The following article was written on spec for submission to the faith section of local newspapers. It is aimed to an audience unfamiliar with Orthodox Christianity. I am posting it as submitted. Citations appear below the article.
IS THE BIBLE ALL THERE IS?
By Fr. Irineos Placek
Among Christians, and certainly among those of the protestant persuasion, it is often remarked that all we need to know to understand the faith is the Bible. The answer to any spiritual crisis, any matter of right worship, can be discerned, it is contended, from the pages of the Bible. This belief is often described as sola scriptura – scripture alone. But sola scriptura is not found in scripture, and as a practical matter, it is never sola either. Rather, we are all inheritors of a rich and full theological tradition which recognizes, as held in scripture, that many things Christ did and taught are not recorded in the Bible. (John 20:30, John 21:35). These teachings, far from being lost to us, are preserved in the practices of the ancient Church.
Others far more eloquent than I have written extensively on why sola scriptura is not a practical or historical approach to the faith or understanding scripture. I won’t recount those arguments here, but if anyone is interested, I would commend Fr. John Whiteford’s article “Sola Scriptura: In the Vanity of Their Minds” to you. It is available free online. Rather, I would simply say that if one purports to be a “bible believing Christian” you really have no choice but to reject sola scriptura based on the Bible alone. St. Paul commands us as Christians that there is more than what has been written in the Bible. Writing to the Thessalonians, who he spent many months with but left only two short letters, Paul directs the faithful “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). In Scripture itself, the oral teachings of the Apostles are held in equal authority with their written letters. This is as clear as can be. And a brief look at Church history tells us that, indeed, this must be so.
The consensus of biblical scholarship tells us that decades elapsed after Christ’s crucifixion before the first book of the New Testament was written.1 The last book was written around 60 years after his death and resurrection.2 Yet during this time the Church grew and flourished under the oral tradition preached by the Apostles. The faith was not incomplete, awaiting a written synopsis to be prepared. No, it was once delivered to the apostles (Jude 1:3) and preached by word and letter, both to be followed and obeyed as Paul commanded. And even after all of the books had been written, over 250 years passed before common agreement was reached on what books constitute the New Testament canon of scripture.3 Are we truly to believe that after the last of the Apostles died, the power of the Holy Spirit was so weak that the faith was not maintained until the canon of the Bible was determined in 367 A.D.?4
Christ founded a visible and tangible Church, of apostles, preachers, evangelists, bishops and deacons to preach the good news of the coming of the Messiah to all the world. The apostles and those who were chosen to follow after them (Acts 6:1-15) were charged with preserving the fullness of the faith Christ taught to his disciples – those things written and those things not written. And again, history proves why this is so. It is estimated that the literacy rate in Roman Palestine in the centuries after Christ was about 3%5, with 90% of the population unable to do more than read and write their own name.6 If the faith was to learned and practiced only by reference to written scripture, the vast majority of the faithful would be excluded from participation. But Christ’s Church was radically inclusive, calling all into the community of the faithful. Thus the faith was taught by the Church preaching, by prayer, by reading of the scriptures, through hymns, through pictures, and by instruction from the bishops and other called faithful. Many of these writings, prayers, hymns and iconographic teachings are preserved to the present day. They comprise, with Holy Scripture, the fullness of the Christian faith. This is why the Apostle Paul refers to the Church – not Holy Scripture – as “the pillar and ground of the Truth.” (1 Timothy 3:15).
But if there be any doubt that scripture alone cannot capture the faith of the Early Church, let us turn again to scripture for this point. Adherents to sola scriptura will often say that the Bible is clear, that all reading it will be guided to the right interpretation, or that “Scripture interprets Scripture.” But again, scripture rejects such an idea. In Acts 8:26-40 the deacon St. Philip approaches an Ethiopian eunuch who is reading the prophecy of Isaiah. Philip asks the eunuch a simple question: "Thinkest thou that thou understandest what thou readest?" The answer of the eunuch is most telling: "And how can I, unless some man show me?" St. Philip was a deacon ordained by the Apostles. Scripture records and affirms that it is indeed not self-interpreting. Rather, an authority, that pillar and ground of Truth, is needed to assure that Christians properly understand Scripture. Remember that all the great heretics relied on Scripture to justify their false teachings. It is only within the Church that scripture can be properly understood.
Christ came calling each of us to humble submission before our almighty Lord. Yet it is perhaps the ultimate in pride for us to contend to be imbued with knowledge and authority to rightly divide the word of God. Let us crucify our egos on the Cross we are called to bear and be guided by the same principles of the faith taught by the Apostles. There is more to the faith than just the Bible. Whether we choose to embrace its fullness or not, is up to each of us.
Fr. Irineos is the rector of St. Andrew Orthodox Church in Liberty Hill, Texas. Writing and homilies from Fr. Irineos are available at www.st-andrew.church and www.pillarofthetruth.com.
- In his 39th Festal Epistle, written in 367 A.D., St. Athanasius produced the first canon of scripture that mirrors the current New Testament.
- ar-Ilan, M. "Illiteracy in the Land of Israel in the First Centuries C.E." in S. Fishbane, S. Schoenfeld and A. Goldschlaeger (eds.), "Essays in the Social Scientific Study of Judaism and Jewish Society", II, New York: Ktav, 1992, pp. 46-61.
- Hezser, Catherine "Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine", 2001, Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism; 81. Tuebingen: Mohr-Siebeck, at page 503.