Posts Tagged ‘Tradtition’

Where the Gospel Begins

January 30, 2012

Where does the Gospel begin – how do we tell the story of Christ?

This question may seem too obvious to require an answer. However, it is increasingly relevant in what some describe as a “post-Christian” era. This reality came home to me years ago, during the first year of my ordained ministry. A woman began attending the Church where I served and presented herself for Baptism. Our conversation quickly turned to her background, what she knew and believed and what would need to be done in preparation for her entry into the Church. To my surprise, she had no knowledge of God in particular and only a vague sense of who Jesus was. “I know he was an important religious figure,” she explained.

She had not grown up in the American South (a region known as the “Bible Belt”). She was from Hawaii, part of an American military family. Her experience within American culture (including plenty of television) gave her no general content in answer to the question, “Who is Jesus Christ?” I felt like St. Paul in his first exposure to Athens (no one knew what he was talking about – his hearers thought “resurrection” was the name of a new deity).

By the same token, many who have been raised within the confines of the Bible belt have an understanding of the gospel – but an understanding that is formed and shaped by modern questions – none of which are the questions that shaped the four gospels of the Bible. Thus the gospel as found in the writings of the early Church and its subsequent centuries of the fathers, often differs in structure and understanding when compared to the gospel believed by many Christians of the modern world.

Where does the Gospel begin?

That the Gospel would begin by reading the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) would seem the handiest answer to that question. But this leaves another question unanswered: how do we read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? St. Irenaeus (2nd century) gives an extremely insightful example in a discussion directed to Gnostics, whom he contended could not read the gospels correctly.

Irenaeus believed there was an unbroken line of tradition from the apostles, to those they mentored, and eventually down to himself and other Christian leaders. The Gnostics interpreted the Scriptures according to their own tradition. “In doing so, however,” Irenaeus warned, “they disregard the order and connection of the Scriptures and … dismember and destroy the truth.” So while their biblical theology may at first appear to be the precious jewel of orthodoxy, it was actually an imitation in glass. Put together properly, Irenaeus said, the parts of Scripture were like a mosaic in which the gems or tiles form the portrait of a king. But the Gnostics rearranged the tiles into the form of a dog or fox.

As a pastor, then, Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies in order to describe the heresies that were threatening his congregation and to present the apostolic interpretation of the Scriptures. He revealed the cloaked deception for what it was and displayed the apostolic tradition as a saving reminder to the faithful.

Quoted from Christianity Today’s Church History site.

Irenaeus (bishop of Lyons), it is worth noting, knew St. Polycarp, who knew St. John. Thus he was third-generation in the life of the Christian Church.

Irenaeus’ contention that those who are not in the line and community of the Christian Tradition are not able to properly interpret Scriptures (in a Christian manner) is dramatically important. It sets the Scriptures in a non-objective context. The Scriptures are not “self-interpreting,” as some modern Protestants would contend, neither is their reading and interpretation a matter of reason or historical knowledge. Their reading is ecclesiastical, traditional, liturgical or, in Irenaeus’ language, “according to the Apostolic Hypothesis.” In short, the Scriptures are understood within the life of the Church and cannot be rightly read in any other manner. St. Paul’s letters are written to Churches or individuals holding positions within the Church. None of his letters are addressed, “To whom it may concern.”

In St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians he states, “And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea” (Col 4:16 KJV). The Scriptures are to the Churches, read within the Churches, and interpreted within the life of the Churches.

St. Irenaeus, as noted above, referred to the primary Church Tradition as the Apostolic Hypothesis. Today we would describe this “Hypothesis” as a Creed (quite similar to the Apostles’ Creed). Such statements can be found within Scripture itself.

Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you– unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve (1Co 15:1-5 NKJ)…

Within this “Apostolic Hypothesis” St. Paul uses the key words “delivered” and “received.” In Greek the words (paradidomi and paralambano) mean “to tradition” or “to hand down” and to “receive” as in to “receive what has been handed down.” They are the technical words for how the Tradition operates in the Church.

In this same manner, we see the four gospels shaped according to the Apostolic Hypothesis. The primary piece within each of the gospels is Christ’s Pascha: His suffering and death, and His resurrection and entrance into glory. The whole of the gospels are shaped by this essential narrative. The story of Christ’s Pascha occupies around 25% of Matthew’s gospel; 40% of Mark’s; 30% of Luke’s and over 50% of  John’s. It is not an event within Christ’s story – it is Christ’s story. Other events within the gospels (such as Christ’s Nativity, His Baptism and Transfiguration) often have a Paschal shape in their telling. The Church’s iconography of these feasts reveals this “shape.”

The same “Apostolic Hypothesis” is also the framework used for the interpretation of the Old Testament. The use of the Old Testament in the life of the Church (particularly as evidenced in the Church’s liturgical texts) is allegorical. Christ dies for our sins “according to the Scriptures (the Old Testament),” but it is also true that the Scriptures (the Old Testament) are according to Christ’s death for our sins. Christ Himself instructs the Church in this manner of reading. In the resurrection appearance on the road to Emmaus, Christ rebukes His disciples for their failure to understand “the things which have happened in Jerusalem:”

Then He said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?” And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. (Luke 24:25-27 NKJ)

However, it would not have been possible to have grasped “Moses and all the Prophets” until the events of Christ’s Pascha.

Very clear summaries of the “gospel” can be found by reading the Eucharistic prayers of the Church (such as St. John Chrysostom’s or St. Basil’s). This heart of the Church’s prayer offers both the events of Christ’s death and resurrection, and a theological summary of their meaning.

The gospel of Jesus Christ begins in His suffering, death and resurrection. Even the opening chapter of Genesis is read by the fathers in terms of its Paschal meaning. Theories (such as penal substitution) that tend to shape Christ’s death and resurrection according to themselves, rather than being shaped by the Paschal narrative, fail to be guided by the Apostolic Hypothesis. The Old is interpreted by the New.

Christ is risen (“the Kingdom of God is at hand”), and so the gospel begins.

At The Edge of Tradition – More Notes from the Edge

July 22, 2009

15There are many things that we see in our lives to which the word “traditional” may be attached. It can refer to a style of dress or an understanding of relationships. In Church it may refer to the use of certain kinds of music or a sytle of worship. Many years ago, pastoring my first parish as an Episcopal priest, I had a young couple who were Roman Catholics, who had come to the Church as inquirers. One of their first statements and complaints to me was that the service in my parish was not “traditional” enough. I was slightly puzzled. My eleven o’clock service was a choral Eucharist, about as traditionally “high church” as Anglicans get. I was also aware that the surrounding Catholic Churches were all pretty contemporary in their worship. I should add that the couple was in their early twenties.

They explained away my confusion. By “traditional” they meant: “where are the guitars?” “In the eye of the beholder,” is all I could think.

The same can be said of the contemporary use of the word “traditional” or other phrases such as “ancient,” etc. I know there are experiments out there to bring a more “traditional” style of worship into Evangelicalism (and here “traditional” means, I believe, “liturgical”). In many places an increased emphasis on the Eucharist as the primary service of worship on Sundays is also part of the package.

On the one hand, these efforts can hardly be faulted from an Orthodox point of view. The more people explore the “tradition,” the more likely they are to confront the faith – which was, after all, “once and for all ‘traditioned’ to the saints,” for that is the meaning of Jude 1:3. But on the other hand, there is a danger in confusing the outward trappings of “tradition” with “Tradition” itself. For what was once and for all delivered to the saints, was not so much questions of liturgy and incense (although all of these ritual and liturgical elements of Orthodoxy do carry with them the content of Tradition – they are not electives), rather the faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints was and is indeed the content of the faith – the living union between the true and living God and man. That faith truly reveals to us and makes accessible to us the true and living God, and it also reveals to us and makes accessible what it is to be a truly living human being. The content of the Christian faith, the living Tradition, is the truth of both God and man, and the truth of our salvation through union with God in Christ.

The content of the Tradition is not a set of ideas – but a reality – God with us.

And this is the problem that always accompanies attempts to reach that reality through reform. It is not our reformation that is the problem in the first place. We cannot reform ourselves into union with Christ. We can submit ourselves to union with Christ and not much else. We can cooperate with union with Christ.

Invariably, the great stumbling block faced by various attempts to “recreate” or “rediscover” the “early Church,” is that the “early Church,” is not an historical reality. It is a present reality – not simply as the “early Church” (this is not a Biblical phrase anyway). The present reality is the same as the “early Church”: it is the Body of Christ, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, the true and living Way. It never ceased nor was overcome by the gates of Hell. It has lived and thrived in enough places to have picked up many languages, many customs, but always the same faith.

This always comes as a stumbling block, I believe, because the existence of the Orthodox Church stands as a stark witness to the True and Living God – not the idea of a God – but God. In my own conversion, I was utterly shocked by this fact. I had read about Orthodoxy for years. I agreed with it for years. I would have even readily agreed for years to everything the Orthodox Church said of itself, and yet I remained outside. When, at last, my family and I were actually received into the Church, I was staggered by the reality of God. I know that sounds strange (since I had been an ordained Anglican priest for 18 years prior to that) but such was the case. There was no longer any question about discussing God, or refining the tradition, or even debating how all of it was to be applied. I was now in the thick of things and God was reigning down in canon, text, Bishop, sacrament, penance, sight, sound, rubrics (which I could not begin to fathom at first) – everything!

Thus, I surprised friends constantly in my first year or so of Orthodoxy when they asked me what was the most important thing about my conversion. My constant reply (to this day) was: the existence of God.

This, somehow, is the content that sets the Tradition apart from all discussions of appropriating tradition, etc. You do not appropriate something whose content is God. You are Baptized into it. You are Chrismated into it. You are absolved for ever having lived apart from it. You are fed it on a spoon. You are splashed with it. But you cannot appropriate it. To paraphrase: Your life’s to small to appropriate God.

Thus many in our time stand at the edge of Tradition. I have written that it is all really about Being – and it is. Thus it is worth going over the edge, to cross from thinking about God, to being plunged into the heart of it all. Frighteningly, it will come complete with Bishops whom you like and whom you despise – with stories of contemporary saints – and encounters with contemporary sinners. No different than this living Tradition in any other century. No different than this living Tradition in any other century. No different than this living Tradition in any other century. What else can a man do?