Friday, October 26, 2007

Tradition and Basil

Icons (again)

Francis warns his readers before linking to an Orthodox site with "graphical attempted likeness of the Christ", aka an icon of Christ.

One wonders who Francis is warning since Presbyterians seem to have a great love of religious icons. So before getting down to serious business let's go on a very brief tour of Presbyterian imagery of Christ, courtesy of 2 minutes of Google searching....

I find this ironic given the inordinate amount of time Francis has devoted to icons in this debate.


Looking for sola scriptura among the Fathers is a fruitless exercise, and never more so than in the document Francis has quoted, "Oration on the Holy Spirit" by Basil the Great of Caesaria (bishop 365-379 AD).

I offer below some more quotes from the same document which I think truly speak for themselves:

"The one aim of the whole band of opponents and enemies of “sound doctrine”is to shake down the foundation of the faith of Christ by levelling apostolic tradition with the ground, and utterly destroying it. So like the debtors, — of course bona fide debtors. — they clamour for written proof, and reject as worthless the unwritten tradition of the Fathers." Basil the Great, Chapter X, Oration on the Holy Spirit,

"In the same manner the Apostles and Fathers who laid down laws for the Church from the beginning thus guarded the awful dignity of the mysteries in secrecy and silence, for what is bruited abroad random among the common folk is no mystery at all. This is the reason for our tradition of unwritten precepts and practices, that the knowledge of our dogmas may not become neglected and contemned by the multitude through familiarity." Chapter XXVII, ibid

"Time will fail me if I attempt to recount the unwritten mysteries of the Church. Of the rest I say nothing; but of the very confession of our faith in Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, what is the written source? If it be granted that, as we are baptized, so also under the obligation to believe, we make our confession in like terms as our baptism, in accordance with the tradition of our baptism and in conformity with the principles of true religion, let our opponents grant us too the right to be as consistent in our ascription of glory as in our confession of faith. If they deprecate our doxology on the ground that it lacks written authority, let them give us the written evidence for the confession of our faith and the other matters which we have enumerated. While the unwritten traditions are so many, and their bearing on “the mystery of godliness is so important, can they refuse to allow us a single word which has come down to us from the Fathers; — which we found, derived from untutored custom, abiding in unperverted churches; — a word for which the arguments are strong, and which contributes in no small degree to the completeness of the force of the mystery?" ibid

"Is answer to the objection that the doxology in the form “with the Spirit” has no written authority, we maintain that if there is no other instance of that which is unwritten, then this must not be received. But if the greater number of our mysteries are admitted into our constitution without written authority, then, in company with the many others, let us receive this one. For I hold it apostolic to abide also by the unwritten traditions. “I praise you,” it is said, “that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances as I delivered them to you;” and “Hold fast the traditions which ye have been taught whether by word, or our Epistle.” One of these traditions is the practice which is now before us, which they who ordained from the beginning, rooted firmly in the churches, delivering it to their successors, and its use through long custom advances pace by pace with time. If, as in a Court of Law, we were at a loss for documentary evidence, but were able to bring before you a large number of witnesses, would you not give your vote for our acquittal? I think so; for “at the mouth of two or three witnesses shall the matter be established.” And if we could prove clearly to you that a long period of time was in our favour, should we not have seemed to you to urge with reason that this suit ought not to be brought into court against us? For ancient dogmas inspire a certain sense of awe, venerable as they are with a hoary antiquity. I will therefore give you a list of the supporters of the word (and the time too must be taken into account in relation to what passes unquestioned). For it did not originate with us. How could it? We, in comparison with the time during which this word has been in vogue, are, to use the words of Job, “but of yesterday.” I myself, if I must speak of what concerns me individually, cherish this phrase as a legacy left me by my fathers. It was delivered to me by one who spent a long life in the service of God, and by him I was both baptized, and admitted to the ministry of the church. While examining, so far as I could, if any of the blessed men of old used the words to which objection is now made, I found many worthy of credit both on account of their early date, and also a characteristic in which they are unlike the men of today — because of the exactness of their knowledge. Of these some coupled the word in the doxology by the preposition, others by the conjunction, but were in no case supposed to be acting divergently, — at least so far as the right sense of true religion is concerned." - Chapter XXIX ibid

"Had I not so done, it would truly have been terrible that the blasphemers of the Spirit should so easily be emboldened in their attack upon true religion, and that we, with so mighty an ally and supporter at our side, should shrink from the service of that doctrine, which by the tradition of the Fathers has been preserved by an unbroken sequence of memory to our own day." Chapter XXX ibid

Of course, nobody is saying that "it is tradition, look no further", means that one can't look in scripture. After all, scripture IS tradition, as I have said many times, and which the apostle says also.

But if the question is whether Basil is prepared to say we need not look any further, if something is a tradition of the fathers, and yet not in the writings (aka scripture), then clearly Basil adopts that view, just the same as Chrysostom. I had thought of commenting on the above quotes from Basil, but they are so clear as to not warrant comment. It is tradition, look no further is fundamental to the whole Oration. Of course, "The Bible says, therefore I believe it” is a subset of "it is tradition, look no further". Holding to the latter does not negate the former. Looking for something in the Fathers does not prevent us looking in the scriptures. But neither did not finding something in the scriptures cause Basil to therefore think of it as anything less than apostolic and authoritative. He offered scripture, when it was available. And he unapologetically offered the tradition of the Fathers when it was not available.

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