Protestants will argue that the Scriptures came directly from God, and that the Church was founded upon the Scriptures. They assert that the Church was established by the words of Christ, which are recorded in the Holy Bible. And this is not necessarily incorrect. But Orthodoxy rightly points out that the Bible came to us in and through the institution of the Church; and thus apart from the Teachings and Traditions of the Church, the Scriptures will never be correctly understood.
The 27 books of the New Testament were not compiled until 367 A.D., by St. Athanasius. So, how did Christians of the first four centuries grow in the Faith without the New Testament? The answer is apostolic Teaching and Tradition. Even after the New Testament was compiled and canonized, most people did not have access to it, and many people were illiterate and could not read the Scriptures even if they had them.
The doctrine of “Sola Scriptura” (The Scriptures Alone) was contrived by Martin Luther* in the 16th century. Seeking a way to circumvent accountability to ecclesiastical authority (i.e. the Roman Catholic Church, which incidentally had apostatized from the apostolic Faith in 1054 A.D.), Luther up and declared that the “Bible alone” is the only authoritative source of Christian truth and spiritual instruction. Besides being a purely subjective doctrinal innovation, Sola Scriptura also casts aspersion on 1500 years of preceding Christian history, during which thousands of Saints and Martyrs gave their lives for the apostolic Faith, “which was once for all delivered unto the Saints.”[Jude 3]Until the invention of the Gutenburg Printing Press in the middle of the 15th century, the Bible was essentially unavailable to the masses. Thus, Christian faith was primarily shaped and informed by 1500 years of unbroken and unaltered apostolic Teaching and Tradition. The era that secular historians disparage as the “Dark Ages” was actually an era illumined by the Orthodox Christian light of the Saints, Martyrs, and Fathers of the Faith. Thus if Luther was correct in maintaining that Scripture alone is the only authoritative source of Christian understanding, then what does that say about those Christians who lived in the centuries when the Bible was not available to them? If “Sola Scriptura” is correct, then the Christians who did not have the Scriptures must have been following mere superstition or mere human tradition. Their saintly struggles and martyrdom were only in vain. This is one of the blasphemous but logical conclusions of “Sola Scriptura.”
When the subjectivity of “Sola Scriptura” is pointed out to them, Protestants will often cite the mantra, “Scripture interprets Scripture.” But the Bible is not able to actually interpret itself. Although the Holy Scriptures are divinely inspired (“Inspired”- Greek: “theo-pneustos;”i.e. “God-breathed” - II Timothy 3:16), the Bible can only be interpreted by people. And each individual person will interpret it differently. So there are only two options: 1) Submit the Scriptures to the endless subjective interpretations of individual men or groups of individuals; or 2) Allow the divinely established apostolic Church of Christ to interpret and explain the Holy Scriptures for the edification and enlightenment of the Christian people.
Although the Church is comprised of individual persons, its objective holy Teachings have been divinely instituted and preserved through apostolic succession. Thus, Orthodox Christians are not susceptible to the errors of a subjective and individualistic biblical hermeneutic. Instead, we corporately rely upon the divine apostolic interpretations that have been given to us in, through, and by the infallible Church of Our Lord.
Consider Acts 8:26-39, which records the encounter of the Apostle Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. The Ethiopian eunuch was a devout man of the Judaic Faith who was returning from Jerusalem where he had travelled to worship. St. Philip encountered the Ethiopian sitting in his chariot reading aloud from the book of Isaiah, and he asked the eunuch if he understood what he was reading. The Ethiopian replied, “How can I unless someone guides me?” [Acts 8:31] St. Philip then “preached Jesus to him” [Acts 8:35]. The Ethiopian eunuch’s understanding of the Scriptures was enlightened by the Apostle’s guidance, and he was consequently converted and baptized by St. Philip. (Acts 8:36-38)
This account demonstrates the necessity of ecclesiastical instruction in regard to the interpretation of the Scriptures. For the Ethiopian was certainly learned in the sacred texts;** but his conversion teaches us that individual efforts to understand the Scriptures are inadequate apart from the guidance and interpretation of apostolic authority. The Ethiopian’s humility and his willingness to submit to apostolic instruction enabled him to enter into a relationship with Christ and His Church. His sincere faith and obedience to apostolic guidance also enabled the entire nation of Ethiopia to subsequently embrace the Christian Faith. And this ancient and authentic Orthodox Christian Faith continues to form the essence of Ethiopian culture to this very day.
We must remember that the gates of hell may prevail over many things: individuals, families, denominations, governments, tribes, or nations; but the gates of hell shall not prevail against The Church. (St. Matthew 16:18) Therefore, Orthodoxy is founded upon that divine institution which Christ has eternally established, preserved, and protected. We do not subscribe to “Sola Scriptura;” instead, we hold to the Teachings and Traditions of the Church, apart from which the sacred Scriptures will never be truly understood.
To seek the meaning of the Scriptures outside of their proper ecclesiastical context is to demean and disrespect their sacred purpose. Those that truly love the Word of God (i.e. Christ- St. John 1:1; Hebrews 4:12-13) will submit to the Teachings and Traditions of His Church. Professing Christians who reject apostolic Teaching and Tradition prove that they love not the Bible, but rather their own subjective interpretations and fallible human opinions. And ironically, the doctrine of “Sola Scriptura” is simply not Scriptural; for nowhere in the Bible are we instructed to base our Christian Faith on the Bible alone.
“You search the Scriptures, for in them you think that you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.” [St. John 5:39-40]
“The Bible is the supreme expression of God’s revelation to the human race, and Christians must always be ‘People of the Book’. But if Christians are People of the Book, the Bible is the Book of the People; it must not be regarded as something set up over the Church, but as something that lives and is understood within the Church (that is why one should not separate Scripture and Tradition). It is from the Church that the Bible ultimately derives its authority, for it was the Church which originally decided which books form a part of Holy Scripture; and it is the Church alone which can interpret Holy Scripture with authority. There are many sayings in the Bible which by themselves are far from clear, and individual readers, however sincere, are in danger of error if they trust their own personal interpretation. Orthodox, when they read the Scripture, accept the guidance of the Church. When received into the Orthodox Church, a convert promises, ‘I will accept and understand Holy Scripture in accordance with the interpretation which was and is held by the Holy Apostolic Orthodox Church, our Mother.’”
-Bishop Kallistos Ware-
“Every word will also seem consistent to him if he diligently reads the Scriptures in company with those who are presbyters in the church, among whom is the apostolic doctrine.”
*Luther and Sola Scriptura- Lutherans may argue that Martin Luther did not hold to “Sola Scriptura” in the same sense most modern Protestants do. They will point out that in his writings, Luther frequently cited Church Fathers to support his view of Scripture (although often inaccurately), and that the Lutheran Confessions make clear that their view of Scripture is supported by and depends upon the Fathers. It is true that Luther did not necessarily reject apostolic Tradition, but rather asserted that all doctrines and dogmas of the Church not found in Scripture should be discarded (an ironic assertion, since “Sola Scriptura” itself is a doctrine not found in the Scriptures). But what is undeniable is that Luther essentially relied on “Sola Scriptura” as his defense at the Diet of Worms in 1521:
“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”
Luther’s words effectively gave license for subsequent heterodox Christians to rely on their own fallible human logic in interpreting the Bible for themselves. The countless Protestant sects and cults that exist today were born from individuals or groups of individuals elevating the Bible above apostolic Teaching and Tradition, and claiming to interpret it according to “plain reason” and/or the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The result has produced a plethora of contradictory Protestant doctrines that far surpass the contradictions Luther himself was originally criticizing.
**“The Ethiopian was learned in the sacred texts…”- “Immediately after Philip had baptized him, the eunuch departed from him. For nothing else was lacking to him who had been instructed in the prophets. He was not ignorant of God the Father, nor of the rules as to the proper manner of life. Rather, he was merely ignorant of the coming of the Son of God. After he had learned of this, in a brief while, he went on his way rejoicing, to become the herald in Ethiopia of Christ’s coming.” -St. Irenaeus-
Gebre Menfes Kidus
[From my book MYSTERY and MEANING: Christian Philosophy & Orthodox Meditations]