Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Two approaches to cutting off Heresy

If you ever read Weedon's Blog you have probably come across a good back and forth between the Eastern Orthodox and Lutheranism. Lots of people like reading Weedon, so it ends up being a place where. . . shall we say two streams of Christian thought on occasion swirl together.

One of the complaints that will be voice there against Lutheranism is the idea of "Sola Scriptura" - that the Scriptures are the sole Rule and Norm of doctrine. One of the complaints that will be leveled against the East is their appeal to tradition (and thus seemingly circumventing or diminishing Scripture).

Here is an observation as a Historian for your perusal. Both the East's reliance on Tradition and Lutheranism's focus on Sola Scriptura are approaches designed or intended to prevent heresy.

Let's jump back to around 787 in the East. Whereas after Chalcedon in the West you don't get the development of new Christological heresies (the Latin church is too busy beating down Germanic Barbarian Arians to have theologians sit around and dream up as many new heresies. . . and no, this is not going to be a time to discuss the filioque) in the East, Christological heresies keep springing up. You have monothelitism and monoergism and the Iconoclast heresies. New terminology will spring up, and inevitably, it will be wrong, and wreck havoc and chaos upon the East.

In response to this, the Eastern Church says, "Enough! No more! We have it right, say it like we've said it and leave it at that!" This is a quite understandable approach (as any parent who has had a child go off on a ". . . but what about. . ." streak of questioning can tell you). What the Church will say is what the Church has said. . . which is the definition of what an appeal to tradition is. If the Church hasn't said it, don't say it - it is not safe.

Lutheranism likewise deals with an attempt to stop heresy - but the Lutherans are responding to errors endorsed by the established Church which ignore both tradition and scripture. These errors are reinforced by the claims of the papacy to its power and authority. Thus, the Lutherans, in looking at Scripture and the History of the Church come to the conclusion that the only time the Doctrine of the Church is safe is when it is limited to what is clearly taught (or derived, like the Trinity) from Scripture - but everything that is said must be thoroughly checked through Scripture.

Both approaches are designed to cut off heresy.

However, there is a hitch. The East will look at the hordes of various denominations, each one claiming "Sola Scriptura" and falling off into various stupid doctrines and say, "Yeah, how's that sola scriptura working out for you?" On the other hand, Lutherans will look at the East and say, "Um, historically speaking, your tradition develops. . . how do you know that it is developing properly without the check of scripture? Where is your surety that your stream of tradition is the right tradition. . . especially given how often the patriarchs excommunicate each other." (or at least that is what I will say - and I'm Lutheran)

What I will say is this. Both of these approaches to safeguarding against heresy have their uses. The Eastern approach works well to nip heresy off in the bud. That is its strength. However, it lacks strength in attacking heresy. The one who is heretical isn't going to recognize the authority of the Church or it's tradition (this was clear even back in the days of Ireneus). Rather, they must be attacked on how they (wrongly) use Scripture. You argue against their interpretation.

Now, one might argue that the heretic isn't going to respect Scripture either - but at least there is a battle ground to fight the heretic on -- and in fighting the heretic perhaps defend the person who might be led astray. However. . . on that ground, the East has the Lutherans topped - because if you are taught to follow the Church's tradition, you do. But as Lutherans, we have seen what can happen when Churches let err creep into their tradition. . . and we see a need to have that checked.

Now, it should be obvious which of these approaches I favor. . . but I think if we Lutherans understand the anti-heretical approach of the appeal to traditions, it seems less strange (and less dangerous) - they are using the shield of the Faith as best they can - and likewise if the East were to understand that Scripture is the safeguard against heresy and the means of combating it (the Sword of the Spirit is the Word, and even the East will allow the fact that Lutherans have been fighting in the midst of heresy in the West for the past 500 years) we might understand and appreciate the other's approach more, even if we still see flaws within it.

Of course, I'm a good Confessional Lutheran. Not only do I wield a sword, I carry a nice shield. Seriously, I think my Concordia Triglot can stop bullets >=o)

1 comment:

Christopher D. Hall said...

I don't know about the good part ;)