History and Tradition


It is easy to think of the Church as a well-organized monolith that only really suffered a communication break down at the time of the Orthodox Diaspora (or in the West, shortly after the Great Schism and just before the Reformation), but the fact is that lots of pieces of history and praxis have fallen through the cracks of time.

St. Phanorious

St.Phanourios

A good example of this is St.Phanourios.

Literally nothing is known about him except that at one time someone painted an icon of him, and that — at least according to the somewhat gruesome side panels on his icon — he was tortured. In fact, we don’t even know when he lived, only that his lost icon was discovered circa 1500.

Apparently some Arabic raiders had decided that Rhodes was too pretty looking, and so they decided to go through smashing churches, houses, etc. At one of the churches they decided to smash, the raiders found a group of ancient icons that had been theretofore hidden, perhaps within a wall.

Most of the icons were in a sad state, but one — which bore the name “Phanourious” —  still held the appearance of being freshly painted despite being hidden for centuries. The raiders didn’t think too much of this, really, and went on their way.

The monks who were hiding nearby, however, thought a good deal of it, and once the raiders were gone they rushed out and picked up this icon that had miraculously survived the years.

The Church of St.Phanourios in Rhodes

Except when they picked it up, they had no idea who Phanourios was.

After finding none of the other ancient icons in such good shape, the monks decided to investigate just who Phanourious was. No such luck was to be had — there was nothing in the local civil or ecclesiastical libraries.

To this day, the only things we know about this saint come from the miraculously preserved icon. Apparently his martyrdom include being stoned, placed on the rack, slashing, being tied to a frame, being burned with candles, tied to a stake, crushed by a boulder, being forced to hold hot coals and being thrown to wild animals.

The Archbishop of Rhodes, Milos, came to believe that the miraculous preservation of the icon and the icon’s testimony of Phanourious apparent indestructibility were evidence of his sainthood. The Patriarch convened a synod,Phanourios was proclaimed a saint and a cathedral was built to enshrine his icon.

His feast day is August 27, and he’s considered the patron of lost things, since, you know, he was lost for a while.

There’s even a pie named after him.

(I thought I’d borrow Serge‘s posting style)

From Fr. Ernesto:

To me hobbits are a wonderful picture of holiness in daily life. No, they are not perfect. But, they are mostly content. They live their lives in simple joy, carrying out their family duties generation after generation, faithful to their families and to the land. They are not worried about massive acts of asceticism, neither do they write long theological tomes. They are not the “great” of the land, nor are they pictured that way. But, they are a people of faithfulness and promise-keeping. They are committed to each other and their community.

But, when the time of testing comes, the hobbit turns out to be much more than what one expects. Their life of quiet family holiness, of consistency and of promise keeping, stand them in good stead when great evil befalls them. It is their actions during the time of great testing that is the proof of their quiet holiness.

If only we could all be Hobbits.

From Arturo:

In my life as a Catholic, it has veritably all been a game of “the more you know, the less you know”. You go through most of your life thinking that such-and-such is traditional, only to find out that it is less than a hundred years old: a drop in the bucket in the vast well of human history. The obsession of the Catholic Church, even prior to Vatican II, was an obsession for novelty, which was often compensation for the shame Catholic scholarship felt before that bitch goddess we know today as “historical scholarship”. Having not paid attention to what was really thought and believed, we found that what we had been doing and saying for centuries was all the fruit of novelty. And the only anecdote for novelty was more novelty. God forbid that we should actually stay the course.

What Arturo goes on to discuss is the evolution of Thomistic thought in the Catholic Church, a discussion that is about five levels above my pay grade, but his initial point certainly rings true, both in the traditional communions and in the lowest of the low church traditions: what we label as traditional Anglicanism is actually the work of 19th century Anglo-Catholic tract writers and the 1928 BCP, and many of those in the Orthodox convert movement are guilty of mistaking pious practices that aren’t that old in the grand scheme of things as dogma; in the low church arena, what is considered traditional Baptist practice is mostly the codification of 1920s and 1930s fundamentalist reaction to modernity and Pentecostalism, with Pentecostalism itself being barely a century old. Old time religion, indeed.

From Peter Leithart:

Marjorie Garber argues that our view of Romeo and Juliet has been altered by contemporary trends and events.  Romeo has become the standard American high school Shakespeare play, and some of its themes and sensibility were taken up by the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s.

As a result, the play ends up being part of the framework for our interpretation of the play: Romeo affected our conceptions of love, especially young love, and our conceptions of generational differences, and we now read the play in the light of those conceptions.

Literary mores become social mores, creating an interpretive echo chamber; what was tragic and foolhardy (albeit an elegant observation) in the 1600s seems like the obvious end result to kids who would otherwise be reading novels about a teenage girl lusting after an undead centenarian with a glitter problem.

I don’t generally like blog posts that are mostly quotes, something I’m guilty of before and will be again. But there are two quotes that have been rattling around my head for the last few weeks, and they help me hold my uneasy place in what some have dubbed the post-evangelical (and in my case, the pre-Orthodox) wilderness.

I couldn’t explain why if you asked.

The first is from St. Basil:

At such a time, then, there is need of great effort and diligence that the Churches may in some way be benefited. It is an advantage that parts hitherto severed should be united. Union would be effected if we were willing to accommodate ourselves to the weaker, where we can do so without injury to souls; since, then, many mouths are open against the Holy Spirit, and many tongues whetted to blasphemy against Him, we implore you, as far as in you lies, to reduce the blasphemers to a small number, and to receive into communion all who do not assert the Holy Spirit to be a creature, that the blasphemers may be left alone, and may either be ashamed and return to the truth, or, if they abide in their error, may cease to have any importance from the smallness of their numbers.

Let us then seek no more than this, but propose to all the brethren, who are willing to join us, the Nicene Creed. If they assent to that, let us further require that the Holy Spirit ought not to be called a creature, nor any of those who say so be received into communion. I do not think that we ought to insist upon anything beyond this. For I am convinced that by longer communication and mutual experience without strife, if anything more requires to be added by way of explanation, the Lord Who works all things together for good for them that love Him, will grant it.

The second, from St. Paul (here in New King James rendering):

Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from goodwill: The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice.

  • Edit (Jan 20, 2010): Six months after the fact, this post still seems to get a lot of traffic, which is why I feel I should explain that the objections I raised in this post are no longer objections I hold. Just keep that in mind as you read it, and pray for continued grace and understanding on my part.

In Christian circles, there are two basic narrative takes on church history.

The first is that some time after the apostles died the church in general took a turn for the worse, and that the protestant reformation did a lot of corrective work for that.

The second is that following the death of the apostles, the church stayed steady and random groups with bad ideas broke off from the church, some small and some quite large, but because of its physical and spiritual ties to the apostles and their teachings via apostolic succession, the church remained steady and maintained the apostolic faith.  (Who is that group, be it Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox is still up for debate, of course.)

Until yesterday, I was fully prepared to accept that second proposition, thanks in part to the mess the whole of American Christianity has become and in part because, even after dropping the supposition of apostolic succession, I believe that dogma is necessary.

But there’s one big flaw in the Orthodox worldview that stops me: the idea that the Orthodox Church is the only church, and all other Christians are — to borrow a phrase from the Roman Catholics, who believe the same thing — ecclesial communities.

(There are several smaller issues, as well, such as, how do we know the saints can hear us?)

I know where the Orthodox and Catholics are coming from, both theologically and historically when they make their claims about being the Church, but to say, “The Bible says the Church is one, therefore the true Church can only be tied to one ecclesiastical structure” — I can’t do it.

I can’t look at a body of believers, wherever two or three are gathered, and say, “Nope, you guys are not part of the Church.” That’s a deal breaker, and it is absolutely gut-wrenching.

Sunday, when I was in my evangelical church contemplating becoming Orthodox, I began to grow more and more uneasy to the point of nausea about the thought, especially considering Orthodoxy’s claims about itself. After all, it’s not like becoming Orthodox is the same thing as becoming Methodist.

I still long for a connection to the ancient Church, and still can’t really endorse a cowboy-ish “me and my Bible” approach to things with no regard for the mind of the early church, who were, as the Orthodox and Catholics point out, the disciples of the disciples.

I think Orthodoxy has done a tremendous job of preserving the post-apostolic and patristic spirituality of the church, and I think Orthodox worship —patterned after the heavenly worship in the book of Revelation — is beautiful.

But I don’t think Orthodoxy is the church, and I can’t accept that them having a line of bishops  (some of whom were, ahem, heretics) all the way back to the apostles automatically regiments the majority of Christendom, including myself, to the status of Christians outside the Church.

Also, as someone who has read just enough Church history to be really dangerous, I have a problem with the idea that the Church is protected by a charism of infallibility.

So where does that put me now?

I am staying with my church (which is, warts and all, filled with people  I love), and holding a sort of third version of the two readings of history I presented earlier, one that can be termed “essentially Orthodox” — I believe in something akin to Holy Tradition (albeit broadly defined and somewhat muted without apostolic succession), shaped by the patristic mind of the early church but keeping in mind that, just like scripture, you can make the early Church fathers say whatever you want when taken out of context.

So, basically where I was.

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” – Matthew 19.19 (ESV)

St. PeterThe keys to the kingdom that Jesus gives Peter in Matthew 16.19 is certainly a puzzling passage, but it is by no means a nail in the coffin for those who want to question the papacy. The strongest argument I have seen attached to it is that the keys are a reference back to Isaiah 22.15-25, in which Eliakim is given the keys to the house of David — but that’s a theologically creative stretch at best, no matter how emphatically the apologist says it.

Even supposing the keys do note succession (as the mantle of Eliakim supposedly does), they why the See of Rome? Peter also helped found the Church of Antioch, and his successors are still there as well.

If the keys are to be interpreted solely as denoting the power to bind and loose, then the other disciples were given those keys as well. See John 20.22-23:

And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,  “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

On an aside: I like Pope Benedict XVI, for what that is worth, even if my heart does lie with Orthodoxy.

Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and is in itself abundantly sufficient, what need is there to join to it the interpretation of the Church? The answer is that because of the very depth of Scripture all men do not place one identical interpretation upon it. The statements of the same writer are explained by different men in different ways, so much so that it seems almost possible to extract from it as many opinions as there are men. Novatian expounds in one way, Sabellius in another, Donatus in another, Arius, Eunomius and Macedonius in another, Photinus, Apollinaris and Priscillian in another, Jovinian, Pelagius and Caelestius in another, and latterly Nestorius in another. Therefore, because of the intricacies of error, which is so multiform, there is great need for the laying down of a rule for the exposition of Prophets and Apostles in accordance with the standard of the interpretation of the Church Catholic.

-From The Vincentian Canon of St. Vincent of Lerins, written circa 434

Sometimes, I think St. Vincent has a point. I look around, and I see a lot of interpretive malfeasance going on in the Christian world. But if Holy Tradition plays an interpretive role, how do we define Tradition? Councils? There were anti-Councils with plenty of bishops in attendance; heck, Nestorianism was affirmed in council.

This is not to say that I reject the idea of or dogmas promulgated at the ecumenical councils, or  St. Vincent’s advice about cleaving back to antiquity. But there’s a saying I heard from some Orthodox guys that stays in the back of my mind — 100 percent of the early church fathers are in agreement 85 percent of the time.

Understanding the church’s history is important, but I’m just not comfortable granting a charism of infallibility to anyone (even a collective anyone). Fifteen percent is a lot of wiggle room.

A few weeks ago, my old college buddy and fellow sojourner Jacob said something that has had me thinking since then — his definition of sola scriptura is “the Church is fallible.”

That may not seem like something so startling to many people, but — even as someone who has a high, even elevated, appreciation of capital-T Tradition but seriously struggles with some Catholic presuppositions — it’s one that I appreciate.

Your typical Catholic (and Orthodox) apologist will reply that the only way we even know what the biblical canon is because the Church has historically defined it, making the contents of the biblical canon Tradition itself. Scripture is inspired even if the Church does not recognize it, but the only reason you know it is scripture is because the Church has called it such, they say.

And that’s a point I concede, at least to a point (or, better stated: I am not equipped to argue it). 

But here’s the problem with that argument: there are four [major] biblical canons — Slavonic, Greek, Roman Catholic and Protestant (I listed them in order from longest to shortest, including the appendices in the case of the Slavonic and Greek corpora — that is assuming that an Orthodox reader accepts the Council of Jerusalem as dogmatic, of course), and apologists on both sides of the fence can cite early historic examples of those in favor of either the Catholic and Protestant tables of contents.

That leaves us with a bit of a conundrum, which is exactly why the Roman Catholic dogmatized their canon at the Council of Trent and the Orthodox at least agreed (if not dogmatically) at the Council of Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, Protestants have chosen to define their Old Testament canon along the lines of the Jewish Council of Jamnia rather than by the LXX. That council didn’t happen until after Christ but was the canon Jerome backed (until he later caved and added the deuterocanon into the Vulgate).

My point is that even the Tradition surrounding the canon wasn’t clearly defined until the 1600s (something some Catholics curiously think is a strong point for their case), and it wasn’t Luther who first disregarded some books, so there’s a real weakness in the argument that the Bible as Tradition is proof that all Tradition is equal to Scripture.

 (I know this is a drastically fast fly-over of history — for example, I know there were other Jewish canons, and I realize that there are several other canons used by sui juris churches in the east. Don’t beat me up.)

Then, of course, there’s always the fact that Catholics can’t give you a solid answer as to what composes the Magisterium, per se, and the Orthodox will begrudgingly admit that there can be a fine line between Holy Tradition and old papers written by holy men.

That’s kind of where I stand at the moment (in other words, a little confused). And that’s why I’ll have to address arguments about the nature of the church and apostolic succession in our next heartwarming episode of Tradition and Me.