Interpreting the Scriptures

The question arises as to how one interprets the Scriptures. The Scriptures are not a single volume (like the book War and Peace), but a library. Determining the meaning and message of a single volume is a straightforward task, but determining the overarching message of many various books such as one finds in a library is not. For this task, one needs an interpretive lens to discern its central message.

It is just here that problems arise with the modern use of the Reformation slogan sola Scriptura, or “the scriptures alone.” Many modern Evangelical Protestants use this slogan to mean not only that the Scriptures are the sole authority for Christian doctrine and life, but also (which is somewhat necessary) that the overarching message of the Bible is perfectly clear to any honest Christian reader, both in its general message and its finer doctrinal details. The colorful experience of Church history since the time of the Reformation with its increasing multiplication of denominations shows that this is not so. It is sadly true that intelligent and pious men can and have disagreed about the meaning of the sacred text, not just in questions of minute detail, but in basic questions as well. This includes very important questions such as, “What must we do to be saved? What does the Eucharist mean? How often should it be celebrated? What does baptism mean? How should it be administered? May infants be baptized? May we pray for the dead? Should we pray to the saints? What is the place of Mary in the life of a Christian? How should the church be governed?” All find diverse and contradictory answers. Obviously, the Scriptures are not perfectly clear when read divorced from church history.

That is why the Orthodox Church refuses to divorce scripture from its own history—or, in other words, to rip scripture away from its overarching Tradition. Tradition, for the Orthodox, is not another source of truth along with Scripture, much less a rival source. Tradition is the entire inheritance given by Christ and his apostles. It is Tradition that allows us to come to the true meaning of the Scriptures.

The word “tradition” in Greek is paradosis. It is the noun form of the verb paradidomi, meaning “to hand over.” Tradition is therefore a teaching handed over from someone else, like a baton handed over in a relay race. Whether or not tradition is a good thing depends entirely upon what is handed over—the Jewish tradition of the elders and the human teaching received by Gnostic groups were not good things, and so were censured by Christ and St. Paul (Mark 7:8-9, Col 2:8). The teaching of the apostles was a good thing, and so St. Paul praises his converts for keeping it (1 Cor 11:2, 2 Thess 2:15). We note in this last text that St. Paul includes his writing under the heading of “the traditions which you were taught” (1 Thess). For the apostles, Tradition includes everything they handed on to the church, including their letters. The New Testament, therefore, is part of this total Tradition.

This means that Scripture cannot be read apart from the Tradition. What the apostles preached “by word,” i.e., verbally (2 Thess 2:15), they also wrote about, so that oral tradition and written tradition must be consistent with each other. Thus, any interpretation of Scripture which contradicts the received oral tradition of the Church cannot be true. Oral and written tradition will be the same since both came from the same apostolic source.