Saturday, December 15, 2007

Conclusion to the Sola Scriptura v. Eastern Orthodoxy Debate

Dear Readers, having read the debate, I trust you are ready to agree with the resolution that: Resolved: "It is a tradition, look no farther" is less workable as applied to the theological content of the Westminster Confession of Faith than "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it."

As was established in the debate, “the Bible” is a relatively concrete, easily identifiable rule of faith, whereas “tradition” is a blurry, frequently equivocal concept. The only way to make “tradition” in the sense of a process work is by engaging in ultra-sectarianism – in which you deny the status as fully Christian, of those who disagree with you. After all, if what we should believe is only that which is received by all Christians, one has to have a way to determine who Christians are. The result is ultra-sectarian bare fideism, where one believes what he believes because he believes it. But let’s quickly hit the high points of the debate.

Scripture Beats Tradition on Ease of Identification
“Orthodox” tried to blur the edges of the Bible with some comments regarding the canonicity of Esther, the epistles of John, and the first epistle of Clement. This argument was self-defeating two ways. First, everyone knows that while the edges may be blurry, the Bible itself is a fairly stable, well-known and recognized quantity. Although some books may be more or less clearly authentic some core books (like the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah and the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy as well as at least some of Paul's epistles) are self-authenticating. Second, resort to “tradition” does not necessarily resolve the fuzziness. If one turns to “Orthodox” tradition, one gets a first list, to “Catholic” tradition – a second list, to “Ethiopic” tradition – a third list, and to “Protestant” tradition – a fourth list. Third, “the Bible says it” presumes we have a concept of what the Bible is. If we have a concept of what the Bible is, the question can readily be seen to be a red herring.

Scripture Beats Tradition on Stability
“Orthodox” did not even challenge the fact that corruption of Scripture is much more difficult than corruption of “tradition.” Furthermore, it should be clear that sectarian “tradition” is only going to be as stable as the sect is. “Orthodox” views the innovations of Rome as innovations, but fails to recognize that his own sect has innovations, such as the worship of icons. Scripture has been essentially unchanging since the final word was penned.

Oral Tradition is No Longer Necessary
“Orthodox” made a red herring from the obvious fact that while we had prophets (i.e. during the time when Scripture was being written) Scripture was not the only source of the infallible Word of God. However, “Orthodox” did not question the fact oral tradition is unnecessary. Once the Scripture has been published widely, the need to rely on oral reports of its content disappears.

Oral Tradition not Really What Orthodox Had in Mind
We discovered in the debate that oral traditions from the apostles is not really what “Orthodox” had in mind. He is not talking about the “by word” of Paul’s “by word or letter.” “Orthodox” was not talking about apostlic tradition at all, though that is what Chrysostom was talking about. Why not? Because, by now, it is impossible to identify with any certain “oral traditions” from the apostles. The only things we know they taught are those things found in the Scriptures. But in abandoning “oral tradition” in favor of a process of “sifting,” “Orthodox” failed to defend his side of the resolution.

Some Tradition is Opposed to the Bible

“Orthodox” really did not enjoy being forced to address the clear contradiction between “Orthodoxy”’s practice of worshipping icons of Christ, and the ten commandments’ prohibition on graphical purported likenesses of God. Again, “Orthodox” tried to make the issue fuzzy, but ended up contradicting himself.

Some Tradition is Opposed to Other Tradition

Finally, we found that Tradition, unlike the Bible, is not internally consistent. On the particular topic of making and worshipping icons of Christ, we discovered that before any so-called ecumenical council of Orthodoxy affirmed the use of icons of Christ, an ecumenical council of Orthodoxy rejected the use of icons of Christ. Furthermore, we learned that the historical record shows that the early Christians did not have icons of Christ, and that the use of such icons was a later development.

Tradition Actually Supports Sola Scriptura
If we consider the writings of the Fathers to be “tradition,” we found various of the writings of the fathers supporting the use of the rule that “The Bible says it … that settles it.” John Chrysostom’s own testimony in that regard went unchallenged throughout the debate.

Although he tries to spin things a bit differently, Orthodox is stuck with the fact that for as long as there have been Scriptures, they have been the standard of comparison. From the time of Moses onward, every prophet/apostle/etc. who claimed to have a word from God was judged by the written word of God. That is to say, it was not enough to claim that something was a “tradition,” but rather it was necessary to judge tradition by the Word of God, most particularly by the written word of God. The Bereans were commended for doing so.

Let’s examine the cross examination in detail.
First, Orthodox asked about the transition from more than Scripture to Scripture alone. As I pointed out, one cannot use what one doesn’t have. When prophecy ceased, the church had only Scripture to rely upon for authoritative revelation.

My first question to Orthodox was to question whether tradition was really self-correcting. Orthodox explained that “[tradition] can clarify what might seem otherwise ambiguous.” This kind of “tradition” is not apostolic, because it cannot be. It is a process of accretion, not a product handed down.

Second, Orthodox asked me whether I thought the tradition (now referring to the result of the process of accretion) was more or less clear than Scripture on various issues. His point was to assert that EOC was more clear than Scripture. My response demonstrated that trying to be certain about the EOC position on things was rather challenging. After all, they have dogmatically defined very few things.

My second question to Orthodox was to question his equivocation over the word “tradition” as a product (a body of knowledge handed down from the apostles) or a process (like the accretive process discussed above). Orthodox didn’t answer clearly.

Third, Orthodox asked about the canonicity of a few “close call” books. I explained why we accept them as canonical, namely by faith in their author, the Holy Spirit.

My third question to Orthodox was to question the sufficiency of the “it is tradition” maxim. Orthodox admitted that he had to add, “my church’s” to the maxim to make it work.

Fourth, Orthodox ironically questioned the “Semper Reformanda” (always reforming) maxim as being in conflict with church discipline. Aside from the obvious point that Semper Reformanda was not one of the watchwords of the Reformation, the answer was that the highest standard is Scripture, not the say-so of the church or of the individual member of the church.

My fourth question asked Orthodox to justify the use of icons in worship using the Canon of Vincent. Orthodox provided a variety of quotations, but virtually none were addressed to the use of icons in worship. We could easily see that there was no way for Orthodox to establish that the use of icons was the “universal” practice of the ancient church, and even trying was exhausting. Thus, clearly “it is tradition” with Vincent’s canon as to what constitutes tradition is unworkable.

Fifth, Orthodox asked – in essence – what doctrines should force someone to change churches. As I explained, it depends. The gospel cannot be compromised. That much is clear.
My fifth question to Orthodox asked Orthodox to tell who it was that the golden calf was alleged to represent. Orthodox tried to side-step the issue, because it was fairly clear from Aaron’s words that the calf was supposed to represent the Lord.

Sixth, Orthodox asked me to pass judgment on four churches that I never attended, and about which the historical records are incomplete. I respectfully declined for those churches for which I did not have enough information.

My sixth question addressed the unworkability of Vincent’s canon, by specifically asking how many fathers and priests of the ancient church there were, so as to better gauge the minimal number of quotations provided by Orthodox in support of icons. Orthodox’s answer was that there were dozens of fathers and probably thousands of priests.
Orthodox also asked what it felt like to be persuaded of the truth of something by the Holy Spirit. The answer, of course, is that is practically impossible to describe, but that it is a sense of firm conviction.

Next, I asked how Vincent’s canon could be applied to the council of 754, at which 300 bishops condemned icons, prior to the so-called 7th ecumenical council. Orthodox appealed to silence in the testimony of the early church, and then argued that the result that his whole church was in error from the 8th century to now was simply unacceptable.

Orthodox next asked whether Luther or Westminster was right on the issue of polygamy, and I answered him clearly from Scripture.

I asked Orthodox about his claim to strength in numbers, based on his earlier assertion that his church was right because it was the larger chunk of the Great Schism, and because of his assertion that 300 million people’s opinions were stronger than mine. Orthodox admitted that the number of people actually made no difference to him.

Orthodox next asked what alternatives there were to “the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church.” The answer, which was blindingly obvious was Scripture itself.

Tired of Orthodox’s meandering evasive answers, I asked Orthodox a multiple choice question about how Athanasius used the word “tradition,” to see whether Athanasius used it to refer to a process or product (the correct answer, of course, being a product). Orthodox couldn’t give a straight answer, but ended up constructing his own four-part definition of Athanasius’ meaning based on his own personal opinion and at variance with that of the most noted patristic scholar.

Orthodox next asked a loaded question about what I could prove or not with respect to Jesus’ condemnation of the “traditions” of the Pharisees. I explained what Jesus meant, and pointed out that Athanasius said more or less the same thing as I did.

Still hopeful that Orthodox could answer a multiple choice question, I quoted Basil the Great and asked whether Basil adhered, on the particular issue in question, to the maxim “it is tradition, seek no farther” (the correct answer being “no, he did not.”). Orthodox was unable to give a straight answer.

Finally, Orthodox asked whether tradition gives stability and sola scriptura leads to debates and innovation. I negated Orthodox’s implicit assertion and gave historical and logical explanations for my negation.

Likewise, for my final question, I gave the multiple choice format one last shot. Orthodox still felt compelled to give a lengthy answer, but at least Orthodox admitted that: “All things are clear and open that are in divine Scriptures; the necessary things are all plain.” This was really the final blow against Orthodox’s position, for it makes Scripture much more workable than even Vincent’s canon.

In short, and in conclusion, “the Bible says it” is the only workable way to avoid ultra-sectarianism. Ultra-sectarianism is what “Orthodox” practices, where he uses the “consent of the faithful” as a basis for doctrine, but then excludes from his count everyone who disagrees with him! And here’s where ultra-sectarianism will get you (link)

It will get you this type of unity (link 1) (link 2).

Finally, for additional reading, allow me to recommend:

A. A. Hodge

B. B. Warfield

Matatics vs. White Debate on Sola Scriptura

Steve Hays (warning, pdf file)

As well as the following, also from Hay: (First Half) and (Second Half) (plus another one)

James Swan

Thanks be to God, who has not left us with the tradition of men, but given us the unchanging Word of God,



phatcatholic said...

What were the rules or the structure for this debate? It seems to have gone on for quite a long time.

Turretinfan said...

There were not a lot of well set-forth rules for the debate, which was (I think) a mistake. Here's a link to the original post that got the debate rolling, you'll find some of the rules set forth in the comments thereto. We also had a small, off-line email exchange.


phatcatholic said...

"There were not a lot of well set-forth rules for the debate, which was (I think) a mistake."

Yes, I am glad that our debate has much more structure to it.

phatcatholic said...

Can you change the date of this post to some time before Dec. 16th so that it won't be in the middle of our holy water debate? I think that will make it easier for people to keep track of everything.

phatcatholic said...

Thanks for moving this :D