Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Scriptures and the South - Part II

We noted the many benefits of reading the Holy Scriptures in Part I, and how these have helped the South to defend herself against errors over the years.  But there is also great peril in approaching the Scriptures with a Reformation mindset as the South has done:  Such an approach opens the door wide to the very relativism that she has done fairly well at guarding herself against. 

She ought to give much thanks to God for His abundant mercy that she has not walked through that door as much as other Western nations have. 

But the danger is still there, even if it has not manifested itself fully.  For even before the War, the South’s leading men and women were troubled at the direction the extreme individualism of the Protestant Reformation was taking Southern society and the rest of the Western world (Fox-Genovese and Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class, pgs. 649-60). 

They were right to have this concern.  In it is the fulfilment of the heresy of the Roman Catholics, that a single man, the Roman Pope, is the final authority in matters of Church and state.  The Protestant Reformation and its offspring, the Enlightenment, merely took this doctrine to its logical conclusion, extending that authority to every man and woman on the earth.

In the Orthodox Church, all are free to read the Scriptures (and highly encouraged to do so, as St Justin Popovich and so many other Holy Fathers have taught), but they are asked to humbly submit their private views to the loving judgment of their brothers and sisters in the Church, and especially to the Holy Spirit-bearing Fathers, and not to demand recognition that their view is ‘right’ in a spirit of unyielding pride (this is how sects and heresies are born).

Gabe Martini in his essay ‘Reading Scripture in Tradition: Why Sola Scriptura Doesn’t Work’, explains further.

Orthodox Christians do not hold to the Reformation principle of Sola scriptura. Instead, we view the scriptures as the pinnacle or “summit”1 of holy tradition, neither separating the two as wholly distinct, nor eliminating one or the other.

The reason for this is simple: the scriptures are a witness to divine revelation, given from God to mankind (and specially, to God’s holy people—Israel and now the catholic Church). Holy tradition refers to the totality of this divine revelation, and includes our liturgies and hymns, the lives of the Saints, the writings of our fathers, and the decrees and canons of Ecumenical Councils. Atop this foundation rests holy scripture. To divorce scripture from tradition—or vice versa—is to both needlessly and dangerously tear apart the whole of divine revelation:

Taken from its context within Holy Tradition, the solid rock of Scripture becomes a mere ball of clay, to be molded into whatever shape its handlers wish. It is no honor to the Scriptures to misuse and twist them, even if this is done in the name of exalting their authority.
—Fr. John Whiteford, Sola Scriptura, p. 46

Even when Sola scriptura is given nuance2 to make room for creeds, confessions, and councils, the final arbiter is still a person’s interpretation of the Bible. While one might hold to a document such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, if there are doctrinal disagreements, the consistent Biblicist will come down in favor of a particular interpretation of the Bible over-and-against the Confession. This has led to some difficulties over the years for certain Protestant churches, but I believe that this nuance is—ultimately—pointless.

For example, one might confess a creed that states Jesus is a bunny rabbit. While this belief could theoretically be held by many, anyone can deny it as being contrary to the Bible (which it obviously is), rendering the creed both incorrect and unnecessary. It doesn’t really matter what creeds or confessions say, so long as the Bible is held to be the final authority. This foundationalist or positivist approach might seem tidy, but a tree is known by its fruit: hundreds of denominations (and growing), along with dozens of splits within these major, confessional gatherings. Even with the best intentions, Sola scriptura is a doctrine of confusion, not union (1 Cor. 14:33).

It’s worth noting that Sola scriptura presumes both faith and piety can be deduced from—and reduced to—a set of propositions. The chief mechanism for this investigation is human reason, aided by rational tools like exegesis, hermeneutical methods, historical-critical scholarship, contextual studies, and more. (All of which are potential ‘traditions of men.’) But if the scriptures are a witness to the divine revelation given to God’s people (the Church), then their understanding can only take place within that community, and as a consequence of the interpreter’s union with God:

In the Orthodox approach to Scripture, it is the job of the individual not to strive for originality in interpretation, but rather to understand what is already present in the traditions of the Church. We are obliged not to go beyond the boundary set by the Fathers and Creeds of the Church, but to faithfully pass on the Tradition just as we have received it. To do this requires a great deal of study and thought—but even more, if we are to truly understand the Scriptures, we must enter deeply into the mystical life of the Church. —ibid., p. 44

At the Ecumenical Councils—such as Chalcedon in A.D. 451—the synodal decisions are outlined in what is called (in Greek) ‘horos.’ This is sometimes translated ‘definition,’ but is more accurately ‘a boundary.’ In other words, the Church sets the boundary for orthodox belief in Her creeds, liturgies, and canons, but there is a great deal of freedom within this boundary for scholarly investigation, dialogue, and even debate. For example, the Church does not have a single, infallible interpretation for every verse of the Bible. So while one should not strive for “originality in interpretation” or to go “beyond the boundary set by the Fathers,” this is not a call to intellectual suicide, nor should it be seen as an attempt by the Church to be always stuck in the past. There is still much to be said, so long as it does not contradict the apostolic faith.

But if there remains much to be said regarding the scriptures—within the boundaries of orthodoxy—who is capable of rightly dividing the word of truth? Can anyone do this? Is it something for the intellectual elite alone?

 . . .

If we truly believe that the scriptures are divinely-inspired by the Holy Spirit, then their right-understanding can only be the result of theosis. If our salvation is an acquisition of the Holy Spirit (e.g. St. Seraphim of Sarov), then with that acquisition comes the Mind of God—a Mind that is attuned to the breath of the Spirit as he breathes through the life of the Church.

The Church is not some other, competing academic institution alongside seminaries and universities. Those led astray by the Academy can be tempted to subvert tradition for the sake of academic merit badges. But rather than pitting the Church against the scholarly community, we must learn to appreciate both in their proper context—reminding ourselves that the qualities of a true interpreter of divine revelation are more related to holiness than they are academic credentials. If a scholar’s primary goal is to blaze new trails, be controversial, or directly subvert holy tradition, they are not seeking the Mind of Christ.

The Church is the very Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27), the fullness of God (Eph. 1:23), and the pillar and ground of truth (1 Tim. 3:15). It is only in the life of that mystical, theanthropic (Divine-human) communion that a person can ever hope to acquire this Mind and to both read and understand the scriptures rightly—as the precious summit and anchor of God’s revelation to his people.

. . .

Holiness, then, is the key to understanding the Scriptures.  It is what allows us to obtain a sure knowledge of their meaning.  But this takes place in a realm above mundane rational thought.  Obtaining the Mind of God in all its fulness means union with the Divine, uncreated energies of God through mystical union with the Holy Spirit, which does not take place without long years of difficult ascetic labor (sleeping on a hard bed, fasting, prayer, and so forth). 

St Gregory Palamas (+1359) says in ‘Topics of Natural and Theological Science’,

As the divine Psalmist chants, ‘May the splendour of our God be upon us’ (Ps. 90 : 17. LXX).  For according to St Basil, ‘Spirit-bearing souls, when illumined by the Spirit, both become spiritual themselves and shed forth grace upon others.  From this comes foreknowledge of things future, understanding of mysteries, apprehension of things hidden, distribution of spiritual gifts, citizenship in heaven, the dance with the angels, unending joy, divine largesse, likeness to God, and the desire of all desires, to become god’ (chapter 76, p. 381)

An ensample of this revelation of the meaning of the Scriptures through union with the Holy Spirit is revealed clearly in the life of one of our very own Southern forefathers from Ireland, the holy St Columba of Iona (+597).  St Adomnán (+704) records this incident in his Life of Saint Columba:

AT another time, when the saint was living in the Hinba island (Eilean-na-Naoimh), the grace of the Holy Ghost was communicated to him abundantly and unspeakably, and dwelt with him in a wonderful manner, so that for three whole days, and as many nights, without either eating or drinking, he allowed no one to approach him, and remained confined in a house which was filled with heavenly brightness. Yet out of that house, through the chinks of the doors and keyholes, rays of surpassing brilliancy were seen to issue during the night. Certain spiritual songs also, which had never been heard before, he was heard to sing. He came to see, as he allowed in the presence of a very few afterwards, many secrets hidden from men since the beginning of the world fully revealed; certain very obscure and difficult parts of sacred Scripture also were made quite plain, and clearer than the light to the eye of his pure heart. He grieved that his beloved disciple, Baithen, was not with him, because if he had chanced to be beside him during those three days, he would have been able to explain from the lips of the blessed man mysteries regarding past or future ages, unknown to the rest of mankind, and to interpret also some passages of the Sacred Volumes. However, Baithen was then detained by contrary winds in the Egean island (Egg), and he was not, therefore, able to be present until those three days and as many nights of that glorious and unspeakable visitation came to a close (Chapter XIX, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/columba-e.asp, posted 1998 by Paul Halsall, accessed 9 Sept. 2014).

Through the prayers of St Columba, St Gregory Palamas, St Basil the Great, and all our Holy Fathers and Mothers, may we lowly Southrons attain the humility and holiness needed to rightly divide the Holy Scriptures.

Works Cited

Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth, and Eugene Genovese. The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview. New York: Cambridge UP, 2005.

Palamas, St Gregory.  ‘Topics of Natural and Theological Science and on the Moral and Ascetic Life: One Hundred and Fifty Texts’.  The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. IV.  Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware, trans.  London:  Faber and Faber, 1995.

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