October 07, 2003

Certainly the Orthodox can do better

(This post is a review of an essay by John Craton entitled "Scripture vs. Tradition or Scripture and Tradition" from his book A Journey of Fear and Joy. The essay was kindly recommended to me by my friend, Orthodox blogger Karl Theines. Karl's recommendation came during a terrific discussion we had at Justin Baeder's blog, Radical Congruency, on what the em-church an borrow from other Christian traditions. Thanks for the recommend, Karl, and I look forward to the further thoughts of all my readers! Warning: This is a long one, so if you're not really interested, feel free to scan through!)

First things first: John Craton taught me a few things through his essay "Scripture vs. Tradition or Scripture and Tradition." Here's a quick list:
...There's no such thing as a tradition-less church or tradition-free faith.

...Hermeneutics and exegetical techniques are propagated in the church as traditions.

...Not all traditions are bad, although some definitely are.

...Traditions that are unacknowledged as traditions are the worst and most dangerous kind of traditions.

...That goes double for a tradition of bad hermeneutics.
...and I mean that in a very sincere and caring way.

Let me take a moment now to address what I consider to be some significant problems with Craton's essay.

Bad Hermeneutics

I want to make a confession going into this criticism: I've never taken a single credit hour of Biblical Greek or Hebrew. Not a one. If you ever hear me referring to one of the ancient Biblical languages in a way that makes it sound as though I'd been up late the night before parsing Koine verbs or working on my own translation of Lamentations, just know that I'm bluffing. I use several tools and references to help me understand something about the "words behind the words" in my Bible, but any knowledge gained through the process is second hand at best.

Now that I've gotten that off my chest (confession is so good for the soul, isn't it?), I think that Craton's interpretation of John 16:13, "But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth," is just plain bad. Here are a few statements he makes concerning this passage:
[The Holy Spirit] was given to the whole church but was given first to the Apostles as the foundation-builders of His church, and Christ promised that the Spirit would speak the truth through them.

[The church prior to the completion of the canon] lived by the church's understanding of Scripture as well (i.e., Tradition), just as Jesus had foretold that it should. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the church as a body held to and maintained the traditions handed down by the Apostles.

[I]t was to the church that Christ promised to send the Spirit to guide it into all truth, not to each individual Christian.
All these missteps led inexorably to this final statement:
[T]he real source of all truth will be found in the Body of Christ on earth -- His church, "the pillar and foundation of the truth."
It doesn't take a Greek scholar to see the fatal error in these statements: that Jesus wasn't promising his Spirit to a church in John 16:13, but was promising it to eleven individual men. The Greek personal pronoun in the sentence is sy; it's used in both singular and plural contexts. But there is no textual evidence that Jesus is speaking dogmatically here with the whole Church in mind. Rather, he is comforting eleven men who would soon experience a time of confusion and pain, and who would soon be given the responsibility for carrying on Jesus' work without his physical presence. Had Jesus wanted to make the point that "it was to the church that [he] promised to send the Spirit to guide it into all truth, not to each individual Christian," he certainly could have used his special word for that organization of people, ekklesia. It was Jesus himself who co-opted this secular Greek term to represent his Body on earth after his return to heaven; if that's what's in his mind here, why not use this word?

The idea that it is the church (or even more exclusive, a particular church) that is indwelt with the Spirit and not individual Christ-followers is Biblically unsupportable. It is in direct opposition to dozens of clear Apostolic teachings, among them:
This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: "In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. (Acts 2:16-17)

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them... (Acts 4:8)

If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ, But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. (Romans 8:9-10)

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? (1 Corinthians 6:19)

Be filled with the Spirit. (Ephesians 5:18)

If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. (1 Peter 4:14)
The clear Apostolic teaching here is that in this period of time which began with Pentecost, God is pouring out His Spirit on any individual who comes to him through faith in Christ, seeking salvation; that each individual who has received that Spirit becomes a physical "temple" in which that Spirit dwells; and that individuals are commanded to be filled with the Spirit for the Christian journey. Understood in this light (which is, incidentally, the simple, unforced meaning of the passage), Jesus in John 16:13 is promising the Apostles that his Spirit will guide all those in whom He dwells into all truth. Unfortunately, much of Craton's premise rests on a different, forced, and clearly non-Apostolic understanding. While he may be accurately describing the Orthodox viewpoint, he's certainly missed the boat on the orthodox viewpoint.

(It's worth noting that Craton's bad hermeneutics aren't confined to proof-texts for Orthodoxy; the texts he chooses to represent the Fundamentalist position on the sufficiency of Scripture are frequently interpreted in ways that violate their context. Deuteronomy 4:2, Revelation 22:18-19, and Philippians 2:12 are all abused in this way. One wonders what kinds of sermons served as Craton's examples for how to interpret Scripture, and wishes some kind pastor had only once observed in his hearing that "Scripture cannot mean today what it didn't mean when it was written.")

Bad Ecclesiology

Craton's bad theology of the Church stems from his bad exegesis of 1 Timothy 3:14-15, "I am writing these instructions so that...you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in...the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth." His misunderstanding of this passage leads him to ask these rhetorical questions:
Is it not within the church that Scripture is properly to be understood? Having been made the custodian of the Holy Scriptures, is it not the church's place, being guided by the Spirit of truth, to be the one to interpret it?
I think Craton oversimplifies Paul's symbolism here. The church (and note that the context here is the local body of believers, the "church at Ephesus") is the pillar and foundation of truth, but the church is not The Truth. The local church provides a foundation upon which The Truth might be established within a community; the local church provides pillars by which an ongoing witness to the Truth might be supported in a community. But to make the claim that the local church (or any institutional church) is "the real source of all truth" isn't orthodox; in fact, it is heresy. It is Jesus himself who claims to be "The Truth," and to offer that title (in word or in concept) to any but Christ is heresy of the highest order; it is idolatry. Certainly the church is the Body of Christ, but it is not Christ. Jesus himself is still the head of that Body, where the mind resides, where decisions are made and where direction is given to the limbs to bring those decisions to pass.

Craton's bad ecclesiology also manifests itself in his unbiblical concept of unity: namely, that the uncommon unity Jesus prayed for his followers in John 17:20-23 must manifest itself in visible agreement in all areas of doctrine. I find this particularly interesting in light of the example Jesus offers for the kind of unity he's praying for: "That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you" (21). Is the "oneness" of the Father and the Son patently visible, intuitively obvious to even the dullest of causal observers? Isn't their oneness instead mysterious, invisible, to be accepted by faith and not by sight? If 100 percent doctrinal alignment is the standard for which the Church must strive, why did Paul allow for differences in interpretation: "Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters" (Romans 14:1); "Avoid foolish controversies and...arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless" (Titus 3:9). Why did the Jerusalem church allow for a the Gentile churches a different practice than their own: "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements" (Acts 15:28). Christian unity isn't a common belief system; it isn't even a common belief in Christ! Christian unity arises from the fact that we share in common Christ himself, the same Christ indwelling each of us.

Finally, Craton's bad ecclesiology plays itself out in his confusion between the Biblical concepts of the Kingdom of God and the Church. Arguing for the "indestructibility" of the Church, Craton cites eleven different passages of Scripture, seven of which refer to the "kingdom" or "dominion" of the Lord -- which certainly encompasses more than just the Church! His frequent references to "the Old Testament church" and "the church of Israel" cast into doubt not only his understanding of the Church, but whether he is able to glean an accurate understanding from the Bible at all.

Bad Research

Perhaps this is an issue of personal preference, but Craton makes many observations of "fact" without offering any evidence or proof to back up his claims. His claim that ancient heresies such as "dualism, Nestorianism, monophytism, [and] patripassionism" have erupted throughout the fundamentalist churches is one glaring example. More bothersome to me was this statement: "The conservative Protestant view of this passage [1 Timothy 4:1-4, in which Paul prophesies apostasy in "later times"] is that the falling away took place shortly after the death of the last Apostle" After searching all the commentaries in my library (over twenty-five), I couldn't find a single one which proffered this interpretation. One wonders how many more of Craton's beliefs are founded on untenable assumptions.

Bad Logic

Craton seems to have a problem with untenable assumptions:
We can only assume that God directed His people at some point (probably during the Babylonian Diaspora) to establish the synagogical system, complete down to the offices of oversight.
While Craton is trying to make a case here that God has spoken to His people using methods other than the written word, and such an assumption would certainly help make his case, there are many other reasonable explanations for the Synagogue. The most simplistic would be that, given the destruction of the Temple and the exile of God's people from the land, it was physically impossible to continue to worship God in the way Moses' law directed. The mass murder of the priest class and the confiscation of most families' flocks and herds (from which sacrifices were chosen) sealed the bargain. Circumstances dictated that worship be continued in a new, different way, a way which capitalized on the closeness of Jewish community life and the "home centeredness" of much of the Mosaic ritual, such as the Feast of Tabernacles and the Passover: worship began to be conducted in the homes of community spiritual leaders. Occam's Razor notwithstanding, there are manifold explanations beyond the assumption Craton offers.

Still on the idea of the Synagogue, Craton makes another illogical step:
We do not read that [Jesus] ever criticized the synagogues, which were also [like the Pharisees' traditions] part of the later traditions of Israel. Why not? Because they belonged to the Sacred Traditions of the Old Testament. Jesus accepted the tradition of the synagogue as legitimate.
Does the fact that Jesus didn't explicitly reject the synagogue system prove that he accepted it as legitimate? Is Craton this ignorant of the principles of logical rhetoric, or is he merely this eager to make his point?

Conclusion: Bad Thesis

Though Craton is no doubt sincere in his beliefs, I found his essay to be more of a dogmatic statement than a well thought-out apologetic of "Sacred Tradition." One gets the idea that his original, fundamentalist beliefs were based on poor hermeneutics, poor logic, and poor research, and that he was therefore willing to accept a similar poor foundation for his switch to Orthodoxy. He would have been better served and more permanently satisfied by instead embracing sound Biblical interpretation, learning how to avoid common logical errors, and devoting himself to the arduous task of painstaking research.


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