Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Origen of Alexandria & Sola Scriptura

Origen of Alexandria is not, technically, considered a Father of the Church by Orthodox Christians because of his condemnation by the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553. He was, though, a very important figure in the early Church and a significant influence on the Fathers of the 4th century, which is why we're looking at him here.

Origen lived and wrote prolifically in the first half of the 3rd century. He had been a disciple of St. Clement of Alexandria, and assumed many of his master's theories and habits. Unfortunately, taking some of these theories and habits to an extreme conclusion is what eventually got him condemned, 300 years after his death, by an Ecumenical Council. Among his teachings that were condemned included a belief in a hierarchy within the Trinity, the preexistence of souls, and possibly even reincarnation.

Be all that as it may, most of his writings are Orthodox in nature and were an influence on such great later figures of the Church as St. Gregory Nazianzen and St. Basil the Great. Origen eventually, in AD 254, was tortured to death and martyred for his Faith in Christ.

I'm very happy to be able to announce that, search high and low as I might, I was not able to find a single viable Protestant proof-text in favor of Origen believing in Sola Scriptura. Happily, Origen was generally precise enough not to lend himself to this kind of quote-mining.

Origen's ideas on Scripture were much like those of his teacher, St. Clement of Alexandria. First, he had a much wider canon than most Christians even in his own time had. Like Clement, whom we've already covered in this series, Origen believed that pretty much anything that agreed with the Orthodox Christian Faith was Scripture. He refers, for instance, to the following writings as "divinely inspired":
  • Gospel of Peter
  • Gospel of the Hebrews
  • Acts of Paul
  • First Letter of Clement to the Corinthians
  • Letter of St. Barnabas
  • Didache
  • Shepherd of Hermas
As I've discussed previously in this series, this significantly changes the face of the matter even if Origen were found to be a Sola Scripturist of some sort.

We also find, in common with his teacher (and with all of the Fathers, for that matter) that Origen considered Apostolic Tradition to be the correct interpretation of the texts of Scripture, which had been passed down from the Apostles alongside Scripture and which was indispensable to a correct reading of Scripture. He also, like his teacher (and, again, all of the Fathers) is unequivicle about that fact that this Holy Apostolic Tradition has been passed down through Apostolic Sucession and is found only in the Church. Here's Origen, in his own words:
"When heretics show us the canonical Scriptures, in which every Christian believes and trusts, they seem to be saying: 'Lo, he is in the inner rooms.' But we must not believe them, nor leave the original Tradition of the Church, nor believe otherwise than we have been taught by the succession in the Church of God." - Origen, Homilies on Matthew, 46, 13, 1667 [emphasis mine]
And again, elsewhere:
"Now the reason of the erroneous apprehension of all these points on the part of those whom we have mentioned above, is no other than this, that Holy Scripture is not understood by them according to its spiritual, but according to its literal meaning. And therefore we shall endeavor, so far as our mod­erate capacity will permit, to point out to those who believe the Holy Scriptures to be no human compo­sitions, but to be written by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and to be transmitted and entrusted to us by the will of God the Father, through His only-begot­ten Son Jesus Christ, what appears to us, who ob­serve things by a right way of understanding, to be the standard and discipline delivered to the Apostles by Jesus Christ, and which they handed down in suc­cession to their posterity, the teachers of the Holy Church." - Origen, First Principles, 4, 1, 9 [emphasis mine]
I've found that this is the common strain that connects and unites all of the Fathers in their interpretations of Scripture, no matter how different their approaches are in other respects: they one and all agree that alongside Scripture has been passed down a certain understanding and interpretation of that Scripture; that this understanding and interpretation is divinely inspired and equal to Scripture itself; and that this understanding and interpretation is found only in the One True Church, which has preserved it through Apostolic Succession. This understanding and interpretation is Holy Tradition, and without it one does not have the Scriptures at all even though he might be able to read the texts. This point seems lost on Protestant apologists who would like to quote-mine both the Scriptures and the Fathers in favor of their own innovative positions. I have to be honest, I'm not sure, after doing the research only this far on the Fathers and their possible adherence to Sola Scriptura, how it is that Protestants can read the Fathers and not feel indicted by them.

21 comments:

  1. Thanks David.

    Are Origen's commentaries available in the Schaff Ante-Nicene volumes?

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  2. A few of them (a very few) -- unfortunately, not all. I haven't found a resource yet that features all of Origen's surviving writings in one place.

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  3. Just a note - half of Protestants do indeed believe that they need the Bible and only the Bible. However, the other half do not believe in scripture as their ONLY authority, but as the final authority. So we have the Church, our leaders, tradition, etc to guide us, and the scripture as our final guiding wall.

    This is being discussed on my blog by my husband (a protestant seminary student) and a Catholic, and an Eastern Orthodox woman - it's quite interesting!

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  4. Kacie:

    I'll check it out -- thanks!

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  5. Why would we feel indicted by them? More importantly, why would that matter?

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  6. Rho,
    Part of the better Protestant defenses of SS (Keith Mathison's Shape of Sola Scriptura*) try to say that "Sola Scriptura means we read the bible in the community of the Church and let our tradition be corrected by the Church." While that's infinitely superior than the "me and my bible Christian," and it was my official apologetic for several years, it's too hard to make it work when the community in which you want to read the bible (e.g., the early church) disagrees with your approach to the Bible.

    Never mind the fact that the Fathers did or didn't believe in sola scriptura, they didn't approach/view the bible the same way as the member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. I'm not talking about the stupid inerrancy vs errancy debate (don't worry, I've battled dozens of liberals on the truthfulness of Scripture; I don't defend inerancy because it is an enlightenment construction). They viewed the bible as a witness and a subset within the tradition--and of course, most importantly, the bible was key for liturgy. They certainly didn't view it as a "database" of facts about divine truth (that was Charles Hodge's approach).

    On the other hand, if one rejects Mathison's position, and goes for a more anabaptist position on the bible, then David's post is utterly irrelevant. Of course, the problems that the anabaptist position entail are massive.

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  7. Rhology:

    It's the same point I've been repeating over and over. If the Christians of the first 500 years of Christianity -- most of whom spoke the Greek of the New Testament as their everyday language and lived in the very cultural context in which the New Testament was written -- those Christians some of whom personally studied on Apostles or at least disciples of Apostles and who are responsible for preserving and compiling the New Testament, separating the wheat from the chaff to give us the Scriptures we know today -- if they didn't see something there, it's beyond absurd to say it's there. The people who put the Bible together had no thought of using it or viewing it the way you do. We're fooling ourselves if we think it should be viewed any differently.

    You've said previously (to paraphrase) that those silly ancients just didn't know everything yet, but that us today -- well, we know everything -- we're held to a higher standard. You've said that it's okay for Ignatius and Polycarp and Papias to all say something -- but if I say it today -- that exact same thing -- what with my increased knowledge -- then I'm a heretic. This too is beyond absurd. It's illogical to assert that I today can possibly know more or even nearly as much about Christ and the Apostles, how they lived and what they taught, as someone like Ignatius who studied under them for years -- sat at their feet and learned from their mouths, spoke the same language, and lived in the same cultural context as them -- had the ability to ask them questions -- "well, what do you mean when you say it is His Body and Blood?" "so, what's that about being saved by faith?" -- and receive direct answers from the source. If Ignatius said something wrong, he's far more the heretic and traitor to Christ than I could ever be. But then who are you or I to say Ignatius was wrong? Have we sat at the feet of the Apostles and asked them questions about what they said and wrote? Have we knelt before them and had them lay their hands on our heads to receive the Holy Spirit? Have we been appointed by them to oversee churches? Can we even speak the same language they spoke?

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  8. And yet you've also said in our previous conversations that there is nothing to look forward to, no further revelation except the parousia. You dodged the question -- or perhaps I didn't ask it clearly enough -- in our debate -- it remains to be explained: did the early Christians have a further revelation, other than the parousia, to look forward to? Did the Apostles? Clearly they did. If the Scriptures weren't compiled as is until 367 (nor ratified by a council until 397) -- if the "essential" doctrines of original sin, predestination, etc. were not "discovered" until about 500 -- if the "essential" doctrine of penal substitution wasn't introduced until about 1100 -- and if all of these essential doctrines weren't put together into a single system until about 1600 -- and if the heretical excess like the ever-virginity of Mary and infant baptism wasn't trimmed off until about 1700 -- etc. -- then for the majority of Christian history there has been some further revelation that Christians had to look forward to. The Faith not only of hundreds of generations of Christians, but even of the Apostles, was incomplete. All in God's due time, yes -- but if there has been a further revelation that we have been in need of for over 1700 years, then how do we know that there's not another coming our way now? How can we with such surety say that we have nothing but the parousia to look forward to?

    And so, to return to the original point, you find yourself in what should be a rather awkward position -- but for some reason doesn't appear such to you. You find that the men whom you trust to have preserved the Holy Scriptures, sorting what was Apostolic from what was not and then recopying them and passing them down, the men whom you, to some degree, look to for the right interpretation of Scripture -- such as the Trinity -- the men who were appointed by Apostles to oversee the Churches -- the men who died torturous deaths so willingly for Christ -- you find yourself calling them all heretics.

    In short, find yourself in the rebellion of Korah (see Numbers 16).

    This is why you should feel indicted.

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  9. You know, it's hard not to lose respect for your fairmindedness after such an inaccurate train wreck of a rant. You really should be ashamed of yourself for the sheer volume of strawmen compressed into relatively few words.

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  10. Rhology:

    I'm sorry you feel that way. I put a lot of thought into my response, trying to explain things as fully as I could. Perhaps you could be so kind as to point out where I am in error and in what points I use strawmen? You have a tendency to just shout "YOU'RE WRONG!" and then run away. Perhaps you might be able to persuade more people to at least understand, if not accept, your position if you were more willing to explain it, rather than making broad, vague statements and sarcastic one-liners.

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  11. Rho,
    I assume you are a presuppositionalist? You've referenced Hays and White (who follows Bahnsen) and you bashed evidentalism (which is good). As a presup, you would agree that no one approaches things from a blank slate? Right?

    That means no one reads a text in a vacuum? No one goes to "pure Scripture" but rather reads it in terms of a community, a tradition, and a language. My question is why is the late medieval voluntarist tradition of the Reformation a better guide to interpreting Scripture than St Ignatius, who studied under St John?

    What did St John fail to teach St Ignatius?

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  12. You have a tendency to just shout "YOU'RE WRONG!" and then run away.

    One more laughable line, to top it off, eh? I don't even know what to say to stuff like this, seriously.
    Anyone can visit my blog and see the interactions with you that I've listed in my "Extended and Interesting Convos" sidebar as well as see the many blogposts I've written to interact with you. A strawman orchard is one thing; did you have to throw a cheap lie on the pyre too?


    Legion of the Grail,
    Yes, I generally prefer the presuppositional approach, though I'm not dogmatically adverse to the occasional classical argument.
    Yes, I definitely agree that there is no blank slate.
    Yes, no one reads a text in a vacuum. No, that does not mean one can not judge his tradition by Scripture. No, that does not mean Christ did not hold men responsible for correctly interping Scripture.
    No, I don't agree that my interp is influenced by "late medieval voluntarist tradition"; my position is derived from Scripture itself.
    I don't know what John failed to teach Ignatius. I do know that I am commanded to test all things and hold on to what which is good (1 Thess 5). I know that many, many failed to hold on to the truth to some degree from the apostles onward. W/o making a specific charge against a particular man, I simply submit EVERYTHING to Scripture. It's a far better approach than the viciously circular and self-serving approach taken by the EO.
    Let me recommend you read the Sola Scriptura debate DavidW and I are about to finish - we go over this issue in detail.

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  13. Here, I'll help you out. Here are the ridiculous statements from you. I don't have time to explain why they're wrong.

    Here are the merely funny ones:
    if they didn't see something there, it's beyond absurd to say it's there.
    The people who put the Bible together had no thought of using it or viewing it the way you do.
    It's illogical to assert that I today can possibly know more or even nearly as much about Christ and the Apostles, how they lived and what they taught, as someone like Ignatius who studied under them for years
    But then who are you or I to say Ignatius was wrong?
    did the early Christians have a further revelation, other than the parousia, to look forward to? Did the Apostles? Clearly they did.
    then for the majority of Christian history there has been some further revelation that Christians had to look forward to.


    Here are the ridiculous ones in which you strawman me mercilessly:


    You've said previously (to paraphrase) that those silly ancients just didn't know everything yet
    well, we know everything
    You've said that it's okay for Ignatius and Polycarp and Papias to all say something -- but if I say it today -- that exact same thing -- what with my increased knowledge -- then I'm a heretic.
    if the "essential" doctrines of original sin, predestination, etc. were not "discovered" until about 500
    if the "essential" doctrine of penal substitution wasn't introduced until about 1100
    you find yourself calling them all heretics.

    The fact that you "put alot of thought into" it should indict YOU. Spend some time reading the Scriptures from God rather than learning to parrot whichever church authority happens to have said something you like.

    Peace,
    Rhology

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  14. Rhology:

    Thank you for such a thoroughly UNdetailed response. Seriously, you say I'm mischaracterizing you when I claim you yellow "WRONG!" and run away -- and then, to demonstrate how wrong I am, you do just that all over again. I don't see the issues with the statements you highlighted; I guess I'll just never get it -- too bad I have no one to explain it to me.

    You don't seem to get, no matter how many times I repeat it, that no one other than you is arguing the authority of the Fathers over Scripture or vice versa -- what we're talking about is interpretation. I read the Scriptures every and I, along with the men who knew the Apostles and who spoke the language of the NT, don't see things like penal substitution or original sin within those Scriptures. I see, along with the men who knew Apostles and who spoke the language of the NT, recapitulation, Christus Victor, and ancestral sin. Essentially, I see the doctrines of the early Christians and the Orthodox Church (which two are the same thing) clearly and plainly spelled out in the Holy Scriptures -- I don't see the later assertions of others like Augustine, Basilides, and Calvin.

    Again, nobody here or anywhere is saying that the Fathers somehow trump Scripture -- what we're saying is that they provide us with the correct interpretation of that Scripture which is so central to our Faith. We're talking about differing interpretations of Scripture -- and history alone clearly reveals the validity of one over the other.

    Take it for what you will. I'm sure I'm wasting my "breath" as I fully expect a snappy, sarcastic, vague answer as usual.

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  15. Rho,
    This is Jacob Grail-seeker. I'm familiar with the debate ;)

    You have two statements that openly contradict each other:

    (1)***Yes, I definitely agree that there is no blank slate.
    Yes, no one reads a text in a vacuum.****

    contrast with the later statement:

    (2)***my position is derived from Scripture itself.***

    The latter assumes you can approach Scripture with a blank slate. You are not "deriving your position from Scripture." You are deriving your position from a standpoint very late in the Western narrative (post-Enlightenment individualism). You are filtering your reading of Scripture from your own tradition.

    That's fine. No one is saying "We should judge Scripture by tradition." You have been corrected probably 3 dozen times on that one point. This is why nobody takes your arguments seriously. We are saying simply that you (we, everybody) are filtering Scripture through a specific tradition and hermeneutics.

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  16. And if you don't think that the Reformers and their spiritual children interpret Scripture via medieval nominalism, then you need to read the pro-Reformation guys like Alister McGrath and Heiko Obermann. This point isn't up for debate.

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  17. Oh, OK. Haha, I figured "Grail" was suspiciously familiar!


    The latter assumes you can approach Scripture with a blank slate.

    I'm sorry, I don't see why I should think that the fact that nobody approaches ANYthing with a blank slate means that nobody can correctly understand anything. Hopefully you realise that your point, if true, proves too much. It's a universal solvent. In fact, since we don't approach blogging with a blank slate, I have no idea what you're saying.
    Further, the Church is no answer, since a whole bunch of mistakes mean...more mistakes.

    Finally, even if I grant what you say about medieval nominalism, if my position lines up with someone else in church history only serves to weaken the frequent EO refrain that I'm expressing theological novelties.

    (That is, if you're sure you understood those authors correctly.)

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  18. I'm not saying "interpration = you can't know anything." I am simply asking why a stepchild of the Catholic Church (e.g., the Protestant Reformation) serves as a better context for interpreting Scripture than the disciples of the disciples?

    A lot of postmodernists think that the ubiquity of interpretation (and interpretation is ubiquitous; see Schaeffer, Van Til, Bahnsen, White, Frame, Poythress et al), means that truth is bendable. But that doesn't follow at all. The only people who think that follows are Nietzscheans.

    ***EO refrain that I'm expressing theological novelties***

    Medieval nominalism is a novelty.

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  19. oh, and to head off one misunderstanding:

    I am not saying--and David might disagree with me on this--that we interpret the fathers qua "pure fathers." It's not fair of me to refute your idea that "Rho is just getting his stuff straight from the Bible and Grail is Poping it." And then I go around and say, "Yep, I'm just reading "Pure Fathers."

    I'm not. I am reading the Fathers mediated through my own position in Western Civilization (though I am more and more rejecting the West and its monadanical theology everyday). But I am taking the Fathers seriously as a matrix of interpretation. If they reject something that Calvin would later see, given that Fathers were closer to the disciples than Calvin, and didn't have Calvin's nominalist baggage, then the Fathers are probably more accurate.

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  20. Legion of Jacobs ;):

    I agree completely. That was a big difficulty that I faced (and still face) when reading the Fathers and the Scriptures. After accepting the truth claims of the Orthodox Church, I found that I eventually had to essentially drop everything I thought I knew. I still struggle to discard the presuppositions and preferences that come with being a modern American raised in a "Roman Catholic" household. It's hard sometimes, but I think that's why the context of the Church itself is important. If you separate the Scriptures or the Fathers from the Church and try to look at them individually I think you naturally end up acontextualizing them, and so I think the best way is immersion -- Icons, Scripture, Fathers, Liturgy, etc. are all so interconnected that without all of the others each is individually rendered meaningless.

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  21. David,
    Here's an article by the semi-legendary Srdja Trifkovic. He makes the argument that Filioque is "theological revolutionarism" and thus all attempts to defend "post-schism" western civilization are dead-ended. The only way to defend the West is to go East.

    http://www.vidovdan.org/arhiva/article2295.html

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