13 February 2006

Scripture & Tradition

Much time and ink (or pixel) is expended on the relationship between the Scriptures and Tradition. The common misunderstanding, on both sides of the fence, is that these are two separate things. I propose that, in fact, they are not. Rather, they are one in the same.

By that, I do not mean that Tradition is nothing more than the words found in the Bible. Nor do I mean that the words in the Bible are simply a starting point for Tradition. Rather, to say that Scripture and Tradition are of a piece means that they cannot be thought of separately; nor can they be torn apart. Rather, they are (if I may) of the same essence; i.e., consubstantial.

Before submerging into deeper waters, let me borrow a working definition of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition. The late Prof Dr George Florovsky (as quoted by Prof Dr John Behr) says that "Tradition is, as Florovsky put it commenting on Irenaeus, Scripture rightly understood." Or, as Behr himself says, "tradition is essentially the right interpretation of Scripture." With their adherance to a quia subscription to the 1580 Book of Concord, Evangelical-Lutherans hold to this same definition. For them, the Book of Concord is what all others call Tradition; yet it is not separate from the Scriptures but, as one theologian once put it, the lens through which we read the Scriptures.

Now, into deeper waters. To help clarify the confusion of Scripture and Tradition as two separate things, let me suggest that the relationship between Scripture and Tradition is no different than the relationship between the Second and Third Persons of the Holy Blessed Trinity. The Second Person is forthrightly called "the Word of God which became flesh." (Jn 1.14) And the Third Person is the Breath of God handed down (or, if I may, "traditioned") to the Apostles so that they might rightly know and interpret the Word which is Jesus. (Notice: Jesus Himself says that He gives the Spirit to bring to [right] remembrance all that He said; that the Spirit will teach the things to come; and that the Spirit is theTruth's Spirit.)

What I'm arguing for, then, is this: like Jesus and the Spirit, Scripture and Tradition are consubstantial. Yet, also like Jesus and the Spirit, they have separate "hypostasis" since they can be distinguished. Yet distinguished does not mean separated. And neither does it mean "acting apart" or "acting in opposition." So like Jesus and the Spirit, Scripture and Tradition cannot be at odds with each other. They must work in concert. When they don't then either Tradition is not Tradition; or Scripture is not being rightly read.

There is, of course, much more than can and should be said about this challenging topic. But for now, I simply propose this consubstantial understanding or relationship between Scripture and Tradition.

28 comments:

Chaz said...

Could you distinguish between what you describe here and the Orthodox view of tradition?

Michael James Hill said...

By calling Scripture and Tradition consubstantial are you not departing from ... tradition? Is it not the traditional approach to theological problems to treat first was has been said before (like Chemnitz on tradition)rather than launching off into deep neological sea?

fr john w fenton said...

Chaz,

Since I'm not Orthodox, I shall not presume to speak for their view of tradition. However, when I've described this to Orthodox theologians, they have indicated in an unofficial and preliminary way that it coincides with the Orthodox understanding.

fr john w fenton said...

Michael,

My description is an attempt to summarize Chemnitz within the patristic tradition which, to my way of thinking, seems to correspond closely to the articulations of Trinitian and Christological theology; hence the word "consubstantial."

However, I fully grant that such language is not used by Chemnitz and the early church fathers and, therefore, could be seen reflexively as suspect.

Rev. Benjamin Harju said...

Well, I suppose, then, that if the consubstantiality of Scripture and Tradition can be likened to that of Jesus and the Holy Ghost, then their common source must be the Father.

But does the analogy carry through, then? If Jesus and the Spirit are consubstantial with the Father, then are Scripture and Tradition likewise consubstantial with the Father?

The Western "concept" of God speaks of a singular Divine Essence of which there are three distinct Hypostases. But I don't think we can say that the Father and Scripture and Tradition are consubstantial of the singular Divine Essence, can we? Does Western theology have a good way to express this unity of Scripture, Tradition, and the One from whom it comes? Have I taken the analogy too far?

Jonathon Shann said...

Father,

I once heard another anology along the lines of the Father being a mouth, the Son the word, and the Spririt the breath. The mouth sends the word, but you cannot hear the word if it isn't carried by the breath. They are all of the same head.

I think I see what you mean by Scripture and Tradition being of the same essence. If by Tradition you mean Holy Mass and all of the Dances with it. I am not educated as well as you or many of the other people who respond, please forgive me if I assume incorrectly.

Where else has the Word promised to be present? Where else can I go to hear Scripture being purely interpreted?

I have been told that this place is Holy Mass.

If I break Tradition and choose what parts of the Mass I like or dislike, then the Mass becomes a matter of emotion or opinion to me, not edification. Not God's service, but mine. Who am I to tell God how to serve me?

Scripture teaches me, but Tradition gives me a means to listen to instruction.

Ronnie said...

Chaz and the Rev. Fr. John W. Fenton,

There is an Orthodox saying common among the mystics of the New Zealand rite. It says:

"Tradition is intertwined with life like a sock is bound to a foot. You can remove it, but expect to be cold".

I have often found this to be a fairly practical way of viewing the matter.

Michael James Hill said...

At my age I am happy to hear that my reflexes are still pretty good. This is not Chemnitz.

On to another point. Who is the theologian that states that the Confessions are the lens through which we read the Scriptures? (Oh I do hope you are not quoting who I think you are quoting.)

This theologian has it wrong. Scripture interprets Scripture. The Confession are a faithful exposition of Scripture. If the Confession impose an interpretation on Scripture, i.e. are a lens which magnify parts and exclude parts, then the Evangelical Lutheran Confession are sectarian and not part of the Holy Catholic Faith.

Again, what Lutheran theologian would say such a thing?

Ronnie said...

Mr. Hill asks "...what Lutheran theologian would say such a thing?"

Mr. Hill and others,

Let me remind you all of of what the Defense of the Augsburg Confession says in Article XV:

But we cheerfully maintain the old traditions made in the Church for the sake of usefulness and tranquillity; and we interpret them in a more moderate way ...

I am finding it odd that 'new order' Lutherans, or what we used to call 'low rite' Lutherans, are objecting so much to the trajectory of tradition when it comes to interpreting the Canon.

This is one of the reasons that 'high rite' Lutherans and the Orthodox are able to work so closely in such places as New Zealand and Costa Rica. Namely, the wall betwixt tradition and Canon is not so impenitratable.

Let me end by quoting the Orthodox mystic tradition that originates in Helsinki (or somewheres near) that says "there is heavenly door between Scripture and Tradition and going from one to the other is breathing the air of the same room".

Michael James Hill said...

Dear Ronnie,

I am not sure that I understand your comments. I do believe that you have misunderstood mine. Perhaps that is my fault.

I do not object to the salutary use of tradition as it is understood in the confessions of the Evangelical-Lutheran Confessions.

I do understand that of late there has been an unLutheran denigration of tradition by those who claim to be Lutheran.

I do not think Fr. Fenton holds a helpful corrective by claiming that Scripture and Tradition are consubstantial.

This is a departure from the traditional Evangelical-Lutheran understanding of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition (And I think Fr. Fenton knows it.)

The Confessions are not the lens through which Scripture is interpeted and were not intended for such a function.

I hope this helps in clearing up any misunderstanding.

Pax

Ronnie said...

Mr. Hill wites, "I do not object to the salutary use of tradition as it is understood in the confessions of the Evangelical-Lutheran Confessions.

Mr. Hill, here is the problem as I see it. Please accept my apologies if I am in fact misunderstanding you. Further, I would like to explain myself in two ways: 1) a theological argument and 2) a story.

1) When you say "confessions of the Evangelical-Lutheran Confessions", this creates a kind of canon-within-the-canon type of arrengment or a confession-within-the-confession, if you will. This should not be. Our Book of Concord knows no such thing.

2) Here's a story to help clarify my point. In the 1978 graduating class of St. Anselm's Preperatory School in Azworth, New Zealand, there was a Lutheran boy, a very renown pole vaulter named Wilhelm Gobblefried, who refused to use the mewly aquired gymnastic equipment. When asked why, he responded, "I have never jumped on new eqipment".

Unfortuntely, many modern, or 'low rite' Lutherans, take the same position on Tradition as the young Wilhelm Gobblefried.

We should always be ready to sense when Tradition is simply the fresh encapsulation of the gospel.

I hope this clarifies my point.

I would like to see Fr. Fenton's interaction. I would like to think that my poistion (and subsequently those of us who folow the Orthodox-Lutheran dialogue taking place in New Zealand) is close to his.

Michael James Hill said...

Dear Ronnie,

We agree on one thing, it would be nice to hear from Fr. Fenton. Particularly on the matter of just what theologian he is quoting. It is always good to have something to agree on.

And I really do not think we are far from agreement on a few other points.

First, I made a typo. I meant to write that I agree with "salutary use of tradition as it understood in the confessions of the Evangelical Church." I do not think this creates a cannon within a cannon.

Again, I subscribe to the confessions as the faithful expostion of Scripture.

As for modern, "low rite" Lutherans, that ain't me.

Pax

Rev. Benjamin Harju said...

Mr. Hill,

I am a bit fuzzy on your problem with using the confessions as a lens by which we view the Scriptures, since you claim the confessions are a true exposition of the Scriptures.

One of the primary aspects of hermenuetics is that you are *always* viewing the Scriptures through some "lens" or such. You never come to the Scriptures neutral. If the confessions are faithful to the Faith conveyed in the Scriptures, then what's the problem with using them as a lens? You've provided two very pat Lutheran slogans (Scripture interprets Scripture & Confessions are a faithful exposition of Scripture), but I don't follow the logic of your explanation. How do your two slogans properly interact? (Maybe I'm just slow.)

Some more questions: Do the confessions continue an already existing way of understanding Scripture, or do they begin something new or a new method? Are we to constantly strive to re-invent the wheel (i.e. the one, true Faith) everytime there's a crisis? Is that what the confessions do? If they don't, then why can't they be used as a lens by which we can see the Scriptures as they are meant to be seen?

Ronnie said...

The Rev. Harju has written that "you never come to the Scriptures neutral".

This is precisely correct!

And therefore do we neither arrive at an objective understanding of Holy Writ either. This is one of the few things that the "postmodern hermenuetic" gets correct.

I would also like to address some of Rev. Harju's other questions because I do believe him to me somewhat mistaken on a few points.

Do the confessions continue an already existing way of understanding Scripture, or do they begin something new or a new method?.

Unfortunately, the later option. However, this applies only to the original Latin edition of the Book of Concord. What the confessions *do* offer in the German editions, sepcifically the 1850 BoC, is an autherntic vision of understanding Scripture. (compare this with the Solid Declaration)

I would also recommend anyone who is interested in this topic of the correct use of scripture within the context of tradition to consult the wonderful dissertation by the New Zealand Lutheran theologian Sigfried von Hummel. (university microfish #2908254-K3)

Michael James Hill said...

Dear Reverend Harju

The so-called pat Lutheran statements are made for a number of reasons, but most of all because blogs require breviety.

My unformed hermenuetic owes more to Aristotle/Flacius than post-modern theorists. It is the task of exegesis to give an objective understanding of a text. The difficulty of objectivity does not relieve one of the task.

The problem with post-modern hermeneutics is that it is better are explaining how we cannot possibly understand a text. With certain French philosophers this attitude reaches a logical conclusion with treatises which are themselves incomprehensible. But that is the French for you.

To restate, my pre-enlightenment position is that at the tower of Bable God confused the language of man, he did not destroy it.

If the Confessions are the lens through which we understand Scripture then how did the confessors understand Scripture since they did not have the lens through which we understand Scripture? The confessors did not understand the Confessions as a lens and did not intend for them to be used as such. Neither did the confessors understand themselves to be adding to Scriture.

I am going too long. A good deal could be resolved here if we simply new what theological authority has asserted that the Confession are a lens through which we understand Scripture.

Michael James Hill said...

Dear Reverend Harju

The so-called pat Lutheran statements are made for a number of reasons, but most of all because blogs require breviety.

My unformed hermenuetic owes more to Aristotle/Flacius than post-modern theorists. It is the task of exegesis to give an objective understanding of a text. The difficulty of objectivity does not relieve one of the task.

The problem with post-modern hermeneutics is that it is better are explaining how we cannot possibly understand a text. With certain French philosophers this attitude reaches a logical conclusion with treatises which are themselves incomprehensible. But that is the French for you.

To restate, my pre-enlightenment position is that at the tower of Bable God confused the language of man, he did not destroy it.

If the Confessions are the lens through which we understand Scripture then how did the confessors understand Scripture since they did not have the lens through which we understand Scripture? The confessors did not understand the Confessions as a lens and did not intend for them to be used as such. Neither did the confessors understand themselves to be adding to Scriture.

I am going too long. A good deal could be resolved here if we simply new what theological authority has asserted that the Confession are a lens through which we understand Scripture.

Michael James Hill said...

To whom it may concern,

I write from the reference room of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee library. Sometimes the computer misbehaves. Hence the doublt post. Sorry.

Ronnie said...

To all,

Most, if not all, of our misgivings (or misunderstandings) of confession and tradition" could be resolved if we would simply give up the faulty super-imposed distinction of Law and Gosepl as it has come to be known in dogmatic Lutheran circles. (And no, I am not advocating a pietistic or revivalistic alternative.)

I am simply saying that this idea is so foreign to any serious investigation of both the old and new Testaments. It does not deal with a serious exegetical and historical look at the Scripture nor their context. In my opinion, it has to a large extent created a stained-glass Jesus that does not do justice to the Jesus of Israel and history. The "two-kingdom" ethic has also done it fair damage as well.

Back to tradition:

Dr. von Hummel in a 1984 address to the pan Orthodox-Lutheran Symposium of Wellington, NZ said that "one cannot find a single reference in Luther, Melancthon, Dressner,
Staupitz, Gerhard, or even moderns like Schmid, who would pit the recieved tradition against the recieved text."

Dr. von Hummel went on to say that this unfortunate turn of events could be traced to the uneven hermenuetic of law-gospel that had spread throughout certain factions of Lutheranism.

Dr. von Hummel, I believe, hit the nail on the head.

Michael James Hill said...

I believe that there is a traditional distinction we can make in regard to the topics of Law and Gospel, and the Two Kingdoms. The abuse of these topics does not negate their beneficial use.

Given man's fallen nature (something the Orthodox do not understand) the only result of abandoning the distinction between Law and Gospel would be the loss of the Gospel. Bonhoefer demonstrated this in his "Cost of Discipleship."

Ronnie said...

Mr. Hill, you write "I believe that there is a traditional distinction we can make in regard to the topics of Law and Gospel, and the Two Kingdoms. The abuse of these topics does not negate their beneficial use".

The abuse does not negate, per se, but it does in fact warrant a completely new understanding and application of this common distinction.

As an aside, this problem was brought home to me when the pan-Lutheran/Orthodox Convention on Theology in New Zealand refused to allow several Anabaptist students to serve on a correspondence committee regarding the new faculty newspaper.

Back to tradition and the Bible:

What Rev. Fenton has called a "consubstantial" view of Tradition and Scripture is validated by, I believe, by such verses as Genesis 2:12 which says "and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there."

Using a traditional hermenuetic (and a hermenuetic common to both the Alexandrian and Syrian tradition) we can surmise that "land" in this text means *knowledge*. This seems clear. "Bdellium and onyx stone" would easily then be indentifiable as *tradition* and *Scripture*. Take note of 1 Peter 2:5 as well.

I guess what I am trying to say is that this is a tought area of investigation, both historically and theologically, as Louis Bouyer has demonstarted when he has written about tradition.

Rev Fenton, what do you say about this?

fr john w fenton said...

Rev Harju,

You asked:

Does Western theology have a good way to express this unity of Scripture, Tradition, and the One from whom it comes?

I respond:

When Western theology is at its best, it speaks not Western (nor Eastern) but what is of the Truth. When it doesn't, it becomes "Western theology" (the snide tone put on the word 'Western'). That, I deduce, occurs when the scholastics begin to distinguish Scripture and Tradition to the point that they become two separate things.

Using my analogy, this is akin to leaning so heavily on Spirit (or Truth) that one forgets the "of" (as in, "Spirit of Truth"). My analogy is an attempt to show that Lutherans tried to see the two as one (to use yet another analogy).

You further ask:

Have I taken the analogy too far?

I respond:

You've taken the analogy too far. After all, it is only an analogy.

fr john w fenton said...

I must confirm Rev Hill's fears: the "Confessions as lens through which Scripture is viewed" talk comes from CFW Walther--a man, who despite some other weaknesses, does get many things right. This, I suggest, is one of them.

fr john w fenton said...

Rev Hill,

You assert that my view is not Chemnitz's. In this you may be right. But, having reviewed his eight-fold distinction of Tradition in his Examination of the Council of Trent, I don't see it that way. His quotation of St Basil is most telling to my mind. I'm hopeful that you'd be willing to help me see how I've misread Chemnitz.

fr john w fenton said...

My use of the term "consubstantial" was deliberately designed to indicate that the Lutheran view (and my view, personally) is not the view of those who wish to speak mathematically of two separate things which, when added together, make a whole. Hence the quotes from Behr and Florovsky which, frankly, echoes Chemnitz: "The fourth kind of tradition is concerning the exposition, the true sense or natural meaning of Scripture." (Kramer I.244)

Chemnitz goes to great lengths to demonstrate that only the eighth of eight understandings breaks this unity. This eighth he describes as traditions pertaining to both faith and morals which cannot be proved from Scripture but which are placed on par with Scripture simply because the Church has decreed so. (Kramer I.272f)

As for the lens talk, one must not necessarily stretch the analogy to mean the skewing of things (magnifying and thereby excluding). One should rather think of it (as I believe Walther does) in terms of sharpening the focus so that one falls neither into the error of "nuda Scriptura" nor the error of creating a new tradition.

Rev Harju is dead on when he says that all men approach Scripture with some interpretive context. The beginning of that context is "Either it's the Spirit-breathed Word or it's not." That language, in itself, suggests to me the Spirit/Christ analogy which further suggests to me a "consubstantial" relationship between Scripture and Tradition.

The fear, I suppose, is that the Spirit might trump Jesus (i.e., Tradition will impose something new or different on the Word). However, the realization of such a fear is, by definition, the tearing asunder of consubstantiality. As is also, I would further suggest, the notion that Jesus holds down Spirit with a heavy heel.

Michael James Hill said...

One of the benefits of not belonging to the LCMS is that one does not have to read C. F. W. Walther. Nevertheless, I have attempted to find the passage Fr. Fenton quotes concerning the "Confessions as Lens." It has not been pleasant.

Perhaps, Fr. Fenton would be so good as to tell us were Walther says such a thing? There are a number of things I might want to accuse Walther of -- this is not one of them.

So, chapter and verse, Father? Or even the book. (Why so evasive?)

fr john w fenton said...

Rev Hill,

Please forgive me. I mistakenly assumed you (and others) were familiar with my paper, "What Options Do the Confessions Give Us" (see "Select Publications" at www.ZionDetroit.org).

Here's what I wrote there:

"For our confessional standard is not Holy Scriptures alone. Neither is it interpreting the Confessions according to the Scripture. Rather, as C. F. W. Walther reminds us, our confessional standard is reading, interpreting, and expounding Holy Scripture according to the Confessions. In other words, the catholic faith rightly articulated in the Book of Concord gives us the right way to hear the Scriptures, and the right lens for reading the Scriptures."

And here's the footnote:

“If the Church conceded that its ministers should not be required to interpret the Scriptures according to the symbols but interpret the symbols according to the Scriptures, subscription would not give the church any guarantee that the pledged minister would understand and expound the Scriptures as it [the Church] does but rather as he himself thinks right. Thus the church would actually set up the changing personal convictions of its ministers as the symbol to which it would obligate itself.” (C. F. W. Walther, “Confessional Subscription,” Essays for the Church: Volume I 1857-1879 [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1992], 25).

He actually uses the "lens" talk elsewhere in the translation I read as a seminary student--a translation which first appeared in Concordia Theological Monthly.

fr john w fenton said...

Rev Hill,

I should hasten to add that the quote I provided from Walther is not the fullness of what he says. He clearly lays out this proposition in the essay I cited (i.e., Walther's "Confessional Subscription" essay).

Michael James Hill said...

Fr. Fenton,

I have a vague memory of your essay, "What Options." It is a deliberately vague memory because I was hoping, that having been thoroughly refuted, you had repented of writing it.

If you read the quote you give you within context, you can see that Walther is not proposing using the Confession as a "lens" (and you should not mislead people to think he uses such language). He is talking about the nature of "quia" subscription to the Confessions. In other words, one cannot subscribe to the confessions in so far as they agree with Scripture... but you know that.

Walther clearly states his hermanuetic on page 24, where he states, as I have said, that Scriture interprets Scripture. Only within the context of what is said on page 24 that your quote is to be understood.

Bottom line -- your invention of the consubstatiality of Scripture and Tradition may make for some fun in blogdom and create some warm theological debate, but it is not going to do a thing for the faith with which one can die.