Paradigms, Tradition, and the Lexicon, Part 2

Or, Jason Stellman’s “already-existing apostolic tradition”

In his article The Tradition and the Lexicon, Bryan Cross says:

In general, Protestants think differently about how to go about interpreting Scripture than do Catholics. When trying to understand the meaning of a passage in Scripture, Catholics have always looked to the Tradition; we seek to determine how the Church has understood and explained the passage over the past two millennia. We look up what the Church Fathers and Church Doctors have said about the passage. By contrast, Protestants typically do not turn first to the Church Fathers when seeking to understand the meaning of a passage or term in Scripture that is unclear. Protestants generally turn to contemporary lexicons and commentaries written by contemporary biblical scholars whom they trust. Only rarely, and perhaps as a final step, do they turn to the Church Fathers. The common form of the Protestant mind is ready to believe that the Fathers often got Scripture wrong, and to use their own interpretation of Scripture to ‘correct’ or critically evaluate the Fathers.

Where does this “tradition” come from? Where does “the Church” first begin to “understand and explain” certain things?

It seems more than possible to me that some (but not all) of the explanations from “the Church Fathers” and “Church Doctors” don’t always flow from the same wellspring of Scripture.

Bryan is echoing a Roman Catholic doctrine. He cites the still-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger:

“If one takes into account … that the sacred Scriptures came from God through a subject which lives continually — the pilgrim people of God — then it becomes clear rationally as well that this subject has something to say about the understanding of this book.” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Relationship between Magisterium and Exegetes.” Address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission. In L’Osservatore Romano Weekly Edition in English. July 23, 2003. As quoted in Covenant and Communion, Scott Hahn (Brazos Press, 2009), p. 46.

Look at the phrase “a subject which lives continually” Ratzinger here is doing the obvious – equating “the pilgrim people of God” with the Roman hierarchy and Magisterium – such a thing cannot be done.

Nevertheless, Bryan continues:

For Catholics, the interpretation of the deposit of faith belongs to those whom Christ authorized and entrusted with it, i.e. the Apostles and their successors, referred to as the Church’s Magisterium. The meaning of Scripture is not merely a matter for the outsider to determine by lexical analysis, but first and foremost involves coming to Sacred Scripture within the living Tradition of the Church, as unveiled and unfolded to us by those to whom the deposit of faith was entrusted, and to whom interpretive authority was given.

There are loaded phrases all through this paragraph: “interpretation”, “deposit of faith” “those whom Christ authorized and entrusted”, “successors” … there are a whole pile of assumptions in here, each of which, if examined closely, falls apart under the scrutiny. But when you pile them all together, they form a story that even someone as smart as Bryan and Jason Stellman can fall for.

Let’s look here at “the Apostles” and “their successors”. It is possible more than possible to delineate between these two.

In fact, the problem is not with the Apostles. The problem is with those who came after the Apostles. There was a gradual “losing” of the meaning of the Scriptures, within this group of “Church Fathers”.

* * *

Jaroslav Pelikan, in his “The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine: Volume 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600)”: Chicago, IL and London, UK: University of Chicago Press, ©1751, ©1975 paperback edition), writes that “Christian doctrine [is] what the church believes, teaches, and confesses on the basis of the word of God”. His history of the development of doctrine does not “deal with the doctrinal content of the Old Testament and the New Testament in their own terms”. “These constitute fields of research unto themselves, and for our purposes the theology of the New Testament is not what Jesus and the apostles may have taught, but what the church has understood them to have taught (pg 6).

“What the church has understood them to have taught” may or may not be different from “the doctrinal content” of the Old and New Testaments.

My contention is that this is the case. “What the church [corporately] has taught” is, at times “different from the doctrinal content of the Old and New Testaments”.

This is where the biggest source of the problems come into play:

This is why, as I’ve written before, Cullmann noted that the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, for example, were “at a considerable distance from New Testament thought”, and that church fathers who wrote after 150, especially Irenaeus and Tertullian, understood “infinitely better” the essence of the gospel.

In the linked article, Oscar Cullmann pointed to the examples of Papias and other “Apostolic Fathers” who more or less presented a different doctrine of grace from that which is found in the New Testament.

But as Pelikan traces his “history”, other examples become more egregious.

One of the more notable examples that may be found of this “presenting of a different doctrine” is with the loss of the understanding of the Old Testament.

My contention in what follows is that the “Tradition” that Bryan Cross is talking about, this “family spread out through many generations” lost some essential meaning – meaning that the Apostles were thoroughly conversant with – and substituted a different kind of meaning.

And further, this “original-meaning-lost-and-incorrectly-substituted-meaning” became the basis for the Roman Catholic understanding of things, which the Reformers rightly rejected.

* * *

According to G.K. Beale (“Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation”, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, ©2012), “One writer has counted 295 separate quotations of the OT in the NT (including quotations with and without formulas). These make up about 4.5% of the entire NT, about 354 verses. Thus 1 out of 22.5 verses in the NT incorporates a quotation.”

But aside from “direct quotation”, there are also innumerable “allusions” to the Old Testament in the New.

An “allusion” may simply be defined as a brief expression consciously intended by an author to be dependent on an OT passage. In contrast to a quotation of the OT, which is a direct reference, allusions are indirect references (the OT wording is not reproduced directly as in a quotation).

The key to discerning an allusion, he says, “is that of recognizing an incomparable or unique parallel in wording, syntax, concept, or cluster of motifs in the same order or structure.

By standards that Beale relates, there may be more than 4,000 “allusions” or “echoes” of the Old Testament found within the New. Given that there are 7956 verses in the New Testament, more than half the New Testament can be seen as bearing at least some form of “echo of” or “allusion to” some Old Testament concept or idea.

Thus, when a New Testament writer talks of “tradition” “handed down (παρέδοσαν) to him by “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word”, which in Luke 1:2 is a clear reference to the apostles, the “content” of that “tradition” was oozing with Old Testament words and concepts.

The problem with Ratzinger’s “subject that lives continually” is that it “forgets over time”, and that is precisely what we see happening: the church gradually forgot and then lost the rich connection with the Old Testament.

For example, Justin Martyr, in his “Dialogue with Trypho”, clearly claims the Old Testament Scriptures for Christians:

For these words have neither been prepared by me, nor embellished by the art of man; but David sung them, Isaiah preached them, Zechariah proclaimed them, and Moses wrote them. Are you acquainted with them, Trypho? They are contained in your Scriptures, or rather not yours, but ours. For we believe them; but you, though you read them, do not catch the spirit that is in them (Chapter 29).

Pelikan notes that while “Origen may … have been the first church father to study Hebrew”, and Jerome “was rightly celebrated ‘as a trilingual man’ for his competence in Latin, Greek and Hebrew” (21), he says “Christian theologians … no longer looked upon the Jewish community as a continuing participant in the holy history that had produced the church. They no longer gave serious consideration to the Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament or to the Jewish Background of the New. Therefore the urgency and the poignancy about the mystery of Israel that are so vivid in the New Testament have appeared only occasionally in Christian thought, as in some passages in Augustine; but these are outweighed, even in Augustine, by the many others that speak of Judaism and paganism almost as though they were equally alien to “the people of God”—the church of Gentile Christians”.

He continues:

But the “de-Judaization of Christianity” was not expressed only by the place accorded to Judaism by Christian theologians. A more subtle and more pervasive effect of this process is evident in the development of various Christian doctrines themselves” (Pelikan 21-22).

In this way, the “church fathers” essentially lost what the Apostles had quite consciously placed into “the Christian tradition”. And as Pelikan says, “it was not until the biblical humanists and the Reformers of the sixteenth century that a knowledge of Hebrew became standard equipment for Christian expositors of the Old Testament (21).

This renewal of emphasis on understanding the Hebrew language as understanding the Old Testament led to a greater and greater understanding of God as a God of “covenant” in the Old Testament.

Meanwhile, what kinds of things were lost by “the church fathers” – Bryan Cross’s “almost two-thousand-year-old family” – which for large sections of time, had simply lost an incredibly large emphasis of what the Apostles gave it?

More to follow on that.

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