It is perhaps a sad commentary on how much time I spend on the internet, that many of the ideas I have for this blog stem from things I read on Facebook or other social media or internet forum communities. Today, while reading some commentary on the Nativity of the Theotokos, I watched the discussion get hijacked by a protestant agitator who accused the poster of advocating sola ecclesia, which is apparently a made up epithet intended to vilify those who hold to the scriptural dictates to remember the apostolic tradition and who understand that, as described in great detail in Holy Scripture, the Church of the Apostles was not an invisible, ethereal concept, but a physical and material community.
You see, I have yet to meet anybody, of any denomination, who uses sola ecclesia to describe any part of their faith. In the Orthodox Church, our Faith in found in both Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition, which encompasses the apostolic teachings, as well as the hymnography and iconography, the decisions of the Church Councils, and the writings of the Church Fathers.[i] But to be sure, Holy Scripture is the bedrock of the Orthodox faith. Scripture is replete in our liturgy.[ii] Volumes of writings of the Church Fathers deal with the proper understanding of Holy Scripture.[iii] Yet, the writer on Facebook was charged with advocating sola ecclesia because, in summary, “if you interpret scripture differently than the Church, you are wrong and the Church is right.” In other words, unless I insist that my understanding of scripture trumps that of the Church Fathers, I am guilty of the made up heresy of sola ecclesia.
Then, to make things worse, the writer contended that Acts 15, which details the first council of the Church, really “proves” sola scriptura because James makes the decision based on his interpretation of scripture which is quoted in the chapter. This commenter’s claims, both as to his invented doctrine of sola ecclesia, and self-determined exegesis of Acts 15, is remarkable in the breadth and scope of its error, and demonstrates the fundamental flaw of sola scriptura – egoism.
Let’s start with this charge of advocating sola ecclesia. It seems preposterous for someone who claims to follow the Bible to view sola ecclesia as some kind of charge against Orthodoxy. The Bible is replete with references to the Church as the Body of Christ.[iv] As another commenter noted, the charge of relying on sola ecclesia is really just a charge of relying upon Christ alone. This should hardly seem offensive or wrong, even if as Orthodox Christians, we understand that it is the indivisible Trinity, and not simply one of the persons, that is the object of our worship. Still, this simple truth, rooted in scripture escapes the grasp of the sola scriptura fanatic, who wishes merely to level charges such that their own interpretation of scripture can prevail over the teachings of the Church. And this we see in the odd characterization given to the Council of Jerusalem.
As most people know the Council of Jerusalem decided the issue of what is necessary to bring Gentiles into the Church. Roughly, the debate centered upon whether they must adopt Judaic law and custom as a condition to entering the faith. Specifically, the subject of circumcision was a great dividing line. Amidst debate over the issue, the council reached a decision, which James as the presiding bishop in Jerusalem announced, drawing upon Old Testament scripture in support of the decision.
But how badly the critique of this chapter as evidencing a “decision of James” and sola scriptura misses the mark. As the original poster noted, the Old Testament contains numerous verses which support circumcision as a necessary mark of the covenant. The Council of Jerusalem did not decide there was one verse (which incidentally does not mention circumcision) that addressed the issue. Rather, the council looked to the Old Testament scripture in the manner that the Orthodox Church has always understood it. The passage quoted by James is not a proof text that shows circumcision has been abolished. Rather, it is a passage that points to Christ and to his new covenant. The Old Testament is not a source of dueling texts to be trotted out to prove a point or support a view. It may only be understood in its foreshadowing of the coming of Christ.[v] In claiming that the decision of the council in Acts 15 was a decision based on sola scriptura, the commenter applies a hermeneutic to the Apostles that they never once in the New Testament scripture enunciate. Wishing simply does not make it so.
Indeed, when the decision of the Council is announced and sent forth throughout the lands, it does not recite scripture. Rather it relies upon the Apostles and the Holy Spirit. At no time, does it pretend to be a decision of James alone. It is a clear explanation of the conciliar manner in which the Church is governed. Indeed, protestant apologist often cite this Council as evidence that Peter did not hold primacy in the sense of authority over the other Apostles.[vi] Yet, when needed sola scriptura also allows them to ignore conciliar decision making.
The conciliar model is scriptural, indeed it would seem the perfect place to apply sola scriptura. So why would a protestant not acknowledge the conciliar model, and instead characterize the decision of the council as being only the decision of James? Simply put, they choose to ignore that part of the scripture because it destroys their “freedom” to interpret scripture however they wish and causes them to be under the authority of something besides their own minds. Of course that something is the Church – the body of Christ. But apparently they do not need to be subject to Christ’s body.
This is pride. This is egoism. They, in essence become their own popes, if not their own Christs. They can’t take the form of bondservant, because that means their interpretation can’t prevail whenever they wish. You cannot humble themselves, nor can they become obedient to the point of death. For to the prideful and arrogant soul, when it comes to understanding scripture, and choosing which passages to emphasize and which to ignore (rather than learning how to synthesize and understand scripture outside of prooftexts) no authority can contradict the human mind.
To put forth their exegesis of Acts 15, and to tell us it is the decision of James, based on sola scriptura, they must omit every conciliar portion of the Chapter:
- “they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.” (note: not that they should read the Old Testament scripture and decide for themselves)
- “Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church” (not it pleased the person reading the scripture)
- “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things;” (not, it is my interpretation based on how I read the scripture).
St. John Chrysostom both refutes the claim that this is a matter of sola scriptura (though no such doctrine would be known for another millennium) and affirms the conciliar nature of the actions of the council.
“And (yet) observe how he does not let them be told these things from the Law, but from himself, saying, It is not that I heard these things from the Law, but how? “We have judged.” Then the decree is made in common. “Then pleased it the Apostles and elders, together with the whole Church, to choose men of their own company”—do you observe they do not merely enact these matters, and nothing more?—“and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas: namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren: and they wrote letters by them after this manner.” (v. 22.) And observe, the more to authenticate the decree, they send men of their own, that there may be no room for regarding Paul and his company with suspicion. “The Apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia.” [vii]
Again, St. John explains that obedience, submission and respect were part of the “good order” of the Church exemplified in the Apostles:
“There was no arrogance in the Church. After Peter Paul speaks, and none silences him: James waits patiently, not starts up (for the next word). Great the orderliness (of the proceedings). No word speaks John here, no word the other Apostles, but held their peace, for James was invested with the chief rule, and think it no hardship.”[viii]
In this, we find the fundamental and irreconciliable difference between the apostolic Church and the modern, sola scriptura based, protestant believers. The Apostles submitted one to the other, to the whole Church, and to the Holy Spirit. There was no individual prerogative to impose their own interpretation. To whom do the sola scriptura believers submit? What authority binds them? When they say (as they all do) that they are bound by scripture, they confess that they submit only to themselves. Sola scriptura is a vacuous and empty approach to theology that ultimately establishes personal opinion as dogmatic truth. It bears no relation to the apostolic example of how matters of theology are to be determined.
The Center for the Study of Global Christianity tells us that the number of Christian denominations has risen from 1600 in the year 1900 to 34,000 denominations in 2000, and an estimated 43,000 in 2012.[ix] Small wonder under a theology where the individual human mind is the arbiter of the faith. And it is the pride and arrogance of the individual, the same base passions which caused the fall, which leads to this refusal to be under obedience or submission to the Church. For all their bible reading, they find themselves under the tree, demanding to eat the fruit they want on their terms. And those already fallen whisper in their ear, “go ahead.”
The scriptural method of church governance is conciliarity. The scriptural method of interpretation is within the Church. There is no other example. There is no basis by which the individual imaginings of a reader, trained or lay, can expound doctrine. The Church is the Body of Christ. The faith was once delivered to the saints.[x] Our modern and prideful adulation of our own minds can never supplant these basic truths. Christ, the new Adam, restored a fallen humanity, opening the gates to paradise for us. Let us resist the temptation to eat of the fruit that dangles before us. We are called to the same submission and obedience as our first parents. Let us choose better.
[i] It is not entirely inaccurate to insist that Holy Scripture itself is a part of Holy Tradition, as it was the Church that defined which of the many early ecclesiastical writings, would be included in the canon of the New Testament, and which version of the Old Testament writings would be deemed authoritative.
[iv] Romans 12:4-5 (For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.);Colossians 1:18 (And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.)
[v] http://www.orthodoxchristian.info/pages/old_testament.html (“The Church not only saw Christ and His soteriological work in the prophecies of the Old Testament, but in persons, events and in the laws of ancient Israel. These “types” or “prototypes” (such as the Cross, the Resurrection of Christ, and even Baptism) found their fullness in the soteriological realities of the New Testament and the Church.”)
[vii] John Chrysostom. (1889). Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Acts of the Apostles. In P. Schaff (Ed.), J. Walker, J. Sheppard, H. Browne, & G. B. Stevens (Trans.), Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistle to the Romans (Vol. 11, p. 206). New York: Christian Literature Company.
[x] Jude 1:3