Orthodoxy and Scriptural Authority

My intention for today was to write a blog post regarding Sola Scriptura and church traditions. However, the more I’ve looked into this topic and the more I’ve become excited about it, the more I’ve realized that this is too large of a topic for a simple post. In fact, I might use this topic for my Masters’ thesis.

Instead, I’m going to reiterate a conversation I had with a Western Orthodox friend in the Orthodox Archdiocese of New York regarding Scripture and church tradition. Understand, I have not researched this topic, but I trust that my friend understands his own tradition’s doctrines, especially since he is a postulant for the priesthood. In other words, I’m not getting this from the guy in the back who shows up at Easter and Christmas but from an ardent practitioner of the Western Orthodox faith. I also want to extend the caveat that I am not advocating Orthodoxy, whether Western or Eastern. Though we do not agree on secondary doctrines, I respect my friend and recognize him as a brother in Christ and feel that it is right to be in unity with fellow Christians and understand the paradigms that shaped their beliefs.

The topic under discussion was doctrinal authority in the Orthodox church. He laid out an understanding that encompasses three points:

  1. The highest authority for the church is the Holy Ghost, who speaks by means of the Great Tradition (i.e. Apostolic teaching that has been passed on and received universally).
  2. The Scriptures were written as part of the Great Tradition, and the other traditions are the lens for how they read the Holy Scriptures and put the Scriptures into practice.
  3. For the Orthodox, Scripture and Tradition are not separate. Rather, they are parts of a cohesive whole. Other parts of the Great Tradition are the Consensus Patrium, the Creeds, and Ecumenical Councils.

My friend related the Orthodox view of authority to a pie chart. All things that make up the pie—Scripture, Creeds, Consensus Patrium, Councils—need to have a correct view of Christianity. This is different from Sola Scriptura or Prima Scriptura, which has Scripture as primary and everything else must conform to Scripture. It’s also different from Rome’s view of Scripture and Tradition as being equal.

That last part confused me as it seems that in the Orthodox pie chart, Scripture and Tradition are equal, so I asked what’s the difference with Rome’s equating Scripture and Tradition with what seemed to be the Orthodox’s equating Scripture and Tradition. My friend said, “Rome would view Scripture and Tradition as equals. In other words, Rome can create doctrines like papal infallibility, the Treasury of Merit, and Purgatory with no basis in Scripture.”

This started to make a little more sense to me. With Orthodoxy, traditions found their basis in the Holy Spirit and in Scripture, while Rome sees Scripture and Traditions as equals, but that Tradition can extend from something not found in Scripture.

Then my friend drove the point home in a way that it made more sense to my linear Western mind. He said Orthodox thought on authority is like corroborating evidence. All of it supports and validates each other.

Thank you to my friend for taking the time for this brief and informal interview. I enjoyed learning something new about this historical sect of Christianity.

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