Scripture and the Eastern Orthodox
The Core Disagreement
As we saw in our last post, there are some important areas of disagreement between the Eastern Orthodox and the Reformed. The Orthodox denial of the perspicuity of Scripture leads them to also deny the sufficiency of Scripture. The Bible cannot be understood without the teaching of the Church to explain it. This brings us to the core disagreement between the Reformed and the Eastern Orthodox over Scripture, which pertains to the role of Scripture. Both sides would agree...
- ...that Scripture is the inspired Word of God.
- ...that Christ is the heartbeat of the Bible.
- ...that the Bible is authoritative, and should guide the life and theology of the church.
But for the Orthodox, Scripture is not the only source of authority. In their view, Scripture must never be separated from Tradition.
At this point, it is easy for Protestants to assume that the Eastern Orthodox hold to the same view of Scripture and Tradition found in the teachings of Rome. Rome teaches that God has ordained both Scripture and Tradition as two different types of authoritative guidance for the Church which flow from the same source. Ultimately, in Rome’s view, theology and life must be rooted in the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Her Magisterium and Pontiff are given infallible authority in interpreting and applying the Word, and if anyone would understand the mind of God, they can only do so by submitting to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. These claims will be familiar to Protestants who, in contrast to Rome, argue that the only ultimate authority for life and doctrine is to be found in the Word of God alone (hence the Reformation battle-cry of Sola Scriptura).
The Eastern Orthodox reject both of these approaches to authority as wrong-headed. In their view, Protestants and Roman Catholics are simply two sides of the same Western coin. Both, they would say, are seeking for an extrinsic source of authority. Rome clings to Tradition and Protestants to Scripture. But the Eastern Orthodox would argue that they alone hold the two together.
So what is the relationship between Scripture and Tradition in an Eastern Orthodox view? Keith Mathison writes:
"According to Orthodoxy, tradition is an all-embracing concept which may be seen as the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church. While Roman Catholicism and Protestantism tend to distinguish between Scripture and tradition, viewing them as separate concepts, Orthodoxy sees Scripture as part of the larger concept of tradition. Tradition is the life of the Holy Spirit within the Church..."
In the Eastern Orthodox understanding, authority and certainty are not found by appeal to an extrinsic authority in either Scripture or Tradition. Instead, the Church possesses an intrinsic authority as the Spirit leads the Church in the truth by means of the Tradition. The Spirit must never be separated from the Church or from Tradition (a term which encompasses Scripture). Florovsky writes:
“The Church was not an external authority, which had to judge over the Scripture, but rather the keeper and guardian of that Divine truth which was stored and deposited in the Holy Writ.”
This intrinsic-pneumatological view of the Bible, Church, and Tradition means that Orthodoxy is comfortable with a far more mystical approach to issues of authority than either Roman Catholics or Protestants would accept. The Bible, creeds, ecumenical councils, icons, liturgy, Church fathers, and canon law are all viewed as various threads which make up the tapestry of Tradition. As Ware says,
“These things are not to be separated and contrasted, for it is the same Holy Spirit which speaks through them all, and together they make up a single whole, each part being understood in the light of the rest.”
Responding to the Eastern Orthodox view of Scripture
This mystical approach to Scripture—which rests on a denial of the Bible’s perspicuity and sufficiency—stands in radical contrast to the Reformation view. In the mystical approach, the Bible is dependent on the Church both for its form and its meaning. The pneumatological emphasis of the East also tends to place the Church and its tradition above reproach as the only true interpreter of the Scriptures.
So how should Reformed churches respond to Eastern Orthodoxy on the doctrine of Scripture? A full answer to that question would require a book-length response, but space will permit us to at least point towards a basic answer. For Reformed churches to respond wisely to Eastern Orthodoxy on Scripture, it will be important to both clarify the Reformed position and also to counter the Eastern Orthodox position.
1. Clarifying the Reformed Position
This is a critical step. As one reads Eastern Orthodox apologists (or indeed, accounts of the many Protestants who have converted to Orthodoxy), it quickly becomes apparent that many of them see all Protestants as holding to a simplistic “no creed but Christ” mentality. But the classic Reformed consensus stands in stark contrast to such a biblicist understanding. Therefore, the first step in responding to the Eastern Orthodox position is to clarify what the Reformed position actually is. As Letham argues:
"We must explode the myth held by so many Orthodox that Reformed theology has no doctrine of the church but is purely individualistic… It needs to be repeated forcefully that the idea of ‘the right of private interpretation’ is not a Reformed principle. This alien notion supposes that any individual Christian has the right, privilege, and duty to interpret the Bible as he or she sees fit."
Sola Scriptura does not mean that we approach the Bible without reference to what the church has taught through the centuries. Neither does it meant that we close our eyes and ears to the wisdom of the ancient creeds, confessions, and catechisms which have guided the Church through the ages. Much of Eastern Orthodox opposition to sola Scriptura is based on a misunderstanding of this classic Protestant doctrine. Working to clarify the Reformed position is an important first step in engaging with Eastern Orthodoxy.
2. Countering the Eastern Orthodox Position
While clearing away these misunderstandings is important, the differences between Reformed and Eastern Orthodox churches on this issue are more than just a misunderstanding. At its root, there are two radically different conceptions of the role of Scripture at play. More careful scholarship is needed to answer the specific claims of Eastern Orthodoxy, but a good way to begin countering their view is to question some of their key assertions. Does the Bible itself teach that the Spirit will infallibly guide the Church, or is there evidence in Scripture of believers who are led astray by false teachers? The apostasy of Old Testament Israel together with the epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Corinthians would seem to answer this question quite strongly.
For all their attempts to distance their view from Rome, is there an appreciable difference between Papal claims to infallibility and Eastern Orthodox claims to ecclesial infallibility? While the East might embrace a more decentralized form of infallibility than Rome, the end result seems to be the same: An infallible Church which is given a functional priority over the Word of God.
With hundreds of millions of followers world-wide, Eastern Orthodoxy deserves to be carefully studied and understood. As Western churches have more contact with the East, it will only become more important that they take the time to humbly labor to respond to each other with wisdom and humility. There can be no more important matter to discuss than the doctrine of Scripture. By God’s grace, as Reformed churches take the time to understand the Eastern Orthodox position and clarify their own approach to Scripture in contrast to it, Biblical truth will prevail and Christ’s church will be strengthened.
Barrett, Matthew. God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2016.
Bulgakov, Sergius. “The Virgin and the Saints in Orthodoxy.” In Clendenin, 65-75.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday Publishing, 1995.
Clendenin, Daniel B. Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003.
———. ed. Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003.
Climacus, St. John. The Ladder of Divine Ascent. New York: Paulist Press, 1988.
Florovsky, Georges. Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View. Belmont, MA: Nordland Publishing Company, 1972.
Gillquist, Peter E. Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith. Ben Lomond, CA: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2010.
———. Coming Home: Why Protestant Clergy are Becoming Orthodox. Ben Lomond, CA: Ancient Faith Publishing, 1995.
High Desert URC. “Report of the Committee Appointed by URCNA Classis SWUS to Study Eastern Orthodoxy.” Accessed May 13th, 2019. https://www.highdeserturc.org/downloads/Eastern-Orthodoxy-Study-Committee-Report.pdf.
Horton, Michael. “Are Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism Compatible? No:”. In Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, edited by James J. Stamoolis, 128-140. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004.
Karmiris, John. “Concerning the Sacraments.” In Clendenin, 21-31.
Letham, Robert. Through Western Eyes – Eastern Orthodoxy: A Reformed Perspective. Ross-Shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2007.
Lossky, Vladimir. In the Image and Likeness of God. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974.
Louth, Andrew. Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2013.
Mathison, Keith A. The Shape of Sola Scriptura. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2001.
Meyendorff, John. Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends & Doctrinal Themes. New York: Fordham University Press, 1979.
Muller, Richard A. Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003.
Ouspensky, Leonid. “The Meaning and Content of the Icon.” In Clendenin, 33-63.
Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church. London: Penguin Books, 1997.
Westminster Confession of Faith. Lawrenceville, GA: Christian Education & Publications, 2007.
Whitaker, William. A Disputation on Holy Scripture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1849.
B.E. Franks is an MDiv student at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. A native son of the PCA, he has done mission work in England with the EPCEW and served with churches in the PCA and OPC. He studied at Patrick Henry College and completed his B.A. in Classical Christian Education through Whitefield College. His writings have been published in the Puritan Reformed Journal, the Confessional Presbyterian Journal, and the Banner of Truth Magazine.
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 See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, (New York: Doubleday Publishing, 1995), 31.
 Keith A. Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura, (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2001), 225-226.
 Florovsky: “The appeal to Tradition was actually an appeal to the mind of the Church. It was assumed that the Church had the knowledge and the understanding of the truth, of the truth and the ‘meaning’ of the Revelation. Accordingly, the Church had both the competence and the authority to proclaim the Gospel and to interpret it.” Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition, 83.
 Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition, 77.
 Ware, The Orthodox Church, 199-207.
 Ware, The Orthodox Church, 206.
 See Letham, Through Western Eyes, 193-198.
 Letham, Through Western Eyes, 194-195.
See the excellent discussion in Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura, 237-253.
 For popular discussions of what sola Scriptura does mean, see Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2016), and Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura. For more academic treatments see William Whitaker, A Disputation on Holy Scripture, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1849) and Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003).
These brief questions, along with other important issues, are helpfully addressed in Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura, 227-235.