Thursday, May 25, 2017

"The priority of tradition"

I'm going to comment on an article by Steven Nemes:

Notice what follows from this: if the biblical texts only had human authors who are now long dead, inaccessible as such to those who do not consort with witches, it would follow that the interpretation of the biblical texts is also at best only ever probable and thus subject to the same kind of fundamentally nonreligious hermeneutical pragmatism. 

A glaring problem with this statement is that it's basically self-refuting. Look at all the dead authors that Nemes quotes in his article to support his thesis. A century from now, Nemes will be dead. So his skepticism about the written medium, or dead authors, sabotages his appeal to the writings of dead writers–whose company he himself will join in due time.  

The direction of the dialectic until this point naturally leads to the following question: given the intrinsic uncertainty and danger of reading the biblical texts, what “mechanism” has Christ established for the perpetuation of the true teachings of the Scriptures? What abiding bridge has He constructed for enabling readers to traverse the gap between the biblical text and the Scriptures? 

His answer will be "the Church". But one problem with that appeal is that when Jesus talks about building his ecclesia (Mt 16:18), that word, and traditional translations thereof (e.g. "church"), has acquired connotations that it didn't have at the time Matthew published his Gospel, much less when Jesus originally made his statement. Catholics, Orthodox, and other high-churchmen treat the "church" in NT usage as a cipher for models of ecclesiology that only evolved centuries later. Indeed, in the case of Roman Catholicism, the nature of "the Church" is still undergoing theological development. 

Similar considerations apply to the suggestion of some kind of inward activity of the Holy Spirit: so long as no objective means by which the Spirit leads the interpretation of the Church is specified, anybody with any proposed interpretation can claim the Holy Spirit as her guide. 

The presence of Christ, through the Holy Spirit, as Teacher of the Church, is therefore extended through the apostles to those who would succeed them, who in turn would exercise a particular authority in the presentation and interpretation of that doctrine which is imprinted on their hearts. 

Notice that Nemes is oblivious to the tensions in his own appeal. Indeed, "anybody with any proposed interpretation can claim the Holy Spirit as her guide." But that applies perforce to popes, medieval mystics, and ecumenical councils as well as laymen or modern-day "prophets". That applies perforce to religious movements and institutions as well as individuals. 

Or, as St. Ignatius of Antioch put it, the bishops are the mind of Christ throughout the world, just as Christ is to Christians the mind of the Father (Letter to the Ephesians 3:2).

i) Yet Ignatius is one of those dead writers. So how can Nemes be so confident that he's able to ascertain what Ignatius meant?

ii) What bishops are the mind of Christ? There were Arian bishops. Are they the mind of Christ? Roman Catholic bishops? Eastern Orthodox bishops? Oriental bishops? Anglican bishops? Lutheran bishops? Methodist bishops? John Spong? Cardinal Kasper? 

Rather, Scripture and Tradition are simply the one “deposit of the word of God” (Dei Verbum II, §10) which is approached by different means.

The Christian Tradition is a continuation and further embodiment of the “mind of Christ,” who interprets the Old Testament with a unique authority (Matt 7:28-9).

In all these ways and more, the New Testament is quite obviously an instantiation or embodiment of the antecedently existent Christian Tradition, a “mode of tradition and objectification of tradition.

Notice the equivocal and contradictory use of the term "tradition". If tradition is a "deposit", then it lies in the past. That's a static, one-time deliverance. 

Conversely, if tradition is a "continuation and further embodiment" of the "mind of Christ," then that's a fluid, dynamic, evolving theology.

And if the NT is "an instantiation or embodiment of the antecedently existent Christian Tradition," then tradition is the oral history or living memory of Christ's public ministry. What eyewitnesses saw and recall.

Nemes jumbles together these disparate definitions of tradition, in his incoherent mishmash. 

To suppose that the texts of the New Testament themselves serve this purpose is an obvious nonstarter, since they are as much subject to interpretation as the Old Testament texts.

i) Yet there was no divinely-appointed "mechanism" to adjudicate theological disputes in Judaism. So why is that indispensable in the church age? 

ii) Moreover, OT texts must be sufficiently clear to attest the messiahship of Jesus to establish "the Church" in the first place. So you can't invoke the interpretive authority of "the Church" at that stage of the argument on pain of vicious circularity. 

Thus He can say that the acceptance or rejection of His apostles is altogether equal to the acceptance or rejection of Christ and of God the Father Himself (Matt 10:40; Luke 10:16; John 13:20). A person consequently cannot become a disciple of Christ except by becoming a disciple of the apostles and welcoming them into her life, a lesson which the first generation of Christians appreciated well: upon conversion and baptism, they devoted themselves to the teaching and fellowship of the apostles (Acts 2:42), being taught by them and spending time with them. 

But in context, those passages refer to living apostles. Apostolic missionaries. Face-to-face communication. After they die, all we have left is whatever they wrote for posterity. 

This point was well made by St. Vincent of Lérins, who appealed to Tradition as a proper authority for controlling the interpretation of various passages:

But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? For this reason—because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation (Commonitorium §5).

i) Another appeal to another dead writer. Notice his arbitrarily selective skepticism about dead writers. We're supposed to be skeptical about how to interpret Bible writers, but we can confidently interpret church fathers, medieval theologians, Catholic mystics, &c. 

ii) What criterion does Nemes propose to determine that Origen, Isaac the Syrian, and Catherine of Siena channel the mind of Christ while Donatus and Novatian are illegitimate representatives? 

ii) So what does Nemes mean by "the Church"? Christians en masse? The laity? Popes? Bishops? Greek Fathers? Latin Fathers? "Saints"? Nemes is highly eclectic about the religious authorities he invokes. About the only thing he excludes from from his list of ecclesiastical witnesses are Protestants, except for ecumenical Protestants like Torrance. 

iii) On his blog, Nemes tells us that:

My favorite theologians, by whom I have been the most influenced, are Joseph Ratzinger, Isaac the Syrian, Catherine of Siena, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, John of Damascus, Dumitru Stăniloae, Thomas Aquinas, T.F. Torrance, and Athanasius. Notice, no Augustine or John Calvin.

So what makes the figures in the first sentence the authentic voice of the church, but Calvin and Augustine don't speak for the "the Church"? What makes Aquinas or Origen spokesmen for the church, but Cranmer, Roger Nicole, Don Carson, F. F. Bruce, Tom Schreiner, and Darrell Bock don't make the cut? 

I don't see any consistent principle or selection criteria. Rather, it just seems to be the case that some writers resonate with Nemes while others don't. 


  1. There are different types of order and priority. For example, logical, chronological, causal, explanatory, importance, sequential et cetera. There's a sense in which one can say Church tradition has chronological, sequential, causal, explanatory priority to the NT Scriptures (I say NT because the OT existed prior to the formation of the NT church). Nevertheless, the NT Scriptures (and the Scriptures as a whole including the OT) has priority of importance over church tradition.

    Even then, ultimately speaking God's Word/Revelation (either verbal or written) is chronologically, sequentially, causally and explanatorily prior to Church tradition since it's the Word/Revelation of God that put Adam under covenant with God, that initiated covenant with Abraham, Moses, David and the NT Church through the words of Christ (who is Himself God). Since the beginning of the enscripturation of Revelation into written form from the time of Moses it's always been the case that the already recognized and canonized written Revelation of God (i.e. the Scriptures) took priority over any further alleged revelations (whether written, verbal or oral). What could be termed the principle of Summa Scriptura. That was in operation EVEN DURING the time when inspired verbal revelation on par with Scripture was STILL being given. How much more when virtually no claiming [or is it "claimingly"?] Christian body believes NEW verbal revelation is being given on par with Scripture (not even Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and most charismatics; though exceptions would include cultists like Mormons etc.).

    Since, church tradition does not solely contain revelation from God it's not pure, and therefore not reliable like Scripture is. Tradition may contain a mixed bag of human tradition and orally passed down inspired revelation. Say, hypothetically, it turns out that God really did inspire an Apostle to reveal that God's favorite color was green and that that [sic] revelation was recorded and preserved down to the present time through church tradition. That tradition must nevertheless be tested by the priorally greater authority of the written Scriptures because of the principle of Summa Scriptura. Even if the chain of transmission is impeccable. Interestingly, there is no such impeccably transmitted tradition which isn't already something recorded in Scripture.


    1. We know from Scripture, Jewish tradition and Christian tradition that Scripture (whatever that might be, and irrespective of the correct canon) is reliable and possesses God's full authority (though for many Jews the Torah has more authority than the rest of the Tanakh). That can't be said about tradition. Jews claim that it's always been the case since the time of Moses that oral tradition was considered the Word of God, but Karaite Jews would demur and give good arguments against that claim. Similarly, Christians can also show from the Scriptures and Christian tradition itself that Scripture took priority over tradition. It was a later Catholic development that started to claim that Church "Tradition" (with a capital "T") was on par with Scripture, along with Ecumenical Councils (and a teaching magisterium for Catholicism). But that's not historical. It cannot be demonstrated from history that that's the case. On the contrary, the exact opposite can be demonstrated from the earliest church traditions. It's true that at times the Scriptures were spoken of as a subset of the greater traditions of the Church. But, many of those same church fathers would state that the Scriptures alone held the highest authority. So much so that some of them would say that a dogmatic doctrine of faith must be demonstrable from Scripture.

      “For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell you these things, give not absolute credence, unless you receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.” - Cyril of Jerusalem