Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Orthodox - Conclusion

The Cross Examination

I think a careful reader of this debate would note that Francis has not provided much in the way of substantive answers to any of my questions.

In round 1, Francis acknowledged that early churches, lacking scripture to support uniquely Christian teachings, used the oral tradition as their rule of faith. The apostles neither practiced sola scriptura (since the full Christian teaching is not in the OT) nor did they teach it as they built the early church (lacking scripture to support the unique Christian teachings). So I asked Francis who authorised and orchestrated a cutover to sola scriptura. He didn't give any answer. He mentioned the Bereans from Acts 17, but of course that is a distraction. Nobody can seriously claim that the Bereans found the full Christian teaching in the OT. An OT-only sola scriptura community would not be Christian. Francis attempted to equivocate between scripture having "the highest place" with sola scriptura. The two are not interchangable. In fact, the church never cutover to sola scriptura, which is unsurprising since Francis acknowledged the apostles never taught it. About all Francis can say is that the Church supposedly ought to have cutover because extra-scriptural traditions are unreliable. However I showed that there are many extra-scriptural traditions dating from as early as the 1st century, which remain in Orthodoxy today.

In round 2 I asked Francis if tradition of the Orthodox Church was really less clear than scripture. Francis tried to make out that Orthodox tradition was not clear because (a) Orthodoxy does not have "dogmatic definitions" and (b) All you know is what your local priest teaches, you can't tell what Orthodoxy teaches. Of course, Francis is fudging because he knows full well the tradition of Orthodoxy is clear, as Orthodoxy defines its own terms. We don't have dogmatic definitions, and we do know what all the Orthodox churches teach. Nobody is wandering around in Orthodoxy confused about the teaching on infant baptism for example. Amusingly, a protestant wrote in to criticise Francis that his view on baptism was unscriptural. I think anyone who honestly looks at the situation can see that Orthodoxy's teachings on most of the issues protestants divide over, are clearer than the bible by itself. If it were not so, Presbyterians would not feel the need to clarify things with the Westminster Confession.

In round 3 I asked Francis to show me how to know what is scripture. His answer was that the "ultimate subjective epistemological basis is the persuasion of the Holy Spirit". It doesn't take much reflection to realise that a rule of faith can't work in the church, if the church has no way to resolve which of different people's "persuasions" are part of the rule of faith. And we found this is no theoretical problem when one of our Presbyterian listeners wrote in to tell us that his theological professor thinks 1 Clement is scripture. At least for Orthodox, 1 Clement is a venerable part of Holy Tradition. It's a valuable part of tradition, no matter its exact status. From Francis' point of view, it's either the perfect word of God, or worthless as as to being part of the rule of faith. You see, to be black and white about what is authoritative, requires a black and white list of what is authoritative. It's a bit like saying the Pope is infallible, without being able to infallibly say when. If I say that I feel the canons of the seven ecumenical councils are inspired by God, Francis really can't respond, because his epistemological basis provides no ability to do so. On the other hand, if I say that I don't have an inspired insight of what is scripture, again, Francis can't help me. He can just list the whole range of opinions throughout history and add his two cents to the pot.

Francis wants fudge and say that at least "everyone reading this has a pretty clear concept of the bible". From my point of view, testing what he calls the "fuzzy edges" is a good test for his entire system. But is it pretty clear? To say that everyone is pretty clear is in effect a statement about tradition! The only time Francis got a little bit of certainty was when he hopped out of his boat into mine and appealed in effect to the Vincentian canon.

In round 4 I asked how it could be that a few people in 1646 got it all right, where the church had always failed previously. Or alternatively, if they made mistakes in 1646, how the reformation is going to correct it. Francis tells us that it is God's will "for the churches to keep splitting, both sides seeking to glorify God in the truth." Francis seems to be having a bet each way. On the one hand he holds to a confession of faith made in 1646, and on the other hand is happy for churches to keep splitting looking for the truth. Either situation is odd on its face, either that a few men in 1646 got it right, where the church failed for 1600 years, or that God has no higher plan than for men to go from church to church like a boat tossed on the waves, looking for some people who believe their interpretation of the truth.

In round 5 I asked how the scriptures work as a rule of faith in the church, when unlike tradition, there is no principle of community agreement. When the community disagrees, should one leave? Should one start a new church? If so, on what issues? Well Francis ended up saying that only the "gospel" was a necessary reason for leaving, by which he seems to mean justification by faith. He also offered the opinion that he couldn't say that the Orthodox church was apostate. Logically then, if Francis found himself in the Orthodox Church, either by birth, or because his congregation decided to become Orthodox, he could make a valid decision to stay. Apparently then, valid churches don't necessarily use sola scriptura.

In round 6 Francis told us essentially, that he isn't really sure if the Fathers taught the gospel, and he isn't really sure if the Orthodox Church teaches the gospel. I suspect that Francis' idea of teaching the gospel is limited to a very narrow subset of the NT teaching, expressed in the distinctive protestant manner. I think if I asked Francis if the Gospel of Matthew teaches the gospel, he's have to double check himself to see if it was there. Chrysostom wrote commentaries on the Gospels, and Francis isn't sure if he taught the Gospel! Either the Gospels aren't a very good source for the gospel, or else the best minds of the early church were incredibly stupid, or else the protestant idea of "the gospel" is a very myopic one.

In round 7 I asked Francis about a very real issue facing the protestant church in Africa - polygamy, in light of the Anglican church's finding that polygamy is "approved" in the OT and "not forbidden" in the NT. Francis criticised the interpretation of those supporting polygamy. But did he supply the reader with a single verse against polygamy? No he did not. He failed to practice what he preaches in providing a scriptural commandment, clear or otherwise, against polygamy. I could have substituted many other issues for polygamy, but this example clearly shows how Francis has a tradition as a rule of faith.

In round 8 I wanted to get the discussion out of the world of theory, and into the world of reality. Since I haven't received any personal revelation of what list of books is scripture and since I am honest enough to admit my uncertainty about how I would interpret scripture if I was completely to ignore any and all traditions, what am I supposed to do? Francis gives me no reason or method to enter the world of protestantism. As far as I know, all protestants have (or at least may have) the wrong canon of scripture. All of them have or may have the wrong interpretation on one or many issues. And I don't claim to be able to resolve what millions of protestants have failed at: finding the correct interpretation of scripture apart from tradition. I don't claim there is a clear guideline in scripture for example on whether children ought be baptised. I could just as easily put together a good argument one way or the other. And of course, Francis, having failed to provide the scripture that teaches sola scriptura, doesn't give me the verse to support a move in any shape or form.

Francis claims I have exchanged truth for certainty. At worst I have traded uncertainty for false certainty, since I've been given no method to solve the uncertainties that his own system creates. Frankly, false certainty is more pleasurable than true uncertainty. True uncertainty is a commodity available everywhere.

Francis' argument is the equivilent of an agnostic asking me to exchange my faith in something supposedly uncertain, for his lack of certainty. No thanks. Offer me something tangible. Don't ask me to jump into the pool of ignorance with you where there is no sure scripture, no sure word of God, no sure understanding and no sure church. I'll stay up here on the dry land until you can do better than just claim your guidance of the Spirit is better than anyone elses.

In round 9 I made the observation that the Mt 15/ Mk 7 protestant hobby horse, doesn't comment on oral vs written (or oral vs scriptural) sources of authority. What it comments on is "the word of God" vs "traditions of men", never equating the former with scripture, nor equating the latter with non-scripture. I also showed, using scripture that the "Word of God" is usually oral tradition. Since Orthodox consider Holy Tradition to be "the word of God", and since we consider sola scriptura, and other protestant beliefs as "the traditions of men", I asked Francis to prove that an Orthodox interpretation was wrong. Namely that traditions not accepted by the people of God, but only by a small portion (e.g. "the traditions of the elders, Mt 15:2) are the "traditions of men", and the traditions accepted, e.g. the γραφή, the writings or oral traditions accepted by the people of God are, "the word of God", inspired by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Since the passage never mentions scripture, Francis was stumped, and could do nothing but repeat his own tradition concerning the episode, a tradition that ironically we consider to be a tradition of men.

In round 10 I wanted to again get away from theory and ask why sola scriptura doesn't seem to be working in the churches that ascribe to it. Remembering that the thesis is that sola scriptura is workable, as in practical and feasible. Anyone who wants to trace the path of the great reformation churches: Anglicanism, Lutheranism or Presbyterianism over 500 years and compare it to the Orthodox church would note that most of the former would be unrecognizable to their predecessors. Those who would be recognizable would be those in a minority who have an almost Orthodox mindset in keeping to traditions. Francis' response was that sola scriptura churches are stable in that they hold to the things that are "clear". But the one thing that isn't clear, is what the set of clear things are. Francis is on record saying that the bible is "clear" concerning icons depicting the Lord. But Anglicans, Lutherans and Presbyterians aren't clear. Francis wants to label dissenters as modern liberals. To me it looks like just labeling anyone who disagrees with you as a liberal, since the oldest presbyterian churches that I've seen have stained glass icons of the Lord. If it's true that Presbyterians have changed on this, then I fail to see how it helps the cause that sola scriptura is a workable rule of faith.

Francis uncharitably suggested that the reason Orthodoxy doesn't change is because it is a "cemetery". It's pretty easy to think there is something fundamentally wrong with people who don't worship like you do. It's a part of human nature. But if Orthodoxy was a cemetary, then there wouldn't be orthodox debating with Francis to begin with. You wouldn't have had millions dying for the faith under communism. And you wouldn't have Francis himself praising the Christian stance taken by the Moscow Patriarch.


Too much of the debate was taken up discussing icons. Supposedly Orthodox are superstitious. From our point of view, protestants are superstitious, as evidenced by Francis' warning about viewing a web site with a picture of Christ. I mean, I've seen copies of Foxes' book of Martyrs from the 1800s that start with a nice big colour plate of Jesus on the opening page.

Francis claimed that it "is perfectly clear that representations of God were forbidden in the Old Testament". Just like many other issues, Francis confuses his own tradition with what is "perfectly clear". The only thing clear is that some images were forbidden, and other images were not only permitted, but commanded. Which is which, is certainly not clear at all. Certainly not on a sola scriptura basis. The golden calf was not permitted. The Cherubim were commanded. How it applies outside of these is not specified, which is the whole reason sola scriptura doesn't work. I can tell you that I think only pagan idols are banned, and images of heavenly beings are explicitly allowed in the example of the Cherubim. Francis has a different view. Francis argues that Dura-Europos is the exception not the rule. But he shows no evidence. Of course, since Dura-Europos is the only one surviving from the era, it's the only sample we have, and it comes up contrary to Francis' thesis. Scholars disagree with Francis' theory. How "clear" is scripture, if Jews, ancient and modern, Orthodox, Catholics, Non-Chacedonions, Ethiopians, Anglicans, Presbyterians (supposedly more recent ones), Lutherans, all can't see what Francis sees? He never did tell us if he would have taken a photo of Christ if he had the chance. There is superstition for you.

Do any icons exude holy oil, or cause miracles? Or are they a superstition as Francis contends? Let me guess. Francis has done nearly zero investigation of such things, but he assumes it is a superstition.

Yes, Christianity is a very "superstitious" religion:

2Kings 13:21 As they were burying a man, behold, they saw a marauding band; and they cast the man into the grave of Elisha. And when the man touched the bones of Elisha he revived and stood up on his feet.

Acts 19:11 And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.

Acts 5:15 they even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on any one of them.

Oddly, Francis would believe such things without question if its in the bible. But if it happens in real life, it's a superstition. Well Francis, if a-priori rejection of miracles is your style, may I suggest that Christianity is not the religion for you.

Lastly, Francis is shocked that I would call Chrysostom an iconodule. Many many things Chrysostom wrote, wouldn't make much sense apart from icons. e.g. "The image of what is invisible, were it also invisible, would cease to be an image. An image, as far as it is an image, should be kept inviolably by us, owing to the likeness it represents." But we have eyewitnesses. Chrysostom's biographer wrote: "Blessed John loved the epistles of St Paul exceedingly. . . . He had an image of the apostle in a place where he was wont to retire now and then on account of his physical weakness, for he outdid nature in watchings and vigils. As he read through St Paul's epistles, he had the image before him, and spoke to the apostle as if he had been present, praising him, and directing all his thoughts to him."


Sola Scriptura cannot tell you what scripture is. If you are unable to figure out what scripture means (which even Francis must admit applies to most people), sola scriptura cannot help you.

Sola scriptura in no way has unity as a goal, and thus surprise, surprise does not achieve it.

Scripture never says that sola scriptura is the rule of faith, thus it violates its own precept. All the early Fathers believed there was an extra-scriptural apostolic tradition, and they could discern what it was. Francis' attempt to make Basil into a sola scripturalist, failed.

The Sola Scriptura churches are in large part falling apart. As observed by an ex-Lutheran, ex-Presbyterian, the problem is genetic. Sola Scriptura is about individualism. Every man decides for himself what scripture is. Every man is free to ignore the world when deciding what scripture means. Every man decides for himself how to apply it to himself. If an elder directs you otherwise, church hopping is a legitimate search for the interpretation you agree with. Supposedly sola scriptura is the appropriate rule of faith for the church. But the very nature of the doctrine ignores the church, and therefore cannot work for the church. It can work for "me and my bible under a tree", but not much else.

Francis has not shown that the apostles taught sola scriptura, and in fact admitted that they didn't teach it, nor practice it. Nor could they have.

On the other side of the coin, Francis has done nothing to demonstrate that tradition is not "working" in the Orthodox Church. His main attempt to do otherwise, was to lecture us on his tradition concerning icons, and complain that nobody else, other than apparently a tiny sect within the tiny sect of Presbyterianism sees scripture with the clarity he supposedly does. That in itself shows what is "working".

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