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Sola Scriptura, the NT Canon and the Church
19-07-2008, 02:14 PM,
Sola Scriptura, the NT Canon and the Church
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Recovering from a fairly serious back problem, I have been unable to post for a while, except sporadically, but I have had time to do some reading, as well as converse with a couple of Anglican friends. One topic which came up might be of interest and prompt others to join in, and that was the question of the place of Tradition in the teaching of the Orthodox Church as opposed to the more Protestant view of Sola Scriptura.

One of my friends, who maintains the position that the C of E is a Protestant Church, casually remarked that 'of course, like the Catholics, you lot prefer your blessed tradition to the plain word of God in Scripture.' I tried to persuade him that this certainly misrepresented our view (and that it probably did the same for the RCs), but this is what I wrote to him.

I would be grateful for corrections, of course, and for comments.---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
The difficulty with your position is that it can only be held by a Church which came into existence after there was a canon - and since my Church predates the canon, we should have looked rather silly for a long time proclaiming sola scriptura. Let me try to explain as best I can my understanding of these things - but do remember I am a recent convert to the BOC and may well speak in even more error than you say I do on other matters!

The canonical gospels are thought by many scholars to be amongst the earliest written; this I have from: Streeter, The Four Gospels (1930); Hanehman, The Muratorian Fragment (1992); J.A.T. Robinson, Redating the NT (1976); Metzger, The Canon of the NT (1987); but they were not the only ones in circulation.

Papias, who is the first witness to mention or quote any known gospel tradition writes (as recorded in Eusebius) of St. Mark:
Quote:This, also the presbyter (John?] said: Mark, having become Peter's interpreter, wrote down accurately all that he remembered, not indeed in order, of the things said and done by Christ. For he had not heard the Lord, nor had he followed Him, but later on, as I said, followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord's discourses, so that Mark did nothing wrong in thus writing down single points as he remembered them. For to one thing he gave attention, to leave out nothing of what he heard and to make no false statements. HE 3:39.15
He adds in HE 3.39.16:
Quote: 'So then Mark collected the oracles (logia) in the Hebrew language, and everyone interpreted as he was able.'

We only have those parts of the writings of Papias preserved by Eusebius, but in HE 3:39;4 he writes something instructive:
Quote:If anyone ever came who had followed the presbyters, I questioned him in regard to the words of the presbyters, what Andrew or Peter or Phillip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew, or any other of the disciples of the Lord, say. For I did not think that information from books would help so much as the word of a living and abiding voice.
So, that's how people in the early Church preferred their information - not much sola scriptura there, because there was no sole source.

Papias is, I think, the earliest to quote from any known written gospel traditions, but preferred the 'living and abiding voice' to the written word; nor was he the only one. The German scholar, Koester, in his Synoptische Uberlieferung bei den Apostolischen Vaten (1957), shows that gospel citations from the Apostolic Fathers are more likely to be drawn from oral traditions; either that, or they are quite extraordinarily free quotations from anything written, so different are they. (OK, this is my rusty German at work, but Hanheman agrees!)

Written gospels became used increasingly only as the oral tradition became unavailable because of death. These gospels were associated with various local Churches, and in the early second century there are no signs that any of them had all 4 that we use. Marcion, for example, employed only Luke, and there is no sign he knew any others.

The only surviving codices from the first half of the second century appear to have contained only one work each, with only one exception. The Fayyum fragments (P75) which includes Luke and John is the first multiple gospel codex we have - and that is c. 175-225 AD. The Egyptian Codex, P45, is the earliest fourfold gospel codex and is dated to the first half of the third century.

Again, this suggests that it was not until the later second century that codices of the 4 gospels were in circulation, which reinforces the idea that local Churches followed local tradition, which included the gospel they knew and the epistles handed down locally. We also know from Eusebius that the texts were enlarged to add stories from other traditions.

Thus we see a picture in which Christian communities gradually became aware of a variety of gospel texts and other documents of Apostolic origin. It is not until Justin Martyr (Dialogue) that we have direct quotations from more than two gospels. But Justin also cites saying of the Lord which are not in any of the 4 gospels, suggesting he had access to a compilation of the sayings of the Lord.

The Diatessaron which you seem to think implies a confusion, does no such thing if we place it in this context. Tatian's work was one of several 'harmonies'. which suggests that the fourfold gospel canon was still not established, and men felt it fine to combine written and oral sources from local tradition. Indeed, Tatian had all 4 gospels, but his harmony of them was accepted as having the same status; again, no canon evident around the 180s. Indeed, not until after the establishment of the canon was the Diatessaron replaced - and Tatian used not only the 4 gospels but also 'the gospel according to the Hebrews'. There are also parallels with the Coptic Gospel of Thomas.

In short, Tatian, like the rest of his contemporaries, knew many gospel traditions and considered none canonical (the same is true of the work of Victor of Capua, 546, and Theophilus of Antioch). Nowhere before Irenaeus (c.180-9) do we have a mention a fourfold gospel canon (Adv. Haer. 3.11.11). He suggests that by the end of the second century a canon of 4 gospels was being argued for.

We see the same story of adaption and tradition with the Pauline corpus. The East accepted a collection of 14 epistles as early as Origen - but the West did not do so until the late fourth century.

So, it is not until the 4th century that we get the Church, through its Councils, taking decisions about what was and was not canonical. I, of course, like to quote St. Anthansius' festal letter to you, but since you lost the last copy I sent, you can jolly well track it down for yourself.

Any way, this is too long, and I shall share it with my friends on the BOC. But I guess what I am saying in such a long-winded way, is that it is only thanks to the Church that you know what is and is not canonical in the NT. Your decision to accept the Church's book but not its reading of it is, of course, at the core of what divides us - but, I hope, does not embitter the cordial acerbity of our correspondence.

As I say, comments, corrections and additions all welcome.

In Christ,


In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:10)
21-07-2008, 08:06 AM,
The debate about Scripture and/versus Tradition which John raises is an important one. It is vital that all Orthodox are adequately informed when discussing the subject.

Alas, unlike John, I am much less patient in such discussions that I probably should be.

For example, a young Baptist pastor sought, not long ago, to convince me of the evils of trying to add Tradition to Scripture.
?We should rely only on the Bible? he declared.
?Which Bible?? I replied. He looked confused.
?THE Bible? he said, producing the floppy black KJV which at least in Sydney is the constant talisman of Protestants (the really radical might go for a NKJV or even something more recent ? but apparently it always has to be black and floppy).
?How do you know that?s the Bible??
?It says so on the cover.?
?But how do you know it?s the right Bible containing the right texts??
?Because it?s sold in our church bookstore.?
?How does your church know it?s the right Bible containing the right texts??
?Because the text has always been the same.?
?So in the 1st or 2nd centuries Christians were reading this very Bible??
Early Church history rarely being a strong point for Protestants he had to think a while about this tricky question. Even the pastor might have known that the KJV was a little later in origin than the 2nd century.
?Well, not in the 1st and 2nd centuries.?
?Well, when did this Bible come into being? Who decided what texts should be included? Who decided what texts should not be included? And why??
?The books of the Bible are there because there the books of the Bible.?
?How do you know??
?Because there in the Bible.?
The discussion was clearly going nowhere.
?Surely the books of the Bible are the books of the Bible because the ancient Fathers of the Church decided what constituted the Canon of Scripture? And decided that other books were not part of that Canon??
?Well, I guess.?
?Are the books of the Bible listed in one of the books of the Bible??
?So the Canon of Scripture is defined by the teachings and writings of the Fathers which are not part of the Bible??
?I guess ? but they were inspired by the Holy Spirit.?
?Of course. But we only know what is Scripture because it is part of the Tradition of the Church. No Tradition, and we might be including the so-called ?Gospel of Judas? in our Bible.?
?But that?s not in the Bible?.?

Scripture is defined by Tradition, and therefore Scripture is a part of Tradition. No Tradition and we?re left with a free-for-all grab for any early Christian texts which might be around. I didn?t explain to the young pastor that, if we accept that the Church through Tradition defines the Scriptures, then we might then want to recognize that the Scriptures can only be interpreted in the light of Tradition.

Of course, both appeals to Scripture and appeals to Tradition can, amongst the theologically illiterate lead to madness. My local ultra-conservative Baptist Church doesn?t allow the use of an organ because it?s not Scriptural (although why they haven?t gathered together an orchestra of musical instruments specifically named in Scripture I don?t know). The local True Genuine Greek Orthodox Church doesn?t allow electric light in the church because it is not Traditional. Strangely, they allow electronic amplification. If I ever have an empty few days I might ask the Bishop there to explain?..

Fr Gregory
21-07-2008, 08:24 AM,
sola sciptura, the nat canon and the church
Dear John and father Gregory,
A succinct explanation of Tradition is given on
<!-- w --><a class="postlink" href=""></a><!-- w -->

Kirk Yacoub
24-07-2008, 10:13 PM,
Dear Fr. Gregory,

How I sympathise. Big Grin

Here's another way of putting your point - though I warn you that when I do it it is usually to prolonged silence.

They claim to follow what is in the book, and when asked who canonised the book, tend to say 'God'. Well, let us look at two of the earliest books for a moment.

One of the oldest extant copies of the Scriptures, the fifth century Codex Alexandrinus includes 1 Clement amongst the rest of the Scriptures as we have them. The other ancient surviving text, the Codex Sinaiticus includes The Epistle of Barnabas as well as The Shepherd of Hermas.

These are two of the earliest surviving manuscripts of the Scriptures and they have in them books that are not included in the Scriptures we all now use. Who was it decided to leave out 1 Clement, Barnabas and Hermas? If it was God, then why are these books in the earliest manuscripts? Had Sola Scriptura existed then (and as we know it didn't), then they'd have been telling us these books were there because God put them there. Well, they are there, and there in the earliest complete books.

Fortunately, the Church did not receive a book, it received the orthodox Faith by oral and written tradition, and that Faith enabled it to see that whilst Clement and co, were books that could be read for edification, they were not in the same league as the other books in the two Codices.

I really can't see why a Sola Scriptura Christian doesn't insist on what is in the earliest books - that would be a consistent line to take. Accept the earliest books, not those edited by the Church.

Mind you, if they did that, they'd have to stop telling us how to interpret the Bible Smile

In Christ,

In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:10)
24-07-2008, 10:18 PM,
Re: sola sciptura, the canon and the church
kirk yacoub Wrote:Dear John and father Gregory,
A succinct explanation of Tradition is given on
<!-- w --><a class="postlink" href=""></a><!-- w -->

Kirk Yacoub

Dear Kirk,

That's a great explanation. This was my attempt at explaining it to a Protestant friend - and I was relieved when I read your link to see I was in the same place!


Perhaps it is my want of experience in this that prevents you understanding my explanations of what the Orthodox mean by 'Holy Tradition'. I shall try to find you a site, but until then, here's my final go.

Tradition is that which is handed on. How was the Lord's message handed on? In the first place orally. He told those who listened to Him, and He commissioned the Apostles to carry the word on - including St. Paul. Where do we find that word now, since all who heard it are in repose?

We find it in the writings of the Apostolic and sub-Apostolic era. One of the oldest extant copies of the Scriptures, the fifth century Codex Alexandrinus includes 1 Clement amongst the rest of the Scriptures as we have them. The other ancient surviving text, the Codex Sinaiticus includes The Epistle of Barnabas as well as The Shepherd of Hermas, so we can see that the early Church did not make the same distinction we came to between what was and was not canonical.

This decision was reached, on the basis of the traditions received, by the early Councils. So, the Holy Scriptures themselves are an essential element of how we receive that tradition. But if we accept the canon of the Church, we also accept those books it found edifying - the Apostolic Fathers, as good for our spiritual growth. In addition, we read the early Church Fathers, whose writings also form part of the tradition of hearing and reading the word of God.

Another major source of tradition is the Liturgy of the Church; in our doxologies we express our beliefs, and in the Eucharist we encounter the Truth of the Risen Lord. Anyone who really wants to see tradition in action just needs pop into an Orthodox Church.


Now I can give him your link and he'll bem if no happier, a lot better informed!

Many thanks, Kirk,

In Christ,

In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:10)
11-08-2008, 12:31 PM,
Dear Kirk,

I don't know my friend was happier with the link - but he is certainly thinking things over, so our little discussion has been of some use to at least one searcher Big Grin

I have been trying to suggest to him that there may be a problem with effectively relying on only one part of Holy Tradition. There never was, after all, a heretic who could not quote Scripture; but I can't recall one who was able to ground himself in the Scriptures, the Councils, the Fathers and the the Liturgy. Over reliance on any single area will produce distortions.

In Christ,

In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:10)
27-08-2008, 12:45 PM,
Re: Sola Scriptura, the NT Canon and the Church
John Charmley Wrote:. . . the question of the place of Tradition in the teaching of the Orthodox Church as opposed to the more Protestant view of Sola Scriptura.

Dear BOF Discussion Community,

It shouldn't be this way probably, but frankly I don't have a very high level of interest in debating this question anymore than I do traditional Calvinist and Arminian schools of thought. And, this is because rarely is there a listening on the part of the participants to what each other is saying, and often there is a lacking of information on both parts as it relates to the other's tradition.

So why am I here posting in this thread? It is just to add the comment that to consider (or pit) the Tradition of the Orthodox Church in relation to the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura is really an unfair thing to do. In many ways it is like setting up a match between a champion boxer and a paraplegic propped up in a wheel chair. But, it is done all the time.

What I mean is that Sola Scriptura isolated from the rest of the doctrines of the Reformers (as if it was the only pillar of the Protestants) is a stupid thing. I think this goes without saying. But, this was not the only pillar of the Reformers was it? There were others not the least of which was:

sola fide, sola gracia, and sola Christe

and as these come into play as it relates to the reading and the understanding of the written Word, as taught by some viz. Barth, there will still be room for disagreement between the Orthodox and the Protestants; but, as it relates to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura the discussion moves to a much different arena. Sola Scriptura presented in light of fides, gracia, and Christe alone is no longer without defense, it is no longer something to be viewed as the product of a mad German theologian operating in a state of stupor.

So, I guess I'm not really sure what the real point of my post is here, but, for what it's worth I think I am just trying to point out that any conversations about Sola Scriptura should really include more of a big picture understanding of what is implied (and possibly assumed).

In the End, I think it is very possible that these two traditions need each other desperately. Maybe I should go find a Protestant website and start a thread titled "A Generous Protestantism?"

In Christ,
27-08-2008, 02:56 PM,
Dear Rick,

You make a good point. We shouldn't set up straw men, even if some Protestants appear to do so. Sola Scriptura should not, as you say, really mean simply the individual's interpretation of Scripture. I have never quite understood what the Protestants do mean by it - so any light would certainly illumine my darkness!

In Christ,

In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:10)
27-08-2008, 04:59 PM,
Dear John,

I hope you do not view my last post as some sort of 'drive by posting' and I hope you will forgive this very poor answer (which is actually a non-answer) about 'what the Protestants do mean by it.' But, this is not a short answer essay question by any means. And, I do not want to insult you by throwing some book titles at you as a non-answer. But, (knowing this would not be labor of love on my part) I'm not sure I have the energy to get going on a survey here to look at the different views which is what would be required because there is no such thing as the Protestants in terms of a unified particular group--I don't think there ever was. And, this is why I say there is no such thing as "the Protestants" when it seems appropriate. In fact, it seems the only time I ever hear the word Protestant anymore (with some exception) is when someone who is not a Protestant has a craving to play a little Aunt Sally because possibly they are tired of bayoneting the scarecrow in their backyard and kicking puppies isn't as fun as it used to be.

While I think if Luther could have seen into the future he would have kept his mouth shut and broken all of his pens, he might not have been disappointed at all with the writing of Karl Barth on the Word of God in 1:1 of Barth's 13 vol. series. And, I bring this up because this book in tandem with another that I have been skimming in the book store and looking for an excuse to purchase: Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution--A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-Fi.

is how I think I would attempt to wade into this question. I've got a birthday coming up in a couple weeks, maybe I'll ask for this and if you are up for it give it a shot through these vehicles which I think could possibly offer something remotely resembling a short course. This is a crazy thing though in my opinion because even though most "protestants" seem to view Barth as a heretic, what he writes about in his first volume is what I feel is behind the majority view of Sola Scriptura as well as what is found in the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church.

Actually, McGrath has a new book out on Natural Theology that I'd rather have, maybe both if I'm lucky. So we will see . . . assuming you have no problem with second hand sources John. Wink Now about this Churchill guy, just who exactly was he and why did he do the things he did? Smile

Peace to the readers.

In Christ,

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