Sunday, September 14, 2008

Scripture and Tradition

It's been a long time, hasn't it? But talking to Jeremy, as I was waxing enthusiastic about Alexander Schmemann's "The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom" (another gift from the amazing Bill Tighe), he told me he'd never read it for two reasons: 1) he probably doesn't have time; and 2) he got the feeling that people who start reading Orthodox books always end up converting, and he was not in the market for a new church. OK, I said, then I'll have to blog the best passages, otherwise he'll never have a chance to read them.

What makes Schmemann special is his ability to do the "not either/or, but both/and" trick and not have it be simply a flabby refusal to think clearly (as it too often is), but a real insight. Here he is writing about Scripture and Tradition:

Here we see why all church theology, all tradition, grows precisely out of the "assembly as the Church," out of this sacrament of proclamation of the good news. Here we see why in it is comprehended the living, and not abstract, meaning of the classic Orthodox affirmation that only the Church is given custody of the scriptures and their interpretation. For tradition is not another source of faith, "complementary" to the scriptures. It is the very same source: the living word of God, always heard and received by the Church. Tradition is the interpretation of the word of God as the source of life itself, and not of any "constructions" or "deductions." When St. Athanasius the Great said that "the holy and God-inspired scriptures are sufficient for the exposition of truth," he was not rejecting tradition, and still less preaching any specifically "biblical" method of theology -- as a formal, terminological faithfulness to the scriptural "text" -- for as everyone knows, in expounding the faith of the Church he himself daringly introduced the nonbiblical term homoousios. He was affirming precisely the living, and not formal or terminological, link between scripture and tradition, tradition as the reading and hearing of scripture in the Holy Spirit. The Church along knows and keeps the meaning of scripture, because in the sacrament of the word, accomplished in the church assembly, the Holy Spirit eternally gives life to the "flesh" of scripture, transforming it into "spirit and life." Any genuine theology is rooted in this sacrament of the word, in the church assembly, in which the Spirit of God exhorts the Church herself -- and not simply her individual members -- into all truth. Thus, any "private" reading of scripture must be rooted in the Church: outside of the mind of the Church, outside of the divine-human life of the Church it can neither be heard nor truly interpreted. So the sacrament of the word, accomplished in the church gathering in a twofold act -- reading and proclaiming -- is the source of the growth of each and all together into the fulness of the mind of truth (pp. 78-79).

Adding my own banal prose translation into this rapturous hymn, tradition is the word we use for the use of scripture, specifically its gospel use, to call sinners to repentance, to believe in Jesus, and to be saved in the Church from the wrath to come. Only when the scripture is used in that way is the Bible being used in accordance with tradition. Any preaching that diminishes the need for repentance is against the tradition. Any preaching that leads to complacency and mere historical faith is against the tradition. Any preaching that leads to self-righteousness and Phariseeism is against the tradition. Any preaching that misleads sinners into a Christianity without the Church is against the tradition.

For this reason the speculations of theologians are not and never can be traditions, until they find their way into preaching, whether evangelistic on the street corner or liturgical on Sunday. This tradition is St. Irenaeus's rule of faith, the creed, understood in itself as bringing salvation -- by saying "I believe . . ." in faith I am saved apart from all the works of the law. The Church holds tradition, not by having bits of knowledge not in Scripture, but by holding the use of scripture and its proclamation to salvation.

More crunchy both/and goodness later on!

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