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On Scripture and Tradition

The Bible and Tradition, each having its own personal characteristics, function in unison and are never separated. The words of Scripture initiated and inspired the spirituality of the early Christian Church. Indeed, the Bible is considered the supreme expression in word of God’s revelation to the world; it is a living testimony of a lived history about the relationship of a living God with a living people, and is always understood, validated, and interpreted within the Tradition of the Church.[1]

Exegetical method varied from Father to Father but the starting point in Patristic exegesis was always the context of faith (the expression of hope). This living context of faith is ‘incarnated’ by the principal Patristic method of scriptural interpretation called, Typology.[2] Father John Breck, describing the Typological relationship within the ecclesial community said that God is: ‘coordinating historical events in such a way that the fulfillment is continually being realized.’ Within this Typological interpretation, in the third century, the Fathers handed over two ‘schools’ of biblical exegesis: the Alexandrian (Allegorical/ symbolic interpretation of the text)[3] in reaction to Hellenistic Idealism and the Antiochene (historical-literal interpretation and theoria/vision-to illumine the historical)[4] in reaction to the docetists. By the Fourth century these two ‘schools’ of interpretation were ecumenically reconciled from divisions and dilemmas by the Cappadocian Fathers. In later patristic tradition, Scripture was interpreted in accordance with the ‘rule of faith’ and confessed a spiritual/allegorical interpretation. However, the only ‘school’ of biblical interpretation is the ‘rule’ of prayer. St Athanasios of Alexandria in his work, On the Incarnation mentions that: ‘Whoever wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse and purify himself by holiness of life and imitating the saints.’ The context, within which one discovers the spiritual mind, according to the way of the Fathers, is the reading and reliving of Scripture in the Tradition of the Church. For instance, the lectionary of Scripture moves and lives within the rhythm of the liturgy which expresses the living word of God; thus, the Bible is part of Tradition.

The Fathers understood Scripture within the living continuity of the mystical oral Apostolic Tradition. The understanding is that the Spirit dwells in the word, just as it breathes in the Church. Therefore, there are existing doctrines which, while they have never been formally defined by the Church, they constitute its inner conviction and are as binding as any explicit formulation. For example, words, symbols and gestures all form a part of the one Tradition and constitute the framework for the interpretation of Scripture. The reception of the revelation cannot be limited to particular documents or certain times: ‘once delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3), but is directly accessible to each person in the living body of Christ. Subsequently, the message of the Fathers is that, each person is called to encounter truth in a personal way with the theology that is recorded in the Scriptures but relayed to all through the Tradition of the ages.


[1] Traditionally, in their literary and liturgical practice, the Fathers exclusively adopted the Greek Septuagaint. In regard to the New Testament canon, they endorsed the position of Alexandria.

[2] Common to the Fathers of the East and West, Typology sees each passage of Scripture in terms of a double movement: from the historical past (of the event) to the eschatological reality (of the Kingdom), and from the personal present (of the reader) to the historical past (of the text).

[3] Origen (d.254) in his treatise On First Principles said: ‘the Scriptures were composed by the Spirit of God and that they have not only a meaning that is ‘revealed’ but also another that is ‘hidden’ from most people.

[4] Diodore of Tarsus (d.c. 390) explained in his Commentary on the Psalms: ‘we will not rule out a higher meaning or theoria, for history is not opposed to theoria;…it is the basis and substructure of higher insights…it is necessary to understand even the term ‘allegory’…without doing damage to history.’

 

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