There are probably too many essays already that refute (or at least attempt to refute) the Protestant tradition of sola scriptura. The third chapter of Staniloae’s Experience of God – “Scripture and Tradition” – never explicitly names this most important of the Protestant “five solae,” but he certainly answers it, as he responds to its parallel (and, in a morose note, consequential) tradition of scriptural disregard.
Many of us who are products of a Protestant and particularly Evangelical upbringing can remember the old motto “Scripture interpreting Scripture.” This motto attempts to surmount the obvious problem raised by the Reformers (i.e., Luther et al) – if Holy Tradition (or the Magisterium in the West) is to be discarded as an interpretative framework of Scripture, then what should take its place?
The Reformed answer is that Scripture interprets itself, and thus there is no need for a human intermediary. The familiar explanation is that the Holy Spirit Himself is the sole agent of interpretation. This concept of “sole divine agency” is what unifies all five “solae” of the Reformation, in which “sola scriptura” (exclusion of Tradition, especially in human history after the writing of the “original autographs”) is joined by “sola fidei” (exclusion of the necessity of human work); “sola gratia” (exclusion of synergia); “solus Christus” (exclusion of human priesthood and, most likely, the possibility of sacrament); and “soli Deo gloria” (exclusion of veneration to the Theotokos, saints and angels).
Generally, the refutations of sola scriptura focus upon the inconsistencies, if not outright impossibilities, that accrue to the Protestant history of interpretation. It is difficult to proceed under the hermeneutical rubric of “Scripture interpreting Scripture” without at least implicitly referring to some external reference. Some times, that external reference is to an artifact of doctrinal Tradition, which is often referred to as “small o orthodoxy.” This “orthodox” reference accounts for the persistence in Protestantism of doctrines like the Trinity, the Person and work of Christ, and the canonical arrangement of the New Testament. Other times, however, that external reference involves (perhaps unwittingly) the inclusion of a contemporary cultural trend that is contrary to Tradition. Fr John Romanides famously discerned a patterned reference that involved “Frankish” dominance, which seems to account for everything wrong with the West.[i] Other critiques have discerned external references that presently involve an increasing identification with the dominant materialistic worldview.[ii]
But Staniloae responds to the deeper claim of “sole divine agency,” a claim that lies at the heart of the heterodox rejection of the Church and her Tradition. While everything in the Church’s existence (including Scripture) relies upon the complete sufficiency of God, human participation is necessary — both in the writing of Scripture form the Tradition of the Apostles, and in its Apostolic interpretation. There is never a “sole divine agency” in Economy, in which the human is a passive object. There is always a person who says, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord: be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1.28).
Christ is always the Revealer, through the “radiation of the Holy Spirit”:
The Word and the Holy Spirit are the two persons who together accomplish and jointly bring to fulfillment the whole of revelation and of its efficacy until the end of the world … Between the Word and the Holy Spirit exists a continuous reciprocity of revelation and both bring about a common revelation of the Father, and a common spiritualization of creation.[iii]
Here it is plain that revelation – both natural and supernatural – continues to be active. In fact, Staniloae’s tone suggests that revelation can only gain in force and depth as it continues through the space-time inaugurated at Creation. Any revelation – especially the written supernatural revelation that is Scripture – cannot be objectified and rendered static in examination. Just at the Epistle to the Hebrews says: For the word of God is living and effectual, and more piercing than any two edged sword; and reaching unto the division of the soul and the spirit, of the joints also and the marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4.12 Douay-Rheims)
But not only is revelation active, it is also personal. Revelation is never an impersonal dynamic or force: neither is it a phenomena framed by a historic narrative and imposed violently upon its members; nor is it an esoteric gnosis reserved for those pre-determined before birth. Revelation is nothing less, and nothing anything else, than a personal work of Christ that is “irradiated” by the Spirit in the Church.
Revelation is given only through communion – and Staniloae has made it very clear that only persons can commune. In natural revelation, the communion between the Creator and His creatures is indirect. But what distinguishes supernatural revelation is that the communication is direct (e.g., I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you – John 15.15 KJV).
Language is the rational memory of communion: and here is the haunting semantic coincidence whereas Christ is known principally as the “Word” of God. He can only be the Father’s revelatory initiative to us. So he penetrates into our consciousness, and reveals God in experience and is remembered in thoughts.
And those thoughts are written in human art. Again, this is the synergistic communion of persons: on one the infinitely transcendent side is God, and on the other is the creature, Man. God reveals personally: Man personally remembers and writes. The significance and necessity of the written word should not be surprising: written language is a relatively unchanging solidification of commonly held memory through history. And Scripture is the written memory of special revelation that is fulfilled and closed in Christ.
As Staniloae puts it: Sacred Scripture is the Son and Word of God who translated himself into words in his work of drawing close to men so that he might raise them up to himself, until the time of his incarnation, resurrection, and ascension as man. Through these words by which he is translated, Christ words upon us to bring us also to that state which he has reached.[iv]
That last statement marks the third characteristic of the agency of the Church in interpreting Scripture: the written narrative of the supernatural revelation of Christ not only reveals the identity of Christ, but also clearly describes His intentions for humanity and all creation. Salvation can be nothing less and nothing other than deification: it is Staniloae’s considerable genius to define revelation in terms not only of Cyrillian Christology, but also of theosis.
In effect, the special revelation that is narrated in the written text of Scripture can only be expressed as a whole by the ecclesial culture of deification – that is, the community that preserves Tradition. Staniloae contends that the Church and Tradition were inaugurated simultaneously, one sustaining the other: in concert, Scripture is interpreted and made meaningful to contemporaneity through the Church’s rhetoric of peace and beauty.
Staniloae suggests, in this chapter, that there is a double peril that results from the fact that Christ is the “active Revealer” of Himself (through the Spirit) in Scripture, in the Church. First: a Christ that is not expressed (i.e., through Tradition and Scripture) does not manifest his effectiveness. And second: the Church is alone capable of understanding and interpreting Scripture effectively.
This not only rules out the possibility of sola scriptura and the idea of “sole divine agency” behind it, but it makes uncertain the ecclesial identity of any community that does not express Him.
Now to the final point: what is the genealogy of Scriptural disregard? That is, the failure to “express Him”? Is it possible that this disregard could have occurred only after the disregard of Tradition?
It seems so. One could take, prima facie at least (a “plain reading of the text”), such a lesson from the story of the Ethiopian eunuch and Philip in Acts 8.30-31: So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him (NKJV). Someone had to elucidate the meaning, and Philip did so allegorically, but only within the parameters of a community that had been infused with revelation, natural and supernatural.
Had it been otherwise, that this community would have ever discarded the oral tradition of the Apostles, there would have been no written tradition to speak of.
[i] An interesting exemplary quote from Fr Romanides: The attitudes of the West and East Franks toward the Papacy and the Filioque were different, the first being mild, and the second fanatically hard. One of the important reasons for this is that, after 920, the new reform movements gained enough momentum to shape the policies of the East German Franks who took over the Papacy. When the Romans lost the Papacy, the Filioque was introduced into Rome for the first time in either 1009, or at latest by 1014. In the light of the above, we do not have the situation usually presented by European, American, and Russian historians in which the Filioque is an integral part of so-called “Latin” Christendom with a “Greek” Christendom in opposition on the pretext of its introduction into the Creed. (The addition to the Creed was supposedly opposed by the popes not doctrinally, but only as addition in order not to offend the “Greeks.”) What we do have is a united West and East Roman nation in opposition to an upstart group of Germanic races who began teaching the Romans before they really learned anything themselves. Of course, German teachers could be very convincing on question of dogma, only by holding a knife to the throat. Otherwise, especially in the time of imposing the Filioque, the theologians of the new Germanic theology were better than their noble peers, only because they could read and write and had, perhaps, memorized Augustine.
— from Franks, Romans, Feudalism, and Doctrine, part 3 (“The Filioque”), from http://www.romanity.org/htm/rom.03.en.franks_romans_feudalism_and_doctrine.03.htm#s16 (retrieved 7/15/2014)
[ii] Pontifical Biblical Commission, “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” (preface by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger). Presented on March 18, 1994. Retrieved 7/15/2014 at http://www.ewtn.com/library/curia/pbcinter.htm. This is a superior descriptive catalog of various and current hermeneutical approaches to Scripture.
[iii] Staniloae, Experience of God, p30.
[iv] Ibid., p40.