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Thinking Out Loud: The Bible is Tradition

Saint John on Patmos Français : Saint Jean sur l'île de Patmos folio 17, Limbourg brothers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Readers of this blog are aware by now that a significant doctrinal reason for my becoming Orthodox is the Bible and it's relationship to Tradition.

I'm going to do some thinking out loud now. I hope you enjoy the ride!

The longer I've thought about this and studied it, the more I've grown to be completely comfortable with referring to the Bible as Tradition. Remember though, when I refer to Tradition it is different than traditions, which are locals customs that have no impact on the doctrine or dogma of the Church.

Many Lutheran churches have a tradition during the Christmas Eve program of singing a verse of "Silent Night" in German. There's absolutely nothing wrong with such a tradition, nor is there anything essential about it. Holy Tradition is more than that, more than the salutary traditions that come from German, Mexican, African or Greek culture or from local customs in Missouri, New York, Hawaii or Colorado.

I've been listening to the beginning of the Search the Scriptures podcast (HIGHLY recommend) and it's got the theological super nerd side of my mind going a mile a minute (yes, that fast - let fans of The Office understand).

All joking aside it seems impossible for me to consider thinking about the Bible as anything other than Tradition. The Bible, the New Testament specifically, is nothing less than a written record of the Apostolic preaching. The Church decided and discerned together which books were in and which were out and why.

On the podcast Presbytera Jeannie (Presbytera is a title of honor in the Orthodox world referring to the Priest's wife) had a very helpful discussion where she laid out the different New Testament canons among very prominent early Church Fathers, some of whom have been cited as evidence that the early Fathers believed in Sola Scriptura.

Here is what we know:

Gregory the Theologian had 27 or 26 books in his New Testament canon. Early in his ministry he seemed to refer to Revelation as Scripture but later he left it out of his final list of books for the New Testament Canon. This man is extremely important in the history of Christianity, especially for his work in fighting the Arian heretics who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. He was also archbishop of Constantinople from 380-381.

St John Chrysostom followed the school of Antioch that he came from and had 22 books in his New Testament. He was archbishop of Constantinople after Gregory.

The Book of Revelation had a particularly troubled history of being accepted in the Greek speaking parts of the Roman Empire. This book started off as universally accepted and then is in and out of canon lists and constantly in dispute. An archbishop named Andrew of Caesarea (563-637) would eventually write a crucial commentary in 611 AD on Revelation that demonstrated the book could be understood in a completely Patristic and Orthodox manner and thus helped it gain more acceptance in the Church.

St. Athanasius has the oft-cited listing in his paschal letter of 367 of the same 27 books for the New Testament that we have today. He is, of course, the main name associated with the struggle against Arius, who denied the divinity of Christ and caused the first council of Nicea to be called by the Roman Emperor.

Arius and Athanasius were both of the Church of Alexandria in Egypt. Another early Church figure, Didymus the Blind (313-398 AD), was also in the Alexandria school and he had a much more expansive list of books in his New Testament Canon. Didymus opposed the Arian heresy but many of his works were condemned by later Ecumenical councils for following the errors of his teacher, Origen.

What I find fascinating and captivating is all the different New Testament Canons held to by very prominent Christians, saints and early Church Fathers. It was not necessary to agree upon which books constitute the New Testament. Agreeing on what the Bible is was not a requirement to be in the Church. People disagreed. They had strong opinions and fought about it.

What got you condemned was not your list of which books should be in the New Testament but whether your teaching and understanding of the books you had matched Holy Tradition. At the Council of Nicea in 325 AD the Orthodox and the Arians both had the Gospel of John, for example, but what mattered was how you understood that Gospel.

The Arians departed from the Apostolic Tradition in reading the Gospel of John in such a way that they said Jesus is only semi-divine but not fully God. The final, infallible rule was not Scripture Alone but the Tradition of the Church which understood Scripture (whichever books your community even had and whichever books your bishop approved for reading during the church services) correctly.

The Scriptures are trustworthy and true because the same Holy Spirit that inspired the authors who wrote them guided the Church in choosing them. Those same Scriptures are no doubt used for determining doctrinal controversies, but they are not the final arbiter.

Some in the early Church thought the letters of Ignatius of Antioch should be in the canon. Those letters are pure gold and I recommend them to everyone. Ultimately they didn't meet the criteria for being considered Scripture because, in the case of Ignatius, he wasn't an Apostle. This doesn't mean they weren't trustworthy, they just weren't Scripture.

Anyone interested in learning more about how Orthodoxy understands the Bible and the Canon should check out these podcasts. Much of my thinking out loud in this post was provoked by part 5, but the episodes before it are very helpful, especially if you're new to this topic.

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