Author Topic: oral tradition in the early fathers  (Read 974 times)

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Offline platypus

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oral tradition in the early fathers
« on: October 08, 2019, 11:02:23 AM »
I've been reading some of Fr. Robert Hart's (ACC) posts on the Continuum blog, and there was an idea repeated a couple of times that caught my eye:

Quote from: Fr. Robert Hart
Some people have confusion about the place of Scripture, forgetting that in Ecumenical (if you prefer, Oecumencial) Council the Fathers used the Scriptures to prove or disprove doctrinal ideas. They saw in the Scriptures the mind of Christ by his Apostles recorded in a public record, and were certain that no essential doctrine was established that was not written in them and drawn from them.
from https://anglicancontinuum.blogspot.com/2010/02/real-mccoy.html

Quote from: Fr. Robert Hart
For all the talk about the Church Fathers, it is the Book of Common Prayer that relies on the actual Patristic method for establishing doctrine, i.e. the Faith as received and set forth in the Bible. If you doubt that, then actually read the Fathers. You will be shocked, some of you, by how much they come across like Evangelicals--they even "proof text."
from https://anglicancontinuum.blogspot.com/2010/12/myth-of-consensus.html

For us Orthodox, tradition is the authority, and scripture is an obviously very important part of that tradition. From the Anglican perspective, scripture is the authority and we look to tradition specifically as a way to understand the scripture (hopefully I'm not misrepresenting them). Off the top of my head, I can't find a way to disagree with Fr. Hart. For example, I just finished up Confessions by St. Augustine, and it was a constant stream of quotations from the psalter and gospels. The same goes for most of the patristic writing I've seen, except maybe the Apostolic fathers - which are sort of quasi-scripture and would naturally have difficulty quoting the New Testament since they were being written around the same time.

Can anyone think of, especially in the second or third century AD, Church fathers who appealed to an oral tradition to establish a doctrine without using scripture (or books they considered to be scripture at the time) to back it up?
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Offline WPM

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Re: oral tradition in the early fathers
« Reply #1 on: October 08, 2019, 05:55:31 PM »
The Orthodox priest vocally speaks from the Pulpit.

Offline platypus

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Re: oral tradition in the early fathers
« Reply #2 on: October 09, 2019, 10:55:19 AM »
This chapter from Letters and Select Works of St. Basil makes the case for the authority of unwritten tradition, but I'm not sure that St. Basil would actually disagree with Fr. Hart. He mentions first and foremost the authority of unwritten tradition to establish practices like the sign of the cross, facing east in prayer, etc.

He does bring up the trinity as a doctrine not contained in Scripture, but as Fr. Hart points out the Council fathers who defined our belief in the triune God were using the scripture to prove it. All three persons of the Trinity are mentioned in scripture, even though the concept is not explained in a catechetical manner. So from the perspective of the scriptures as the source of doctrine and tradition as our understanding of it, the Trinity still makes sense.

The chapter leaves it unclear whether or not St. Basil would be on board with the idea of doctrine unmentioned by scripture.
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Offline RaphaCam

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Re: oral tradition in the early fathers
« Reply #3 on: October 10, 2019, 01:49:37 PM »
Can anyone think of, especially in the second or third century AD, Church fathers who appealed to an oral tradition to establish a doctrine without using scripture (or books they considered to be scripture at the time) to back it up?
The Easter controversy.
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Offline platypus

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Re: oral tradition in the early fathers
« Reply #4 on: October 10, 2019, 06:18:48 PM »
Can anyone think of, especially in the second or third century AD, Church fathers who appealed to an oral tradition to establish a doctrine without using scripture (or books they considered to be scripture at the time) to back it up?
The Easter controversy.

What doctrine was in question during the Easter controversy?
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Offline RaphaCam

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Re: oral tradition in the early fathers
« Reply #5 on: October 11, 2019, 12:16:58 AM »
Well, it's more about the Dathers arguing which tradition was older based solely on oral traditions.
« Last Edit: October 11, 2019, 12:17:14 AM by RaphaCam »
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Offline platypus

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Re: oral tradition in the early fathers
« Reply #6 on: October 18, 2019, 08:02:12 PM »
This sermon from St. John Chrysostom seems to support the Anglican position:

Quote from: St. John Chrysostom
And how shall he walk the narrow way? Let us not therefore carry about the notions of the many, but examine into the facts. For how is it not absurd that in respect to money, indeed, we do not trust to others, but refer this to figures and calculation; but in calculating upon facts we are lightly drawn aside by the notions of others; and that too, though we possess an exact balance, and square and rule for all things, the declaration of the divine laws? Wherefore I exhort and entreat you all, disregard what this man and that man thinks about these things, and inquire from the Scriptures all these things; and having learnt what are the true riches, let us pursue after them that we may obtain also the eternal good things; which may we all obtain, through the grace and love towards men of our Lord Jesus Christ, with Whom, to the Father and the Holy Spirit, be glory, might, and honor, now and ever, and world without end. Amen.
From: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf112.v.xiii.html


It's definitely not an Evancelical-type nuda scriptura position, but this commentary makes it seem that St. John Chrysostom saw scripture as the only legitimate source of doctrine.

I'm trying to figure out two questions at this point. Was this a common patrisic view? And if so, what's the practical effect?
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Offline platypus

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Re: oral tradition in the early fathers
« Reply #7 on: October 19, 2019, 06:15:08 PM »
Okay, I read "The function of tradition in the Ancient Church" by Archpriest Archpriest George Florovsky, and it's caused me to think I may have been imagining the difference between the Anglican and Eastern Orthodox positions on tradition. He says, speaking of the Vincentine canon:
Quote from: Fr. George Florovsky
Tradition was not, according to St. Vincent, an independent instance, nor was it a complementary source of faith. "Ecclesiastical understanding" could not add anything to the Scripture. But it was the only means to ascertain and to disclose the true meaning of Scripture. Tradition was, in fact, the authentic interpretation of Scripture. And in this sense it was co-extensive with Scripture. Tradition was actually "Scripture rightly understood." And Scripture was for St. Vincent the only, primary and ultimate, canon of Christian truth (Commonitorium, cap. II, cf. cap. 28).

Later in the article:
Quote from: Fr. George Florovsky
The Apostolic Tradition of faith was the indispensable guide in the understanding of Scripture and the ultimate warrant of right interpretation. The Church was not an external authority, which had to judge over the Scripture, but rather the keeper and guardian of that Divine truth which was stored and deposited in the Holy Writ
Source: http://www.fatheralexander.org/booklets/english/church_tradition_florovsky.htm

The above understanding falls right in line with Fr. Robert Hart argues for: Scripture is the revelation, and tradition is our historic understanding of it. Fr. George Florovsky even goes on to reference "On the Authority of Oral Tradition" by St. Basil that I posted above, explaining how it fits into this understanding. I have previously been taught a somewhat different view of scripture and tradition: namely, that our doctrine is the tradition handed down by the Apostles, and that only part of that tradition is contained in the scripture. I can't remember if this was during my convert classes or in one of the modern Orthodox books I've read, perhaps something by Archbishop Kallistos Ware. Off the top of my head, the only doctrine I've been taught as an Orthodox that I don't think has a scriptural basis is Toll Houses, which judging by this forum are not accepted by many anyway.

It seems classical Anglicanism is far more similiar to Eastern Orthodoxy than I realized.

I welcome any feedback on these musings; it's very possible I've gone off the deep end and sanity checks are always useful.
« Last Edit: October 19, 2019, 06:17:27 PM by platypus »
"Eternal truth finds no favorable soil where one encounters at every turn the skeptical, sarcastic query 'what is truth,' where life insurance takes the place of eternal hope." -Hieromonk Antonius

Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity. -Ecclesiastes 12:8

Offline platypus

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Re: oral tradition in the early fathers
« Reply #8 on: November 02, 2019, 04:21:27 PM »
This came up in the Orthodox/RC discussion board, and I realized it was relevant here. I've mixed feelings about St. Thomas Aquinas; his scientific approach to theology seems quite different from that of the early Fathers, although that doesn't necessarily mean it's wrong. Whatever the case, it's intriguing to see him weigh in on the subject:

Quote from: St. Thomas Aquinas
Nevertheless, sacred doctrine... properly uses the authority of the canonical Scriptures as an incontrovertible proof, and the authority of the doctors of the Church as one that may properly be used, yet merely as probable. For our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books, and not on the revelations (if any such there are) made to other doctors.
From Summa Theologica, Treatise on Sacred Doctrine, Article 8

He is even clearer in his commentary on the Gospel of John:

Quote from: St. Thomas Aquinas
"If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed" (Gal 1:9). The reason for this is that only the canonical scriptures are the standard of faith. The others have set forth this truth but in such a way that they do not want to be believed except in those things in which they say what is true.
From Commentary on the Gospel of John, Chapter 21
From
"Eternal truth finds no favorable soil where one encounters at every turn the skeptical, sarcastic query 'what is truth,' where life insurance takes the place of eternal hope." -Hieromonk Antonius

Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity. -Ecclesiastes 12:8

Offline Asteriktos

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Re: oral tradition in the early fathers
« Reply #9 on: November 02, 2019, 04:36:38 PM »
Of course the "canon of Scripture" doesn't have a Table of Contents, so you have to rely on an external source for defining it in the first place ;)
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Offline platypus

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Re: oral tradition in the early fathers
« Reply #10 on: November 02, 2019, 05:08:46 PM »
Of course the "canon of Scripture" doesn't have a Table of Contents, so you have to rely on an external source for defining it in the first place ;)

Right, but would the inspired scriptures need an inspired list of books in order to be the final word on matters of doctrine?

From what I understand at this point, the source of doctrinal authority is the teachings of Christ and the Apostles. In the early Church, some of these doctrines were challenged. The obvious way to fact check different teachings was to compare them to what the Apostles wrote. The bishops made a list of these Apostolic books and letters so that they could determine orthodoxy from heterodoxy when there were any conflicts in teaching. Through God's providence, the writings of the Apostles touched on all their doctrines.

I might be mistaken, and I've got a lot more to learn. But so far doesn't seem that the Fathers saw a contradiction between believing scripture to be the only authoritative source of doctrine*, and the fact that the Bible doesn't have an inspired index.

*That's not to say that the scriptures are the only thing we need to read, or that they're completely self-explanatory, or that we can't trust the creeds. Merely that all the doctrines are in the scriptures, and we have to keep understanding them in the traditional manner; hence the fact that we look to the Fathers for guidance.
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Offline rakovsky

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Re: oral tradition in the early fathers
« Reply #11 on: November 05, 2019, 05:12:44 PM »
Can anyone think of, especially in the second or third century AD, Church fathers who appealed to an oral tradition to establish a doctrine without using scripture (or books they considered to be scripture at the time) to back it up?
Typically what they are going to do is cite some oral tradition, and then in another place, if it's an important doctrine that they want to establish, they will cite Scripture.

To give one example, in his reply to the Encratites, Clement of Alexandria, who treats some non-canonical books with major respect, tries to argue that the Gospel of the Egyptians, which is not in the Bible, actually means the opposite of the anti-sex teachings of the Encratites. So he uses quotes from this apocryphal book and makes observations from that book to counter the Encratites, who themselves were using the Gospel of the Egyptians. And in some passages he was not citing scripture, even though certainly overall at a later point he might cite scripture to argue for the same idea.

I go through different non-Biblical 1st century or early such writings in my thread below, and you can see how at times the Church fathers used these books with respect:
List of 1st century writings by or about Christians
http://www.orthodoxchristianity.net/forum/index.php/topic,67356.315.html

But typically what they did was to use these books as added support in addition to Scripture.

Typically, since the Bible is so important, what the Fathers will do is cite some part of the Bible, even if it is not right on topic, and then maybe cite from the non-Biblical sources, like those that you can find in my link above.
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Offline rakovsky

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Re: oral tradition in the early fathers
« Reply #12 on: November 05, 2019, 05:16:58 PM »
Of course the "canon of Scripture" doesn't have a Table of Contents, so you have to rely on an external source for defining it in the first place ;)

Right, but would the inspired scriptures need an inspired list of books in order to be the final word on matters of doctrine?
No, but if you didn't have a list of the books, how would people realistically know which ones were in the canonical Bible? They wouldn't realistically independently come to the same conclusion if we were talking about a randomly unorganized scattering of books that different people may or may not have in their possession. This is where the Church comes in to ascertain which books are in the Bible as an organization.

You are basically de facto relying on the judgment of the early Christian Church as an institution to decide which books are in and which ones aren't. Sure, you can say that you are guided by the Holy Spirit to make the right judgment, but De Facto you wouldn't realistically get a consensus that way without an organization verifying it.
« Last Edit: November 05, 2019, 05:18:19 PM by rakovsky »
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Offline platypus

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Re: oral tradition in the early fathers
« Reply #13 on: November 06, 2019, 09:13:01 PM »
Quote from: rakovsky
No, but if you didn't have a list of the books, how would people realistically know which ones were in the canonical Bible? They wouldn't realistically independently come to the same conclusion if we were talking about a randomly unorganized scattering of books that different people may or may not have in their possession. This is where the Church comes in to ascertain which books are in the Bible as an organization.

You are basically de facto relying on the judgment of the early Christian Church as an institution to decide which books are in and which ones aren't. Sure, you can say that you are guided by the Holy Spirit to make the right judgment, but De Facto you wouldn't realistically get a consensus that way without an organization verifying it.


On this point, I think you, I, and the theologians quotes above are all in agreement. The Church is the guardian and keeper of Holy Writ, as Fr. George Florovsky wrote in the article I linked above. And it is in the Church that the proper tradition of interpretation is maintained.
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Offline platypus

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Re: oral tradition in the early fathers
« Reply #14 on: November 06, 2019, 09:16:10 PM »
I found where I got my initial (mis?)understanding of scripture and tradition:

Quote from: Metropolitan Kallistos Ware
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.

From The Orthodox Church by Met. Kallistos Ware

While I can assent wholeheartedly to what His Grace says after the semicolon, the first part is beginning to seem problematic. After all, it was not ecclesiastical approval that made the scriptures inspired. The New Testament works were authoritative from the time they were written; it’s not as if nobody knew Matthew’s gospel was inspired, then when the Quinisext Council approved the NT canon it became valid scripture.

I think the New Testament canon was created to rule out uninspired books, not to grant authority to God’s word. Again, I’m still learning. But this seems like the most likely explanation. As Rakovsky pointed out above, the pre-Nicene Fathers quote scripture left and right in a manner that suggests they recognized its authority long before the canon became official.
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Offline platypus

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Re: oral tradition in the early fathers
« Reply #15 on: November 06, 2019, 09:17:37 PM »
Fr. Patrick Reardon’s take in the book Christ in the Psalms seems to be in line with what I’ve found so far:
Quote from: Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon
The Christian faith recognizes two ways in which God has made His revelation to us: through nature and through grace. “Through Creation and through Holy Scripture” is another way of saying the same thing. These are the two means God has given us through which to know him.

Although he mentions creation as a source of revelation, his writing does not leave me with the impression that he looks to creation as a source for doctrines unmentioned in scripture.
"Eternal truth finds no favorable soil where one encounters at every turn the skeptical, sarcastic query 'what is truth,' where life insurance takes the place of eternal hope." -Hieromonk Antonius

Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity. -Ecclesiastes 12:8

Offline rakovsky

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Re: oral tradition in the early fathers
« Reply #16 on: November 06, 2019, 09:19:25 PM »
I found where I got my initial (mis?)understanding of scripture and tradition:

Quote from: Metropolitan Kallistos Ware
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.

From The Orthodox Church by Met. Kallistos Ware

While I can assent wholeheartedly to what His Grace says after the semicolon, the first part is beginning to seem problematic. After all, it was not ecclesiastical approval that made the scriptures inspired. The New Testament works were authoritative from the time they were written; it’s not as if nobody knew Matthew’s gospel was inspired, then when the Quinisext Council approved the NT canon it became valid scripture.
I don't think he is saying that. He could add that the Church itself, of which the apostles were leading figures, both wrote the books and decided on their lists, so the Bible gets its authority from its authors, the apostles, and through them ultimately from God.
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Offline platypus

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Re: oral tradition in the early fathers
« Reply #17 on: November 06, 2019, 09:26:53 PM »
it’s not as if nobody knew Matthew’s gospel was inspired, then when the Quinisext Council approved the NT canon it became valid scripture.
I don't think he is saying that. He could add that the Church itself, of which the apostles were leading figures, both wrote the books and decided on their lists, so the Bible gets its authority from its authors, the apostles, and through them ultimately from God.

Thank you, Rakovsky! That definitely makes more sense than how I understood him.
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Offline rakovsky

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Re: oral tradition in the early fathers
« Reply #18 on: November 06, 2019, 09:49:36 PM »
it’s not as if nobody knew Matthew’s gospel was inspired, then when the Quinisext Council approved the NT canon it became valid scripture.
I don't think he is saying that. He could add that the Church itself, of which the apostles were leading figures, both wrote the books and decided on their lists, so the Bible gets its authority from its authors, the apostles, and through them ultimately from God.

Thank you, Rakovsky! That definitely makes more sense than how I understood him.
Yeah. He was not saying that the Bible was not inspired until medieval times, but to address your concern he could add that the apostles were part of the Church, etc. like I mentioned.

Right now I am reading the First Century writings and there were debates at the time between the apostles and the gnostics, who had their own versions of the Bible and of Jesus' story. The apostles at that point were the leaders of the Church, whereas the gnostics were in opposition. So the books of the Bible were authored as part of the Church, not as part of independent writers.

I could try to better explain his statement:
Quote
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
He is not saying that the medieval church was the source of the book's divine inspiration, but it gets its authority from the Church because they were its compilers. The book in its current form with its current Table of Contents gets its authority to be "the Bible" from the authority of the compilers. It didn't drop out of the air, but rather the different books were selected and agreed on by a group of believers, church leaders and theologians.
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Offline platypus

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Re: oral tradition in the early fathers
« Reply #19 on: November 08, 2019, 08:30:24 PM »
The book in its current form with its current Table of Contents gets its authority to be "the Bible" from the authority of the compilers.

I'm in full agreement with all you said except for this bit. And I suspect my disagreement lies in the ambiguity of the statement, not in what you actually meant. From what I understand thus far, the books of the Bible are authoritative because they are inspired by God, and it is the Church that recognized this inspiration and upheld the correct index of books. Those who compiled it had the authority to do so from God, and they were preserving what the Church had always taught. 

This is the same reason I think I got the wrong impression from Metropolitan Kallistos' book; because he says the Bible ultimately gets it's authority from the Church. He may have just been throwing in ultimately as a nice sounding adjective, but ultimately the scripture's authority comes from God. Just as the Church ultimately gets its authority from God. You could correctly say that the Church gets it's authority from the Apostles, but ultimately it gets authority from God.

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Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity. -Ecclesiastes 12:8

Offline rakovsky

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Re: oral tradition in the early fathers
« Reply #20 on: November 08, 2019, 08:47:32 PM »
I think that you get the general idea.

People who believe that the Bible is the holiest book implicitly would take the book's compilers to be inspired and authoritative in their work of compiling the Bible. Otherwise, how for instance do they assert that the Church's version is correct and not, say, the Vhurvh's version minus 10 books? Defacto they imply that the Church was right in its work. By respecting the Bible they respect the Church.
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