Authority and Concentricity: Some Rough Thoughts on Scripture, Tradition, and Incarnation

What role does Scripture and its interpretation play in the Church? How do we conceive of its authority? How does that authority relate to Tradition and other sources of knowledge? In what sense is the Bible the Word of God, and how does it relate to God the Word?  These are Very Big questions, ones I am not able to answer in this short space (or any other space, really).  But I’ve had a series of thoughts on these topics recently that have led to what seems (to me at least) a helpful big-picture way of framing these issues in an Orthodox perspective.  The idea is to think of Scripture, churchly tradition, and “worldly knowledge” as forming a sort of concentric or nested incarnation of Christ the Logos.  Let me try to roughly explain the sequence of my thinking.

Florovsky on Sola Scriptura

A friend of mine has been reading through the works of the 20th century Russian emigre theologian Georges Florovsky and he posted a quotation the other day on the sufficiency of Scripture:

If we declare Scripture to be self-sufficient, we only expose it to subjective, arbitrary interpretation, thus cutting it away from its sacred source. Scripture is given to us in tradition. It is the vital, crystallizing centre. The Church, as the Body of Christ, stands mystically first and is fuller than Scripture. This does not limit Scripture, or cast shadows on it. But truth is revealed to us not only historically. Christ appeared and still appears before us not only in the Scriptures; He unchangeably and unceasingly reveals Himself in the Church, in His own Body.

On the one hand, this is a pretty straightforward statement of the typical Orthodox view: Whereas Protestants tend to think of Scripture as the sole sufficient authority for deciding doctrine, the Orthodox also grant Tradition authority, and, indeed, see Scripture as just one aspect or form of expression of that Tradition.  This means, in a sense, that Tradition, as an expression of the living Body of Christ, is, as he says “first and fuller.”

Still, one requirement of such a view is to explain what role Scripture does play, why it seems so central, to have such pride of place.  He does this through the striking metaphor of Scripture being the “vital, crystallizing center” of tradition.  One might even say, switching metaphors slightly, that Scripture is the heart of the Church.  The Church is a living thing, a true Body, and in that sense (as a good Aristotelian knows), even its heart only is what it is in relation to the whole organism. Still, the organism cannot live without the heart, its vital center, and everything it does depends on the life imparted by that center and radiated to its every extremity.

St. Maximus the Confessor on Levels of Incarnation

So far, so good.  But after thinking this through, my mind was immediately drawn to recall something I had read before in St. Maximus about the three different ways that we can say the Logos is made incarnate for us.  

In discussing in his Ambigua (33) the phrase “the Word is concentrated and takes bodily form” (literally “the Logos becomes thick”), he says this can be understood in three senses: First, he became incarnate in the traditional sense, taking on a body “to teach us in our human tongue.” Second, he allowed himself to be embodied in letters and sounds through Scripture.  Third, he is fully present in and as the logoi or spiritual essences of everything in creation, so that we can “read” him both in the cosmos as a whole and in each particular thing. (Actually, St. Maximus places Scripture in third place, only for those who are themselves too “thick” to read him elsewhere.)

So, when we talk about the “Word” of God, there are four main things we may have in mind: the human being Jeus, the church as the mystical Body of Christ, the Scriptures, and the “Book of Nature” insofar as it contains and is contained by the Logos.

Putting it Together

When we put these two strands of thought together, it seems to me we have a helpful way of thinking about the authority of Scripture and its relation to other sources of spiritual and epistemic authority.  Remember that Florovsky’s point was that Scripture is an aspect of churchly tradition, and that churchly tradition is itself a fuller expression and manifestation of the life of Christ on earth to which Scripture testifies.  Still, Scripture itself is the vitalizing lifeblood of the church.

This suggests to me a picture of concentric circles.  In the central-most place is Christ himself, the Logos incarnate in flesh.  Surrounding that circle is the circle of Scripture, the Logos incarnate in letters and sounds, which is the unique testament to the life and teachings of Christ.  Surrounding that circle is the circle of the Church/Tradition, the Logos incarnate in his mystical body.  It is through the Church and its Tradition that we learn how to interpret and live out the life and teachings of Christ.  And surrounding that circle is the circle of Creation, the Logos incarnate in the essences of all created things as their causal origin and final end.

It is the presence of this last, largest, circle, which I find especially helpful.  It implies that, just as there are things we can know that are not in Scripture, and that Scripture itself needs interpreted by reference to the knowledge of living Tradition, so even that Tradition is not in the end absolute fullness (even if its depths can be plumbed infinitely).  There are many things to be known, even about God and his works, that are not already contained in Tradition.  And Tradition itself, just as with Scripture, is not always completely clear and conspicuous, containing contradictory strands. So Tradition itself needs interpreting, and that we can only do in terms of the widest knowledge we have available.  This makes room for our ability to understand anew and at deeper depths our tradition by reference to the discoveries of science, history, philosophy, and even other spiritual and religious traditions.

Still, it is one and the same Logos incarnated at every level.  This means that our “secular” knowledge of morality, science, history, etc., cannot truly contradict the Logos as revealed in Scripture or Tradition.  Rather, each level helps us to understand what is really being revealed at every other level, in a sort of reflective equilibrium. Each is a relative fullness that contains and yet is given life by each more central level.

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