Scripture “versus” Tradition, and the End Times


Part of my ongoing Correspondence series, featuring replies to people who contacted me and asked questions, mostly when I served as a priest (2008-2013).

Dear Tim,

Finally, I have time to write you back! I was unusually busy the past two weeks.

I’ve read a little about the Greek Orthodox Church, enough to know that there is one doctrine that might divide us: “Bible + nothing” VERSUS “Bible + church tradition”. Being Baptist, I, of course, would be on the “Bible + nothing” side of the equation. Please don’t let that separate us, brother, because it appears that we are on the same page for many, if not most, of Christian doctrine.

That is one of the issues that Baptists and other Protestants have an issue with, the idea of “Scripture versus Tradition.”  I certainly can’t cover the whole topic in one or even ten emails, as entire books, websites, and seminars have been held on the topic.  I find that ultimately, all of the issues between Christian denominations boil down to questions of authority.

My basic response is that it is not necessarily the case that we Orthodox believe in two sources. We ultimately believe that properly speaking, the Word of God is Jesus Christ (John 1) and as such the Bible is the “Word of God” insofar as it is a reflection of Jesus Christ and His Gospel of salvation.  The Apostles, who were illumined at Pentecost, were given a vision of God and this enabled them to carry on the message of Christ with the same authority.  What they experienced—exemplified by St. Paul being caught up into the third heaven, and St. John seeing the heavenly worship in Revelation—is something that is available to Christians in each generation who through God’s grace overcome the passions (and purify their “mind”, which in the New Testament is the word used to translate “nous” which actually refers to the highest faculty of the soul, the intellect, which concerns spiritual discernment).

We do admit, however, that the people who saw Christ personally and were His immediate followers, had a special charisma as Apostles to write down what they experienced and teach it.  That is why we only accept the texts written by the Apostles and their immediate disciples (such as St. Mark) as Scripture (while we accept as profitable the many other writings from that time such as the Epistles of Ignatius, etc., and reject as heretical any writing which did not have as central the Crucifixion, which is why the sayings-gospels such as Thomas were rejected as false, because they presented “wisdom” divorced from the Cross of Christ).

Yet the Apostles did not just teach doctrines, they shared this experience of Pentecost with their converts.  Life in Christ is not just about believing in Christ, but being sanctified as well, being totally transformed.  Doctrines are like the guardrails that make our spiritual experience of Christ valid, because without proper beliefs, we are worshiping a vague “spirituality” and not the True God.  Spirituality is the proof that our faith is legitimate, though, on the flip side.  Those who are false teachers may appear spiritual for a time, but their flaws and faults are ultimately exposed, whereas the True Christian bears the grace of Christ in a way that is discernable to others. So one’s faith and one’s doctrine, and one’s spiritual life are wrapped up in one, not rigidly separated into categories (if you want to talk about faith vs. works, we can, but that is a separate topic for discussion. I will assuage any concern though preemptively by stating we do not believe in “works righteousness.”)

Obviously, this method of spiritual discipline was something passed down from teacher to student.  And there was a context in which the Scriptures were passed down. For instance, you might know that the Bible was not given an “official table of contents” until the Councils of Hippo and Carthage (393 and 397), although St. Athanasius of Alexandria lists the New Testament books in his Paschal Letter in c. 367, and other lists existed before this time, although sometimes people disagreed on things like the Book of Hebrews.  How was the list determined? In council, the bishops spoke of which books they had been taught by their preceding bishop, publicly, and of course, they mostly agreed.  What had been read publicly in the Churches in common across the whole world was seen as proof of authenticity.  The Church had discerned true Scripture from false, and they had done it in council.  This whole 300 year process is an example to Orthodox of “Holy Tradition at work”: not another source of doctrine in addition to Scripture, but the context by which the Gospel of Jesus Christ was passed down.  Scripture has a primary role, but Scripture has to be understood according to the context of the Church, in which it is born in each generation.

To sum up, the text is passed down, but how it is preached and lived is as much a part of the package as the words themselves.  When the Reformers and the Roman Catholics debated “one source” versus “two sources” they were both wrong; there is only one source—Jesus Christ—and the Bible is the primary way His disciples chose to collect this message, but the way the message was communicated and contextualized is very important and authoritative.  We witness now many people having commentaries on Scripture, and trying to explain what the passages meant. For Orthodox, we like to go back to the people who lived right after the Apostles, and then their successors, and then the next generation, and see how the passage in question was understood throughout all time.  We don’t believe that a doctrine appearing in the 11th century, 13th century, or 18th century is valid; it has to be something that was believed by Christians from the beginning.  There is no sense in which the Church “got lost” and then “found itself again.”  We see the arguments between Roman Catholics and Protestants as taking two extremes to basically non-existent problems, essentially.

So basically, we believe the Scriptures are the means by which we understand the Word of God, Our Savior Jesus Christ, and the Tradition of the Church is how this message was lived from all generations until the present.

I cannot explain it better than others have already, so if you want to explore the Orthodox view further, please see the articles on this page: http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/inq_tradition.aspx

I’m sure, of course, that you are not pre-Millennial or a pre-Tribulationist, but I can live with that!!!

It would be interesting to know what the Greek Orthodox Church teaches with regards to eschatology, if you can point me toward anything.

I am not familiar with all the ins and outs of Protestant views of eschatology, because when I was a Protestant, I was Lutheran, and we did not believe in a pre-Tribulation Rapture.  I only became aware of this idea when I was around 16 years old.  I think, though, that our view is basically that we are in the 1000 years now, because Satan was bound when Christ died on the Cross and descended into Hades (Sheol) to liberate the captives found there, before arising as victor on the 3rd day.  The Church, the Body of Christ, is Heaven on Earth, a foretaste of eternity.  Satan’s power is utterly limited now, such that he can only act on Christians when we give him license through falling into sin. Death is destroyed now, and is only a temporary rest, whereas in the Old Testament, even the righteous feared death, which was a guarantee of separation from God, a gloomy, shadowy, half-existence (the Psalms are full of references to this idea).

When a person dies, he is given a particular judgment, and sent to the waiting place for hell or the waiting place for heaven (because they don’t have their bodies restored yet, it is a foretaste in either case).  This will ultimately be fulfilled on the day of the Last Judgment, when all people dead will be raised and with those alive at that last time, will be reunited to their bodies and given the final Judgment.  Leading up to this time, will be periods of ever-increasing tribulation for the world, but Christians will not at some point get a rapture, leaving Jews to convert and fulfill the final several years. I don’t see much evidence for such a belief before the 1840’s, and references to a literal 1000 year kingdom did occur in a few Church writers in the 3rd century, but were not the consensus, and the Church ultimately sided against this teaching (called Chilianism).

I don’t have any good websites to send you to, because just as some Protestants are infected with the end-times mania of people like Hal Lindsey, we Orthodox have people who like to run with all sorts of prophecies of alleged holy people whom God allegedly revealed things to.  I don’t deny that God can do that if He wants, but I am not even sure that some of the things I read on English language websites are accurate translations from the original languages.  For instance, our St. Cosmas the Aitolian who lived in the 18th century allegedly predicted airplanes and telephones before the final “great war,” but people who speak Greek tell me they cannot find the actual Greek texts that are allegedly being translated. So I don’t want to send you to Orthodox websites on the topic without having first discerned whether they really represent Orthodox understandings of the End Times, and I don’t have time right now to research the issue thoroughly.

Well, I have rambled on way too long here, and I apologize for my wordiness.  If you wish to respond, feel free to.  I’d also love to meet you some time in person as face-to-face interactions are more fulfilling to me. You’re welcome as well to visit our Church any time, especially when we have a service on Saturday since you probably are committed to your own Church community on Sunday.

In Christ,

Fr. Anastasios


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