‘The Faith Once Delivered to the Saints’: Tradition and Scripture from the Medieval World to Today

By the time the Western Roman Empire fell at the end of the fifth century, ushering in the ‘Middle Ages’, the die had already been cast for roughly the next thousand years of biblical interpretation. This is not, as some have suggested, because the medieval world was devoid of intellectual creativity — the Eastern Empire remained an intellectual force for another thousand years and the West saw wonderful creativity in arts, architecture, and theology during this period. Rather, it was because the medieval world inherited an understanding of the Bible and its interpretation that was wholly embodied in the life and tradition of the Church — a state of affairs that was for the most part satisfactory to interpreters and which few saw any need to challenge. While there was some formalization of techniques for allegorizing and such, for the most part, the Medieval period was content to follow in patristic footsteps. Today I’d like spend some time looking at this approach, which takes the ancient world’s idea of the ‘Rule of Faith’ as an interpretive guide to the next level, making tradition the primary authority for Christian life.

First, let’s remind ourselves of the hermeneutical principles the Ancient Mediterranean world left behind:

  1. The Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit and are expected to continue speaking to the faithful.
  2. Whether one takes a more creative Alexandrian approach, or a more cautious Antiochene approach, the Bible is understood to operate on multiple levels of meaning.
  3. The Scriptures are inseparable from Church tradition. The interpretation of any passage of Scripture must therefore conform to the Rule of Faith, received from the Apostles and preserved by the Bishops, in and through Councils of the Church.

The last of these ideas is the most important for today’s discussion. At its core, this is nothing new; after all, the Rule of Faith was a key interpretive principle from the second century on. But as the length of time between the Scriptures and their readers increased, the more Church tradition there was to guide interpretation — no longer just what the bishops remembered Jesus saying and doing that may not have been recorded in the canonical Gospels, but a whole body of philosophy, spirituality, liturgy, art, and ritual. As St. Athanasius wrote in the third century, “Let us look at the very tradition, teaching, and faith of the catholic church from the very beginning, which the Logos gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers preserved. Upon this the Church is founded” (First Letter to Serapion 28). To some extent, then, it’s not fair to talk about biblical interpretation as a separate discipline at all in the pre-Reformation (or, in the case of the East, the non-Reformation) world, for, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (§78) puts it, “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God.” It is not that the Scriptures are marginalized in this perspective, for the language and life of the community is suffused in the ideas and images of the Bible, but that what the Bible means is, essentially, subsumed into what the Bible has meant throughout history.

So, for example, in the West, the Medieval period saw the emergence of a genre of book called the catena, which is a collection of interpretations of a passage from various Church fathers. Similarly, in the East, when St. Gregory Palamas was defending mystical prayer against its opponents in the fourteenth century, his job was not just to show that it was consistent with the Scriptures, but also that it was consistent with the teachings of people like the Cappadocian Fathers, St. Maximus the Confessor, and St. Symeon the New Theologian. These weren’t seen as different tasks, because the Bible was not understood to be separate from the Church’s tradition. After all, it was for the Church that the Epistles were written, it was in the Church that the stories that eventually became the Gospels were told and re-told, it was among the Church that these books were circulated, and it was the Church that ultimately decided on what was to be in the canon of Scripture and what was not. The Bible did not create the Church; the Church created the Bible. The Bible is therefore the Church’s book through and through and cannot be considered apart from it.

In Eastern Christianity, the absence of anything like a Protestant Reformation has meant that to this day, Eastern Orthodox Christians approach the Bible in much the same way as they did in the fourth, sixth, or fourteenth centuries. We might call this approach, in the words of Orthodox biblical scholar Elena Ene D-Vasilescu, “a closed ‘hermeneutic circle’,” meaning that:

…we approach the Bible to acquire or deepen our faith, yet we do so with a certain level of faith that determines the way we will read the biblical writings. We seek understanding and faith through reading God’s Word; yet we can only truly understand that Word through eyes of faith. Faith depends on the Word; yet proper interpretation of the Word requires faith. (Vasilescu, “Orthodox Christian Approach to the Bible,” quoting John Breck)

Biblical interpretation, including critical studies, can most certainly be undertaken within this framework, but crucially, the Bible cannot be rightly understood by an individual alone, but only in and by the community of faith, that is, the Church. Again quoting Vasilescu, “Tradition provides the hermeneutical perspective by which any biblical writing is to be properly interpreted.”

In the West, such a perspective persisted until the Reformation, which challenged the unity of Scripture and tradition in a way that eventually forced the Roman Catholic Church to define its understanding of the Bible and tradition in stronger terms, over and against Protestant claims. And, what the Church of Rome understood to be part of that Holy Tradition that guided interpretation expanded, so that today the Catechism of the Catholic Church is now an 800-page document, and an official body, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, exists to ensure that Roman Catholic teachers do not stray from the official teachings of the Church. That said, this more officious spirit exists primarily at the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Church and most theologians and biblical interpreters from within that Church would recognize their own understanding of the Scriptures and tradition in the approach articulated by Eastern Orthodox Christians.

To put this perspective on our Integral grid, we see this ‘closed hermeneutical circle’ at play. Neither the individual nor the text in and of itself is in view, as the whole understanding of the Scriptures is subsumed into the bottom half of the grid, which represents the collective. Here, the whole cultural traditions of liturgy and prayer and song and the structural and systemic authorities have more-or-less equal weight.

There is a great deal to love about this approach to the Scriptures as being a vital part of, but not separate from, the Church’s life as a whole. In addition to accurately reflecting the relationship between the Church and the New Testament — that the Scriptures emerged out of the Church and not the other way around — it promotes a beautiful and rich cohesiveness of the faith. Far from marginalizing the Scriptures, worship in the Eastern Orthodox Church often feels like taking a bath in the Scriptures: everything is immersed in biblical images and language. It also recognizes that, as Christians, we don’t approach the Bible as an end in itself, but as a means of better knowing God and ourselves: we don’t come just with our intellects, but with our hearts wide open. And, it understands that we are not alone in this, but do so not only along with all of our brothers and sisters today, but also with countless saints throughout history. If we are all part of the Body of Christ, then it stands to reason that our reading of the Scriptures would be a great harmony of the past and present.

But, this is an idealistic framing of the situation. As my series on the nature of tradition pointed out, tradition is not as stable as we might think; traditions evolve over time, and if we aren’t careful, we might find that our traditions no longer accurately reflect their origins. And, who gets to decide what is ‘faithful’ and what is not? It’s easy to say it’s ‘the bishops’, but of course, bishops often disagreed with one another, and one official Church council could easily cancel out the decrees of another. Both the Eastern and Western Churches insisted that they had faithfully kept the earliest traditions of the Church, and yet by the end of the first thousand years of Christianity, they found they could not understand each other. And by the time of the Renaissance in the West, Church life had developed a complexity that seemed to bear little resemblance to the Church as described in the Bible, a circumstance that ultimately led to the Reformation.

Whatever we may think of it, the ‘closed hermeneutical circle’ of the Medieval world was broken in the West by the Protestant Reformation, which insisted that the Scriptures be not only considered a separate authority from Church tradition, but the sole authority for Christian life. It is to this understanding of the Scriptures and their interpretation that we will turn in the next post in this series.

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