by Alvin Kimel


Back in June my fellow blogger, I’d Rather Not Say, wrote an excellent article on the theme of Tradition. At the time I had hoped I would be able to comment on it within a week or two. Well, here I am three months later …

IRNS distinguishes between three understandings of the word tradition within Christian usage:

1) Tradition as “traditions,” plural, with a small “t.”

2) Tradition as, in the words of one Eastern Orthodox theologian, “the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.”

3) Tradition as a distinct category of authority, apart from, but in harmony with, Scripture.

As IRNS points out in his article, the challenge is properly formulating the mutual relations between these three understandings. Here is one of my favorite passages:

Tradition (in the positive sense) literally means a handing over or passing on to subsequent generations, down through time. When we are within a tradition, we act, or think, or just are as those who have gone before us, whether that tradition is a language, a political system, an artistic style, or whatever. But in the Church, we not only inherit something from our forebears; we are Spiritually linked with our forebears in a very real sense, because we are all still members of the Body of Christ. If the Church, the Body of Christ, is something which exists not only over space but also over time, and indeed is something which transcends time and space; if we really believe in “the Communion of Saints;” then this Body of Christ, created and sustained by baptismal and eucharistic fellowship, is quite literally a Tradition, and that Tradition is quite literally the “life of the Holy Spirit.”

Tradition, then, is not what the Church teaches; it is not even what the Church does; it is what the Church is–the living, pulsing, breathing Body of Christ, created by baptism, animated by the Holy Spirit and centered on its eucharistic life, where the Body of Christ becomes one with its Head and so becomes one with the Father, as our Saviour prayed.

Well said indeed! The Church is a mystical reality, a supernatural organism in space and time that transcends space and time. Ignatius, Basil, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila–they are not lost in the past. The Church militant lives in mystical communion with them in the one Holy Spirit. They are our contemporaries, and their written words speak to us with an immediacy, directness, and wisdom unlike any other literature.

IRNS is strongly drawn to the exposition of Tradition as found in Orthodox writers like Vladimir Lossky and Georges Florvosky. It is an engaging, compelling vision. It is also an alien vision for Protestants … and most Anglicans.

Our historian-blogger advances the thesis that classical Anglicanism, as embodied in the Caroline Divines and especially in Lancelot Andrewes, also shared a similar vision of Holy Tradition. Now I am not a historian, and I certainly cannot and do not wish to contest his claim that Andrewes understood tradition as “a dynamic process transcending ordinary time without destroying it.” This is the sense of Tradition that drew me into the high church wing of the Episcopal Church and has kept me here for twenty-nine years. If this is what Andrewes believed, then my opinion of him, which is already pretty high, will go up several notches. Andrewes appears not only to have been a student of the Fathers but to have breathed them into his being. But I remain skeptical that this dynamic vision of Tradition can be said to be representative of Anglicanism as a whole. Historically our communion has embraced a wide and diverse range of theological commitments. Even in the seventeenth century there were churchmen (such as the Cambridge Platonists, the Great Tew circle, and conforming puritans) who discounted the appeal to the Church Fathers. Archbishop Laud’s godson, William Chillingworth, for example, certainly did not believe that antiquity could be of much help to us in the determination of doctrine: “There are popes against popes, councils against councils, some fathers against others, the same fathers against themselves, a consent of fathers of one age against a consent of fathers of another age, the Church of one age against the Church of another age.”

I am reminded of the conversation between two Calvinists in the 17th century. The one gentleman asks the other, “Can you tell me what the Arminians hold?” to which the second replies, “I am sorry to say that they hold half the deaneries and bishoprics in England.” (High church folks like Laud and Taylor were popularly termed “Arminians.”)

But the appeal to antiquity has been characteristic of one kind of Anglican reflection and churchmanship. We think of great Anglican Divines like Richard Hooker, Lancelot Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor, and E. B. Pusey. For them the patristic age functioned as a yardstick for the interpretation of Holy Scripture. King James I summarized this approach in 1609:

I am such a Catholic Christian as believeth the three Creeds, that of the Apostles, that of the Council of Nice, and that of Athanasius, the two latter being paraphrases of the former. And I believe them in that sense as the ancient Fathers and Councils that made them did understand them, to which three Creeds all the ministers of England do subscribe at their Ordination. And I also acknowledge for Orthodox all those other forms of Creeds that either were devised by Councils or particular heresies, against such particular heresies as most reigned in their times.

I reverence and admit the Four First General Councils as Catholic and Orthodox. And the said Four General Councils are acknowledged by our Acts of Parliament, and received for orthodox by our Church.

As for the Fathers, I reverence them as much and more than the Jesuits do, and as much as themselves ever craved. For whatever the Fathers for the first five hundred years did with an unanime consent agree upon, to be believed as a necessary point of salvation, I wither will believe it also, or at least will be humbly silent, not taking upon me too condemn the same. But for every private Father’s opinion, it binds not my conscience more than Bellarmine’s, every one of the Fathers usually contradicting others. I will therefore in that case follow St. Augustine’s rule in judging of their opinions as I find them agree with the Scriptures. What I find agreeable thereto I will gladly embrace. What is otherwise I will (with their reverence) reject.

In the judgment of King James, the appeal to antiquity entails the rejection of purgatory, Marian devotion, the invocation of the saints, the veneration of images and relics, transubstantiation and eucharistic adoration, and of course papal primacy. The rejection of these practices and beliefs would remain constant in the Church of England until the Anglo-Catholic movement.

In his book The Spirit of Anglicanism H. R. McAdoo states that the Caroline appeal to antiquity functioned as a way to demonstrate continuity between the Church of England and the Church of the Fathers and thus to justify continued separation from the Roman Church.

The appeal to antiquity meant therefore that, while the place of Scripture was central, Anglicans did not regard it as existing in a vacuum apart from the life of the Church within which it was formed in the first place. Due consideration should accordingly be given to its interpretation in those centuries nearest to its composition, to councils held during the same time, to the life-setting and practice of the primitive Church as illustrative of this. They did not however view the writings of the Fathers as a kind of second canon which was above criticism, and the place occupied by the patristic writings, the decisions of councils and the history of the patristic period, was a secondary one. On the other hand, the central place of Scripture limited the function of the Church in doctrinal matters, as Andrewes indicated to Bellarmine. (p. 318)

The witness of the Fathers was valued by the Caroline Divines because of its temporal nearness to Scripture. On the writings of the Fathers, says Andrewes, the anointment of the Spirit “lieth thick, and we thence strike it off, and gather it safely.” The closer a writer lived to the time of the Bible’s composition the more likely his interpretation of Scripture was deemed to be accurate. As time proceeds, the probability of misunderstanding, corruption, and deviation increases.

At this point the difference between the appeal to antiquity by Anglicanism and the invocation of Sacred Tradition by Orthodoxy and Catholicism becomes evident. For Caroline divinity, the appeal to antiquity is historical reference to consensual interpretations of Scripture or earlier patterns of church order and liturgy. Its authority, therefore, is relative, subordinate, confirmatory, precedential, rational. The patristic period enjoys honor because this was the time when, in the words of William Laud, “the Church was at the best.” For Orthodoxy and Catholicism, the invocation of Tradition is the invocation of a living, present, dynamic reality; it is a mystical abiding in the Spirit who illumines and forms the Church in the faith once delivered to the saints. It includes the appeal to antiquity but also transcends it, because it refuses to restrict the witness of the Spirit to an arbitrarily chosen period of the past. Scripture is read in, not alongside, the Tradition.

This is one reason why, I believe, that it is accurate to describe even the Caroline Divines as advocating a form of sola scriptura. The magisterial Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura does not eschew secondary authorities; it includes them. Surely Laud, Cosin, and Taylor would agree, for example, with the following statement:

Thus councils would come to have the majesty that is their due; yet in the meantime Scrpture would stand out in the higher place, with everything subject to its standard. In this way, we willingly embrace and reverence as holy the early councils, such as those of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus I, Chalcedon, and the like, which were concerned with refuting errors–in so far as they relate to the teachings of faith. For they contain nothing but the pure and genuine exposition of Scripture, which the holy fathers applied with spiritual prudence to crush the enemies of religion which had then arisen.

Who wrote this? John Calvin. Alister McGrath summarizes the magisterial Reformation understanding of Scripture:

The reformers insisted that the authority of popes, councils and theologians is subordinate to that of Scripture. This is not necessarily to say that they have no authority;… the reformers allowed certain councils and theologians of the patristic era a genuine authority in matters of doctrine. It is to say, however, that such authority is derived from Scripture, and is thus subordinate to Scripture. The Bible, as the Word of God, must be regarded as superior to Fathers and councils…. The idea of a ‘traditional interpretation of Scripture’ was perfectly acceptable to the magisterial reformers, provided that this traditional interpretation could be justified” (Reformation Thought, pp. 142, 144).

Does the Reformation understanding of Scripture and tradition essentially differ from the views of the Caroline Divines? I do not think so. Please note the condition stipulated in that last sentence of McGrath. In it lies the seeds of Protestant disunity and chaos.

However deeply the Caroline Divines may have read the Fathers, they still were not led to dissent from the Protestant consensus on “unbiblical” Romish (and Orthodox) beliefs and practices. They still found themselves siding with Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley. The Caroline Divines, for example, were no more ready to subject themselves to the Seventh Ecumenical Council, and thus admit to the propriety of venerating images, than the English Reformers. The conversations between the Nonjurors and the Orthodox patriarchs are illuminating in this regard. Ultimately these conversations went nowhere both because the Nonjurors found Orthodox beliefs and practices as objectionable as the corresponding Roman beliefs and practices and because the Patriarchs could not see a great deal of difference between the Nonjurors and the Continental Protestants. “It is not to be wondered at,” reflected the patriarchs, “for being born and bred in the principles of the Luthero-Calvinists and possessed with their prejudices they tenaciously adhere to them like ivy to a tree.”

Pontificator’s Third Law: It’s one thing to read Scripture and the Fathers; it’s quite another thing to read Scripture through the Fathers.

The appeal to antiquity served the Church of England in two important ways in the 17th century: Over against puritanism, the Fathers were invoked to support Episcopal polity. Over against Rome, the Fathers were invoked to support the Church of England claim to be the Catholic Church in England. Here is the Anglican via media–reformed and catholic. Thus Chillingworth could affirm the sufficiency of Scripture in no uncertain terms: “The Bible, I say, the Bible only is the religion of Protestants.” And Laud could insist on the interrelationship between Bible and Church: “The Scripture where ’tis plain should guide the Church; and the Church where there’s doubt or difficulty should expound the Scripture; yet so as neither the Scripture should be forced, nor the Church so bound up, as that upon just and farther evidence, she may not revise that which in any case hath slipt by her.”

I realize that many of the 17th century Divines, particularly the Laudians, sought to distance themselves decisively from Continental Protestantism. Caroline divinity breathes a very different spirit. It is learned, liturgical, reasonable, and sometimes charmingly archaic. But its theological method, I suggest, remains Protestant.

Joined to the Caroline appeal to antiquity was a deep suspicion of all claims to infallibility. “Two things there are,” says Hooker, “which trouble greatly these later times: one that the Church of Rome cannot, another that Geneva will not, err.” John Hales may be cited as representative of Anglican conviction: “Infallibility either in judgement, or interpretation, or whatsoever, is annext neither to the See of any Bishop, nor to the Councils, nor to the Church, nor to any created power whatsoever.” Here is the sense of modesty and liberality that so many have prized in Anglican divinity. But compare this dogmatic modesty with the strong statement of ecclesial infallibility declared by the Orthodox Church at the 1672 Synod of Jerusalem.

With the rise of historical criticism the citation of patristic consensus as a reliable guide to the interpretation of Scripture has become increasingly problematic. If we want to know what Paul meant when he wrote his Letter to the Romans, we typically turn to biblical scholars like N. T. Wright, Joseph Fitzmyer, and Ernst Kasemann, not to John Chrysostom and Augustine. This means that the biblical writings can now be easily turned against the Fathers. How then do we rationally justify the authoritative appeal to antiquity today? We live in a culture that is very much aware of the historical conditionedness of all human beliefs and is thus suspicious of all dogma. Why not include the Gospel of Thomas and the gnostic writings into the canon of Scripture? Why should the Ecumenical Councils, dominated as they were by imperial politics and conspiracies, be privileged for doctrinal formulation? How do we really know that Athanasius was right and Arius wrong? Why should we be bound to the “ignorance” of the past? And who has the right to tell modern Anglicans that the appeal to antiquity is normative for Anglican theology?

Can Anglicanism provide convincing answers to these questions?

5 September 2004


The appeal to antiquity has been characteristic of classical Anglicanism. Lancelot Andrewes’s rule memorably states the high church approach to doctrinal authority:

One canon reduced to writing by God Himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries and the series of fathers in that period, the three centuries that is before Constantine, and two after determine the boundary of our faith.

The age of the Fathers is thus apprehended as a “golden age” and touchstone by which all subsequent theological and ecclesiastical developments are to be judged. This appeal to the Fathers has been understood by catholic Anglicans as distinguishing Anglicanism from the sola scriptura approach of other Reformation churches. Whether in fact it really distinguishes us from the Lutherans and Calvinists is, I think, debatable. Within Anglicanism, as in Protestantism, the Bible can always be turned against fallible, secondary authorities, even the Fathers and Ecumenical Councils. That I am not speaking theoretically, consider these passages from Bishop Colin Buchanan (Is the Church of England Biblical? [1998]):

In the Thirty-Nine Articles (1571), Article VIII states: “The Three Creeds … ought thoroughly to be received and believed, for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.” This is a crucial test-case, for the creeds have often come near to claiming an independent, indeed autonomous, life of their own (two of them, for example, form a side of the “Lambeth Quadrilateral,” i.e. as a second side quite apart from the side represented by Scripture; but here in the Articles all other distinctive claims of theirs are set aside–the Church of England does not receive the Creeds simply as coming from General Councils; she does not receive them according to the “Vincentian Canon” as having been believed everywhere, always and by all people; she does not receive them as a valuable ingredient in the inherited riches of the traditions of the Western Church. These attributes and buttressings of the creeds are no doubt of great interest, but the Church of England cuts through all those possible qualifications–the authority for receiving the creeds is that to us they encapsulate the teaching of holy Scripture.

The Reformation formularies spell out this supremacy of Scripture in dozens of ways, but the ordination services are a key example. From 1550 on the intending deacons were asked, “Do you unfeignedly believe all the Canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testament?” And the intending presbyters and bishops were asked: “Are you persuaded that the holy Scriptures contain sufficiently all doctrine required of necessity for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ?” Instances could be multiplied, but these are sufficient for the moment to indicate that the secondary formularies of faith of the independent reformed Church of England in the sixteenth century pointed to a primary formulary in the text of Scripture and entrenched the actual life of the church within the reading of that Scripture.

We can still at root even assert the controverted principle of “private judgment”–if we mean that Scripture is to make its own impact upon its readers, without that meaning being precluded, coloured or warped in advance by imposed hierarchical interpretations or by equally tyrannical rationalistic presuppositions. Interestingly, there are strong hints of that actual force of Scripture (i.e. in providing the unmediated truth of God) in the latter part of the question to candidates for the presbyterate and episcopate: “And are you determined … to teach nothing, as required of necessity to eternal salvation, but that which you shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the Scripture?”

We do not find here any suggestion of the necessity to interpret the Scriptures through the lens of the Fathers. Quite the contrary. Buchanan even makes room for an unmediated reading of Scripture, a reading independent of dogma and “imposed” ecclesial interpretations. Is the Anglican approach to Scripture, therefore, really any different than the magisterial Protestant approach? Well … John Henry Newman certainly hoped it was. But I think it has to be admitted that, excluding the Anglo-Catholics and perhaps some of the Nonjurors and Caroline Divines, Anglicans have historically sided with their sola scriptura brethren in rejecting Catholic (and Orthodox) practices and beliefs. Is this coincidence merely coincidental?

Two problems with the Anglican appeal to antiquity immediately come to mind:

First, where do we draw the line between normative and nonnormative history? Age of the Apostles? Age of the Fathers? Four councils? six? seven? What about the pre-Reformation Western and Eastern councils? Wherever we set the boundaries, how do we justify it? Is it merely an arbitrary decision? Do we really believe that the Church enjoyed a golden age and that all has been corruption and degeneration ever since? Where did the Holy Spirit go?

Second, who within Anglicanism has the authority to draw the line? The Monarch? The Archbishop of Canterbury? Each national church? The bishops gathered at the Lambeth conference? Individual theologians and clerics? The individual believer? Why should Bishop Andrewes’s opinion count any more than Bishop Griswold’s or Bishop Swing’s?

Six months ago I ran across a couple of citations from Henry Manning that have troubled me ever since:

It was the charge of the Reformers that the Catholic doctrines were not primitive, and their pretension was to revert to antiquity. But the appeal to antiquity is both a treason and a heresy. It is a treason because it rejects the Divine voice of the Church at this hour, and a heresy because it denies that voice to be Divine.

As soon as I perceived … that the Holy Spirit … has united himself indissolubly to the … Church of Jesus Christ, I saw at once that the interpretations or doctrines of the living Church are true because Divine…. I then saw that all appeals to … Scripture and antiquity, whether by individuals or by local churches, are no more than appeals from the Divine voice of the living Church, and therefore essentially rationalistic.

The appeal from the living voice of the Church to any tribunal whatsoever, human history included, is an act of private judgment and a treason because that living voice is supreme; and to appeal from that supreme voice is also a heresy because that voice by divine assistance is infallible.

Now I know very little about Cardinal Manning. I gather he was an ultramontanist of some sort and Newman’s political adversary. I don’t imagine that many contemporary Catholics would want to affirm Manning’s quoted statements without serious qualification. Certainly the Catholic position as articulated at Vatican II is far more nuanced and complex. Dei Verbum firmly establishes the authority of Scripture and Tradition as one revealed deposit of faith. But then I found Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky also criticizing the archaeological reference to antiquity in opposition to the living tradition of the Church:

We often forget that the famous formula of the Consensus quinquesaecularis [agreement of five centuries], that is, actually, up to Chalcedon, was a Protestant formula, and reflected a peculiar Protestant theology of history. It was a restrictive formula, as much as it seemed to be too inclusive to those who wanted to be secluded in the Apostolic Age. The point is, however, that the current Eastern formula of the Seven Ecumenical Councils is hardly much better, if it tends, as it usually does, to restrict or to limit the Church’s spiritual authority to the first eight centuries, as if the Golden Age of Christianity has already passed and we are now, probably, already in an Iron Age, much lower on the scale of spiritual vigour and authority. Our theological thinking has been dangerously affected by the pattern of decay, adopted for the interpretation of Christian history in the West since the Reformation. The fullness of the Church was then interpreted in a static manner, and the attitude to Antiquity has been accordingly distorted and misconstrued. After all, it does not make much difference, whether we restrict the normative authority of the Church to one century, or to five, or to eight. There should be no restriction at all. Consequently, there is no room for any theology of repetition. The Church is still fully authoritative as she has been in the ages past, since the Spirit of Truth quickens her now no less effectively as in the ancient times.

We may truly say that when we accept tradition we accept, through faith, our Lord, who abides in the midst of the faithful; for the Church is His Body, which cannot be separated from Him. That is why loyalty to tradition means not only concord with the past, but, in a certain sense, freedom from the past, as from some outward formal criterion. Tradition is not only a protective, conservative principle; it is, primarily, the principle of growth and regeneration. Tradition is not a principle striving to restore the past, using the past as a criterion for the present. Such a conception of tradition is rejected by history itself and by the consciousness of the Church. Tradition is authority to teach, potestas magisterii, authority to hear witness to the truth. The Church bears witness to the truth not by reminiscence or from the words of others, but from its own living, unceasing experience, from its catholic fulness … Therein consists that “tradition of truth,” traditio veritatis, about which St. Irenaeus spoke (Adv. Haeres, i. 10, 2). For him it is connected with the “veritable unction of truth,” charisma veritatis certum” (Ibid., 4. 26,2), and the “teaching of the Apostles” was for him not so much an unchangeable example to be repeated or imitated, as an eternally living and inexhaustible source of life and inspiration. Tradition is the constant abiding of the Spirit and not only the memory of words. Tradition is a charismatic, not a historical, principle.

Manning and Florovsky confront us with the catholic conviction that the Church, the body of Christ and temple of the Holy Spirit, enjoys in the present the authority and inspiration of the Spirit to define, explicate, illumine, and proclaim the faith once delivered to the saints. Both insist that the Church is a living, conscious organism that knows and experiences the truth of Christ. She has a mind and voice. Her knowledge of the Lord is not confined to some moment in the distant past. She knows the truth in her catholic fullness. As one Catholic philosopher wrote to me:

Tradition is alive, not dead. Tradition is a present reality, not something confined to historical records. Tradition does have a historical dimension, of course. I could not be alive today if I was not alive in the ever more far distant past. I would not be me without my past, but I don’t have to do historical research to find out what I think, most of the time…. I am alive today because I was alive 51+ years ago. The Church is alive today because it was alive 2000 years ago.

Tradition is alive! Mysteriously the history of the Church is comprehended into the living reality that is the Church. The Church does not merely conserve and imitate the past; in the Spirit she lives out of the past into the future. The Apostles and Fathers are not relics of history but living witnesses and contemporaries. In the communion of saints the Church lives by the voice of her Lord. This mystery is most perfectly realized and exhibited in the Holy Eucharist.

But if the Church has a living voice, does this not not imply some form of ecclesial infallibility. Anglican Francis J. Hall does not balk at drawing the inference:

The Church has a living voice. That is, she never ceases to teach positively what is necessary to be believed and practiced for salvation…. And this living voice is infallible. That is, its teaching can always be depended upon when rightly apprehended. It is for this end–surely an important one–that the Church is made infallible touching saving truth, that teaching may continue to be given in the world which seekers after the way of eternal life can safely trust. (Dogmatic Theology [1908], II:266, 268)

Ronald Knox, who converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism in 1917, addressed the Anglican appeal to antiquity in his book The Belief of Catholics (1927). He raises the following criticisms:

(1) The appeal to antiquity substitutes the authority of historians for the authority of the living Church and her bishops. Historians and academics become our popes.

Hmmmm, I not sure if I like being subjected to the authority of academics. Christian academics often find themselves in the position of having to serve two masters, the Church and the guild. At least bishops are ordained by God and are given a charism to instruct the Church in the apostolic faith (though it appears that our ECUSA bishops somehow missed out on this charism).

(2) The appeal to antiquity is invariably selective and inconsistently applied. Example: It appears that the patristic Church uniformly disallowed priests and bishops from marrying after they were ordained, yet Anglicanism has abandoned this discipline. One might also mention Anglicanism’s historic rejection of the invocation of the saints and prayer for the dead. And what about abortion, contraception, and pre-marital sexual concourse, practices clearly condemned by the Fathers but now tolerated, if not affirmed, by modern Anglicans?

Are we not back to the very “pick and choose” mentality for which we so harshly criticize sola scriptura Protestants? The past must be interpreted. So who determines the criteria of interpretation? Who determines which elements of the past are binding upon us today and which are not? Will we line up with St Augustine on predestination and original sin or will we instead go with the Eastern fathers?

(3) The appeal to antiquity fails to promote certainty.

The appeal to the Church of the Historians, like the appeal to the Bible of the Critics, is one which fails to produce certainty. No subject, I suppose, could have been more carefully investigated by Christian scholars than the history of the ministry–had the Church originally bishops as part of its constitution, or only priests and deacons? Even on such a question, Presbyterian scholars still find room for disagreement with their Anglican brethren. Auricular confession, which is preached as obligatory by some Anglicans, cannot be traced to the primitive Church with a certainty which would convince all historians. Even doctrines such as that of the Trinity or that of the two Natures in the Incarnation appear in a strictly defined form only in the third or fourth century. Now, it is true that you escape from these particular difficulties by appealing to six centuries instead of one or two; but who told you that there should be six, no less and no more? Is it a mystical number, that it should be credited with this strange finality?

Knox is certainly right about the inability of scholars to answer the question on whether the episcopate belongs to the esse of the Church. Not only is it difficult, given limited evidence, to accurately describe the history of the ordained ministry in the first three centuries of the Church’s existence; but no scholar qua scholar is capable of answering the question, Does God intend the episcopal office to constitute his Church?

And that reminds me of a joke Archbishop Michael Ramsey liked to tell. In response to the question “Do bishops belong to the esse or bene esse of the Church?” Bishop Ramsey would answer “They belong to the esse of the Church, because they clearly do not belong to its bene esse.”

If we are hoping for historians to resolve our theological controversies, we will be bitterly disappointed. For over a hundred years we have watched Protestant and secular scholars break Scripture down into dozens of competing, contradictory voices, thereby rendering impracticable an authoritative appeal to Scripture. We see the similar results when the same methodologies are brought to bear upon the patristic witness. A good Anglican example of precisely this kind of “neutral” patristic scholarship is Maurice Wiles of “Myth of God Incarnate” fame. Episcopalian Elaine Pagels is a more notorious example.

(4) The appeal to antiquity ignores the fact that the early Church believed that the Church catholic is essentially and visibly one. The Fathers judged heretics and schismatics to be outside the Church. The acceptance, even the thinkability, of denominationalism was impossible.

The modern Christianities, be they what they may, are the relics of schism; not one of them dares to represent itself as the one Church of Christ. Consequently, in appealing to the early Church, with its instinct of inviolable unity, they are appealing to an arbiter who has already given the award against them.

The very Church to which Anglicanism appeals as normative authority condemns Anglicanism’s ecclesiological status. How can we appeal to the Fathers when those same Fathers tell us that we are a sect? This criticism, I think, is telling. It is a historic mark of the Church that it knows itself to be that historical community outside of which there is no salvation. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus. Both Catholicism and Orthodoxy make this claim for themselves. No church of the Reformation makes this claim nor can make this claim. Anglo-Catholics typically reply that since the Great Schism of 1054 (or whenever we want to date it), no church is in the position of being the one true Church. But from whom did we learn this? Certainly not from the Fathers. Not from the Orthodox and Catholics. This claim is the invention of a schismatic Anglicanism, generated to justify our ongoing separation from Rome and Constantinople.

Here, I submit, is the fundamental cleavage between catholic and Protestant Christianity. We may go back and forth on whether Anglicanism is a sola scriptura church; but we share with all of Protestantism the rational appeal to the past (whether apostolic or patristic) as determining doctrinal authority. And since everyone apparently sees and interprets the past differently, denominationalism and unending “schisming” are the logical and inevitable ecclesial consequences. In the absence of an authoritative teaching office, fraction and division belong to the very nature of Protestant religion. Is it any surprise, therefore, that we now find ourselves in our present crisis? And lest anyone think that Anglicanism has the catholic resources to overcome this problem, I remind you of the words of Edward Norman: “Anglicans have a real issue to address. The basic division remains: do Christians have access to an infallible teaching office, as the historic Churches have always claimed, or are the Protestants right in supposing that only Scripture is indefectible? There is no Via Media here–Anglicans in this bleak assessment are thoroughly Protestant.”

In 1839 an article on the Donatist schism was given to John Henry Newman, in which he was introduced to St Augustine’s axiom Securus judicat orbis terrarum. “The verdict of the world is conclusive”–perhaps appropriately interpreted “Catholic consent is the judge of controversy.” The impact on Newman, as he describes it, was revolutionary:

St. Augustine in Africa wrote against the Donatists in Africa. They were a furious party who made a schism within the African Church, and not beyond its limits. It was a case of Altar against Altar, of two occupants of the same see, as that between the Non-jurors in England and the Established Church; not the case of one Church against another, as Rome against the Oriental Monophysites. But my friend, an anxiously religious man, now, as then, very dear to me, a Protestant still, pointed out the palmary words of St. Augustine, which were contained in one of the extracts made in the “Review,” and which had escaped my observation. “Securus judicat orbis terrarum.” He repeated these words again and again, and, when he was gone, they kept ringing in my ears. “Securus judicat orbis terrarum;” they were words which went beyond the occasion of the Donatists, they applied to that of the Monophysites. They gave a cogency to the Article which had escaped me at first. They decided ecclesiastical questions on a simpler rule than that of Antiquity. Nay St. Augustine was one of the prime oracles of Antiquity; here then Antiquity was deciding against itself. What a light was hereby thrown upon every controversy in the Church! not that, for the moment, the multitude may not falter in their judgment,–not that, in the Arian hurricane, Sees more than can be numbered did not bend before its fury, and fall off from St. Athanasius,–not that the crowd of Oriental Bishops did not need to be sustained during the contest by the voice and the eye of St. Leo; but that the deliberate judgment, in which the whole Church at length rests and acquiesces, is an infallible prescription, and a final sentence, against such portions of it as protest and secede. Who can account for the impressions which are made on him? For a mere sentence, the words of St. Augustine, struck me with a power which I never had felt from any words before. To take a familiar instance, they were like the “Turn again Whittington” of the chime; or, to take a more serious one, they were like the “Tolle, lege,–Tolle, lege,” of the child, which converted St. Augustine himself. “Securus judicat orbis terrarum!” By those great words of the ancient Father, interpreting and summing up the long and varied course of ecclesiastical history, the theory of the Via Media was absolutely pulverized.

In an earlier article, I suggested that a teaching office is necessary to defend Holy Scripture against alien interpretations. Is this not also true for the Anglican appeal to antiquity?

7 September 2004


A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home … And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word … Tradition. Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything … how to eat, how to sleep, even, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl … This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you–I don’t know. But it’s a tradition … Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do. Tradition. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as … as a fiddler on the roof!

Traditions and traditions. What is the difference and what matters the difference?

All peoples and cultures structure their lives around traditions. Turkey on Thanksgiving Day, fireworks on the Fourth of July, the decorating of evergreen trees during the Christmas season, eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day (Hoppin’ John if you’re in Charleston), green beer on St. Patrick’s Day. The list is endless. We love our customs and rightly so. They connect us to our cultural heritage and embody our communal memory. They help us to keep our balance in an ever-changing world.

Christian peoples are no different in this respect than any other people. We too have and love our customs. They shape our piety, enrich our faith, and form our identity across generations. As Tevye says, “Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” Most of our customs enjoy only an historical and local significance, but there are also some customs and practices that possess a transcultural, constitutive status in the life of the Church. These customs we identify as traditions proper. St John Damascene tells us that “the Apostles handed down much that was unwritten.” St. Epiphanius of Salamis: “It is needful also to make use of Tradition, for not everything can be gotten from Sacred Scripture. The holy Apostles handed down some things in the Scriptures, other things in Tradition.” St. John Chrysostom: “[Paul commands:] ‘Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the Traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or by our letter’ [2 Thess. 2:15]. From this it is clear that they did not hand down everything by letter, but there is much also that was not written. Like that which was written, the unwritten too is worthy of belief. So let us regard the Tradition of the Church also as worthy of belief. Is it a Tradition? Seek no further.” St. Basil: “Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us–in a mystery–by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force.”

The Fathers list various practices of the Church as enjoying this unwritten apostolic authority: infant baptism, prayer toward the east, the weekly celebration of the Sunday Eucharist, the sign of the cross, adding water to the chalice, invoking the Spirit upon the Holy Gifts, the triple baptismal immersion followed by the laying-on of hands, standing throughout Paschaltide, the great fasts, the veneration of icons and the cross.

With our critical historical consciousness we wonder if all of these traditions were actually instituted by the Apostles in the first century; but the Fathers do not appear to have worried much about that. These unwritten traditions principally involve the liturgical life of the Church. The Fathers understood this liturgical life as flowing from apostolic institution in the power of the Spirit. Our worship is not something we have created on its own; it has been passed down to us, from generation to generation, ultimately originating in the unique revelation of God in Christ Jesus. I suggest we interpret these unwritten traditions as grammatical rules: they instruct the community of Christ how to properly celebrate its liturgical and ascetical life in obedient witness to the gospel. They are not man-made regulations inserted arbitrarily into the apostolic deposit of faith; they are rules, discerned by the Church in her liturgical experience, that disclose and instantiate the deep grammar of the apostolic revelation.

St. Basil speaks of the unwritten traditions as having been delivered to us “in a mystery.” Florovsky explains that we should not understand Basil as speaking about “secret” traditions, but rather the mediation of the apostolic tradition “by the way of mysteries,” i.e., in the form of sacrament and rite. The appeal to unwritten traditions directs us, therefore, to the mystery of our common life in the Church. Ultimately, it directs us to the Holy Spirit, who indwells, guides, forms, and inspires the people of God in witness to Jesus Christ. Tradition, writes Vladimir Lossky, is “the life of the Holy Spirit in the church.” If Tradition is the life of the Spirit, then perhaps we might understand traditions as the concrete, historical, sacramental ways in which the Spirit has embodied, and continues to embody, the apostolic revelation. Tradition and traditions are indissolubly united and cannot be known apart from the other.

In this category of ecclesial traditions we also include the ecumenical creeds, conciliar dogmas, and the exegetical and theological reflections of consensual Christian theologians. Together they form the ecclesial rule of faith that guides the Church in a right interpretation of the Scriptures. St Vincent of Lerins long ago observed that interpreters “extract from the Bible as many opinions as there are men.” Apart from the guidance of Church and Spirit, conflicting interpretations are inevitable, not just because of the sinfulness and finitude of human being but because of the very nature of the Scriptures themselves. Richard Swinburne explains:

The Bible does not belong to an obvious genre which provides rules for how overall meaning is a function of meaning of individual books. We must have a preface. And if not a preface in the same volume, a short guide by the same author issued in the same way as the Bible, providing disambiguation and publicly seen by the intended audience to do so. Such a guide would be an extension of the original work. And that said, there is of course such a guide. It is the Church�s creeds and other tradition of public teaching of items treated as central to the Gospel message.

Thus the catholic insistence that Scripture must be interpreted in the Church. As St Vincent writes, we “must interpret the sacred Canon according to the traditions of the Universal Church and in keeping with the rules of Catholic doctrine.”

For the past several months I have focused my personal study on the theme of Holy Tradition and its relationship to Bible and Church. I have sought to understand how Orthodoxy and Catholicism understand the meaning of Tradition. Even for this Anglo-Catholic trained priest of twenty-four years, this is not easy. It involves a dramatic shift of perspective. At my ordination I confessed “the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.” With the Caroline and Anglo-Catholic Divines, I have understood this confession to include a magisterial tradition of interpretation, based on the witness of the Fathers and the dogmatic decisions of the Ecumenical Councils. I have also understood this confession as stipulating that the Church must not dogmatize any doctrine which cannot be supported by clear and explicit biblical testimony. Hence I have had problems, for example, with Orthodox and Catholic beliefs regarding the Blessed Virgin Mary (her perpetual virginity, freedom from mortal sin, bodily assumption into heaven, and special intercessory role in the ongoing life of the Church). How can the Church publicly affirm these beliefs as doctrines when their biblical and patristic basis is so tenuous?

I am slowly learning, however, that the Anglican appeal to antiquity is not the same as the Orthodox and Catholic invocation of Tradition. The former was developed within a Protestant community seeking to maintain its freedom against the restrictive biblicism of Puritanism and the catholic claims of the Roman communion. But the rule of antiquity remains a secondary, fallible authority and is thus always subject to the critique of private judgment in the name of the Bible. It therefore cannot ultimately serve as a secure guide to biblical interpretation. This is why catholic distinctives and the unwritten apostolic traditions will never enjoy more than an optional status within the Anglican Communion. The Anglican churches cannot appeal to a living magisterial voice to authoritatively insist on catholic identity. It is this absence of teaching office that renders Anglicanism, and all of Protestantism, so vulnerable to the spirits of the age.

Unlike the Anglican appeal to antiquity, the Orthodox and Catholic appeal to Tradition flows from an understanding of the Church as the living bearer of the apostolic revelation, a revelation bestowed in the twofold form of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Bible and Tradition compenetrate in intimate communion. Holy Scripture is God�s Word to his Church for salvation and thus serves as the canon by which all traditions are judged and authenticity determined. Yet Sacred Tradition may also be described as prior to the Scripture. Before any of the books of the New Testament were written, there was the gospel proclaimed and lived by the Apostles of Christ and by those to whom the Apostles had entrusted it. “I commend you,” St Paul tells the Church in Corinth, “because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:2). “What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). The oral tradition historically precedes the New Testament.

The Scripture is birthed within the Church, by the Church, for the Church as the normative written expression of her Holy Tradition. We need not think that the apostolic Tradition is exhaustively stated by the biblical text. The mystery of Christ’s self-revelation to the Apostles necessarily surpasses all that words can express. Philosopher Michael Polanyi aphoristically declared: “We know more than we can tell.” He called this tacit knowledge. It seems reasonable to infer that much, perhaps most, of the Apostles’ knowledge of Christ originally existed in this tacit form. It included, of course, the many words and teachings that Jesus had spoken to them, both before and after his death; but it also included that deeper personal knowing of Jesus, of a life and ministry shared together. With the ascension of Jesus, the Apostles knew all that they needed to know, yet they knew more than they had expressed in words, more than they could express in words. The self-revelation of Christ is greater than a collection of revealed propositional truths, though it surely includes such truths. It is first and foremost a revelation of life, the life of the Father and the Son in the communion of the Holy Spirit.

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you. (John 16:13-15)

During the time of the Apostles, the tacit apostolic knowledge was brought to explicit expression and communicated to the churches in word, sacrament, gesture, hymnody, poetry and liturgy. This comprehensive, multidimensional body of truth pervades the Church “like an atmosphere” (Newman). It is embedded in the concrete, historical structures of her common life and worship. It is celebrated in her rites and ceremonial, bespoken in her stories and songs, transmitted by the tangible acts of washing in water, the anointing of oil, and the sharing of bread and cup. From one generation to the next, the tradition of the Apostles is preserved in the people of God. “Tradition,” says Florovsky, “is the inner, mystical memory of the Church.”

Eventually this knowledge was articulated in written form, thus establishing a definitive and sufficient canon of apostolic testimony. By the act of instituting a canon of Holy Scripture, the Church subjected herself to a literary norm, much as a nation subjects itself to its freely-adopted constitution. Holy Scripture, therefore, is Tradition, the normative written part of Tradition, yet not independently of the whole of Tradition. Tradition determines the canonical limits of Scripture and provides the interpretive matrix in which Scripture may be rightly read and interpreted. This interpretive matrix consists of the entire sacramental, ascetical, and pastoral life of the Church. And at the heart of this life is the Holy Spirit of God. “It is the work of the Spirit,” John Breck writes, “that enables the Church both to generate and to interpret her own canon or rule of truth, and thereby to preserve intact, as she must, the true hermeneutic circle constituted by Scripture in Tradition.”

For those of us raised within American Protestantism, the claim “Is it in the Bible?” comes instinctively and uncritically. “I’m not going to believe anything unless it can be proved from the Bible!” Sola scriptura–this is the fundamental dogma of Protestant religious life; but why should we believe this dogma? It can’t be proven from Scripture. Orthodoxy and Catholicism do not accept it and never have. The Fathers and Doctors of the Church never taught it. One can make a good case that the Fathers and medieval theologians taught the material sufficiency of Holy Scripture; but as Yves Congar notes, it is even more clear that they “affirmed its formal insufficiency. Scripture, they held, does not itself suffice to yield its true meaning; it must be read within the Church, within Tradition” (Tradition and Traditions, p. 421).

What I suggest we need to do is to put aside, for the moment, the sola scriptura dogma, with or without the appeal to antiquity, and try to think outside the Protestant box. What if God never intended his Scriptures to be used in the way that Anglicanism and Protestantism have used it? What if Scripture is formally insufficient for the establishment of doctrine, liturgy, and devotion? What if it belongs to a living reality that is richer and deeper than a written text? What would our Christian religion then look like?

There is mystery here. Explanation is difficult. Perhaps this is why sola scriptura has been so popular. It prescinds from mystery. It seeks to establish a clear, rational, and easy rule of faith. A dogma is either in the Bible or it ain’t; if it ain’t, it can’t be dogma. But the life of the Church is mystery and cannot be exhausted by written texts. Sola scriptura takes one part of the truth, namely, the supremacy of Scripture, and makes it the whole truth. As a result, Protestant churches now find it impossible to hold onto the fullness of the catholic faith in their confrontation with modernity. We have lost our footing and fiddled our way right off the roof.

Pontificator’s Second Law: When the Bible alone is our authority, the Bible ceases to be our authority.

The crisis we are confronting is not a fluke of the twenty-first century but is inherent to the Reformation project. In all honesty, the Protestant churches, including Anglicanism, rejected the fullness of the catholic faith at their Reformation inception. Eucharistic sacrifice, real presence (excluding the Lutherans), the weekly celebration of the Supper, the special role and ministry of the Theotokos, the invocation of the saints, the veneration of images and relics, the essential necessity of the historic Episcopate–all were excluded in the name of sola scriptura. The Protestant churches took the catholic substance, sifted it through their Bible filters, and produced mutilated versions of the Christian faith that had never existed before in the history of the Church. “The Christianity of history,” wrote Newman, “is not Protestantism. If ever there was a safe truth, it is this.”

If not sola scriptura, then what? I propose the following extension of a formula I found in Congar: Totum in Scriptura, totum in Traditione, totum in Ecclesia. All in Scripture, all in Tradition, all in the Church. We need to think and experience these three realities in indivisible, dynamic, perichoretic unity and coinherence, distinguishing them intellectually but never dividing or separating them. Each coinheres in the other two. Each enjoys primacy within this trinity of truth, yet not at the expense of the primacy of its two companions. To separate or divide them, or to exalt one above the others, must result in the deformation of the Church and the distortion of our experience of God’s self-communication to us in Jesus Christ.

8 September 2004


For the past ten years I have been trying to learn well the theology and spirituality of Eastern Orthodoxy. This is not easy to do, especially for a Western outsider, and especially if that Western outsider is usually busy on Sunday mornings and therefore cannot attend the Divine Liturgy. Orthodoxy can only be known from the inside over a lifetime. This is no doubt true of any Christian tradition (and any religion, for that matter); but I think it is especially true for Orthodoxy within Western culture. To be understood Orthodoxy must be lived.

Many Catholic Anglicans are now finding Orthodoxy to be an attractive alternative to a dying Anglicanism. (I am well aware that evangelical Anglicanism is thriving, both here and abroad; but I hope my evangelical friends can understand why evangelicalism, even in its Anglican form, is not a viable option for an Anglican of strong catholic proclivities.) I have several friends who have moved from ECUSA to Orthodoxy during the past ten years or so. Liturgy; spirituality; Holy Tradition and traditions; councils, dogmas, and Fathers; the communion of saints—Orthodoxy exceptionally embodies the apostolic faith once delivered. It also has the advantage, if one may dare to speak in such a way, of having undergone terrible persecution during much of the twentieth century, which has providentially protected it from the ravages of modernity. And having witnessed what has happened to Catholicism since its post-Vatican II embrace of the modern spirit, Orthodoxy is not seriously tempted to walk down the same path.

In the 80’s I invited Bishop Basil, who lived in Washington, to come to my parish in Maryland and speak on the Jesus prayer. It was a remarkable experience. Bishop Basil spoke with the humble authority of the Tradition. We all felt we were listening to one of the Church Fathers.

Orthodoxy in the U.S. also has a big advantage right now—it’s tiny . It therefore has lots of American room to grow and expand. Nothing is more fun and envigorating for a denomination than to grow churches and plant new missions. The Greeks and some of the other ethnic Orthodox churches may be content to remain in their ethnic enclaves, but the Antiochian and OCA churches are engaged in active mission and are growing. Their churches are full of converts. Within the American religious marketplace, they offer a Christian alternative with a clearly defined identity, spirituality, history, and tradition.

There is one aspect of American Orthodoxy, however, that concerns me. In its push to clearly define itself within and over against American culture, it has assumed a vigorous anti-Western stance that appears, at least to this pontificational observer, uncatholic. Two years ago, I remember reading an article by Fr Stanley Harakas on the subject of just war. His basic thesis was that Orthodoxy does not have a just war tradition. My immediate reaction was: Golly, don’t you count Ambrose and Augustine as your own? But apparently, contemporary Orthodox folk do not. Yes, Ambrose and Augustine (and Leo and Gregory) are still commemorated in the Orthodox calendar; but their Western perspectives and teachings are, for all intents and purposes, excluded from Orthodox theology and identity. Contemporary Orthodox theologians appear to have a very different relationship to the Western saints than the relationship demonstrated by the Orthodox participants at the Council of Florence, who believed that the teachings of all the Fathers must be harmonizable because they were all inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The influential John Romanides has come very close to identifying Augustine as a heretic who is ultimately responsible for the heresy that became Western Christianity. One is left with the impression that Western Christianity moved into apostasy sometime around the sixth century or so. It just took a few centuries for the Eastern Church to figure out what was happening. If one searches the net, one finds a few articles by Orthodox churchmen struggling to defend Augustine against disfranchisement. Invariably these individuals find themselves defending Augustine not on the basis of his theological and exegetical contributions but despite them. What seems to be lacking is a recognition of Augustine as a doctor of the Church.

One of my favorite Orthodox writers invariably structures her articles by comparing corrupt Western beliefs and practices with the superior and true beliefs and practices found in the Orthodox tradition.

In his 1997 Georgetown University address, Ecumenical Patriarch Barthlomew asserted that Orthodoxy and Catholicism has become “ontologically different,” with the clear implication that ecumenical unity is impracticable because of the heretical mind and heart of the West. The following week Newsweek headlined its story about the Patriarch’s address with the words “Friends, Brothers, Heretics.” Needless to say, if this is in fact the fundamental conviction of Orthodoxy, then it simply needs to come clean, publicly declare the West to be a mission field, and terminate all ecumenical conversations. One does not dialogue with heretics; one evangelizes them! Of course, Orthodoxy will then have to stop complaining about the uniate status of the Eastern Catholics. If Catholics (and Protestants, of course) are heretics and in need of conversion to the true Church, then the Orthodox cannot reasonably complain when these same heretics seek to proseylytize the Orthodox. All is fair in love and evangelistic warfare. What’s good for the goose is sauce for the gander.

What I find particularly lacking amongst contemporary Orthodox theologians is any serious and constructive engagement with the Western fathers and with Western theology. I’m thinking, for example, of the kind of engagement exemplified in Hans Urs von Balthasar’s engagement with Karl Barth. Von Balthasar did not cease being Catholic after his encounter with the Church Dogmatics, but it’s also clear that his faith was not untouched. He became a better Catholic because of his serious attempt to understand Barth and learn from him. Orthodox engagement with Western theology is typically restricted to polemical criticism. I understand the motivation in adopting such a stance when one is striving to establish boundaries, engage in vigorous evangelism, and strengthen ecclesial identity; but I still question its catholicity.

I’m happy to find one Orthodox theologian who shares some of my concerns—Dr David B. Hart. In an article on St John of the Cross published a year ago in Pro Ecclesia, Dr. Hart wrote the following:

The neo-patristic revival in general, and the contributions of Lossky in particular, came at something of a price—one, perhaps, whose rather exorbitant terms are overdue for reassessment. The problems bequeathed to orthodox scholarship by the “Russian revolution” in theology are many. Not least among them has been a certain narrowing of the spectrum of what most Eastern theologians are prepared to treat as either centrally or legitimately Orthodox, with the consequence that those aspects of the tradition that cannot be easily situated upon the Losskian path from the patristic age to the Hesychastic synthesis of the fourteenth and subsequent centuries–say, the great bulk of Byzantine scholasticism or the most fruitful insights of the Russan Sophiologists–have suffered either culpable neglect or even more culpable denigration. Often modern Orthodox theology comes dangerously close to the very stagnation and rigidity that neo-patristic theology was meant to combat. This, though, is something the Orthodox must deal with, and remedy en famille.

The most damaging consequence, however, of Orthodoxy’s twentieth-century pilgrimage ad fontes–and this is no small irony, given the ecumenical possibilities that opened up all along the way–has been an increase in the intensity of Eastern theology’s anti-Western polemic. Or, rather, an increase in the confidence with which such polemic is uttered. Nor is this only a problem for ecumenism: the anti-Western passion (or, frankly, paranoia) of Lossky and his followers has on occasion led to rather severe distortions of Eastern theology. More to the point here, though, it has made intelligent interpretations of Western Christian theology (which are so very necessary) apparently almost impossible for Orthodox thinkers. Neo-patristic Orthodox scholarship has usually gone hand in hand with some of the most excruciatingly inaccurate treatments of Western theologians that one could imagine–which, quite apart form the harm they do to the collective acuity of Orthodox Christians, can become a source of considerable embarrassment when they fall into the hands of Western scholars who actually know something of the figures that Orthodox scholars choose to caluminiate. When one repairs to modern Orthdodox texts, one is almost certain to encounter some wild mischaracterization of one or another Western author; and four figures enjoy a special eminence in Orthodox polemics: Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and John of the Cross.

I queried Hart further about this two months ago. With his permission I copy his response:

As for the current Orthodox animus towards Augustine, it comes principally from the early and mid twentieth century, when Vladimir Lossky and others were seeking to define (and sustain) Orthodoxy in the wake of the Russian revolution. A retreat to the fathers, of course, was necessary, but also (they believed) an effort to differentiate Orthodoxy from Western Christianity as strikingly as possible—and who is more definitive of Western theology than Augustine? At the time, I should add, the Western ignorance of Eastern tradition, and of the Eastern fathers, was well-nigh encyclopaedic, and so it is not hard to understand the vigor of the Russian apologists. But the effects have been disastrous in the long run, not only for the Orthodox understanding of the West, but for the Orthodox understanding of Orthodoxy. It will take time to undo the damage.

Can Orthodoxy be truly catholic if it cannot or will not positively assimilate the Western Fathers into its self-understanding?

5 July 2004

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