value, equal authenticity, equal reliability, equal authority, etc. And this is simply not the case and never has been.

The New Testament represents, in various forms, the Christian appropriation and re-reading of the Scriptures of Pharisaic Judaism (or even wider). The writings in the Old Testament do not, of themselves, point to Christ or prove that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. The Jews of Christ’s time, though expectant of a Messiah (God’s “Anointed One”), did not expect such a one to be the Son of God, nor Divine, nor to be crucified dead and resurrected. All of these understandings with regard to Christ are understandings that are post-resurrectional. The New Testament is quite clear that the disciples understood none of these things until after Christ’s resurrection, despite being told them numerous times. St. Paul, in his Second Letter to the Corinthians describes the failure of the Jews to see Christ in the writings of the Old Testament as a “veil,” and compares it to the veil that Moses put over his face.

Thus the New Testament reading of the Old Testament is a “revelation” (an “apocalypse”) of the “mystery hidden from before all the ages.” Were it clear in the Old Testament, the mystery would not have been hidden. This is a unique and peculiar claim of the primitive Christian community. They present a novel, even apocalyptic interpretation of the writings of Judaism, and describe them as the true meaning of the Scriptures as revealed in Jesus Christ.

This is a world removed from modern (post-Reformation) claims for the Bible.  For the equality (in authority, authenticity, etc.) of each writing within the Scriptures only becomes paramount when their individual worth is eradicated in their assumption by the whole. Thus Joshua suddenly becomes of equal importance with the Pentateuch (the 5 books of Moses) simply by reason of being included in “the Bible.” But historically, the book of Joshua never held the kind of central role that belonged to the Pentateuch. Saying this is not intended to diminish its importance, only to remove an importance to which it is not properly due.

Of course, starting down such a course raises enormous red flags for many. The concern would easily be voiced, “How, then, do you know what is more valuable and what less?” And this brings us back to the proper place. For the role of interpretation, weighing, comparing, etc., is the role of the Church, the believing community. There can be no Scriptures outside the Church. To say, “Scriptures,” is simply to name those writings which the believing Church holds to be important and authoritative – nothing more and nothing less. St. Hilary famously said, “The Scriptures are not in the reading, but in the understanding” (scriptura est non in legendo, sed in intelligendo).

The creation of a “canon” of Scripture was never more than a declaration of what a general consensus within the Church treated as authoritative. The Scriptures as a place for creating and proving formal doctrine is something of a fiction. 2Timothy 3:16-17 is the primary verse trotted out in defense of Scriptural authority:

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.  (2Ti 3:16-17 NKJ)

But this is a very troublesome and questionable translation. In Protestant usage, the key phrase is “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God.” But, in fact, the phrase “given by inspiration of God” is a single word (θεόπνευστος), just as accurately translated, “all Scripture that is inspired of God,” thus being a limiting phrase and not one that serves as an authoritative licensing of something later described as “the Bible.”

What we actually have in 2 Timothy is a very homely, parenetic expression in which the author suggests that reading the Scriptures is a good thing. It is not, despite its use as such, a foundational proclamation of the Bible as sole authority. For it is the Church that is described as the “Pillar and Ground of Truth.” (1 Tim. 3:15).

And the “canon” of Scripture was historically not a list of authoritative books, but a list of those works commonly read in the Churches. It is, something of a catalog of the lectionary. What we actually find in the Fathers is not the later proof-texting from an authoritative text, the Master Book of All Knowledge, if you will, but a use of quotes that seemed at hand and most useful for whatever topic was being treated. There are, to be sure, careful expository writings, such as those of St. John Chrysostom and others, but these are what they are: expositions of various writings. When the Church turned to the central core doctrines of the Faith, such as the Trinity, the natures and Person of Christ, the character of salvation, etc., arguments were far more wide-open and non-expository. Reason and language played as much of a role as Scripture itself. The words homoousios, hypostasis and ousia that play such completely central roles in the foundational doctrines of the Trinity and Christology are not given meanings drawn from Scripture, but from arguments that incorporate Scripture and every possible tool. The Church is not a Bible-based teaching institution – the Church is the Pillar and Ground of Truth, the Body of Christ, divinely given by God for our salvation and it uses the Scriptures and everything that exists for the purpose of expounding the truth it has received from God from the very beginning.

The only “thing” approaching a “Bible” in the sense that has commonly been used in modern parlance, is the Church. The Scriptures have their place within the life of the Church and only exist as Scriptures within that context.

• • •

sfreemanFr. Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of the book Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe and hosts the Glory to God podcast series.

His blog, Glory to God for all Things, is one of the most read Orthodox sites on the web, being translated frequently in Romanian, French, and Serbian by enthusiastic readers.


  1. This sounds good to me. Fr. Stephen’s blog is one of my favorite thing on the internet and has been for years.

  2. Re: 1 Timothy 3:15 – Or “a pillar and ground of the truth,” as there is no article. Also, Irenaeus uses that phrase to refer to the Gospels.

  3. As CM said, some of this is rather over-stated. The idea that the Scriptures are basically the Church’s lectionary is definitely in that vein.

    One of the realities of Church history is the tension between what is considered canonical and what is read in the Church. This is pretty keen in my own tradition (Anglicanism) where we accept the 39-book Old Testament (i.e. the Protestant or Jewish OT) as canon, but include lessons from the OT Apocrypha often in place of the OT readings, citing St. Jerome’s commentaries as Patristic authority for doing so: “And the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.”

    One of the reasons Archbishop Cranmer gives for the post-Reformation English Church establishing the Book of Common Prayer and its lectionaries was the widespread chaos in the late medieval Church’s public readings. Scriptures read willy-nilly without context, starting one book but never finishing it, insertions of “uncertain Stories and Legends” into the readings (e.g. local legends about the saints). Similarly, there is quite a bit of Scripture that never makes it into any lectionary. For example, the Orthodox, from what I understand, never include Revelation in the lectionaries. And one of the reasons for the 3-year Common Lectionary on Sunday adapted by the Roman Catholics and many mainline Protestants was to bring MORE scripture into the public readings.

    That said, I really appreciate Fr. Stephen’s admission that the OT Canon took a long time to settle. So many Orthodox and Catholics accuse Protestants of taking stuff out of the bible, and Protestants accuse them of adding to the bible, when the truth is that things just weren’t settled definitively until the Reformation.

    Also, I do think Fr. Stephen is correct in that we should not separate the Church and the Scriptures as much as is common in American Christianity. Minimizing or ignoring the Church’s role in determining the Canon of Scripture is a major problem.

    That said, it seems to me that what we have in more Bible-centered traditions, like my own has historically claimed to be, is a determination to submit the Church’s authority to that of the Scriptures. “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.” Is that self-contradictory, considering that the Scriptures to not explicitly claim such authority? Not necessarily. If the Church has the authority to submit to the Scriptures’ authority, then I see no problem.

    One final thought: while the sentiment that all Scripture is of equal weight may be widespread, no one treats them as such. Most Liturgical churches treat the Gospels as having primacy, while many Protestants seem to give St. Paul’s epistles primacy (due to being more directly theological, especially with respect to justification and salvation). But even among those who treat the Epistles as prime, they typically give more weight to Romans, Ephesians, and Galatians, than to, say, Philemon. And I know of no one who uses Habbakkuk or Judges as their primary source for theology and doctrine.

    • This. Well said.

      There is no reason why the Church would not have the authority to submit to scripture’s authority, and there is good reason for it to do so, considering the unique antiquity and stability of the books in that make up the New Testament canon compared with other traditions.

    • Michael Redmond says

      Father Isaac writes: “So many Orthodox and Catholics accuse Protestants of taking stuff out of the bible, and Protestants accuse them of adding to the bible, when the truth is that things just weren’t settled definitively until the Reformation.” How’s that, again? The Reformation settled nothing “definitively.”

      • Within their respective traditions it did. All the various Protestant groups eventually accepted a 39-Book OT. At Trent, the Roman Catholics codified a 46-book OT. Around the same time (though not necessarily directly related to the Reformation), the Greek Orthodox officially declared the Septuagint to be the divinely inspired OT. For the various traditions, that’s pretty definitive.

    • Fr Isaac, a well written and thoughtful comment from you again. 🙂

  4. It’s easy to grant many of Fr. Freeman’s points: The gradual formation of the New Testament canon, the uneven value of the many books that exist in the bible (and the unevenness within these books, as well), the fact that these texts can only be the bible for a believing community, the fact that these texts require interpretation, the observation that putting all these texts between the covers of a single binding can and has frequently provided a misleading context for those who read them as texts which they can interpret alone, the observation that natural theology (reason) has played an important part in the development of doctrines that use language and ideas not found in the scriptures.

    What would be harder to grant would be any claim (a claim unstated but obviously the subtext of the entire post) that only the Eastern Orthodox tradition embodies the Church for whom the texts of scriptures exist, and that only its interpretations are authoritative, or that the Eastern Orthodox Church has never significantly departed from its founding experience in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that gave rise both to the Church and to its scriptures. In addition, nothing in what he says justifies the idea that it’s illegitimate to use the scriptures, especially the gospels, to assess whether or not the Church as it exists today bears adequate resemblance to that founding experience as delineated in those canonical texts, which are as ancient and more stable than anything else in the Church’s traditions.

    For many of us non-fundamentalist and non-evangelical Protestants, its seems exceedingly implausible that the Eastern Orthodox Church, in all it Byzantine complexity and layer upon layer of luxuriantly unfolding tradition and organizational top-heaviness, is exclusively and exactly commensurate with that founding experience as witnessed to in the gospels. We take seriously the idea of the priesthood of all believers, and we think it legitimate that all Christians, lay or clergy, should be involved, not only in interpreting the scriptures for the Church, but in building the life of the Church together in such a way that it’s faithful to that founding experience.

    If this results in the kind of messiness that exists today among different churches with their frequently conflicting understandings of both Church and scriptures, we are willing to live with that. And we are willing to live with that because we believe that involving all the people of God, all those who look to Christ, in the building of the life of the Church, and in the interpretation of scriptures, ultimately is the only avenue to a truly catholic Church, where contradictions and weaknesses and lack of faithfulness to the Church’s founding experience is not merely pushed aside in the name of unyielding tradition.

    • ..are not merely pushed aside….

    • Excellent questions, and I would love to hear our Orthodox readers respond, as well as Roman Catholics, who must deal with similar questions.

      • It is hard to respond. As an orthodox christian, my experience of the church is completely different from Robert’s description. It feels like trying to respond to a question on how we deal with the challenges of the Moon being so very fertile and overgrowing with plant life. I mostly read comments like this and think, “Huh?”

        I would characterize orthodoxy as surprisingly bottom-heavy and strongly believing in the priesthood of all believers. The place in our buildings where the congregation stands to serve the liturgy is patterned after where the levite priests would stand in the jewish temple. The Holy Spirit is believed to speak through the laity as a whole, which leads to very slow decision making. Up until the bishop level, there is equal parts lay and clergy in our councils and assemblies my jurisdiction. (Coincidentally, that is also Father Stephen’s jurisdiction, he used to be our dean, even! He is a fantastic man and crazily funny in person.) Even those bishops who get a lot done do so by the help and support and love of their people.

        My priest has always made clear that our traditions aren’t exactly the same as those of 150 AD. They evolved slowly over time in a number of ways. Still, read about the evening worship services of the late 200’s, and you’ll see a pattern that still looks awfully like the way we serve vespers today. Our hope is not to freeze time, but simply to be members of the same church as our predecessors. That we put effort into doing so does mean we lean heavily on tradition and make changes as sparingly as possible.

        All that tradition isn’t a weight that presses upon us, though. On the contrary, it supports us. Not having to reinvent the wheel lets us get about the process of driving the wagon. We have to examine the wheel for being in a healthy condition sometimes, occasionally we even need to swap some wheels or replace one, but we don’t have to go back to starting with nothing.

        Tradition isn’t what causes the messiness – it is what keeps us going through it and coming out together on the other side of each episode of messiness.

        Even having said this is insufficient, though – comments on imonk are just not a long enough format to get anywhere discussing what is fundamentally a different way of looking at so much. The only thing I can say for sure is that the orthodox church doesn’t feel to me the way it feels to you, Robert. I have my own struggles, but they aren’t the same as yours to be sure, and I feel free to have them within the orthodox church. I also feel free to pray for all my brothers in Christ who share our “faith and hope of the Resurrection”, as we pray for those who died in such a state at every liturgy.

        • Tokah,

          Thanks for your intersting letter. But I might take exception to at least one point. You say, “All that tradition isn’t a weight that presses upon us, though. On the contrary, it supports us.”

          I assume you’re a man. A few women in your congregation, barred from teaching and preaching positions by tradition, might differ.

          • Asinus Spinas Masticans says

            Au contraire.

            I just heard one of the best sermons of my life, preached by an Orthodox woman. who is a licensed lay theologian in the Orthodox Church.

            Women can preach and teach just fine in the Orthodox Church. If they are full of the Holy Spirit, they have just as much access to the DNA of the Church as men do. What they cannot do is serve the Mysteries. Most men are barred from that as well.

            Like I said. Women’s ordination is a nova, a theological innovation. I’m going to assume that there were just as many women in the Church in 1364 who were “hampered” by this tradition as there are in 2014, but only now is it a “problem”, with all the urgency of the fashionable.

          • It’s not a matter of mere fashion, but whether women in their own right are considered to be suitable living icons of the incarnation of Christ, or they need to men to be complete in their priesthood. It’s a theological issue, not one of urgency or fashion.

          • Robert F,

            That was a huge issue for me. What I found in Orthodoxy was that indeed women are no less “suitable living icons of Christ” than men. Women do not need men to be “complete in their priesthood.” On the contrary, it is in the most strenuously self-identified “bible-believing” churches that the theology of women’s incompleteness is held to be true. It is *those* churches, not Orthodoxy, that believe that women’s submission to men continues through eternity and is based on the heresy of the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father – bad theology that ends up making Christ not God and women not Human. It is in *those* churches, not in Orthodoxy, that women are not allowed to preach or even speak, teach, be seminary professors, translate scripture, be members of the church board/council, serve the poor, etc. etc. As Mule said, most men aren’t priests, either.

            There are plenty of saints who were not priests or bishops. There are female saints who have been given the title Equal-to-the-Apostles. The Orthodox priesthood is not seen as the be-all and end-all of Christian life; it’s just not, at its deepest Meaning, about Authority – it’s about iconicity. Orthodox bishops and priests are not even allowed to serve a Liturgy if there is no congregation to complete the icon of the-union-of-Christ-and-the-Church-in-worship.

            There has never to my knowledge been a movement in Orthodoxy to make women bishops and priests. Women lack *nothing* that being bishops or priests could supply.


          • Robert F – well said, especially the part about women.

            It baffles me that only priest, deacons and infant boys being baptized are able to pass through the Royal Doors – iirc, neither men who are not ordained nor girls/women are ever permitted to approach the altar in any O church. As much as i enjoy looking at the icons on the iconostasis, i think the Western church did the right thing when it removed rood screens, though some of the important changes didn’t come about until Vatican II.

            Fr. Stephen, i enjoyed reading your post very much, though i think we’ll need to agree to disagree on some things (like the Septuagint).

          • Dana – agreed on the fact that *some* Protestant churches do what you say, though it isn’t common in my Lutheran synod (i would be dumbfounded if any of us started claiming ESS to be true, since it contradicts the Athanasian Creed among other things). In most of the Anglican Communion, ditto, though there are exceptions (like the diocese of Sydney, Australia, which has become fiercely complementarian). However, we do ordain women, there is no barrier to the altar, we’ve got sacraments (though admittedly not as many as you guys do), etc.

            It is hard for me to understand why Catholicism or Orthodoxy would have more appeal to Protestant coverts vs. high-church Protestantism, but then, it is a road i have not taken, and i really want to understand what drew you there and what keeps you there. (I have a *lot* to learn, not least from folks in other traditions.)

            Fwiw, i don’t think that either the Anglican communion or various Luthersn synods are ideal – far from it! But they strike a good balance, overall, and i am grateful for that. It has helped me recover from my years in various highly abusive evangelical/charismatic churches. Am so grateful that i had something and someplace to go back to – unlike so many others whose only expetience of xtianity is in fundy and/or more extreme evangelical churches.

          • I respect your opinion, Dana, but the prohibition of a class of people from any office of the Church carries with it the unavoidable implication that something is missing in them, however much in other ways they may be lionized or celebrated. A church packed with women could never celebrate the Divine Liturgy, as indispensable as it is to Orthodox spirituality and life, while a few men gathered could, provided one was a priest. The central mystery of your church is something that can be made to happen only through men.

            As to there never having been a movement in Orthodoxy to make women bishops and priests, on the one hand I could say that the prophylactic of nearly impossible to change tradition might be a strong disincentive to starting such a movement among the women who have grown up with it, and on the other, just give it a little more time.

          • Asinus Spinas Masticans says

            A much more gracious response than I could have given, Dana. Thank you.

            Priests and bishops are gifts of Christ to the Church. I do not, as a layman, feel at all hampered by my lay status. All of the riches of Orthodoxy are as open to me as they are to any bishop, monk or priest.

            Although it is undoubtedly TRVE that the image of God in humanity is fractal, and not dependent on accidents of sex, I find it extremely telling that the central human relationship in small-o orthodox Christianity is not that of a Husband and Wife, nor of Divine Siblings, but that of Mother and Son. There is more to that than I can unpack right now. It is also just recently dawned on me that the iconic position of masculinity, of the adam as anér or vir is assumed by the honorable Prophet and Forerunner John, until whose day the Kingdom of Heaven suffered violence and whose violence carried it away. I have a lot more thinking about this to do, but I just mention it in passing.

          • Robert F – Many women (and men) in Judaism face the same dilemma, in that the traditional way of looking at a minyan (the 10 people required for “official” services) is ten male persons.

            Many Conservative Jews, and all Reform, see women’s participation in everything (including the rabbinate) as vital to the life and worship of the community.

            The options for Orthodox women are severely limited and limiting, in many cases resembling some fundamentalist Protestant groups in their severity. But that’s a discussion for another time.

            I grew up among neighbors and schoolmates whose parents had been raised in Orthodox Jewish homes. Pretty much all of those parents became Conservative or Reform in adulthood, and not because of assimilation. In one case, the family didn’t have any boys, so they wanted their daughters to feel fully able to participate in religious life. (Even though the only synagogue for many, many miles was presided over by an Orthodox rabbi.)

            But there is, I think, much more freedom in Judaism these days – similar to what you’ll find in the ways we high-church Protestants differ among each other and yet, still hold to a lot of things that the RC and O churches do.

          • @numo,

            “It is hard for me to understand why Catholicism or Orthodoxy would have more appeal to Protestant coverts vs. high-church Protestantism..”

            I say this at the risk of making myself a lightening rod, and I want it to be understood that I by no means believe that this is the case for Dana Ames or any other specific individual convert to Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism who comments regularly here at iMonk (with the possible exception of the Masticating one [insert smiley face HERE]), but I think that a good number of evangelical converts to EO or RC are seeking a more plausible, and sober, form of what they could no longer locate in evangelicalism: Miracle, Mystery, and (last but far from least) Authority (And yes, I realize the irony in using that Dostoevskian triad in this context, but on the other hand, who can legitimately claim that Eastern Orthodoxy [and Roman Catholicism, in its different way] is not firmly anchored to these three?).

          • I was aware of some of the parallels of women in Eastern Orthodoxy with Orthodox and Hasidic Judaism. I believe in Orthodox Judaism the female When a tradition is intransigently traditional, and those traditions disadvantage women, what is the point of starting a movement for women’s ordination or whatever unless you have enough conviction to separate (schism) if push comes to shove? In many traditional cultural settings through history, such separation would practically be tantamount to suicide, especially for a woman. In the modern, pluralistic world, it becomes possible; some would have us believe that this is a bad thing. I’m not buying it.

          • Robert F – very much agreed. I think the perception of synods like the ELCA as “liberal” (ditto the Episcopal church) is a barrier for many, but those labels are, as you know, not accurate.

            But maybe for many it’s just such an overwhelming thing (being in an RC or O church for liturgy) that it comes all of a piece with the rest.

            I honestly don’t know, never having been there myself, also from being (by accident of birth) one of that group of Protestants that are a halfway house (kind of, said with a wry smile) between most Protestant churches and the EO and RCC.

          • …some would have us believe that this is a bad thing. I’m not buying it.

            Nor am I, regardless of where such statements originate (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, [add other religions as needed]).

          • H. Lee – your assumption is false. I’m not a man.

          • @Robert, numo

            “I think that a good number of evangelical converts to EO or RC are seeking a more plausible, and sober, form of what they could no longer locate in evangelicalism: Miracle, Mystery, and (last but far from least) Authority.”

            I won’t pretend to speak for anyone else, but had I converted to EO or RC, this certainly would have been part of the draw. For me evangelicalism had provided a sense of immediate personal connection to God, a mission, and authority. When for various reasons that worldview collapsed and shifted toward liturgical traditions, I would have been glad to have replaced one set of certitudes for another. It would have dispelled a great deal of anxiety that has at times been overwhelming for me. What now makes those anxieties tolerable is the fact that I’ve gotten used to their presence and have integrated it into how I experience faith.

            But I never did reclaim that sense of certainty – that was paralyzing; how, without, does one know where to go, if one is not already rooted? Too many competing claims. Instead, I spent a decade in the mainline where I could function without certainty and, though feeling totally lost and unsure where I was headed, take communion. I’ve stayed in large part because my theology is at this point both catholic and protestant, and neither strictly liberal nor conservative – and because my uncertainties and doubts are not really an issue to my being able to practice. The fact alone may have saved me during some earlier low points. I’ve not forgotten the fact.

          • @Robert, numo

            “I think that a good number of evangelical converts to EO or RC are seeking a more plausible, and sober, form of what they could no longer locate in evangelicalism: Miracle, Mystery, and (last but far from least) Authority.”

            I won’t pretend to speak for anyone else, but had I converted to EO or RC, this certainly would have been part of the draw. For me evangelicalism had provided a sense of immediate personal connection to God, a mission, and authority. When for various reasons that worldview collapsed and shifted toward liturgical traditions, I would have been glad to have replaced one set of certitudes for another. It would have dispelled a great deal of anxiety that has at times been overwhelming for me. What now makes those anxieties tolerable is the fact that I’ve gotten used to their presence and have integrated it into how I experience faith.

            But, as anyone can deduce from my comments over time, I never did reclaim that sense of certainty. Instead, I spent a decade in the mainline where I could function without certainty and, though feeling totally lost and unsure where I was headed, take communion. I’ve stayed in large part because my theology is at this point both catholic and protestant, and neither strictly liberal nor conservative. This seems to cause no crisis of conscience in the TEC or the ELCA. It does, or can, elsewhere.

            If, as some foretell, the mainline shrivels up and disappears, it would represent a huge loss to me. If I woke up tomorrow and it was gone, I’d be inconsolable.

          • Oh, I didn’t realize the first comment posted. *facepalm*

          • Danielle – I gravitated back to the Lutheran church at a time when all of my certainties had been, like the proverbial rug, yanked out from under me, and I needed a safe haven. It really didn’t seem to matter whether I was “certain” about things anymore – it was just there. God was there, in the midst of my uncertainties.

            Which is something I think we all experience, as we age – a lack of certainty about things we were sure of when younger. At least, that’s how it’s been for me.

            I think the older churches say that God is with us no matter how certain (or otherwise) we feel, or the binds we might be in at a particular point. I find the persistence of belief across the ages comforting.

          • Perhaps there is a little comfort for you in this, Danielle: In Africa, both the Lutheran and Anglican churches are going strong, and they’re not all reactionary traditionalists.

          • “God was there, in the midst of my uncertainties.”

            Yes. This is what matters. Maybe the only thing that does.

            For a long time, certainty seemed to carry with it two problems. First, there are the destabilizing effects of uncertainty itself. Second, there is the assumption (prevalent in evangelicalism, but not exclusive to it) that faith entails intellectual or emotional certainty; uncertainty is coupled up with faithlessness – either lacking faith, or else becoming pitiably soft or or maliciously traitorous, so on one’s way be slow decline. So in the face of uncertainty, one loses Christ.

            Discovering the second fear to be on untrue, after fearing it so much, is almost enough to make one laugh. It makes the first problem bearable.

            “Perhaps there is a little comfort for you in this, Danielle: In Africa, both the Lutheran and Anglican churches are going strong, and they’re not all reactionary traditionalists.”

            Indeed. I’m hardly ready to give up on the mainline in the US, either. The fact I wound up here, and others besides me, indicate to me that its possible to say something from this location that needs saying, not to mention (far more importantly) a common life that needs living. Sometimes the nearly-stated implication when people say the mainline is all but dead, is that this would be no real loss. I’m saying there would be. Loss that is. And not just for the mainliners… I think some of the conversations the more … constrained? … traditions are prepared to have are not going to prove adequate to some of the challenges that are coming. Maybe I’m wrong. But if I’m not wrong, the mainline voice may yet have a larger role to play.

    • “in all it Byzantine complexity and layer upon layer of luxuriantly unfolding tradition and organizational top-heaviness”

      As an Orthodox Christian, I can’t relate at all to this description of the Orthodox church. So there really is no way to respond other than to state that I don’t see the Orthodox Church or its way of life as particularly complex (I see it as quite simple actually), I don’t see a luxuriantly unfolding tradition (whatever is meant by that), nor do I see organizational top-heaviness.

    • “… we believe that involving all the people of God, all those who look to Christ, in the building of the life of the Church, and in the interpretation of scriptures, ultimately is the only avenue to a truly catholic Church, where contradictions and weaknesses and lack of faithfulness to the Church’s founding experience is not merely pushed aside in the name of unyielding tradition.”

      This expresses perfectly the hopeful way I’m coming to interpret the existence of plurality — both in the contemporary worldwide church, and within any given church tradition.

      As a Christian, I am a member of a religion with two millennia of “tradition.” Unless I am willing to embrace criteria by which I can exclude large numbers of people from Christianity, it seems my own life is bound to the lives of a great sea of people who came before me and who in the present time confess Christ — in fact, it would seem we share a common life. In light of this admission, it seems that (at minimum) my own interpretations of scripture and tradition ought to be informed by the efforts and insights of this host.

      This outlook has at least two implications in conversations about authority. On one hand, I argue that Protestants who eschew any memory of “tradition” in favor of “Scripture” are discarding an important tool and birthright, one they may want to reapproach and reclaim. On the other hand, when “tradition” is invoked as though it is the possession of a single group, or as unitary, or as a voice that speaks clearly, with no need for interpretation, right away my question is: Who is being excluded to make this formulation work? Will I exclude them? Will I do violence to that interplay between “tradition” and contemporary interpretation that makes “tradition” vital?

      • Danielle, very good points there! I find myself wondering about the same things, and it just isn’t possible, imo, to discard 2000 years of history and tradition and try to reinvent the wheel.

  5. It is a big mistake for many to worship the “Bible”.

    As it is also a big mistake for many to worship and put their trust in the “Church”.

    • I don’t doubt that this happens, Steve, but it is not really what this post is about, and it is exactly that kind of stereotyping of positions that keeps us from truly listening and talking to each other.

      • I’m a bit startled to find myself agreeing with Steve M., but his remark is one that seems pretty much on point to me, and one that I was about to make.

        Chaplain Mike, you say that Steve’s remark about the mistake of worshipping the Church is “not really what this post is about.”

        But Fr. Frieman says, “The Church is not a Bible-based teaching institution – the Church is the Pillar and Ground of Truth, the Body of Christ, divinely given by God for our salvation…” That sounds like “worshipping the Church” to me! If it is The Pillar and Ground of Truth and The Body of Christ, certainly there is very little option *but* to worship it.

        I agree Fr. Freeman doesn’t suggest that we kneel and pray *to* the Church. But he very strongly states that a person is required to submit all of his spiritual and religious understanding to The Church, and to trust The Church’s teaching authority absolutely. The Church’s teachings, then, stand as the answer to any individual worshipper’s approach to or questions about God’s will in his/her life.

        That is classic Orthodox and Roman Catholic understanding, of course. But Orthodox and Roman Catholics don’t agree with each other, so a worshipper’s understanding would have to depend on which of those churches he belonged to. And *that* would depend, most of the time, on which church he had been raised in, and *that* would depend, most of the time, on his ancestry and nationality. (Only a tiny handful of Christians, most of them on this board, :-), ever bother to question, analyse, and leave their first church home, let alone make a discerning review of all denominations and choose another one.)

        Therefore, we have today the reality of various One True Churches, whose membership is largely based upon accidents of birth and geography.

        In any case, putting total trust in a large and ancient man-made system which provides a person with all that is necessary for his religious and spiritual knowlege and well-being is not Protestant understanding. We approach God directly, and as Robert F. put it, “If this results in the kind of messiness that exists today among different churches with their frequently conflicting understandings of both Church and scriptures, we are willing to live with that.”

  6. Asinus Spinas Masticans says

    For many of us non-fundamentalist and non-evangelical Protestants, its seems exceedingly implausible that the Eastern Orthodox Church, in all it Byzantine complexity and layer upon layer of luxuriantly unfolding tradition and organizational top-heaviness…

    As with many Protestant [or Orthodox] criticisms of the Roman Church, it appears that the above caricature of the E Orthodox Church is not the same as the actual messy, conflicting E Orthodox Church that exists. Indeed, for many of the non-fundamentalist, non-evangelical Protestants, inclusion into the Church would be only a matter of agreeing to the supervision of her bishops, the adoption of her rubrics [fasting rules and such], and you could wade right into the donnybrook along with the “rest of us sinners”.

    It is not that the interpretations of the Eastern Church are “authoritative” (how we Westerners love that word), but that they have been woven into the warp and woof of the Church’s life of prayer and worship in countless troparia and kontakia. When a nova like female ordination comes up, which some in the non-evangelical, non-fundamentalist promote as grounds for schism, it is subjected to the collective testimony of all of these readings and considered. Will it, or will it not, promote salvation?

    A truly Catholic Church includes the confused, the mistaken, the rebellious, even the dead. It cannot include Arius Pelagius, or Nestorius, though.

    I’m sorry if anything I have said might have prejudiced you against the Orthodox Church. I admit I am a piece of work; your polar opposite, much more given to triumphalism and confidence in my Central Nervous System than I am to paralyzing doubt, but like I said before – if we were identical, in would be impossible to distinguish charity from narcissism.

    • very well said. i don’t comment much here, nor do i visit all that much anymore, but i too must apologize as an orthodox who’s said some inflammatory things in the comments in the past.

    • I’m not aware of caricaturing the Eastern Orthodox Church; it really does seem to me to be top-heavy, not because it doesn’t allow liberty (I’ll take your word that it does), but because its organization seems to exist to support the weight of its massive tradition, which appear to me to be ponderous.

      As to whether or not such nova-like change will “promote salvation,” as I said in my comment, those like me are willing to live with the messiness (and risk), because we are not convinced that your tradition, or any other, has the answer; furthermore, we are even less convinced that adherence to tradition would, in this case and others, “promote salvation.”

      I recognize the EOC as legitimate expression of Christianity, but not as the only one, and not mine.

      • Being “[a] legitimate expression of ‘Christianity'” is not necessarily synonymous with what Jesus and the apostles proclaimed or envisioned.

      • “the weight of its massive tradition, which appear to me to be ponderous”

        The phrase above caught my eye. It takes a bit to unpack. I want to start with the object and its primary descriptor, “massive tradition.” My first thought is a nod. I’m not sure what else you would expect from the accumulated insights, practices, saints, and wisdom of a two thousand year old church built upon the teachings of the apostles, but ‘massive’ seems like a reasonable, factual descriptive. However deeply you dive, there is always more awaiting you. However, there is a positive side as well. Most modern heresies are simply modern expressions of ones the Church met and addressed long ago, so they don’t seem to create much perturbation among the Orthodox.

        Then I consider the word ‘weight’ and that also seem a fair word. I’m reminded that one of the OT words used to denote seriousness and authority in the OT carries with it a sense of heaviness. And we see that extending even into modern English when we ‘weigh’ arguments or discuss the ‘weightiness’ of a matter. A two thousand year tradition of massive extent does indeed come with a certain weightiness. And yet, that weight appears to anchor those who live within it in safe waters rather than crush them. Indeed, as Jesus says, his yoke is, in that sense, light.

        But then you state that it appears “ponderous” to you and you seem to imply something of a negative sense. Ponderous in the sense that it’s slow to change in its practices and adheres always to the traditions handed down from the apostles and through the ages since would not be taken as a negative, but as a positive, by many of the Orthodox I’ve encountered. I suppose it can be frustrating to individuals at times, but overall I believe they would perhaps use the ‘faithful’ instead.

        From a purely historical perspective, only the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics can make any sort of reasonable claim to apostolic succession. (Well, and though it’s more difficult to establish, to some extent Anglicanism.) Every other Christian “tradition” can be traced to a particular human founder in the more recent past. Given that for a thousand years, the Bishops and Saints of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches are essentially the same, the historical claim could be read either way. I will, however, note that Roman Catholic Church was basically formed from a single patriarchate while the rest remained in communion with each other, including Jerusalem and Antioch, which certainly predated Rome (though not by much).

        • I was aware, and intended, that my words have both positive and negative connotations. No reasonable Christian should deny the riches that Eastern Orthodoxy carries and preserves. I personally have learned much about prayer from the books of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, I’ve envied the vitality of monasticism in the East, I’ve been in Orthodox churches where I’ve admired and been inspired by the icons and the atmosphere of holiness, I been made aware of the unique and penetrating insights that Eastern Orthodoxy has from having spent so long with, and meditated so seriously on, the scriptures.

          Nevertheless, the extent of the historical claims of Eastern Orthodoxy remain implausible to many of us, and never more so than when representatives of EO tendentiously use these claims as warrant to minimize the experience and understanding and interpretation, and insight into, the scriptures of the rest of the Christian world. The EO does not have property rights to the Christian scriptures.

          As to the question of apostolic succession: there is good historical evidence to support the idea that the episcopacy of the first centuries was not what exists today. Rather, it was a local episcopacy attached to a local church jurisdiction, not a charism conferred on individuals that remained with them throughout their lives.

          • I.e., historical evidence does not support the idea that episcopacy in the early centuries was the conveying of a charism transmitted by line of succession from the Apostles through subsequent bishops (apostolic succession), but rather was conferred provisionally on individuals who were deemed loyal to the faith as it was handed to them (that is, loyal to the founding experience of the apostolic community in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus), and only for the duration of their occupancy of the office of bishop. The office was not, in those early centuries, attached to the person.

          • Robert, what you have articulated about episcopacy is actually the view of the Orthodox Church. The hallmark of succession is faithfulness, not only to issues of dogma, but in humility and service. We have no problem with removing unfaithful bishops (and priests) from the office.


          • Thanks for the correction, Dana.

            Is it also the case that Eastern Orthodoxy does not consider episcopacy a direct line of physical transmission of the charism of the Apostles to subsequent bishops?

          • I remarked on this my long comment below (still in moderation as I write this one). The short answer is, not in terms of “physical transmission of charism.” It’s about faithfully handing on what they have been given. The “line” only serves as an indicator of faithfulness, where those bishops in the line have actually been faithful. This is one way Orthodoxy is different than RC. We hold the Apostles in honor the same way, but it’s not about “charism.”

            Here’s another quote from Fr Thomas Hopko’s “The Orthodox Faith”:

            “The bishops are the leading members of the clergy in the sense that they have the responsibility and the service of maintaining the unity of the Church throughout the world by insuring the truth and unity of the faith and practice of their respective churches with all of the others. Thus, the bishops represent their particular churches or dioceses to the other churches or dioceses, just as they represent the Universal Church to their own particular priests, deacons, and people.

            “In the Orthodox Church, the office of bishop is the leading Church ministry. The word bishop (episkopos, in Greek) means overseer. Each of the bishops has exactly the same service to perform. No bishop is “over” any other bishop in the Church and, indeed, the bishop himself is not “over” his church, but is himself within and of the Church as one of its members. He is the one who is responsible and answerable before God and man for the life of his particular church community.”

            When a bishop is consecrated, the people must respond “Axios!” (Worthy!) in acceptance of the bishop, or he’s not the bishop, even if he has gone through the rite.


          • Like Robert F, i have bern learning (and am continuing to learn) much from Eat tradition and belief, and there are many things that resonate with me. But i cannot in good conscience accept certain primary claims and doctrines of both the O and RCC, so i guess that leaves me in the position of being one of “the separated brethren,” as Rome puts it.

          • Oof, my browser ate some of my most recent comment!

            I was going for “Eastern,” among other things.

          • Thank you, Dana. I value your thoughtful responses, and your irenic spirit in responding (Even when you’re a bit peeved!), and am grateful to have a sister in Christ like you.

            A couple of days ago you made a comment that gave a rare view into your personal life and some of the difficulties you are struggling with; I just want you to know that you are in my prayers.

          • Thanks Robert. You’re a good man with a kind heart. I really appreciate you.


    • @ Mule, triumphal confidence and paralyzing doubt are two sides of the same very thin coin. In fact, in psychiatric and literary categories, they are shadows to each other.

  7. Well said. Especially this line ‘. . . those canonical texts, which are as ancient and more stable than anything else in the Church’s traditions.’ While the church may have later endorsed those texts as authoritative, the texts themselves predate any church tradition as it appears today.

    • Sorry – in response to Robert F.

    • Michael Redmond says

      Greg writes: “While the church may have later endorsed those texts as authoritative, the texts themselves predate any church tradition as it appears today.” Huh? How can you possibly know that? The fact is, scripture itself is one of the church’s earliest traditions. I think it’s profoundly misleading to say, here’s scripture, one one hand, and here’s tradition, on the other. They’re the same thing, pretty much.

      • Michael Redmond — Yes, the New Testament canon is a part of tradition, but it is a very special an unique part. The point is that the traditions behind the books that comprise our New Testament have better attestation and documentation as to their antiquity and stability than any other strand of tradition in our Christian heritage. Can you point to a single strand extra-canonical tradition that has greater evidential antiquity than the New Testament? Can you point to a single strand of extra-canonical tradition that has as much evidential stability as the New Testament?

  8. David Cornwell says

    Excellent post. Yes, the “bible” depends on the Church and its traditions and decisions. And, yes, it gets messy as time goes on and on. I’m pretty sure there is still a “mystery that is hidden,” a veil, that will not be uncovered or understood until Christ returns in all of His glory. We struggle with knowing, in our present age, but then much will be revealed.

  9. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    When you have only One Infallible Holy Book that dropped out of Heaven fully-formed, you are going to be prone to the same problems as Islam through its history.

    If The Book covers EVERYTHING, you get micromanagement. If not (and it won’t when conditions change over time), The Book is subject to interpretation. At which point, the Universe Cannot Have Two Centers and factions form and fight over which is the TRUE interpretation. (“BREAK EGGS AT THE BIG END! DIE, HERETIC!” “BREAK EGGS AT THE SMALL END! DIE, HERETIC!”)

    Again like Islam, you could end up with just enough internal cohesion that you join forces against The Other (Infidel, Homosexual, Liberal, Secular Humanist, etc) yet when there are no more Infidels, the factions break apart and start on each other as Heretics. (After all, there’s no pan-faith respected authority, just the Plain Meaning of the Inerrant Book. See above re interpretation.) With a side order of “Can You Top This?” in Devotions to The Book to PROVE that My Faction Is The True One (and that *I* Personally am Elect/Saved).

    • Asinus Spinas Masticans says

      Interestingly, Fr Stephen’s latest postdeals with the difference between Islam’s treatment of the Koran and “classical” Christianity’s [read, roughly, Cathodoxy] treatment of the Bible.

      • The term “Cathodoxy” obscures the fact that Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have two very different accounts of tradition, two very different sets of doctrine, and two very different ways of being church in the world. If I were to decide now that I wanted to join one of these ancient Christian churches, I would have to gather what facts I could together, and decide on the basis of my own discernment which one had the greater claim to be The Church of Jesus Christ; in short, I would have to make a very Protestant-like decision between what might as well be two denominations.

        Fortunately or unfortunately, as the case may be, matters of ecclesial identity are rarely decided in such a dispassionate or “objective” way, just as few decide to commit suicide on the basis of the mere philosophical conviction that life is meaningless and futile.

        • Robert F – very much agreed w/your comment on the conflation of Catholicism and Orthodoxy. It is, at best, really a devaluing of the diversity of the 1st 1000+ years od xtianity as it developed in the West.

          Would love to get a take from some Eastern Rite Catholics, actually.

    • -> “…yet when there are no more Infidels, the factions break apart and start on each other as Heretics.”

      There was a great article in the Seattle Times the other day that addresses this truth from the political perspective. Seattle is about as liberal a city as you’ll find in the USA, but the article pointed out how now the liberals were battling with each other over issues that there was general agreement on overall, but now the “approach” was at issue.

      Here are the details. An interesting read that supports the notion of “once everyone agrees, they’ll divide over something else.”


    • HUG — It’s not clear to me whether you’re arguing for or against multiple interpretations of the scriptures. Would One Infallible Tradition dropped down out of heaven be an improvement? I think not, especially when you begin to see that sacred scriptures are in fact a form of tradition.

    • But there really isn’t “One Infallible Tradition” in Islam. at all.

      However, this discussion isn’t about that, so I’ll leave the rest of this comment for another day and time.

  10. Michael Redmond says

    @ Headless Unicorn Guy: Bravo.

  11. Randy Thompson says

    It seems to me that, if the NT is indeed the “church’s book,” then the church is the inheritor of the OT story, if not an exact OT canon (although we should be thinking about the late first century Council of Jamnia, where the OT canon issue was sorted out). Like it or not, the OT story shapes the early Church, and the texts that convey that story are quoted repeatedly by the early Christians in their own writings. As the genealogy of the Gospel of Matthew suggests, the early Christians saw themselves as the continuation of the Old Story and the heirs of the texts in which this story presented itself to them.

    All this is to say that the relationship between the Church and the Bible is a lot more subtle and nuanced than either Protestants or Orthodox would care to admit.

  12. Some good points to think about.

    I did chuckle a little at Fr. Stephen writing that Bible is not the sole authority and immediately introducing the idea that the church is the “Pillar and Ground of Truth”….by citing Scripture 🙂

    • Why does that make you chuckle? Fr. Stephen obviously believes the Scriptures are true, so what is funny about citing a Scriptural assertion about the Church?

      • The humor is in the irony of saying the Bible isn’t sole authority, but citing it as if it is.

        • OldProphet says

          LOL, Rick. I know that I might pay for this, but…….Even here on Imonk, many of the posts here use certain scriptural references to buttress their theological assertions. But then the discussions about inerrancy vs truth of the scriptures begin and for me the process gets confused. Isn’t it difficult to use a scripture to “prove” your position when might not be fact bot allegory? 30,000 denominations means about 90,000 different positions. I’m not singling any group out because I love the body of Christ so I’m not a heretic. I only find that with so much disagreement it is surprising that there is so much rigidity and didactic discussion
          . (sorry W, I love that word).

        • How is pointing out something that is taught in the Scriptures citing it as if it is the sole authority? It is not ironic or contradictory for someone who believes that the teaching of Scripture are authoritative, but not the sole authority, to cite something that Scriptures teach as true.

          • OldProphet says

            So,I think that is contradictory to say that the Scriptures are an authority but not the sole authority. Because that means there are 2,or 3 or more authorities. Which one has precedence over the other. Also, this.means that traditions could have authority over the Bible? And do we rank which writings are more authoritative? Who decides? Who votes? I’m always troubled when we get into gray areas. But of course, that’s why we have dialogue.

          • Yes…what OP said.

            Also, not everyone has the same sense of humor. Something I find ironic or funny, someone else may not. Maybe we’ll just put this in that category.

          • That’s cool. I just didn’t understand the logic of saying that its ironic that someone who doesn’t believe in sola scriptura would cite something in the scriptures. It’s kind of non-sequitur-ish.

  13. I liked what I heard recently: The Bible is God’s resource to us. I guess what I get out of this article is that the Church is also God’s resource to us.

    So…they are both God’s resource to us! They are compatible, not either/or, and they complement each other. Both are vital for spiritual growth and our understanding of Him.

    That said, they can both be raised to a point of idol worship and made more important than Him. We need to be Jesus-shaped, not Bible-shaped, not Church-shaped. The Bible and Church can help us SEE how to be Jesus-shaped, they both can POINT to Jesus, but we must be careful to not be shaped to look like the Bible (aka the Law) or the Church (aka Denomination and/or Theology) instead of Jesus.

  14. I have to agree with Tokah, particularly, that my experience in the Orthodox Church doesn’t match the descriptions given re the notion of “tradition,” and the inferences that everything important comes from the top down organizationally.

    As to the latter, those with organizational responsibility are bishops and priests, but the days have passed, esp in the US, where the bishops and priests make decisions without input from the whole “priesthood of believers” – and indeed, the historical view of Orthodoxy as to what body constitutes “the authority” in the Church is actually the whole Body. Decisions are made in council, and those councils generally include mostly non-ordained folks. The Orthodox Church does not have a Magisterium or a Sytematic Theology. We do have several dozen books detailing how we worship, daily, monthly and yearly; the inward meaning and outward expression of of the life of the Church, including dogmatic expression, is to be found in them.

    There also seems to be an insistence by people to apply the Catholic definition and view of “tradition” to the Orthodox Church. They are not the same. “Tradition” in Orthodoxy is never pitted against scripture. In Orthodoxy, tradition is ***everything*** that has been handed down as the life of the Church. Scripture (and its interpretation) is part of that ball o’ wax, the most important part, but it is not divided from the rest of it. (So of course, in response to Brian’s observation, quoting scripture would be involved in this discussion….) What I have found is that it is all a seamless whole, everything interlocking and supporting everything else, flexible like a net, strong enough to admit questions and ideas, able to “expand” in the expression of what it holds, but not changing in its essential character.

    The question of Authority is a modern question – in the sense of arising within the context of the Renaissance and Enlightenment (and thus also of the Reformation), and continuing to the present day. One thing I found approaching the Orthodox Church is that there is not a lot of focus on Authority, but there is a whole lot of focus on Meaning. ISTM that the ancient questions with which the Church wrestled had more to do with Meaning – What does the the crucifixion/resurrection of Christ mean? What does Christ being both God and Man mean? What does God being Trinity/Unity mean? What does being a Human mean?…. etcetera, and any discussion in those early years of who had Authority had more to do with how various groups answered those questions of Meaning. I was at a place in my life where I was bone-weary tired of all the fights about Authority. Even as a youngster, I was always interested in Meaning; as I got older, my questions and investigations shifted overwhelmingly in that direction.

    And Meaning is quite intimately connected to *****interpretation***** (yes, there I go again…). I found that the more I learned about how the Orthodox Church answers those questions of Meaning (though “answers” is not really the best word to use), the more I came to believe that Orthodoxy was where I belonged. Over the same period of time, I was reading the documents of the “next generation” of Christians, the Apostolic Fathers, and also Athanasius and the Cappadocians. They basically articulated the same answers to those Meaning questions as I found in the Orthodox Church in the 21st century – and interestingly, as N.T. Wright posited the answers to those Meaning questions given by at least some 2temple Jews. The capper for me was reading some of the work of Margaret Barker on Jewish temple and tabernacle worship and the Meaning of that as seen by the contemporaneous Jews. There was way too much congruence between all of that, disinclining me to believe that some group in the East decided along the way that they were going to construct some elaborate ritual that was going to copy what the Jews were doing in order to give credence to their particular expression of Christianity. It was because of all of this, and esp Barker, that I was convinced that the Orthodox Church is the historical continuation of what arose in the first century out of Judaism, faithfully handed down by its bishops (that’s what “apostolic” means, much more so than that a person can trace his ordination through a specific line).

    Again, as Tokah wrote, the whole conversation is bigger than what can be articulated in blog comments. All the above to say that, again, the issue is Interpretation of scripture. Fr Stephen’s article is an outline of one aspect of how the Orthodox Church interprets scripture. Made much better sense to me than anything I had encountered in western Christian expressions. If Authority and Tradition as defined by the Catholic church was all I was after, I would have simply reverted. No – I had to find Meaning that made sense. The reason the real observable messiness of Orthodox people doesn’t throw me is that I know what the Meaning is – which is also real and observable, in the sacramental life and the lives of the saints, and the ability within that Meaning to approach the real, observable suffering in the world.


  15. Lest anyone misunderstand my sometimes impassioned comments: Eastern Orthodoxy, and Roman Catholicism, are legitimate and profound expressions of Christianity, being inheritors and transmitters of tremendous spiritual wealth and wisdom, and having uniquely profound insights into, and understanding of, the Christian scriptures.

    When, however, either one of these traditions claim that any interpretations of the scriptures, or any understandings of tradition, but its own are necessarily illegitimate or deficient (as they often do, frequently by implication), and/or when they claim a kind of ownership to the scriptures/traditions that gives only them the ability and prerogative to truly interpret these (as Fr. Freeman seems to be doing in this post), then their claim becomes incredibly implausible. In addition, it seems to diminish and devalue the perspectives and contributions of any Christian “outside the camp.” The fact is, though the scriptures exist for the sake of the Church, they do not belong to the Church, and even non-Christians have a right to read and interpret them, and hold us to account where they see our behavior and lives out of harmony with what they read.

    We are here, we Protestants, more than ever before, and we’re not going away. Even in the pews of your own churches (Do any EO churches in the States follow the custom of being pewless?) you will find many, perhaps a sizable minority, or even a majority, who are Protestant at heart, who hold lightly to your traditions and consider the evangelical or Lutheran neighbor down the street just as much a Christian as themselves. We will continue to interpret the scriptures, sometimes in creative and innovative ways. Your refusal to listen to what we have to say often appears as pride to us; there is, however, obviously more than mere pride (though some of that) involved in your loyalty. We, for our part, wish that would believe that there was more than mere heterodoxy and desire for faithless innovation in our own loyalties.

    • Excellent points, Robert F.

    • Asinus Spinas Masticans says

      I am reminded of a Catholic bishop who, when he asked about what he could do to increase the number of vocations coming from his diocese, was answered by the following – “Your Grace, your own canonization would do the most to increase the number of vocations in this diocese.”

      I’m not being glib. I have met Lutherans of unmistakable sanctity, and at least one Anglo-Catholic nun as well, but Protestant sanctity doesn’t seem to outlast the body, whereas it is a very requisite for both us and Rome that it do.

      Oh yeah, for the Jacobites and Copts as well.

      • Perhaps you are not a good judge of who does or does not have sanctity, or what sanctity is, in all cases. Perhaps it is requisite for Rome and you that sanctity be seen to outlast the body because you both believe it is possible to know, for sure, who is holy, and who is not. But perhaps neither you nor Rome do in fact know for sure. Perhaps a measure of epistemological modesty is warranted in this subject.

        • The Orthodox Church does not claim to know everyone who has “sanctity.” We believe saints are revealed to the church, but there are plenty of saints whom God knows are such but has not revealed to the Church, in his wisdom.

          We’re allowed to ask any faithful departed Christian for their prayers. On Saturday, I asked venerable Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone of Assisi for his. There are some Orthodox who would not be happy that I did that, but we wouldn’t label each other heretics over it. Again, it’s not about who has “authority” – it’s about what has been revealed, and we don’t argue about what has not been revealed. Today, the 37th anniversary of my father’s repose, I let him know I’m glad for his. (What good parent would not continue to pray for their children from the other side of the curtain?) We trust God accepts our prayers offered in as much honesty as we can muster in any given moment, and works all things together for good, for the healing of mankind.

          I love this poem by CS Lewis:

          He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
          When I attempt the ineffable Name, muttering Thou,
          And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
          Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
          Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
          Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
          And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
          The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
          Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
          Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, beyond desert;
          And all men are idolators, crying unheard
          To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.

          Take not, oh Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in Thy great,
          Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.


          • Yes. I pray for my deceased parents, who never showed much interest in their Catholicism while alive, because it’s an unnatural thing for children and parents to have no love to offer and give each other on account of death. I sometimes ask Dietrich Bonhoeffer for his prayers, and ask God to give me even a particle of the courage and faith that Bonhoeffer had. And for me, Simone Weil and Albert Camus are two that I cannot help but believe are among the heavenly host, interceding on the behalf of many, even one as unworthy as myself.

            May God translate all our prayers into blessing and love.

    • Sigh.

      Again, the issue of Interpretation. You have hit it exactly on the head.

      Fr Stephen has written that situation of Christianity as it is in the world today is “abnormal” – NOT that persons who profess Christ but are not Orthodox are deficient in some way, but that there is schism in general. My belief is this situation is all about interpretation of scripture, dogma and much else. To disagree with an interpretation is not to devalue the person. A lot of Orthodox people understand this. Fr Stephen himself says that his Baptist father-in-law was the most faithful Christian he ever knew. The Orthodox Church says that we know where the Church is; we decline to say where the Church is not. God loves everyone and will take care of everyone. Christ came to give life to everyone. By virtue of the Incarnation and Resurrection, every human being who ever lived is inextricably bound to the Godhead. Some Orthodox are not capable of understanding that, either mentally or emotionally, and treat others badly. This is wrong.

      When I first encountered Orthodoxy, several years before I really got interested in it, I would read things that O. people wrote, including things very gently stated, and think, “How arrogant!” So I do understand that. I have also come to be believe that the Orthodox Church embodies the fullness of Christianity. That’s not meant to denigrate or be dismissive, nor does it mean that other faithful Christians are somehow “less” or that everything else is “empty.” Orthodoxy affirms what is good wherever it is found. I’m not aware that any Orthodox person on this board refuses to listen to what Protestants have to say.

      O. claims are implausible for you, I’m not going to try to argue with you. I’m happy to share my understanding if you have questions, and I try to clear up misunderstandings with charity.

      A lot of O. church buildings in the eastern part of the country, especially the older ones, have pews, because for the immigrants, that was how churches were set up in America. Newer church buildings, especially if they are traditionally designed, do not have pews. There is, of course, seating for those who are not physically able to stand. Standing is the traditional Christian posture for corporate worship (not omitting or denigrating other postures). But the point of standing is not standing, just as the point of fasting is not fasting.

      May our Lord Jesus continue to bless you.


      • “Fr Stephen himself says that his Baptist father-in-law was the most faithful Christian he ever knew. The Orthodox Church says that we know where the Church is; we decline to say where the Church is not.”

        Yet Fr Stephen wrote this in a comment over at Peter Enns’ blog: “Sola Scriptura is not novel with the Reformer (nor even pure with them), but that it had its roots in the Scholasticism of the times (which had many currents) and that this current – which is actually quite rationalistic – has its roots in Islamic rationalism…Christianity that is non-sacramental and non-ecclesial (or even the forms that tend towards this) are, in my argument, inauthentic distortions of the faith.”

        • Read carefully. Fr Stephen is making a point about the philosophy out of which Scholasticism arose. He is not making a comment about the spiritual condition or eternal destiny of people who have ended up knowingly or unknowingly getting caught up in the wake of the Scholastic influence.


    • Randy Thompson says

      Regarding “We are here, we Protestants, more than ever before, and we’re not going away.”

      I’m not so sure about us Protestants “not going away.” I’m too familiar with the yearly reports of the decline of mainline protestant churches. If current declines continue, I read recently, there will be no United Church of Christ left in 30 years. The Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists are in much the same boat.

      The Donatists and Montanists made a splash, but they did not have a long shelf-life. The Catholic/Orthodox church is still here; they are not. It’s looking to me that much of protestant Christianity could go the same way.

      • I’m talking worldwide, and I’m including all those new Protestants in China and Africa and Latin America.

      • Yes, I’m aware that I would not find the biblicism of many of these new Protestants congenial; but then, I don’t expect them to maintain there biblical conservatism a few decades down the road. They will grow and develop, and I have no reason to believe that they won’t do so in an open and humane direction. O

        On the other hand, Roman Catholicism has internalized some significant aspects of the Reformation, precisely because it is able to unfold the interpretation of revelation in a progressive way that Eastern Orthodoxy can not.

        • To finish my thought: I expect Roman Catholicism to continue moving in the direction of greater liberty for its members, due to the ability to internalize new perspectives and unfold them over time, and to the fact that certain energies have been mobilized within that communion that will not go away. There will continue to be pressure toward allowing married clergy, and toward ordaining women, and toward greater inclusion of GLBT, from within the church, by those who refuse either to be easily dispossessed of their Roman Catholic heritage or to surrender their hopes for a more inclusive, humane church. Their numbers will grow, as will their influence, here and in other places around the world. The Roman Catholic church that endures will be the same church, but also a different church, perhaps one that I could rejoin, if I were lucky enough to live that long.

          • @Robert…..it is pretty clear that the NUMBER of Roman Catholic faithful will seriously decrease, while at the same time the faith and commitment of those remaining will increase.

            Some of the items you mention….such as endorsement of homosexual acts (not feelings!) and ordination of women cannot occur, because they are commands of God, demonstrated by Christ. These parameters are not of human origin, and are not subject to human whims. I understand that you do not believe this, and are therefore no longer a Catholic…..and I am NOT trying to change your mind. I am only pointing out that many seem to think the Church needs to “get into the 21st Century” and become more progressive, when the Catholic position is that the truth is not dependent on time or history or social mores, but has roots that go into the Word of God and HIS plans and ideas.

            The greatest liberty to be found is in the True and Unchangeable Nature of the Almighty, and is best expressed in the Church Jesus Christ founded on the back of a cranky and slow fisherman.

      • It should be remembered that both the Montanists and Donatists were ultimately suppressed by the ability of the Orthodox Christians to leverage state coercion and violence against them. This sad history of coercion and violence against heterodox and heretical groups continued throughout the medieval period, perhaps reaching its apogee and epitome in the violent suppression and extermination of the Cathari, who otherwise were a thriving and quickly growing religious group in Europe, having existed for centuries, and living at peace with their immediate Christian neighbors (who were exterminated along with them for not playing Judas at the command of the Papacy). It’s unlikely that either the Orthodox Church or Roman Catholicism will ever again be able to leverage that kind of brute violence against another form of Christianity or another religion, although the chumminess of Russian Orthodoxy with the current government of Russia may yet prove me wrong.

        • It wasn’t always so cut and dried. The Montanists and Donatists both arose in North Africa – as did Augustine… The Montanists fizzled out; I have read of local persecutions of them by Christians, but I’m not aware of anything organized by the State. On the Donatists, Wikipedia says:

          “The historical records are unclear, but it appears that some Donatists were killed and clergy were sent into exile. Outside of Carthage, however, Donatist churches were left undisturbed and the clergy were allowed to remain in place.[8] Ultimately Constantine’s efforts to bring unity between the “catholics” and the Donatists failed, and by 321 Constantine granted toleration to the Donatists. In an open letter to the “catholics” Constantine asked the bishops to show moderation and patience to the Donatists.[9]”

          The Cathari were persecuted by the Catholic church in the west, not the by then separate Orthodox Church. In the East, a person with questionable beliefs was much more likely to be exiled than to be killed, though there was certainly bloodshed, especially over iconoclasm (which was rather clearly driven by contact with Islam that morphed into something very strange among the very scrupulous). None of that bloodshed was a good thing; it was wrong, and a repudiation of the life and teaching of Jesus. I don’t think any reflective person, Orthodox or not, would say anything else about it.

          The chumminess of the referenced people in Russia is beyond regrettable. I don’t know why this is happening, though I have some suspicions. Not all Russian Orthodox are anywhere near comfortable with that situation. The thing is, though, eventually those people will pass from the scene… and the faithful Russian babushkas are not really affected – they just keep praying, and faithful priests keep on serving. The Church goes on – yes, in all its messiness. The only creatures God has to work with are human beings. I’m not trying to be glib or dismissive; that’s simply how it is. Lord, have mercy!


          • About the Montanists, and their religious descendents, Wikipedia also says: “A group of ‘Tertullianists’ may have continued at Carthage. The anonymous author of Praedestinatus records that a preacher came to Rome in 388 where he made many converts and obtained the use of a church for his congregation on the grounds that the martyrs to whom it was dedicated had been Montanists. He was obliged to flee after the victory of Theodosius I. Augustine records that the Tertullianist group dwindled to almost nothing in his own time, and finally was reconciled to the church and handed over their basilica. It is not certain whether these Tertullianists were in all respects ‘Montanist’ or not. In the 6th century, on the orders of the emperor Justinian, John of Ephesus led an expedition to Pepuza to destroy the Montanist shrine there, which was based on the tombs of Montanus, Priscilla and Maximilla.” I think of the Taliban dynamiting the immense Buddhas carved into the rock faces of mountains in Afghanistan, and wonder about the centuries of unrecorded, low-level state suppression and marginalization of a religious community that must be in back of such an act of religious demolition as undertaken by John of Ephesus and his expedition.

            About the Donatists, Wikipedia also says: “In 409, Marcellinus of Carthage, Emperor Honorius’s secretary of state, decreed the Donatists heretical and demanded that they give up their churches. This was made possible after a collatio, in which St. Augustine, with legal documents, proved that Emperor Constantine had chosen the Catholic Church over the Donatists as the official church of the empire. As a result the Donatists were harshly persecuted by the Roman authorities, and even Augustine protested at their treatment.”

            Though the last part of the last sentence seems to offer some little softening of Christian guilt with regard to the violent suppression of the Donatists, it has not been unusual for the Church to first enlist the state in suppressing its religious opponents, and then to crocodile-tearfully regret when the state did it in the style which states are wont to do such things, as if this were some novelty or surprise. A good, though late, example is Luther’s (acting like a “good” medieval Churchmen) rotating devil/angel routine on the occasion of the Peasant Rebellion.

            I am of course aware of the fact that the Roman Catholic Church was behind the suppression and extermination of the Cathari, but I was responding to a comment that coupled the RCC and the EOC together in its observations.

            Remember that exile was no light punishment, and was easily tantamount to a death sentence in many cases, and that the faithful babushkas get to have their religion without interruption is no comfort to those who suffer at the hands of a crushing collusion between a corrupt state and corrupted Church.

  16. “The only “thing” approaching a “Bible” in the sense that has commonly been used in modern parlance, is the Church. The Scriptures have their place within the life of the Church and only exist as Scriptures within that context.”

    Yes, the Scriptures speak to a community (or communities …). If there is no one to hear them, they cannot function as scripture. They will, at that point, become curious texts for dissection and study. I shall shelve them by Horace and Plutarch.

    However, I’m curious what Orthodox readers think the implication of this statement could be, in the contemporary context.

    I understand what a statement formulated this way could mean following the definition of “orthodoxy” by the early councils, but before any significant division of Christian church into competing Catholicisms, then again (in the West) between Roman Catholicism and the many Protestant churches. However, all this water is now long under the bridge of history. Are the Scriptures only for one of the churches? Does only that Church’s corporate life reflect upon and embody them? I know the Orthodox conceive of a single true church and that Orthodoxy is that true Church. I’ve never been sure what *precisely* this means for the experiences or standing of anyone else. The only hint I have is a mixture charity from Orthodox writers, alongside a tendency to critique the whole West, alongside an official reluctance to recognize even Roman Catholics as being in the same church — except, of course, for all those cases where local situations have necessitated improvision.

    For lack of a better image, the RCC seems to imagine the spiritual universe as a series of concentric circles. The Church proper is the Roman Catholic church (with the Orthodox added in); as you move out from the center, you begin to hit other kinds of Christian communities (not the Church). Once you get further out, you hit other religions. Orthodoxy, though? One moment, it seems more charitable; the next, more exclusive. Listen, ya all, just get in the Orthodox circle, stop staying all your heterodox things, and we’re all happy! 🙂

    • While I typed the above, it seems the Robert’s immediately preceding comment, and the replies to it, are basically the same topic. No doubt some of the other threads have gone here too.

      Sorry for the duplication. I ought to have hit reload.

  17. MelissatheRagamuffin says

    At the end of 2 Peter when Peter is talking about Paul, he says that unstable people distort what he writes as they do “other scripture.” That sounds to me like Peter accepted Paul’s writings as scripture.

  18. Faulty O-Ring says

    I react to this in more or less the same way that I would react if some official of the Islamic State (of Iraq and Syria) were to write a cogent, sensible essay on the Qur’an.

    • And that reaction is…?

      • Faulty O-Ring says

        A mixture of frustration and bemusement at how otherwise intelligent people can submit themselves to brutal, authoritarian religions that double as criminal mafias. Perhaps they feel that a strong sense of religious identity, or perhaps a certain religious asthetic, is worth the sordid moral compromises. But Jesus would stand with Pussy Riot.

    • You apparently do not know that ISIS is murdering Orthodox Christians in Syria and Iraq, otherwise you wouldn’t have posted such an ignorant comment.

  19. And that reaction is…?

  20. There are few things that will give you a real sense of how much you have changed throughout the course of your life like re-reading one of your favorite works of childhood literature as an adult. You get a rare insight into who you were and how you thought way back then. But at the same time you realise that while these are the same words you read as a child, they are never going to carry the same meaning and magic as they did when you first read them. You’ve collected too many experiences and too much adult baggage to ever truly see things exactly as you did as a child. In a sense, it becomes a different story being read by a different person as time progresses and life unfolds. But if it’s a really good story written by a masterful storyteller, then it continues to grow inside you as you grow older and ultimately becomes a fundamental part of who you are. You change the story as you change and grow, and the story changes you as it is replanted in your heart and imagination year after year.
    In case you haven’t already guessed where I’m going with this, I think the relationship between the church and its scriptures functions in this way. You can certainly argue that there would be no Bible without the church. And you could also argue that the church would have died in its childhood without scripture (particularly the Gospels) replanting the person and personality of Jesus into the hearts and minds of continuing generations of believers. Both the church and the Bible exist and will continue to exist within the context of history. And I believe the God of history worked through history to produce both the church and scripture as gifts to His people and as tools through which he continues His historical work. I also think that the church and scripture are so intimately intertwined that trying to determine which one has authority over the other really misses the point. They both inform and transform each other and will continue to do so until we see the One who is both Head of the church and the Word of God made flesh face to face.

  21. One thing that really gets me is when evangelical preachers draw some application from Paul or James or whoever, and speak of “what Paul [or James or whoever the author happens to be] is saying to us.” These writings were not addressed to us. Paul, James, and the other New Testament authors did not have us in view when writing the New Testament. They did not sit down to write with the thought that they were sitting down to write the New Testament. They were writing to address specific situations in the church communities where they ministered, and they had no clue that their writings would make it out of those communities, let alone make it out of first century Rome, let alone make it into what we now know as the Bible. We get to listen in on the conversations which the New Testament writers were having with their respective church communities because those writings were preserved for us by the Holy Spirit.