I’ve recently started listening to the Ancient Faith Radio (an Eastern Orthodox podcast network) series ‘Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy‘. This is done by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick and compares Eastern Orthodox doctrine to other beliefs.
For the most part I’ve found it an interesting listen on the differences between Roman and Eastern Christian beliefs (I’m only seven episodes in as of writing). So far I’m less surprised by the points I disagree with him, but I am surprised by the points on which I generally agree.
Episode seven of the podcast addresses what is known as the ‘Magisterial Reformation’. This is what most people think of when they imagine the Reformation. Luther, Calvin and Zwingli all get mentions including the Anglican Church and the five Sola’s of the reformation. Fr. Andrew being Eastern Orthodox disagrees with the Protestant view but his assessment of the doctrines I feel is particularly deficient. In fact it is deficient enough to actually write down the reasons as to why, partly so I can process this response in a manner outside of my own mind in order to see if my views bear out.
Early on in Fr. Andrew’s description of Sola Scriptura he states that the principle fails at the first hurdle because the principle itself is found nowhere in scripture. Yet this highlights a belief that Protestants subscribe to a form of circular reasoning emerging from the text itself. This isn’t true, Protestants do not hold to scripture but the view that what it contains is trustworthy. We trust scripture because it is an authoritative window on the life, identity, work and implications of Christ as depicted by his apostles and prophets. In addition, the outworking of the miraculous in the lives of those contained within are taken as signs of divine assent, the greatest of which being Christ’s conquering of death. We do not trust a text but the reliability of what the text depicts.
Fr. Andrew however builds on his view of Sola Scriptura by highlighting that whilst scripture is one thing, how we interpret something can vary massively, as is highlighted by the differing beliefs of all the major reformation churches. He effectively upholds the old claim that the Protestants here have exchanged the Pope singular for making ourselves Popes plural. That we are interpreting scripture in our own image.
This claim of Fr. Andrew however is forcing an overly narrow understanding of the Protestant theological outlook. We recognise that we are fallible, that just as St Augustine or St John Chrysostom might of been correct in some things doesn’t mean they were always right. Yet this is not to say we should cease from making any and all truth claims. Just as we might make one claim, there is the honest likelihood that others might disagree and this is where the separate churches emerge amidst the peculiarities of cultural and political norms of the period. Personally I do not believe the reformers were definitively ‘right’ I just believe they were more right than wrong. The degree to which they are right is in the degree of faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The approach taken by Fr. Andrew however feels like it teeters on an almost Post-modern rejection of ‘truth’ altogether. In place of truth is pure authority in the absence of understanding.
There is also a degree to which however Fr. Andrew opens Eastern Orthodoxy up to criticism here too. If scripture is not sufficient, the tradition must step in to support and help frame it. Yet the root criticism that we cannot genuinely know or interpret scripture can be applied to the interpretation of tradition and the decisions of various councils. Even in this matter Eastern Orthodoxy is not without schism and disagreement, the division with the Roman church being the most obvious example. I could not help but feel that Fr. Andrew’s framing of such divisions, particularly with the Roman and Eastern church was more about who was going to be ultimately recognised as the preeminent authority on tradition and that in such arrangements there could be no ultimate reconciliation. Fr. Andrew says as much in this episode. I confess we all must have our lines which we cannot cross but to somehow put the Protestants in a box in which they alone in being unable to faithfully understand or interpret what they consider sacred seems to be inconsistent.
At the beginning of the Podcast series Fr. Andrew compares the exercise he and the listeners are about to undertake as similar to; a mathematician checking his proofs or a scientist interpreting their data. That ultimately he is convinced of Eastern Orthodoxy because of its ‘truths’. Yet this is precisely what he argues the Protestants are guilty of at the time of the reformation in this episode. This is the process of examining the evidence before them and using their own judgement and reason to discern truth. This is to say nothing of history and theology being less of a science than the aforementioned things. Consistently Eastern Orthodoxy is presented as something not true because an individual is convicted of such a thing but because of its episcopal traditions and councils. This is truth taken on Authority, not reason. The contrast I think is reflected in the well-known exchange between William Tyndale and a Catholic depicted in Foxe’s book of Martyrs.
The clergyman asserted to Tyndale, “We had better be without God’s laws than the Pope’s.” Tyndale responded: “I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!”
John Foxe, “Chap XII”, Book of Martyrs.
The claims to authority are emphasised to a greater degree where Fr. Andrew later negatively conflates the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scripture with the view that we must constantly revise our understanding of scripture in light of new archaeological discoveries that shed light on a relevant era. I would agree with this but see it as a positive thing, I believe scripture ultimately communicates truth, that truth is totally contingent on historical events. Paul himself wrote “And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless.”. He later goes on to specify that was a literal event in the same passage, yet if it turned out Christ had not really been raised then I would need to reevaluate my trust of scripture. I do not think Fr. Andrew would necessarily disagree here but I feel it is something of an own goal for the point he is trying to make. Ultimately, whether we want to or not we are accountable for our decisions and interpretation of what is true and what is false based on how we make sense of the world. What defines the historical Protestant movement is an insistence that ultimately scripture is the highest authority.
In relation to my own tradition, Fr Andrew makes the point that the original Anglicans upheld ‘scripture, tradition and reason’ as their guiding lights. Whilst he correctly highlights that we have since deviated from such a thing (for shame) I cannot help but associate myself with those convictions. Scripture is my highest authority, I respect the councils and fathers of the church that compiled and gave us the Bible yet acknowledge they are fallible. On some points they took things too far or I do not think they were right. Many Orthodox and Catholics look back on the some of the writings of someone like Origen, Augustine or even Tertullian in potentially similar ways. Even in scripture Peter is shown to be fallible at times in his judgement and actions. I think the Orthodox do a lot that is right and I associate with them in some ways more than with my liberal counterparts. Yet ultimately Fr. Andrew gives an deficient account of the faith of the reformers in his summation. The reformation has created a great many issues reflected in the profusion of different theologies that have emerged over time in the west since the split from Rome. Some of the pentecostal and prosperity preaching I see today in particular just makes me want to sack the whole thing in. Yet I look back to the faith of the reformers, I look back to the early church and take heart. I’m thankful for the lives and witness of these saints and ultimately they inspire me to believe that the situation today isn’t beyond redemption, God willing.
As a final point I want to add that there was no transcript available of the talk so if I have taken anything out of context, or misunderstood it in any way I ask for forgiveness.