Posts Tagged ‘christian’

Sin & Theories of Child Development

Dear Reader,

I recently discussed David Elkind’s Power of Play (Da Capo Press, 2007) with a particular eye to how his views on child development coincide with those of Charlotte Mason. Today I would like to return to the book but with a different emphasis.

Though I like a lot of what Elkind has to say, we do come at these issues from different places and this raises some questions. These have mainly to do with how we view rule-following and perhaps especially rule-breaking.

Elkind argues that children below a certain age are incapable of understanding rules. He is not an unschooler (speaking here of unschooling as a philosophy which says adults should not impose their will on children). He does believe that children do not always do what they should and that they need limits (p. 181). He also gives examples of disciplining children with humor, a lot of which comes down to redirection rather than discipline as such, which I find somewhat charming and which I think a lot of parents could benefit from. Yet his understanding is not mine because it does not include the category of sin.

As Christians we believe that children of all ages, even infants, are moral beings who are responsible to their God. They are capable of faith but they are also morally responsible for their actions, even for their thoughts and desires. In my denomination, parents promise to teach their children of their sinful nature, and my observation of humanity tells me that, though this sounds a bit depressing, it is one of the most important lessons every individual needs to learn.

So the major question I come away from this with is: How do we deal with sin as sin and yet account for the child’s development? Or do we reject secular theories of child development because they do not account for such things? (In this post I discussed the very un-Christian basis of much of the social sciences and how we should approach such secular scholarship.)

I don’t have all the answers but there are some random thoughts:

  • Ignorance of the law is no excuse. As reformed Christians, we believe that even infants in utero are sinful people (Ps. 51:5). One’s ability to understand the law of God and to recognize the rightness or wrongness of one’s actions is really irrelevant to whether they are sinful or not. On the flip side, I would add that God also saves His people before they are able to recognize their own sinfulness and, in the case of those who die young or who are mentally challenged, they may be saved even if they never are able to articulate an understanding of these things. This is because God’s saving of us is not dependent upon our own actions nor is it dependent upon our belief as a prerequisite.
  • Elkind speaks of children’s understanding of rules, both moral rules and the rules of games, as dependent on their developing reason but he does not deny that they have some sense of right and wrong at an earlier stage. If anything, he describes younger children as having stricter moral codes. In games, “[t]hey assume that the rules were created a long time ago by adults and cannot be changed” (p. 154). When asked to choose which is worse: accidentally breaking a whole stack of dishes or breaking one plate on purpose, young children always say whatever broke most is worse and they do not take into account intentions (p. 155). As adults we may evaluate the situation differently, but we must acknowledge that these young children do have a moral sense. If anything it is often the case that adults attribute too much to circumstances and intentions and thereby minimize sin.
  • Which brings us to — there is a way in which we are told to be more like children in our faith (Matt. 18:3). This is one of those passages which I really wish told us more. I am hesitant to put children on a pedestal; I do not think they are little innocents by any means. Yet there is something about them that we are told to emulate. Perhaps this is one possibility: “Young children are curious about extremes of weather like hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes. In answering children’s questions about this subject, we need to remember their mythic thinking. Young children assume that everything has a purpose” (p. 131). One might argue that we should all be looking for the greater purpose in such events.
  • Elkind argues for the power of games in developing children’s moral sense. “Games provide a set of rules that govern how to behave under certain circumstances” (p. 148). When they play games, particularly games in which they must negotiate the rules with other children (as opposed to games in which adults set the rules), “children are learning to subordinate their personal wishes — not to be chosen It — to the rules of the game” (p. 153). Fantasy role playing also teaches one to put onself in another’s shoes (p. 162). These are very valuable and desirable skills and if games are an easy way to practice not putting oneself first, I say we should play a lot more games.
  • The Bible has a lot to say about disciplining one’s children and, while I do believe that the rod language it uses refers to physical discipline, it is not the case that physical discipline is our only option. Sin is so serious that it is far better to avoid the sin if possible than to discipline after the fact. Elkind’s suggestions on how to parent with humor, though he might not see them that way, provide ways that both parent and child can avoid sin: “When we discipline lightheartedly, we accomplish three important goals. First, we manage our own negative feelings in a positive and constructive way. Second, we provide our children an effective and constructive way of handling their own emotions. Third, we provide a healthy model for parenting for our children to use . . .” (p. 177). Note that there is a temptation for the parent in these situations as well. I suspect most of us who are parents are all too aware of that.
  • I like Elkind’s suggestions. At the same time, I think we need to be careful not to always make sin a joke. If humor and lightheartedness can help us avoid sin, particularly if we can use it to defuse a situation which could turn worse, then it is all well and good. But we also need to communicate that sin is serious and is to be taken seriously. So I do think there is a time for punitive discipline.
  • Charlotte Mason includes habit training in her philosophy of education which, as she uses it, is largely about avoiding sin before it happens as well. We need to be careful not to think that good outward behavior is all we need but at the same time we should not scorn the importance of those good habits, whether they be picking up one’s toys or not snapping an annoying sibling. Elkind’s humor addresses sins once they have happened or are happening. Habit training is a proactive approach that identifies stumbling blocks and seeks to address them before they recur. Both are good and necessary.
  • When the proactive and humorous approaches are not enough, we do need to address sin head-on and we need to identify it as sin and help our children to know that this comes from their hearts and that they cannot will their way out of their own sinful nature. In other words, they need a Savior. And at the same time we need to acknowledge that we are in this together. Our nature and our need is the same as theirs. We hopefully have a little more perspective and insight on it and so we help along those who are further behind, whether due to their youth or spiritual immaturity, but we are all on the same road.

What does all this mean for our theories of child development? It is okay for us as reformed people to say both that children can be too young to understand their sin and that they are still responsible for it. At times, because they have fewer abstract thinking skills, children are often less likely to justify away things that shouldn’t be justified away. Children can be very black-and-white in their thinking (especially about other’s wrongs I have found). So I don’t think we need to automatically conclude that they are in a worse place than we are (and the Scriptures imply that this is not so). But they are immature and we need to make sure that they understand their sinfulness and their need for a Savior. This can and should be done in a compassionate and not a harsh way, as ones who are in the same boat (ark?).



Book Review: Recovering From Biblical Manhood & Womanhood

Dear Reader,

I thought 2019 was my year to read books on gender-related issues but apparently the trend continues. When I heard about Aimee Byrd’s Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Reflective, 2020) I knew I had to add it to my list. I “know” Aimee Byrd from her work on the Mortification of Sin podcast and  I like a lot of what she has to say so I went into this book with a fairly positive attitude.

I had also heard two interviews with Byrd discussing the book before I began reading, one on Mortification of Spin and one on Theology Gals. From these I know that Byrd was encouraged by her editor to use the current title for the book (which is somewhat inflammatory) and to include a fair amount responding directly to the positions of Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and other more conservative complementarians. The result, in my opinion, is that this book really has two main thrusts, one related more directly to gender issues in the church and one focused more on discipleship in the church with an emphasis on the discipleship of women. From listening to her regularly I know that the latter is a particular interest for Byrd and I think that there is something valuable here that needs to be said. However, the overall effect of this two-pronged approach, for me as the reader, was to make it a bit of a disjointed book.

Byrd’s title, as I said, is provocative. It plays on the title of Piper and Grudem’s Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. In the discussion of gender within the church, there are two main camps, the egalitarians and the complementarians. The former, as their name suggests, argue for equality in roles between the genders. That is, what men can do in the church (pastor a church, preach, etc.) women can do. The latter argue for a distinction in roles, saying that men and women while equal in value have different roles which complement each other. There is a wing of the complementarian camp which takes things a step farther and argues that the roles of men and women, being those of authority and submission respectively, are eternal ones. This applies in the here and now in the belief that all women should submit in some way to all men and is even read back into the Trinity in the belief that God the Son always submitted to God the Father. This is the position known as Eternal Functional Submission (EFS) or the Eternal Submission of the Son (ESS). Because this wing has to a large extent taken over complementarianism, Byrd does not use the term for herself (p. 121). Neither is she an egalitarian. She does recognize separate roles within the church for men and women, reserving ordination for men. This is pretty much where I would place myself in the debate as well, both before and after reading this book.

Byrd’s second major thrust, and from my understanding her original purpose in writing the book, is to argue for the discipleship of women within the church. Personally, I have never experienced much in terms of being looked down upon for being female within the church so I don’t come to these issues from as raw a place as others might.  I understand, however, that this is an issue for others and I do think it is something we need to be conscious of. Byrd’s message — that discipleship is the work of the church (as opposed to the parachurch) and that women as well as men pass on their faith and need to grow in their faith and therefore need to be discipled is a good one (p. 161). I particularly liked a point she made that even in our own private study we interpret the Bible not on our own but within an interpretive community (p. 164). If we are not educated in our faith and in how to do this, how can we even begin to read our Bibles?

Looking at these two big issues, I may not like the way the book is put together and find their juxtaposition a little awkward, but I am mostly on board with Byrd’s opinions on both. The biggest problem I have with Recovering is not actually with either of the big points Byrd is trying to make but with her use of Scripture. I should say as we get into this section, in case you are not a regular reader here, that my own training is in biblical Hebrew [1].

The first part of the book addresses what Byrd calls “gynocentric interruptions” within the biblical text. There is not a clear definition given for this term. As Byrd uses it, it seems to refer to those passages and stories in which females are the main characters. There are a couple of assumptions behind this phrase. The first is that the majority of the Bible, because it was written by men and because men are the main characters, is androcentric. The second is that stories which prominently feature females give us a female point of view. For Byrd, these female-centered stories are interruptions in what is primarily a male-oriented book. Her thesis for this first chunk of the book is summed up as follows: “Scripture incorporates the female voice in an androcentric text” (p. 92).

I object two both halves of this statement. I do not think Scripture is inherently androcentric and I do not think that those texts which feature females interrupt in any way or necessarily give us the female perspective. It puzzles me quite a bit why Byrd seems to accept the premise that the Bible is androcentric. Yes, men wrote it but they did so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is God’s Word more than man’s. And, yes, men are the major characters in most of the narratives, but again male characters does not automatically imply male perspective.

There is another assumption going on behind the scenes here. It is quite a modern one that says that I cannot know the experiences and feelings of someone from a different group. It is the kind of mindset that gives us phrases like “cultural appropriation.” I do not think that I cannot related to a story just because it features male characters. I do think that as human beings we are capable of putting ourselves in one another’s shoes and that is quite a wonderful thing.

Yet there is something to the idea that the stories featuring women stand out within the biblical text. The world of the Bible was a patriarchal one. That is a historical fact. Men had power and authority and status that women did not. So it should not surprise us that men are the primary actors in biblical narrative. In another book I reviewed recently, Michael Lefebvre’s The Liturgy of Creation, the author discusses how the Bible treats science. His argument is that the Scriptures accept the scientific understanding of the day and do not challenge it, a fact which is often disconcerting to us modern readers.  I think something similar is going on here: the Bible does not directly challenge the patriarchal traditions of the time in which it was written.  That does not mean that it accepts or approves those traditions but simply that its main goal is not to challenge and overturn them.

What is striking within all this is that there are so many stories in which women do play a pivotal role. I would argue that these stories do not stand alone, however, but are part of a larger dynamic. There are also quite a number of stories in which God works through others who would not have been seen by their society as the chosen few. We see this particularly in how God often chooses non-firstborn sons. Think of Jacob and Joseph and David. Again and again God shows us that He does not choose based on the world’s standards, that He sees things differently. Saul was one whom the world looked upon with favor but he turned out to be a bad king. David was the least of his brothers and the world would not have chosen him but God did. The role of certain prominent women in the Bible, I would argue, is not so much about their gender as about their unsuitability in the eyes of the world. In this they are not alone. Quite a number of men were also unsuitable and yet God also worked through them. The lesson for us in all this is that God does not see and the world sees and that God chooses the weak of the world to shame the strong and to show His power. Viewed in this way, the stories which feature women and not so much about the women themselves or their femaleness but about God and His electing will and His power. One could even say that God’s use of women, as well as that of foreigners and younger sons, confirms their unsuitabilty. He chooses them and works through them precisely because they are the means the world despises.

Though Byrd at times speaks of the Bible’s suitability as a means of instruction for both men and women (p. 51), she persists in this characterization of the text as primarily androcentric with gynocentric interruptions. In this I think she has accepted the premises of other groups from both ends of the spectrum who either dismiss the text as being irrelevant because it is patriarchal or who point to its androcentrism and a means of buoying up their own patriarchal ambitions. What we need is not to find the women’s voice in Scripture but to take the text as it is, as God’s Word to mankind, not just to man. It is the categories and divisions in our minds which are the stumbling block, not the next itself.

A second issue I have with Byrd’s way of using Scripture is her tendency to read into the text more than we are told. Now we all do this to some extent. We read and narrative and it is natural to imagine how the characters felt or what the larger circumstances might have been, but we need to be careful that the things we imagine don’t become Scripture to us. The nature of biblical narrative is that iftoften doesn’t tell us all we want to know. So we add to it, without perhaps even knowing we are doing so, and our additions shape how we read Scripture.

Many of the assumptions Byrd makes are about the role of women. She assumes, for instance, that when Phoebe delivered Paul’s letter to the Romans that this necessarily entailed some kind of interpretive authority (pp. 147ff). Paul, she tells us, “also must have picked up on her theological vigor and poured into her, equipping her well to answer questions the Roman church was sure to have” (p. 220). No doubt the commission was a prestigious one, but we are not told and I do not think we can assume what Phoebe did or was expected to do with regard to helping the church in Rome understand the letter. The role of women in passing on the faith seems to be a sticking point for Byrd so she also assumes that stories about women much have bee told by women. The story of Jephthah’s daughter is such an example (p. 82). Again, there is an assumption here that only women would have told or could accurately have told a story featuring female characters.

Byrd, following others, also assumes that women led the house churches which were usual in the early church. “‘[I]f Lydia didn’t lead the fledgling church in Philippi, who did?'” she asks (p. 191). Byrd says that she adheres to male-only ordination, and I believe that she does, but she is walking dangerously close to the edge of the cliff here. If one accepts that Lydia led her house church which met in her home, led in terms of leading  worship and explicating God’s Word, why should women not do the same today? On the other hand, if we read the passages about these house churches within the context of the rest of the New Testament, I think we must conclude that Lydia and other women did not lead in these ways. Paul makes quite clear elsewhere that this kind of authoritative leadership is reserved for men. Who did lead the church in Philippi? We don’t know; Scripture doesn’t say. But there are lots of details like this that we are not given and many servants of God who are not named. This need not disturb us.

Byrd is unapologetic for the way in which she thus reads into Scripture, quoting Richard Bauckham, she calls this “‘historical imagination'” (p. 223). While there may be a degree to which it is impossible for one to avoid using their imagination in reading the narrative of Scripture, I would not tout this as a good and appropriate way to approach God’s Word. We should be aware of our own tendency to imagine not so that we may do so and try to fill in details God has chosen not to give us but so that we can try to avoid doing so and to stick more closely to His Word.

As a side note here, I will add that I am concerned about Byrd’s sources, about the books she is reading and quoting. I have not taken the time to look into them but, judging a book by its cover of you will, based on their titles and on the quotes she selects, it seems like many if not most of the people whose interpretations she is following are from the liberal egalitarian camp. Which is not to say that they may not at times have valuable and true things to add to the discussion but the impression I get is that there is little balance here.

I’d like to end my discussion of Byrd’s use of Scripture where she ends the book (or close to it), with her take on the story of Eve. Early in the discussion, she quotes one P. Wayne Townsend who argues that Genesis is written in light of the exodus and conquest of the land as an apologetic for the nation of Israel (p. 207). “‘In this context,” Byrd tells us, quoting Townsend, ‘”the story of the Fall functions as a pretext for the exodus-conquest. Genesis 3 identifies the sources of evil that have led to the suffering of slavery. It also justifies the conquest . . . ‘” and so on (p. 208). Byrd goes on to tie the sin of eating the fruit in Genesis 3 to the Levitical laws about cleanliness and the dietary laws. For a new Israel, separation from the nations was important and Genesis 3 gives the justification be presenting the original sin as one of touching and eating what should not have been touched or eaten.

This argument is oddly like that which LeFebvre makes regarding Genesis 1 in The Liturgy of Creation (again, my review here).  Both tie a Genesis narrative to the presumed original audience — the nation of Israel — and therefore place the significance of the Genesis narrative in its meaning to that audience which is primarily assumed to be a justification for the practices they already know. That is, for LeFebvre Genesis 1 justifies the weekly calendar of work and Sabbath and for Byrd (and those she is relying on) Genesis 3 justifies the Levitical laws about cleanliness and food. There is a base assumption here which says that the meaning for the original audience is the primary meaning. The narratives of Genesis are not read for their truth value (Is this how God really created the world? Is this how mankind fell?) or for their place within the larger revelation of Scripture (What do these events say about mankind’s state before his Creator?) but as a kind of ancient Israelite propaganda. In neither interpretation does the Genesis narrative considered even give new information to its original audience. They are into taught about how man was created or how he fell but are only given justifications for practices they already know. I find this a very narrow and unacceptable way to read Scripture.

For Byrd, reading Genesis 3 in this way, Eve becomes a find of hero. As you may recall, God had told Adam not to eat of the tree and Eve adds “nor touch it.” This may be interpreted various ways. Some say Adam added to God’s law in repeating it to Eve and thus make adding to the law a kind of sin and place it on his shoulders. In Byrd’s interpretation (again following others), Eve adds “nor touch.” In doing so she makes the prohibition more like the Levitical laws and thereby gives us “the story behind the story” (p. 209). Eve is portrayed as a kind of prophetess and the original sin its nature and its implications, are largely undiscussed.

Byrd has some valuable ideas which the church needs to hear. I like how she speaks of siblingship within the church and the need to disciple all lay people, men and women.  I agree as well with her critique of the extremes of the complementarian movement. But I am very disturbed by some aspects of how she uses Scripture to make her arguments. We do not need to accept the categories others give us that the text must either be androcentric or gynocentric and that men and women can’t fruitfully read texts which are not about their own gender. And when we do read, we need to be careful who we follow and we need to resist our own urge to fill in details, particularly when we then use our own “historical imagination” as the basis for our biblical interpretation.


[1] I have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Hebrew and was ABD (“all but dissertation”) in a Ph.D. program at a prestigious secular university.


Book Review: The Tech-Wise Family

Dear Reader,

This book is a bit of a departure for me but believe it or not I am going to manage to make this be about education too. First a mild disclaimer: I have met the author and his wife though they would not remember, I was a grad student at Harvard when they worked with the undergrad Christian fellowship so our paths did cross.

So it is with pleasure that I recommend The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place by Andy Crouch (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2017). Crouch takes what I found to be a very balanced approach to how to manage technology in your home. There are strict limits but technology is not the enemy and he is honest about where his own family fell short. This is definitely a good book to read as early in your parenting career as you can, but even if your kids are older it is worth a read, though it may be harder to implement.

I am not going to give you a lot of the meat of the book; you can read it for that. I would like to focus in on just a couple of ideas that really struck me.

First a Charlotte Mason connection:

“An increasing body of psychological research suggests that our supply of willpower – the ability to make hard decisions that go against our instincts or preferences- is limited. Nudges help us make some of those right decisions without having to use up that precious limited supply of willpower, leaving it available for the moments when we really need it.” (Kindle loc. 268)

This is exactly Charlotte Mason’s idea of the Way of the Will and Habit Training. We use the term will in some very contradictory ways today but Charlotte spoke of it as exactly this– the ability to make ourselves do what we don’t want to do. Habit training forms in us good habits, like rutted roads in the soul, that keep us in good paths without too much thought. These “nudges,” as Crouch tells us (Kindle loc. 289), are not in themselves good character but to the extent that they keep is from having to think about every little decision, they aid us in doing the right thing. (Of course, bad habits to just the opposite.)

Misunderstanding the relationship between the body and soul has led to a host of heresies. Crouch rightly tells us that there was no real division in Hebrew thought. What was interesting to me in light of our present discussion is how he ties this idea to education:

“But the further we explore into the astonishingly complex nature of human beings, especially the mysterious organ called the ‘brain’ and the even more mysterious reality of personhood called the ‘mind,’ the more the Hebrew perspective seems fundamentally sound. And nowhere is it more evident that we are body and soul together than in studies of how we learn.

“The best and richest experiences of learning, it turns out, are embodied ones.” (Kindle loc. 1157)

Crouch goes on to talk about how we learn language by physically speaking it – by moving our tongues – and how we learn more when we read physical books and when we use a pencil to take notes. I know I always found this to be true — I remembered what I took notes on in class without needing to ever look back at those notes; the process of writing the information incised it in my brain (oh, that I had that young brain now!).

“We can have a faint idea or hunch in our mind, but it is only when we speak or write it that it becomes clear, not just to others but to ourselves as well.” (Kindle loc. 1179)

This is why Charlotte Mason, in her approach to education, had students narrate everything they read, first orally and then as they were able in writing. Narration is not for the teacher to evaluate but enables the student to cement what they have read in their brains.

And one last thought on education:

“The last thing you need when you are learning, at any age but especially in childhood, is to have things made too easy. Difficulty and resistance as long as they are age appropriate and not too discouraging, are actually what press our brains and bodies to adapt and learn.” (Kindle loc. 1189)

As out muscles are not built with physical resistance, without ever pushing them slightly beyond what they have done before, so our intellect is not built without some struggle.

In all honesty, I feel like there are a lot of books on Christian parenting and technology and I was not expecting too much of this one. I was pleasantly surprised. Though not all of Crouch’s suggestions are unique, he doe shave some good insights and writes in a very enjoyable way. The true treasure in my eyes is the nuggets of thought in there on other topics (like education). But either way The Tech-Wise Family is a book well worth reading.




Sacred Tradition in Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy

Dear Reader,

In my previous post I tried to outline the sources of authority in the Roman Catholic Church. This time I’d like to take a broader view and compare how the three largest branches of Christianity — Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism – deal with these topics.

When we speak of sources of authority in the church, we can think of two big categories: content and authority. By content, I mean that body of knowledge which Christ passed along to his immediate followers. By authority, I mean the authority to define doctrine which the first Apostles enjoyed. All three major branches agree that Jesus Christ did give the Apostles both knowledge  and authority. What happened after that is where we begin to see differences. Because of how very big this topic is, I am going to concentrate on the content issue in this post and save that of authority for the next in the series.

A last note before I dig in — this is meant to be a very general introduction to the topic for those who, like me, find themselves in dialogue with those from other strains of Christianity. As such it is meant to detail what can currently be found on the positions of the various branches. It is not by any means a historical study. I myself am just beginning to read a book called The Shape of Sola Scriptura by Keith Mathison. My preliminary impression is that is gives  a very good summary of the historical aspect.

The Content of Faith: Questions

My Catholic friend tells me that his church would call this the “Deposit of Faith.” It is the information that Christ gave his immediate followers. The three major branches of Christianity agree that there was such content and that at least some portion of it was written down and became the New Testament. They also all agree that the New Testament, combined with the Old (in whatever form they accept it; that is another huge topic), is authoritative, truthful and inerrant.

The questions I would like to ask of each branch are:

  • How much of the oral knowledge delivered to the Apostles was enshrined in the New Testament?
  • Were there an criteria for determining which part of the broader body of knowledge was included in the NT?
  • If there is also an oral tradition which survives apart from the NT, what is its content?
  • How do the oral and written traditions relate to one another? Are they held in equal esteem or does one have precedence?

The Protestant View

In some ways the Protestant position is the simplest.  In other ways, because there are so very many kinds of Protestants, nothing is ever simple with them. The short answer to “what is the Protestant take on Sacred Tradition?” is that they just don’t believe it exists.* Protestants say that all the content delivered by Christ to the Apostles is written in the New Testament, at least all that God wishes us to have. There is no surviving tradition apart from the New Testament.

I want to be clear, however, that many Protestants do rely on tradition (little “t”) in many ways. They use of catechisms and confessions, for example. They listen to their elders, pastors and Sunday School teachers They adhere to the same early creeds as their Catholic and Orthodox neighbors. They quote John Calvin as if he were Scripture. But deep down they know he is not and when pushed will admit that even Calvin is fallible. There is nothing else in Protestantism which approaches the level of the Bible which is the God-breathed Word of God. There is no body of knowledge in Protestantism which passed down from the Apostles which constitutes Sacred Tradition (big “T”).

*Anglicans are the most notable exception. They believe in both Sacred Tradition and the Apostolic Succession and so fall much more in line with the Roman Catholic view discussed below than with other Protestants.

The Eastern Orthodox Position

The Eastern Orthodox believe that only part of the body of content delivered to the Apostles was included in the New Testament. They see the New Testament as a subset of the larger body which is Holy Tradition:

The preaching of the apostles preceded the Scripture, so we must understand the Scripture as an expression of that preaching . . .” (“Holy Scripture” from

In Orthodoxy, it is the most important parts of the knowledge delivered to the Apostles which was written down:

“From the Orthodox point of view, the Bible represents those texts approved by the church for the purpose of conveying the most important parts of what it already believes.” (“Eastern Orthodox Christian Theology” from

Because the Bible is a part of a bigger Tradition in the Orthodox Church, it does not stand alongside Tradition or above it but within it:

“Orthodox see the Bible as a collection of inspired texts that sprang out of this tradition, not the other way around; and the choices made in forming the New Testament as having come from comparison with already firmly established faith. The Bible has come to be a very important part of “Tradition“, but not the only part.” (“Eastern Orthodox Christian Theology” from

And being a part of Holy Tradition, the Scriptures cannot be interpreted except in the context of Tradition:

“Holy Tradition consists of those things which Christ delivered to his
Apostles and which they transmitted to their successors orally.  It is
absolutely essential to faith, because it is the source of the Holy
Scripture and we cannot understand all of the Holy Scripture correctly without the help of Holy Tradition.” (Rev. Constas H. Demetry, Catechism of the Eastern Orthodox Church, p.4)

According to the Orthodox, the Bible focuses on Christ and was written down so that there might be a record once the generation that knew him had passed:

“The Scripture—both Old and New Testaments—is fundamentally about Christ. It is Christocentric and Christological. The whole Bible presupposes the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ. Indeed, the very purpose in writing the New Testament was because Christ had already risen from the dead—with the death of the Apostle James, the Church realized that the eyewitnesses were not always going to be with them, therefore the preaching of the eyewitnesses was written down.” (“Holy Scripture” from

The Scriptures were written “so that we might believe and be saved” (“Holy Scripture” from If this is so, then what is left for Holy Tradition? What does it consist of?

Let me start by saying what Tradition is not, for the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is not, as some Protestants might think, a changeable thing:

“Unlike many conceptions of tradition in popular understanding, the Orthodox Church does not regard Holy Tradition as something which grows and expands over time, forming a collection of practices and doctrines which accrue, gradually becoming something more developed and eventually unrecognizable to the first Christians. Rather, Holy Tradition is that same faith which Christ taught to the Apostles and which they gave to their disciples, preserved in the whole Church and especially in its leadership through Apostolic Succession.” (“Holy Tradition” from

What then is the content of Holy Tradition in the Eastern Orthodox Church?  In their longer catechism, I find:

“By the name holy tradition is meant the doctrine of the faith, the law of God, the sacraments, and the ritual as handed down by the true believers and worshipers of God by word and example from one to another, and from generation to generation.” (Orthodox Catechism of Philaret, Question 17)

The Catechism then goes on to give us some idea of the content of Holy Tradition when it quotes St. Basil the Great as follows:

“Of the doctrines and injunctions kept by the Church, some we have from written instruction. but some we have received from, apostolical tradition, by succession in private. Both the former and the latter have one and the same force for piety, and this will be contradicted by no one who has ever so little knowledge in the ordinances of the Church; for were we to dare to reject unwritten customs, as if they had no great importance, we should insensibly mutilate the Gospel, even in the most essential points, or, rather, for the teaching of the Apostles leave but an empty name. For instance, let us mention before all else the very first and commonest act of Christians, that they who trust in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ should sign themselves with the sign of the cross–who hath taught this by writing? To turn to the east in prayer–what Scripture have we for this? The words of invocation in the change of the Eucharistic bread and of the Cup of blessing–by which of the Saints have they been left us in writing? for we are not content with those words which the Apostle or the Gospel records, but both before them and after them, we pronounce others also, which we hold to be of great force for the sacrament, though we have received them from unwritten teaching. By what Scripture is it, in like manner, that we bless the water of baptism, the oil of unction, and the person himself who is baptized? Is it not by a silent and secret tradition? What more? The very practice itself of anointing with oil–what written word have we for it? Whence is the rule of trine immersion? and the rest of the ceremonies at baptism, the renunciation of Satan and his angels?–from what Scripture are they taken? Are they not all from this unpublished and private teaching, which our Fathers kept under a reserve inaccessible to curiosity and profane disquisition, having been taught as a first principle to guard by silence the sanctity of the mysteries? for how were it fit to publish in writing the doctrine of those things, on which the unbaptized may not so much as look? (Can. xcvii. De Spir. Sanct. c. xxvii.)” (Orthodox Catechism of Philaret, Question 24)

I take a couple of points from this:

  • The content of Holy Tradition is, if not entirely so largely practical in that it tells how things are to be done and also provides a basis for practices of the Church which are not described in the Scriptures.
  • Holy Tradition is intentionally kept unwritten to keep it mysterious and to guard it from prying eyes.

The Roman Catholic View

The Roman Catholic Church, like the Eastern Orthodox, believes that there was additional content, apart from the New Testament, which was not written down but continued to be passed down orally. This is the Church’s Sacred Tradition. As I tried to show in my previous post, Catholics hold Scripture and Tradition as two pillars which stand side by side:

Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end.” (Dei Verbum, 9)

This strikes me as a slightly different characterization than that of the Eastern Orthodox. Scripture is not a part of Tradition but stands along-side it. I am not sure yet what all the implications of this may be.

While the Orthodox say that Scripture contains the most essential parts of Tradition, I have found no explanation in Catholicism of what parts of the body of knowledge delivered to the Apostles were written down. I get the impression that Scripture and Tradition, while never contradictory, are nonetheless two distinct bodies of knowledge.

Nonetheless, if there is any preeminence it is given to Scripture:

[The Church] has always maintained [the Scriptures], and continues to do so, together with sacred tradition, as the supreme rule of faith, since, as inspired by God and committed once and for all to writing, they impart the word of God Himself without change, and make the voice of the Holy Spirit resound in the words of the prophets and Apostles. Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture.” (Dei Verbum, 21)

But it is Tradition which tells what Scripture is:

“120 It was by the apostolic Tradition that the Church discerned which writings are to be included in the list of the sacred books.”(Catechism of the Catholic Church 120)

Like the Orthodox, the Catholics say that there are no new public revelation: “. . . we now await no further new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Dei Verbum 4).

What then is the content of Sacred Tradition in the Catholic Church? Here I am at a bit of a loss. I can find no good answer to this question. Indeed, it seems that there is no definitive answer as I am told that Catholic theologians themselves argue both about the content of Tradition and about its relationship to Scripture.

From a Protestant source, I find this:

“It is true that the Early Church also held to the concept of tradition as referring to ecclesiastical customs and practices. It was often believed that such practices were actually handed down from the Apostles, even though they could not necessarily be validated from the Scriptures. These practices, however, did not involve the doctrines of the faith, and were often contradictory among different segments of the Church.” (“What did the Early Church believe about the authority of Scripture? (sola scripture)” from

The above quote would seem to agree with the Orthodox depiction of Sacred Tradition as containing mostly practical information.

It seems that even within Catholicism there is no clear understanding of what Tradition is and what its relationship to Scripture is (this is again from a Protestant source):

“There is not a consensus opinion as to the exact content of Tradition, the precise relationship between scripture and Tradition, and exactly how the vehicle of Tradition functions and becomes known by the church. Rome’s official statements do not explicitly define whether Tradition is the second of a two-part revelation (known as partim-partim), or if both forms of revelation contain the entirety of God’s revealed truth. Does Tradition function as the interpreter of scripture, or is it interpreted by scripture, or do they interpret each other? Is the content of Tradition confirmed by historical scrutiny, or is it an unwritten opinion only confirmed by a movement within the developing church?”(“‘Tradition’ as Viewed by Popular Roman Catholic Apologists . . . and a Response” from

This article goes on to quote  a few Catholic apologists. I will leave it to you, Reader, to pursue this angle if you wish to do so.

To conclude this part of my discussion, then, let me just summarize what I have found regarding the presence, role and content of Tradition in each of these branches of Christianity:

  • Protestantism, while quite varied, generally denies that there is any Tradition (big “T”) apart from the Scriptures themselves.
  • Eastern Orthodoxy sees Scripture as a subset of Holy Tradition. It is the most important parts of that body of knowledge which was delivered to the Apostles, written down for us. As such, it must be interpreted within the context of Tradition and cannot stand part from it. The rest of Tradition, that part which remained oral, seems to be mainly of a practical nature in that it deals with the practices of the Church.
  • Roman Catholicism views Scripture and Sacred Tradition as two parts of a whole. Both were delivered to the Apostles and are authoritative. They stand side by side with perhaps some preeminence given to Scripture. There seems to be little consensus in the Catholic Church as to the content of Sacred Tradition.

Next time, I will give you the second half of this essay on Apostolic Authority in each of these three strains of Christianity.