Friday, July 31, 2009

The Protestant Matrix for Interpreting Scripture Breeds Heresy

Fr. Stephen has written a fascinating posting on the Orthodox approach to the reading of Holy Scripture. He draws heavily on Irenaeus to ask the question, "What is the matrix by which you seek to interpret Scripture and by what authority do you use it?"

What is clear in Irenaeus’ teaching is that there was what he called the “Apostolic Hypothesis,” a framework of basic doctrine by which Scripture (first the Old Testament, later the New) should be interpreted. This consensus fidelium, or rule of faith, guided the Church century after century into its life, continually enlivened by the Holy Spirit. Though expressed in different ways at different times, the central goal was always the same: that the Church would teach the same Christ as it had received, and proclaim the same salvation it had always known.

Now Irenaeus’ description of the process of interpretation is deeply insightful. He recognizes that Scripture can easily be broken into pieces (we do it all the time when we pull verses here and there). By itself this is not a problem. It’s how you put them back together that matters. Do you reassemble the portrait of a king? or do you make it look like a fox or a dog?

The answer goes to the heart of the matter. What is the matrix by which you seek to interpret Scripture and by what authority do you use it? Anyone who says he just reads the Scripture and that there is no matrix by which he interprets is deceiving himself and his listeners and not admitting that he has already accepted a matrix and on its basis he selects Scripture to fit his point. There really is no other way to read.

Orthodoxy has never denied this. Instead, like Irenaeus, it points to that which it has received. Irenaeus called it the “Apostolic Hypothesis.” It has also been called the “rule of faith,” and various other names. But if you have not accepted this “matrix” you cannot interpret Scripture in the form of the Apostles or their successors or the Church that Christ founded.


Discussing the matrix by which the Reformers approached the interpretation of scripture - an approach which has produced many varied and often irreconcilable teachings, and which continues to dominate much of Western Christianity to this day - Fr. Stephen minces no words. He says that the Protestant Reformers "had no command from God, no conversation with the Apostles, nothing but their own ideas and rationality from which to construct new matrixes." In particular, he targets one doctrine produced by the Protestant matrix for special censure:

For instance, the doctrine of predestination to damnation ... is an excellent example of a modern (i.e. Reformation) doctrine that had never been accepted by the Orthodox Church as a proper reading of Scripture. Verses assembled to support this teaching are like the verses of Gnostics, gathered from a shattered mosaic. Instead of a king, they assemble the picture of a wolf.

God has not created any man and preordained him to perdition. To say that He has is heretical. This is not the faith of the Church. It is contrary to the Apostolic Hypothesis and how we have received the understanding of salvation. If a man is lost he has resisted the will of God, “For God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance…” (2 Peter 3:9). At the end of almost every Orthodox service, the words of dismissal affirm, “For He is a good God and loves mankind.”

This is fundamental to the Christian faith. Any other presentation of God, whether under the cloak of sovereignty or the like, is a distortion and falsification of the Christian religion. There is no God who wills the damnation of human beings. To proclaim otherwise is to proclaim another gospel.


In short, Fr. Stephen charges that the Protestant matrix for interpreting Holy Scripture breeds heresy.

Read it all.

17 comments:

Christopher said...

I would point out that Reformed notions of predestination stem from St Augustine's views at certain points in his theological career. They are not simply Protestant in any given sense but intensification of a particular thinker's writings.

Also, those such as Luther and several Anglican divines (for our Reformation was long-going) interpretted the Scriptures through the lens of Christ, which is very much related to an interpretation through the lens of the Creeds.

On the whole, I must say, this is a good piece revealing the problems of a sola Scriptura approach not only for interpreting Scripture but for trying to use Scripture of its own to solve disputes in the community

Bryan Owen said...

Good and welcome historical points, Christopher. Of course, Orthodox views of Augustine tend to be suspicious to outright hostile. There's an interesting article on this by the Rev. Dr. George C. Papademetriou entitled "Saint Augustine in the Greek Orthodox Tradition."

Bill Carroll said...

Thank God, I'm not a Protestant. But then again, neither was Luther.

plsdeacon said...

I will never forget a "radio preacher" I heard driving from Kerville, TX through Austin.

The preacher was railing against all the new "interpretations" of Scripture that denied its plain meaning.

"Scripture is not to be interpreted!" he said, "See, it says here '....(I can't remember the specific quote....' Now what this means is..." I didn't hear his last point because I was so busy laughing!

When the PB visited Dallas last year, she said that we are not a sola scriptura Church. I don't believe there is any such thing! All scripture is interpreted! The question is does your intrepretation bring the scripture closer to its meaning and does it bring you closer to God and is it true to the clear sense of the text?

Divorcing the intrepetation of Scripture from the Tradition in which it was written and in which it was received and the community through which it has been taught it to loose it from its moorings and leaves us with billions of churches with one memeber each.

YBIC,
Phil Snyder

ps - time for a "fridian" slip. The comment word I was given was "gripp" - as in "some people really need to get a ..." - pls

Joe Rawls said...

Alister McGrath's Christianity's Dangerous Idea (documenting the notion that Protestantism is based upon the right of individual Christians to interpret Scripture for themselves) addresses this notion in great detail. Offhand, I'm trying to remember if McGrath himself believes in predestination. I don't think so, but I'm not sure.

Bill Carroll said...

I was being a bit bratty, but as an Catholic Anglican, I'm not above refering to the Reformation as a 16th (and 17th) century mistake. I do love me some Luther though.

To be a bit more serious, there is a long tradition among Lutherans of viewing themselves as evangelical Catholics. In Germany, the Church isn't named after Luther but after the Gospel. I resonate more with the word "evangelical" than with Protestant, though I think evangelicals have stolen the word.

Bryan Owen said...

I would be genuinely surprised, Joe, if Alister McGrath does believe in predestination. But as time moves on, less and less surprises me ...

And I agree with you, Bill that the word "evangelical" has largely been stolen.

Reformation said...

Predestination is one of the great biblical truths held by most of the great English Reformers and Archbishops. Cranmer, Hooper, Becon, Rogers, Parker, Grindal, Sandys, Whitgift, Bancroft and Ussher. Becon, Cranmer's Chaplain and Prebendary at St. Paul's teaches his three children the doctrine in the "Catechism." The article posted above, at best, counts for little. As for sola scriptura, has any one here digested Martin Chemnitz's three volume work, Examination of Trent? Volume one is--simply--brilliant. Would love to see Volume One blogged here for thinking Anglicans.

Bryan Owen said...

I note that Article XVII of the 39 Articles speaks, not of predestination to damnation, but rather of "Predestination to Life" (BCP, p. 871).

plsdeacon said...

One of my Rectors said: "Predestination to life is scriptural. We need God to receive Resurrection. Double predestination is not scriptural. While we need God's help for new life and resurrection, we can manage damnation on our own."

I try to explore the issues of free will, time, predestination, and free will at the Deacon's Slant.

YBIC,
Phil Snyder

Reformation said...

My own rule of thumb is this: Has any given rector read all of Calvin's 22-ish set of works? All of Luther's 58 volume Am. Ed. set? And all the English Reformers in the 54-volume Parker Society series? I've done the first. Maybe 10 from the second and at least half of the third. The moderns don't have much to say by comparison, especially Calvin. I find the sermon time an opportunity to drift off into my world for twenty minutes or so...into my own recollections. BTW, as a former Navy Chaplain, have worked with most faith groups. Sorry if there are pastors here, but have been bred to not listen much. The human heart hates even in single predestination God's sovereignty over salvation...by nature. It is positively hated by some. Pride is the matrix of interpreting it otherwise.

Robert F said...

This matter of the "Apostolic Hypothesis" confuses me, because it seems to indicate that there is a core doctrine that is not drawn from Scripture and apart from which Scripture is theologically unintelligible. Does this mean that we should not to the greatest extent possible use Scripture to interpret itself before we apply an external hermeneutic? Also, is not the Tradition in general, and the "Apostolic Hypothesis," which is apparently to a great extent orally transmitted and so open to corruption (and hard to pin down), accountable to Scripture? Is Christianity not largely revealed through the Scriptures, or is the "Apostolic Hypothesis" the essential core and Scripture secondary? And how do you have a collegial approach to Scripture without first having an approach of the individual person? How do you determine if Tradition has gotten out of control when you use the Eastern Orthodox matrix? And if the Protestant matrix for reading Scripture breeds heresy, does the Eastern Orthodox matrix for reading Scripture produce Marxism, radical secularism and indifference to Christianity?

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Robert F. You're asking good and important questions. Rather than address them all, I'm hoping that a response to your first two sentences will set things in proper order.

This matter of the "Apostolic Hypothesis" confuses me, because it seems to indicate that there is a core doctrine that is not drawn from Scripture and apart from which Scripture is theologically unintelligible. Does this mean that we should not to the greatest extent possible use Scripture to interpret itself before we apply an external hermeneutic?

What Fr. Stephen is calling the "Apostolic Hypothesis," and which he and others also call the Rule of Faith, is itself derived from and compatible with Holy Scripture. I note, for instance, that the Apostles' Creed was derived from rules of faith used in the early Church to instruct persons preparing to receive the sacrament of Holy Baptism. And the Apostles' Creed - and also the Nicene Creed - lay forth truths that are firmly grounded in Holy Scripture. They also provide the orthodox lenses by which we rightly interpret the dogmatic core of the Christian faith. So it's not a matter of Creeds (or Rules of Faith) vs. Scripture. On the contrary, they are mutually reinforcing rather than opposed.

I think that Fr. Stephen is absolutely correct when he writes: "Anyone who says he just reads the Scripture and that there is no matrix by which he interprets is deceiving himself and his listeners and not admitting that he has already accepted a matrix and on its basis he selects Scripture to fit his point." No one approaches any text without prejudgments, biases, etc. So when it comes to Holy Scripture - a set of texts which we believe contains special revelation from God and all things necessary to salvation - it is critically important that we read rightly. So while they don't address everything or settle every possible question, the Rules of Faith handed down to us in the catholic creeds keep us on the right track and within the bounds of orthodoxy.

It is because of these critical hermeneutic and apologetic functions of the Creeds that I share the following quote from Bishop Frank E. Wilson's book Faith and Practice on the lower right sidebar of this blog:

"The historic Creeds are a protection to the integrity of the Gospel. They are a unifying bond extending throughout the Christian world. They preserve the continuity of the Christian religion. They maintain a standard by which all developments of Christian doctrine may be tested. They are a compass for Christian travelers and an anchor against spiritual drifting. They serve as a constitution for the Church and a check upon changing by-laws and disciplinary regulations. They make for stability of purpose in the Church as a whole, and the recitation of them is a powerful aid in fortifying the faith of every individual Christian."

Robert F said...

But there are rival versions that have different understandings of what the matrix is or should be. Even among those churches that hold to the Ecumenical Creeds and practice the historic episcopate, there are different understandings of what is essential in church belief and practice and what is secondary or nonessential. Because we are presented with several options when trying to discern where the fullest and most authentic embodiment of the church resides, we find ourselves confronted with the protestant imperative of having to make a choice even among those church bodies that claim that they are in the stream of true apostolic authority. As I understand it, for the Eastern Orthodox pretty much the whole of Tradition is non-negotiable and essential, and they do not recognize distinctions between core truths and indifferent aspects of tradition: for them, the whole of Sacred Tradition and the practices that flow from it are essential. For Anglicans, it is a very different matter: even if we can identify a core that is non-negotiable, there are many practices in local Anglican bodies that are recognized as local only and not essential to the core of faith. What you and your brother (who I understand is EO) consider essential to the faith will be different. Who is correct? You or your brother? Or are the Roman Catholics correct using their matrix, which is different yet again with regard to what it considers essentials? Once we become conscious of having to make a choice among rival versions of apostolic authority, we become to that degree protestant, even if we end up choosing the church body with the greatest claim to apostolic authority. It is only logical that when selecting from among the possibilities we should compare the beliefs and practices of the different church bodies with what we can learn from Scripture, thereby making Scripture the judge of what is authentic tradition and what is inauthentic accretion that has attached itself to tradition. What other methodology could we use?

Robert F said...

I also have a question: although it may seem petty or insignificant to many, it has bothered me for a long time that in my own church (Episcopal), as well as in the other churches that practice the historic episcopate, we refer to male priests as "Father," despite the clear admonition that Jesus gives in MT 23:9 that we are not to do so. Now I don't mean to be overly literalistic, and I do assume he is not referring to the use of "Father" to refer to biological or adopted fathers, but why would churches have developed the custom of using this honorific title when it would have been so very easy to avoid it and thereby avoid the possibility of disobeying Jesus in something so simple (as opposed to the more difficult commands, such as "turn the other cheek")?

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Robert F. I'm finding that you have a knack for consistently asking challenging questions, and I really appreciate that! Being somewhat pressed for time these days, I've no doubt that I will not be able to do justice to everything you're raising in your comments. But I hope that I can at least offer a few thoughts that may be helpful.

I agree with you in many ways about the fact that there are, indeed, "rival versions that have different understandings of what the matrix is or should be," and that we find ourselves in a situation in which (unless we've never thought about it or had to make any changes) we must choose which tradition, or which matrix, is, in fact, the most faithful, the most true, to what it means to be the Church.

Unless I've misunderstood you, it seems to me that you are equating "the protestant imperative" with the act of making such choices. I don't think I can accept the idea that someone like Fr. Stephen Freeman - who left the Episcopal Church and its priesthood to become an Orthodox priest - is, in actuality, a Protestant for having exercised his reason and free will in making such a choice! Indeed, if we were to push the logic of equating making choices between rival claims to religious truth with a "protestant imperative," then those who made a decision to become Christians after hearing the apostle Paul's preaching would be the first "Protestants"!

"It is only logical that when selecting from among the possibilities we should compare the beliefs and practices of the different church bodies with what we can learn from Scripture, thereby making Scripture the judge of what is authentic tradition and what is inauthentic accretion that has attached itself to tradition. What other methodology could we use?"

But this begs the question of what exactly it is about and within Scripture that makes it possible for anyone to make such discriminations. Is it everything in scripture? Certain parts of scripture more so than other parts? Parts of scripture to the complete exclusion of other parts? There is an appeal to a matrix prior to scripture that enables making such discriminating judgments. The question "Which matrix?" remains an important one!

With regard to the question of whose right when it comes to my Greek Orthodox brother and me - of course, I am right! :)

In all seriousness, as much as I admire the Orthodox tradition, I am comfortable saying with Fr. Jonathan that Anglicanism "is not just a way, but the best way of coming to know the truth about Jesus Christ that's revealed in Holy Scripture and the witness of the early Church."

As for the Matthew 23:9 question, perhaps the following articles (the first from an Orthodox perspective, the second from a Roman Catholic perspective) will prove helpful:

Why are Priests Called Father in Your Church?

Call No Man "Father"?

Robert F said...

Yes, Bryan, those two articles are very helpful. And it is exactly because I am not well versed enough in connecting Scripture with Scripture that I did not see the bigger picture. Scriptural myopia! But it is a more thorough reading of Scripture that I accept as correction, not an appeal to apostolic authority mediating Scripture.