Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Tradition Holds the Church Together

Tradition is self correcting in the sense that it can clarify what might seem otherwise ambiguous. Since what is thought ambiguous or in dispute can be different in every age, tradition is able to respond to the particular questions of the age. Furthermore, tradition can over time address questions as to how the Christian tradition applies to new situations.

Tradition would be identified in particular with the following things:

1. Scripture.
2. The Liturgy, services and rites of the Church.
3. The Councils of the Church.
4. The lives of the saints and the teachings of the Fathers..
5. The icons, music, chants, architecture and teachings surrounding them.

If you want to know what Tradition says about a thing, you look to what the Church has consistently said about these things from these sources.

Of course, scripture is particularly well suited to answering certain kinds of questions that for example church architecture can't. But even architecture symbolizes certain truths that the church holds.

As Irenaeus said in the 2nd century:

"Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case, ] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?" (Against Heresies III, Ch IV.1).

"But, again, when we refer them [heretics] to that tradition which originates from the apostles, and which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth....It comes to this, therefore, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition. Such are the adversaries with whom we have to deal, my very dear friend, endeavouring like slippery serpents to escape at all points. Wherefore they must be opposed at all points." -- Against Heresies III Ch II.

Irenaeus criticized those who would not submit to scripture, following their own traditions, but he also criticized those not following the Tradition of the church. And he advocating opposing the heretics on the basis of both, scripture and tradition.

Francis, in responding to my previous question, quoted Irenaeus commenting on the heretics who say that scripture can't be understood apart from tradition. However he ignores the context. Irenaeus' second statement (above) which is that the heretics also ignore the church's tradition. The heretics are so "slippery as serpents to escape at all points". They'll reject scripture in favour of their own tradition whenever it suits them. But they'll also reject Church tradition in favour of their own tradition. Obviously the point is, they have rejected everything sound, both scripture and tradition.

So how did Irenaeus decide what was the tradition of heretics compared to tradition of the church?

"It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about." - Against Heresies III Ch III.

In other words, we should look to those churches whose leaders have succession is from the apostles as those whose traditions we should look to.

Irenaeus gives an example of the tradition of the apostles being faithfully handed down by Polycarp, and handed down through the churches:

"But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time" -- Against Heresies III Ch III.

Unlike what Francis has just claimed, Polycarp, (70-155AD) passed down everything he learned directly from the apostles, and these things were in turn passed down in the churches. In other words, here we have the extra-scriptural source of teaching being passed down in parallel to the scriptures. The question is not whether scriptures had a certain pride of place in the church, the question is over sola scriptura. The early church used Scripture and other Tradition as their authority for rejecting heretics.

The aim of tradition is to discern what the Church believes and has always believed. Sometimes it is not clear what the church always believed, and it is clearer in a later age than an earlier one. For example, while we can find traces of trinitarian thought in the earliest church, it is much clearer after the council of Nicea that the Church's believe is trinitarian than before.

If we want a more detailed idea of how to discern tradition, we can look to the advice of St Vincent of Lerins, writing from the early 400s. In his "A Commonitory" he relates the answer to Francis' question that he "always, and in almost every instance, received" to these questions. I will give only an excerpt of a portion of the explanation...

I have often then inquired earnestly and attentively of very many men eminent for sanctity and learning, how and by what sure and so to speak universal rule I may be able to distinguish the truth of Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical pravity; and I have always, and in almost every instance, received an answer to this effect: That whether I or any one else should wish to detect the frauds and avoid the snares of heretics as they rise, and to continue sound and complete in the Catholic faith, we must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways; first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the Catholic Church.

But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church's interpretation? For this reason,—because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.

Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense "Catholic," which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.

III: What is to be done if one or more dissent from the rest
What then will a Catholic Christian do, if a small portion of the Church have cut itself off from the communion of the universal faith? What, surely, but prefer the soundness of the whole body to the unsoundness of a pestilent and corrupt member? What, if some novel contagion seek to infect not merely an insignificant portion of the Church, but the whole? Then it will be his care to cleave to antiquity, which at this day cannot possibly be seduced by any fraud of novelty.

But what, if in antiquity itself there be found error on the part of two or three men, or at any rate of a city or even of a province? Then it will be his care by all means, to prefer the decrees, if such there be, of an ancient General Council to the rashness and ignorance of a few. But what, if some error should spring up on which no such decree is found to bear? Then he must collate and consult and interrogate the opinions of the ancients, of those, namely, who, though living in divers times and places, yet continuing in the communion and faith of the one Catholic Church, stand forth acknowledged and approved authorities: and whatsoever he shall ascertain to have been held, written, taught, not by one or two of these only, but by all, equally, with one consent, openly, frequently, persistently, that he must understand that he himself also is to believe without any doubt or hesitation." -- St Vincent of Lerins, "A Commonitory".

It's important to understand the Orthodox mindset. We see the people of God in a similar way to Israel. God didn't just drop the Law on them, and then leave them for a few thousand years to sort out the issues. There was a continuing work of God among the people to provide them with the clarity to discern truth from error. This is most clearly seen in the need to discern what prophets to listen to and which to ignore. In the same way, the Church has a continuing charism to hold to the truth and reject error. Without acknowledging this charism, there is no way to understand how the Church sorted out the many conflicting views in the early church as to what should be regarded as scripture.

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