The Place of Holy Tradition, Part I

Sacra Scriptura | Holy Scripture


Within my preliminary essay Principles and Distinctives of Anglican Ceremonial, I included a brief page discussing the Anglican view, as differentiated from the Roman and Eastern view, of Tradition and the role it plays in the framing of doctrine. As this piece has been read by friends and colleagues (to whom I am very grateful) over the past several months, it seems that this one page has received the most inquiry (and criticism). Much to my chagrin, my readers were not so keen to discuss the proper occasion to don the English Surplice or Apparelled-Alb as they were the role of Holy Tradition. As for myself, I am more than happy pouring over the writings of Bl. Dearmer or Fortescue and leaving these topics to my betters. At first, I was content to direct the conversations back to cassocks and candles, however, after several recommendations (read: demands), I have decided to expand upon the brevity of the aforementioned essay in order to provide a well-rounded explanation of the topic. As Chesterton once wrote: “It was perhaps an incautious suggestion to make to a person only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation.”[1] Unlike ol’ G.K., however, I am sure that this little work will not result in a book, but I can promise the reader that it will begin to feel like one well before it reaches its end. It is my hope that it is useful to somebody, and if not, perhaps my readers will once more allow me to discuss the proper color of chasubles and leave these topics to abler theologians; Dr. Meeks or Dr. Parker, perhaps.

My aim is that this essay should serve two functions: The first is educational; I intend to clearly describe the interplay between Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition as it has been received within the English speaking Church from the Apostles. The Second is as an apologia; to serve as a defense for our method of theology. It is this latter intent that has influenced the sources I have provided as proofs. As it would be silly (not to mention self-defeating) to argue that one should affirm the Anglican method simply because the Anglican Divines say so, I have limited my cited authorities to the Holy Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers, both of which are universally recognized by the Catholic Church and are not particular to our own Apostolic Branch. This is not to say that I will not reference our Divines at all, but simply that such references will not be in-depth. For examples of the harmony between the doctrine taught by our own Divines and the Fathers, see my aforementioned essay, or, for a better scholarship, the Venerable Archdeacon Welchman’s Notes on the XXXIX Articles of the Church of England. To see the harmony between our doctrines themselves, the Book of Homilies printed by Nashotah House Press is an excellent resource containing a plethora of references to other authoritative Anglican Documents, and is intended to demonstrate the agreement between the authors of the Homilies and other pillars of our tradition. So then, this essay is not to show the consistency of Anglican belief, nor is it to prove outright the harmony between Anglican particulars and the writings of the Fathers. Rather, I endeavor to give a sketch of the Patristic understanding of Holy Tradition, and it is to be taken for granted by the reader that the method of the Fathers and our own Divines are in fact the same. Any foray into the writings of Jewel or Hooker (to name only two) will prove my case, their exclusion from this essay is simply for brevity.

  1. Sola Scriptura

“Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”[2]

Article VI

The Articles here cement the primacy of Holy Scripture in matters of Faith. In times past, this doctrine would have been known by the Reformational title of Sola Scriptura (“Scripture Alone”), but sadly due to abuse within the Protestant fold, it has become common within the Anglican world to refer to the doctrine as Prima Scriptura, or the “Primacy of Scripture.” It should be noted, however, that the primitive doctrine of Sola Scriptura championed by the Reformers is really the same as this new Prima Scriptura. There are benefits and draw-backs to each term, and both often require their own caveats. The first has often been used to exclude Holy Tradition, and the latter to challenge the sufficiency of Holy Scripture. One removes, the other adds, and both extremes fail. Whichever term is used (I will be using the traditional, Reformed term) is fine, so long as it is understood through the lense of Article VI quoted above. Holy Scripture has its own proper and distinct function within the economy of Grace, but its alone-ness does not exclude other means of grace in conjunction with it. Just as Faith Alone does not exclude Grace Alone within the Protestant schema. Likewise, its place of “primacy” working in harmony with other authorities does not negate its sufficiency and exclusivity within its own sphere, which the Articles have informed us are those things “requisite or necessary to salvation.” That being said, one will notice that both terms presuppose a tradition. They give an explanation of the role of Holy Scripture in dialogue with this “tradition.” Were there not a tradition, there would be no need to safeguard Holy Scripture with such doctrines. For example, if one were to say “scripture is the only real authority,” what the speaker has done is inform us of other false or derivative authorities in relationship to scripture, and that we ought not to confuse them. So too is it with anyone who says “scripture is the highest authority.” In doing so they have told us that there are other lesser authorities beneath that of Holy Scripture. Both the Reformed and the Counter-Reformed have really shown us the same thing: that there is, in fact, another. This other we give the title of “tradition.” Whatever the Churchmanship, then, we may begin our discussion on tradition with Holy Scripture. We may determine Scripture’s strengths and shortcomings. We must define it. Once a space is carved out for it, the place of tradition is readily discernible. And this, as an unabashed Protestant, I am more than eager to do! Or more precisely, I am eager to present what the Church has always professed, She can speak for Herself after all. It seems to me that the best methodology for such an endeavor is a leisurely jaunt through the writings of the Fathers until a consensus is found among them.

But before this, it is not lost on me that, at first glance, an appeal to the Fathers as to the proper place of Holy Scripture seemingly answers the question already. Such an appeal may appear to mean that Holy Tradition is superior to (or encompassing), or equivalent in authority to the Biblical texts. On the contrary! The first position is that of the Eastern Orthodox and the latter is the position of the Roman Catholic. Both of these views will be treated in turn later on (in following essays), but for now it is simply maintained that neither of these are compatible with the Anglican (and as will be argued here, Patristic) understanding of the Holy Scriptures. Both Romanism and Photianism miss the mark. So then, the question still remains: how is it not self-defeating to turn to the writings of the Fathers in order to prove the exclusivity of Scripture (Sola Scriptura)? The best explanation I have is by way of a simile: The writings of the Fathers are like a manual. An instruction manual is made for the mechanism, not the mechanism for the manual. For example, the manual is only useful insofar as it accurately reflects the mechanism. It derives its handiness, in fact its truthfulness, only so long as it is in accord with the thing it is describing. It is written by someone familiar with the features of the thing, but its descriptions do not impose features onto the thing. If the manual were to say one thing, and the mechanism to function another, it is the manual that is in error. It is entirely subservient and beholden to what it is describing, and only valuable in so far as it captures the reality of that thing. The potentiality of all that the manual describes is already within the mechanism. It is entirely sufficient without the manual, the manual merely brings ‘it’ to the fore. But in order to do right by Sacred Tradition, we cannot not stop here. We must think of it as a living manual. Put another way: Sacred Tradition is itself a kind of mechanism, say a child’s toy, which includes instructions on the item. A toy may say “insert batteries here,” or something of the like. This toy tells you how to use the batteries, exactly where to place them, but entirely because it is dependent on those batteries. The toy has other functions all its own apart from these descriptions, but because it requires those batteries it also includes a detailed step-by-step description of what to do with them. It is a description by way of need, not by superiority or equality. The life of the mechanism is found within the batteries; the life of tradition is found within Scripture. It is because that toy needs that life that it takes pains to tell you exactly what to do with those batteries. It is a self-seeking description. These examples are of course imperfect, but they ought to be sufficient enough to prove that using Ecclesiastical History and Sacred Tradition as a means of evaluating Holy Scripture and its role within the life of the Church does not necessarily place it as an authority above, or alongside, the Bible. Rather, the exact opposite argument can be made, and has been made, concerning the inferiority of Holy Tradition. The Martyred (and Saintly) Archbishop William Laud writes:

“For it may be further asked, Why should we believe the Church’s Tradition? And if it be answered, We may believe, Because the Church is infallibly governed by the Holy Ghost; it may yet be demanded of you, How that may appear? And if this be demanded, either you must say, you have it by special Revelation, which is the private Spirit you object to other men, or else you must attempt to prove it by Scripture, as all of you [Romans] do. And that very offer, to prove it out of Scripture, is a sufficient acknowledgment, that the Scripture is a higher proof, than the Church’s Tradition…”[3]

So then, let no one think that by appealing to the Fathers, we (the English tradition) have forfeited the debate. Rather, the Fathers and reason (let alone Scripture itself) prove the point beyond the shadow of a doubt. For those still skeptical of this methodology, I would direct you to the works of John Jewel. The Bishop of Salisbury is incomparably capable of arguing all manner of doctrines from the Fathers alone, and this was the key to his exceptional success as an apologist.

  1. The Need for Revelation

“Our gracious Queen; we present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords. Here is Wisdom; this is the Royal Law; these are the lively Oracles of God. Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this Book; that keep and do the things contained in it. For these are the words of eternal life, able to make you wise and happy in this world, nay wise unto salvation, and so happy for evermore, through faith which is in Christ Jesus: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.”

The Coronation Service

There is no disputing the fact that from the first, the writings of the Fathers carry with them a kind of Apostolic simplicity which is comparable to the Bible itself; a form that, in my humble opinion, is best demonstrated by St. Irenaeus’ Apostolic Preaching. This rather brief book was intended to express the essence of the Apostolic witness. What is fascinating to the modern reader is that St. Irenaeus does so simply by providing a digest of Biblical texts. To St. Irenaeus, that which is apostolic is that which is found within Holy Scripture. This work is only one example, of course, and it would not be prudent to rest my case for Sola Scriptura upon expressions of a doctrine, or descriptions of it in action, rather than its prescriptions from authoritative sources. Still, if anyone would like an accessible work in order to witness the Apostolic use of Sacred Scripture, I point them to the Apostolic Preaching.[4] This work does not stand alone, however. As is true of all volumes, it is simply a testament to the works of the Authors whose sayings surround it. So then if this method is by no means novel, we are all the more prompted why? When inquiring into the Divine, why does St. Irenaeus simply provide us with Scripture? The answer becomes evident by exploring those same authors who make up this early period in Christian History. Lord willing, the following will provide insight.

St. Justin was born some 70 years after Our Lord’s ascension. Being a Greek Philosopher, his conversion to the faith is quite peculiar when contrasted with the experiences of, say, St. Paul. As St. Justin himself tells us in his Dialogue, it is reason that ultimately pushed the Philosopher Saint into the bosom of the Church. But what is fascinating is the dependence upon revelation that reason demanded of him, and a particular revelation at that. Having exhausted the capabilities of human intellectualism, traversing Stoicism, Peripateticism (Aristotelianism), Pythagoreanism, and Platonism, St. Justin exclaimed: “Should any one, then, employ a teacher? Or whence may any one be helped, if not even in them there is truth?”[5] If God is ineffable, and reason has indicated that He is, how then is He to be approached? If He, as Hindu Philosophy asserts, is neti neti[6], where is He to be found? How is He described? What hope does the human intellect have in scaling the heights of the Divine? For St. Justin, the answer comes from the mouth of an unidentified elderly gentleman: “There existed, long before this time, certain men more ancient than all those who are esteemed philosophers, both righteous and beloved by God, who spoke by the Divine Spirit.” The Almighty, the “lover of Mankind,”[7] in His infinite goodness has condescended to us who, by our own finality, could not reach up to grasp Him, and He has done so in the writings of those who spoke by Divine Authority: the prophets! These inspired writings, the Scriptures, serve as a bridge between the Absolute and the finite. St. Justin writes:

“Straightaway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me; and while revolving his words in my mind, I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable… If, then, you have any concern for yourself, and if you are eagerly looking for salvation, and if you believe in God, you may— since you are not indifferent to the matter — become acquainted with the Christ of God, and, after being initiated, live a happy life.”[8]

This dependence on revelation is the bedrock of the Christian Faith. To understand it fully we must remember that, as St. Justin testifies, reason is a supreme gift of God. It is regia proles (“born of royalty”) according to Bishop Andrewes.[9] King Solomon calls it the “the lamp of the Lord” capable of “searching all innermost parts.” (Proverbs 20:27) It is the fist of the duplex cognitio Dei,[10] and yet, alone it is not capable of producing a saving faith within the hearts of Men. Reason is sufficient enough to tell Man that there is a God, but not to discover who He is. Perhaps only “the fool says in his heart, there is no God” (Psalm 14:1), but the wise will still never know His Person(s) sola ratio.[11] This is precisely St. Justin’s dilemma: the human condition needs another, something beyond what is innate to itself. But the sheer magnitude of this need is not fully realized until the aforementioned grandeur of human reason is taken into account: It is more than likely that the reader at one point or another has witnessed the famous Pale Blue Dot photo taken by Voyager 1 on February 14th, 1990. Many will recall that this photograph shows the earth as nothing greater than a grain of sand floating about in the cosmos. I can recall the feeling of helplessness that swept over me the first time the Voyager’s masterpiece illuminated the dingy projector screen in my High School Earth Science class. It was the same tingling sensation I experienced while reading St. Julian of Norwich’s infamous hazelnut vision. She wrote:

“Also in this He [God] showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazelnut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with the eye of my understanding, and thought: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: it is all that is made. I marvelled at how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for littleness.”[12]

The realization of our own finiteness is only as impactful as our perceived grandeur. Describing the earth as a “pale blue dot” is only meaningful to someone who has witnessed its vastness. The Lady Julian’s vision of the universe, “all that is made,” consisting of nothing more than a hazelnut in the palm of (presumably) God’s hand only produces a sense of Lovcraftian cosmic-horror when considered by those of us who reside within it; who think it large. These are both ample analogies for how we must perceive the gap between human frailty and the knowledge of the Divine. It is the greatness of human reason that allows us to taste the true nature of our sorry estate. If even it fails, then surely we are hopeless. If the blazing light of reason is too dim to cast even a shadow of God, what hope do we have of seeing Him as He is? He who has made “darkness his covering?”[13] It is when we reach the peak of human capability that the necessity of Divine intervention, of Grace, is realized. The greater the capabilities, the greater the gap must be between the two parties. This is what St. Justin informs us. If Man is to know God, there is a necessary initiation on God’s part that must take place. St. Hippolytus of Rome summarizes this point nicely:

There is, brethren, one God, the knowledge of whom we gain from the Holy Scriptures, and from no other source. For just as a man, if he wishes to be skilled in the wisdom of this world, will find himself unable to get at it in any other way than by mastering the dogmas of philosophers, so all of us who wish to practice piety will be unable to learn its practice from any other quarter than the oracles of God. Whatever things, then, the Holy Scriptures declare, at these let us look; and whatsoever things they teach, these let us learn; and as the Father wills our belief to be, let us believe; and as He wills the Son to be glorified, let us glorify Him; and as He wills the Holy Spirit to be bestowed, let us receive Him. Not according to our own will, nor according to our own mind, nor yet as using violently those things which are given by God, but even as He has chosen to teach them by the Holy Scriptures, so let us discern them.”[14]

While Philosophy left St. Justin stranded with no knowledge of the Almighty, our father Abraham knew God as friend (Isaiah 41:8, James 2:23), our teacher Moses saw Him “face to face” (Exodus 33:11), and Samuel the Prophet heard His voice (1 Samuel 3). “There are more things in heaven and earth” writes the Bard, “than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”[15] Plato, Aristote, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Adi Shankaracharya, Kant, etc. in all their mental fortitude could never hope to progress one iota the distance that our God has descended in the Divine Scriptures. This is revelation: to know God. We must keep this in mind when discussing the Bible: we are speaking of Almighty God’s self-disclosure; we are handling Divine Immanence.

  1. Scripture’s ‘Sacramental Ontology’

In the same aforementioned essay I pointed out that though firmly Protestant (à la Dom Dix) the driving force behind a good deal of the Church of England’s Reformed Liturgy and ritual had to do with its commitment to Catholicity. Primarily I was speaking of the ‘real presence’ of Christ in the Scriptures. It is no small matter that the primary devotion of Post-Reformation England consisted of hearing the preached Word. Our Formularies tell us why:

In the second of Luke it is written, how that the mother of Christ, and Joseph, when they had long sought Christ, whom they had lost, and could find him nowhere, that at the last they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors (Luke 2:46). So if we lack Jesus Christ, that is to say, the Savior of our souls and bodies, we shall not find him in the marketplace, or in the guildhall, much less in the alehouse or tavern amongst good fellows (as they call them) so soon as we shall find him in the temple, the Lord’s house, amongst the teachers and preachers of his word, where indeed he is to be found.”[16]

Our Lord always showed Himself quite at home among the teachers of the Law, and we have no reason to suspect that he has ceased in making Himself present wherever the Preached Word is to be found. Once more the Formularies (rhetorically) teach us:

“Yea, why will we not learn it is at Christ’s own mouth, who, promising to be present with his church till the world’s end (Matthew 28:20), doth perform his promise, in that he is not only with us by his grace and tender pity; but also in this, that he speaketh presently unto us in the Holy Scriptures, to the great and endless comfort of all them that have any feeling of God at all in them?”[17]

Not only by His “grace,” says the Homily, is our Lord with us, that is I suppose to be the Sacrament and our mystical union with Him, but Christ likewise makes Himself manifest through the Scriptures! The Homily goes on to argue that the Christian possesses a closer proximity to Christ when the Word is preached than the very Jews who heard Him teach in their midst. They had no understanding of what He was saying, but we who are in Christ, have an abundance of understanding when we open up the Scriptures. We hear his voice in a truer sense than those who received it from His own lips. What’s more, the self-presentation of Christ in Holy Writ is to be prefered even over relics! Now I am aware that for some this may seem outrageous, and frankly it’s meant to, but that is precisely the profundity. “If one could show but the print of Christ’s foot, a great number, I think, would fall down and worship it: but to the Holy Scriptures, where we may see daily, if we will, I will not see the print of his feet only, but the whole shape and a lively image of him.” Supposing a legitimate relic is of some value, it is only a piece of Christ, or scarcely even that. But Holy Scripture! It offers to the Christian the entire Christ. Where a thorn or a splinter of wood may demonstrate a sliver’s shadow of the Crucified Lord, Holy Scripture manifests the living and Glorified Christ. If one were to obtain Christ’s coat, it could at best present His shape to the senses, and yet, many would travel day and night just to glimpse it. The Scriptures, however, give His entire form, both His Divinity and true Humanity. For this superior gift, scarcely anyone can be bothered to wake early enough to crack open the Divine Scriptures. All pales in comparison to the presence of Christ available through the sacred page. The rarest of holy relics, icons of “stone and wood” gilded with precious metals, even Notre Dame’s famed Rose Window, are no match in quality to the Oracles of God:

“The image can but express the form or shape of his body, if it can do even that: but the Scripture doth in such sort set forth Christ, that we may see him both God and man; we may see him, I say, speaking unto us, healing our infirmities, dying for our sins, rising from death for our justification. And to be short, we may in the Scriptures so perfectly see whole Christ with the eye of faith, as we, lacking faith, could not with these bodily eyes see him, though he stood now present here before us”[18]

Now, this concept is not at all novel. It is new neither now nor at the time of the Reformation. The genuine sacramentality of the Scriptures have been long established within Christian Thought, though perhaps forgotten at times. It is wonderful that there is a renewed interest in such thought among contemporary theologians. Dr. Hans Boersma’s work is excellent on this matter, especially his magnificent book Scripture as Real Presence. In chapter 5 of this work Dr. Boersma describes three “incarnations” of the Logos[19] as understood in the Father Origen’s thought. The first incarnation is, of course, the incarnation of our Lord in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary: Jesus Christ the theanthropos (“God-Man”). The second incarnation is that of the Divine Scriptures! Though Boersma goes on to describe a third incarnation of the Logos in the soul of the Christian (and a fourth Ecclesiasical incarnation in the Church), it is really this second incarnation which matters to us presently. The first incarnation is the logos anthropos (“Human Word”) or logos sarx (“Fleshly Word”), according to early Christian Christologies, and the second incarnation, the Holy Scriptures, are the logos prophorikos (“Spoken Word”). Both are manifestations of what Francis J. Hall would term “the mystery of identification.” They are both “identified” with the Eternal Logos. Though we may argue about how scripture is identified with the Word or Logos, and how we answer this question may determine our understanding of what kind of presence Christ manifests in the Scriptures, but because there is a real identification, there is a real presence. Or, to quote Robert Daly, there is a “real incarnation and hence ‘real presence’ of the eternal Word in the Scriptures.”[20] Thus when we receive the Scriptures, we receive Christ Himself. This is why Origen can write:

But we are said to drink the blood of Christ not only in the rite of the sacraments,[21] but also when we receive his words, in which are life, as he himself says: “The words that I have spoken are spirit and life.” Thus, he himself was wounded, whose blood we drink, that is, we receive the words of his teaching. Moreover, they are no less wounded who have preached his word to us. For when we read their words, that is, the words of his apostles, and when we attain to life from them, we are “drinking the blood of the wounded.”[22]

Likewise, St. Jerome matter of factly teaches: “When we hear the word of God, the flesh of Christ, and his blood, is poured into our ears.”[23] Even Eusebius states: “know well that ‘the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life,’ so that the words themselves and the statements themselves are the flesh and blood; he who partakes of them always, feeding as it were on heavenly bread, will have a share in the life of heaven.”[24] For many these statements are immediately recognized as containing ‘sacramental’ language. This is precisely because Scripture (according to the Fathers) is Sacramental. The Word Written possesses a Sacramental Ontology.[25] All Sacraments are a composite of two things: an outward and visible sign, and an inward and invisible grace.[26] In Holy Scripture we have the outward, “literal,” text. United to this text is the Eternal Logos, the Divine Word, Christ, who is received as the text is received. As one of our Divines put it: “Christ is the pearl of the ring, Christ is the object, the center wherein all those lines end: take away Christ, — what remains? Therefore, in the whole scriptures let us see that we have an eye to Christ; all is nothing, but Christ.”[27] Thus when the Fathers speak of Scripture, it is assumed that the words of the text are in fact the words of God Himself. When quoting the Old Testament, St. Clement of Rome writes “the Holy Spirit says…”[28] St. Clement of Alexandria refers to Holy Scripture as the speaking of the Holy Ghost.[29] According to St. Cyprian, when Malachi the prophet speaks it is “the Holy Spirit” who “declares.”[30] St. Augustine goes so far as to say that it is not only the Spirit who speaks in the words of the Prophets, but it is He who even operates in the act of translation. In arguing for the preference of the Greek Septuigent, the Bishop of Hippo states that “the same Spirit who was in the prophets when they spoke these things was also in the seventy men when they translated them.”[31] Finally, our Creed declares that the Holy Spirit spoke “through the prophets.” This is why (as will be shown shortly hereafter) for the Fathers, Holy Scripture’s “teaching finally decided truth and duty.”[32] They are ‘literally’ the words of God just as surely as the Eucharist is ‘literally’ the Body and Blood of our Lord.

  1. The Monastics on Scripture

Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent

Penultimately, strange as it may sound, the Monastic Community is of great importance to any historical inquiry into Biblical Authority. Were it not for the dedicated Religious throughout Christendom, there would be no Bible to speak of in the first place. It is only proper that those who secured for us the writings of the Prophets and Apostles ought to instruct us in how to read them. Likewise, if Ratzinger is correct, and I believe that he is, “The saints are the true interpreters of Holy Scripture. The meaning of a given passage of the Bible becomes most intelligible in those human beings who have been totally transfixed by it and have lived it out. Interpretation of Scripture can never be a purely academic affair, and it cannot be relegated to the purely historical. Scripture is full of potential for the future, a potential that can only be opened up when someone ‘lives through’ and ‘suffers through’ the sacred text.”[33] Ratzinger goes on to give examples from the life of St. Francis of Assisi; this is because there are few lives that have been as transformed by the words of the Gospel than those residing within the Monastic Community. From the very beginning the Religious saturated themselves with the reading of Holy Scripture. The Rule of St. Pachomius, perhaps the first Monastic Rule in Christian history,[34] makes this abundantly clear.[35] “In Pachomius’ communities the monks were expected to recite memorised biblical texts, a process called meletē (study or exercise) in Greek. In Latin translations of this practice, the word meditatio (meditation) is used. This was not just a mindful recitation but was often done aloud in order ‘to create an atmosphere conducive to prayer.’” Likewise, “Pachomius’ monks were also expected to recite Scripture while working and fulfilling community responsibilities.”[36] St. Pachomius writes: “There shall be no one whatsoever in the monastery who does not learn to read and does not memorize something of the Scriptures. [One should learn by heart] at least the New Testament and the Psalter,”[37] and “Let us devote ourselves to reading and learning the Scriptures, reciting them constantly.”[38] St. Pachomius’ community being only one example, it is no secret that the early (and even later) monks were inseparable from the Written Word. So then, following Ratzinger’s advice, let us examine the writings of the Monastic Fathers before diving headlong into several others of the Church’s greatest thinkers.

We begin with St. Anthony the Great, who is widely (and falsely) purported to have been the first monk: St. Anthony is one of the Church’s most impactful teachers. It was his biography, written by St. Athanasius, which fostered St. Augustine’s dramatic conversion to the faith. St. Augustine tells us in his Confessions that Anthony (Antony) one day entered into a Church at the reading of the Gospel and heard: “sell all that you have and give it to the poor” (Matthew 19:21). It was this exhortation of Our Lord that caused St. Anthony to take to the desert and dedicate himself to the life of prayer and fasting. In a similar manner, while reading this account, it was St. Anthony’s zeal which pushed St. Augustine to once more open the Scriptures (Romans 13:13-14 to be exact) and there find Salvation. The reader may have already assumed that if this man Anthony was driven into a life of willful exile from the world by the strength of a single sentence from Our Lord’s lips, then surely he must have some lofty things to say about Scripture’s authority. Such an assumption would be correct! It is recorded that “the brethren came to Abba Anthony and said to him, ‘Speak a word; how are we to be saved?’ The old man said to them, ‘You have heard the Scriptures. That should teach you how.’”[39] Elsewhere he teaches: “whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the Holy Scriptures.” And again he instructs: “observe the traditions of the fathers, and chiefly the holy faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, which you have learned from the Scripture, and of which you have often been put in mind by me.”[40] It would seem then that St. Anthony, the ‘proto-monk,’ is in agreement with Article VI of our confession. It is simply assumed by the Desert Father that what is necessary for salvation is readably found within the Scriptures. The faith of the Church, the salvation of the Christian, is present in its entirety within the Bible. But this is really only the beginning of the Monastic Tradition. Many such teachings are brought to light within the writings who have followed St. Anthony’s ascetic path.

Echoing Abba Anthony, St. Epiphanius of Cyprus warns: “It is a great treachery to salvation to know nothing of the divine law,” and “Ignorance of the Scriptures is a precipice and a deep abyss.”[41] St. Benedict, the “Father of Western Monasticism,” writes: “For what page or phrase of divine authority of the Old and New Testament is not the straightest norm for the human life?”[42] And the elders used to say: “This is what God requires of Christians: that one be obedient to the Holy Scriptures, practising what is read…”[43] and “meditating on the Holy Scriptures is good for the man against the onslaught of the demons.”[44] One Brother asked his elder on how he learned the art of contemplation, the elder replied: ‘The Scriptures revealed how.”[45] St. John of Damascus, the “Golden Speaker” writes:

“Moreover, by the Law and the Prophets in former times and afterwards by His Only-begotten Son, our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, He disclosed to us the knowledge of Himself as that was possible for us. All things, therefore, that have been delivered to us by Law and Prophets and Apostles and Evangelists we receive, and know, and honour, seeking for nothing beyond these.[46]

This is the beginning of his famed An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. When outlining where the Faith of the Church is derived, St. Damascene informs us that we do not go looking beyond Scripture. He writes later in the same book: “For just as the tree planted by the channels of waters, so also the soul watered by the divine Scripture is enriched and gives fruit in its season, viz. orthodox belief, and is adorned with evergreen leafage, I mean, actions pleasing to God.” The soul watered by Holy Scripture produces Orthodox Belief: the faith of the Church is wrought in the soul of the one who studies the Scriptures! This entire passage of St. John’s is marvelous and is perhaps one of the greatest exhortations to the study of scripture, rivaling even that of our own Homilies. He continues: “[The Holy Scripture] sets our mind on the gold-gleaming, brilliant back of the divine dove, whose bright pinions bear up to the only-begotten Son and Heir of the Husbandman (Matthew 21:37) of that spiritual Vineyard and bring us through Him to the Father of Lights. (James 1:17)”[47] As St. Justin, St. Hippolytus, and Origen have already told us, the Divine Scriptures present to us the Triune God. According to St. John, through them is the work of the Holy Spirit revealed. It is this movement of the Paraclete which brings us to the Son, through whom we are brought to the Father of Lights. In this famous Byzantine summary of the Orthodox Faith, we are instructed to look no further than the Holy Scriptures, as they alone produce right belief, right action, and they, through the work of Undivided Trinity, bring the baptized into the very presence of God.

So pervasive is this idea among the monastic authors that even St. Thomas Aquinas, who is by no means counted among the Fathers of the Church, writes:

“Nevertheless, sacred doctrine makes use of these authorities [Philosophers/Theologians] as extrinsic and probable arguments; but properly uses the authority of the canonical Scriptures as an incontrovertible proof, and the authority of the doctors of the Church as one that may properly be used, yet merely as probable. For our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books, and not on the revelations (if any such there are) made to other doctors.”[48]

If these examples are not enough to support the Reformed Catholic position, if the point has not been exhausted already, (Lord willing) the following catenæ patrum surely will.

  1. A Catena: The Fathers in Their Own Words

“[I]n them [the Scriptures] be abundantly and fully comprehended all things, whatsoever be needful for our salvation, as Origen, Augustine, Chrysostom, and Cyrillus have taught: that they be the very might and strength of God to attain to salvation”[49]

Apologia ecclesiae Anglicanae

The Father Origen writes in his Principles: “either those [doctrines] which he has discovered in holy Scripture, or which he has deduced by closely tracing out the consequences and following a correct method [i.e. Reason],”[50] out to be used in the framing of doctrine; and, “in conformity with our belief in that doctrine, which we assuredly hold to be divinely inspired, believe that it is possible in no other way to explain and bring within the reach of human knowledge this higher and diviner reason as the Son of God, than by means of those Scriptures alone which were inspired by the Holy Spirit, i.e., the Gospels and Epistles, and the law and the prophets, according to the declaration of Christ Himself.”[51] In his Commentary on Leviticus he adds: “But if something ‘has been left over,’ that the divine Scripture does not discern, no other third scripture ought to be received as an authority of knowledge.”[52] Thus Holy Scripture is the beginning and end of our inquiry into the Divine and our only primary aid in theological endeavors.

Holy Athanasius, the “Defender of Orthodoxy” declares: “The holy and divinely-inspired Scriptures are of themselves sufficient to the enunciation of truth”[53] Likewise, in the famed pastoral letter wherein he gave the (first ever) listing of the New Testament Canon, St. Athanasius writes: “These [Holy Scripture] are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take away from these. For concerning these the Lord put to shame the Sadducees, and said, ‘You err, not knowing the Scriptures.’ And He reproved the Jews, saying, ‘Search the Scriptures, for these are they that testify of Me (Matthew 22:29, John 5:39).”[54] Once more then, the entirety of Christian Doctrine is found in Holy Scripture, and it alone teaches godliness.

Concerning virtues St. Basil the Great informs us that “The study of inspired Scripture is the chief way of finding our duty, for in it we find both instruction about conduct and the lives of blessed men, delivered in writing, as some breathing images of godly living, for the imitation of their good works,”[55] and for vices we “might indeed find many remedies for evil in Scripture, many medicines to save from destruction and lead to health”[56]

St. Cyril writes: “For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell you these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.”[57]; “For the articles of the Faith [the Creed] were not composed as seemed good to men; but the most important points collected out of all the Scripture make up one complete teaching of the Faith. And just as the mustard seed in one small grain contains many branches, so also this Faith has embraced in few words all the knowledge of godliness in the Old and New Testaments.”[58]

St. Ambrose asks: “Would you know what is the nature of the Word? — hear the Scriptures”[59] and “read all the Scriptures, mark all diligently, you will then find that Christ so manifested Himself that God might be discerned in man.”[60] Concerning human wisdom: “we are instructed and taught that what is seemly is put in our Scriptures” before they are included in the works of the Philosophers,[61] and therefore it is a “good thing for us to be bedewed with the exhortations of the divine Scriptures, and that the word of God should come down upon us like the dew.”[62] On this point, the scriptures are so full that he proclaims: “O the great fullness of the Scriptures, which no one can comprehend with human genius!”[63] And to the Emperor declares: “On consideration, your Majesty, of the reason wherefore men have so far gone astray, or that many — alas!— should follow diverse ways of belief concerning the Son of God, the marvel seems to be, not at all that human knowledge has been baffled in dealing with superhuman things, but that it has not submitted to the authority of the Scriptures.”[64]

The Holy Theodoret writes: “You shall receive no argument unconfirmed by Holy Scripture, and if you bring me any solution of the question deduced from Holy Scripture I will receive it, and will in no wise gainsay it,”[65] and “we have learned the rule of dogma from the divine Scripture.”[66]

St. Hilary of Poitiers teaches: “it is well with you if you be satisfied with the written word”[67] and he commends Emperor Constantine for “desiring the Faith to be ordered only according to those things that be written.”[68] St. Hilary goes on to explain: “it is obvious that these dissensions concerning the faith result from a distorted mind, which twists the words of Scripture into conformity with its opinion, instead of adjusting that opinion to the words of Scripture.”[69] Thus to St. Hilary, not only is the faith derived from Holy Scripture, that we ought to be satisfied with Holy Scripture, but that heresies are chiefly a result of ignorances thereof.

St. Chrysostom says: “whatsoever is required to salvation of man, is fully contained in the Scripture of God. He that is ignorant may there learn and have knowledge. He that is hard hearted, and an obstinate sinner, shall there find everlasting torments, prepared of God’s justice, to make him afraid, and to mollify or soften him. He that is oppressed with misery in the world shall there find relief in the promise of everlasting life, to his great consolation and comfort. He that is wounded by the Devil unto death shall find there medicine, whereby he may be restored again unto health. If it shall be requisite to teach any truth, or reprove false doctrine, to rebuke any vice, to command any virtue, to give good counsel, to comfort, to exhort, or to do any other thing requisite for our salvation; all those things we may learn plentifully of the Scripture.”[70]

“There is,” writes St. Fulgentius, “abundantly enough, both for men to eat and infants to suckle. There is whatsoever is meet for all ages, and for all degrees and sorts of men,” Likewise does St. Augustine say: “by the Scriptures men are amended, weak men are strengthened, and strong men are comforted”. [71]

St. Clement of Alexandria writes: “But those who are ready to toil in the most excellent pursuits, will not desist from the search after truth, till they get the demonstration from the Scriptures themselves.”[72] And again in the same chapter: “For we have, as the source of teaching, the Lord, both by the prophets, the Gospel, and the blessed apostles, in various manners and at sundry times, (Hebrews 1:1) leading from the beginning of knowledge to the end.”

Finally the Second Council of Constantinople declares concerning the Council of Jerusalem: “And to this end we brought to his remembrance the great examples left us by the Apostles, and the traditions of the Fathers. For although the grace of the Holy Spirit abounded in each one of the Apostles, so that no one of them needed the counsel of another in the execution of his work, yet they were not willing to define on the question then raised touching the circumcision of the Gentiles, until being gathered together they had confirmed their own several sayings by the testimony of the divine Scriptures.”[73] According to the council, not even an ecumenical council attended by the Apostles themselves would have been sufficient without first consulting the Scriptures and confirming said statement thereby. St. Luke tells us in Acts 15:28 that the Apostles taught what “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us”. Thus, according to Constantinople II, this confirmation of the Holy Spirit, what “seemed good” to Him, was deduced by inquiring into Holy Scripture.

  1. Conclusion

So then in conclusion, we have seen that the need for Holy Scripture is none other than the need for Revelation; a need that is quickly recognized within any serious musing on the Divine. We have also seen that as revelation, Holy Scripture is none other than the self-presentation of God, the Divine Logos, to the human mind. It is gracious condescension. Thus when Scripture speaks, God speaks. To receive the words of the Canon is to receive the Word of God. We then explored what those whose lives had been most transfixed by the Word of God, the Monastic Community, had to say about Holy Scripture. Finally, we witnessed what lofty things the greater patristic tradition had to say about the Bible. In reality, the quotes provided here are miniscule. In my studies I have encountered far more, but including them all would have proven tiresom. This is really all nothing more than the beginning of the discussion. I also understand that my methodology is novel. I have provided a list of better authorities for those who may provide a more traditional explanation of the topic for those who would prefer it to the outline that I have made available here. Finally, it ought to be pointed out that we have yet to dive into Tradition proper, its place, or its use and presence within Anglicanism. All that has been established is that the Holy Scriptures are the primary mode of Divine Revelation. Because of this they contain all that is necessary for salvation, whether belief or practice -or so the Fathers abundantly teach. One thing that can be said for certain is that by no means can Scripture be subjugated to the Church’s tradition. In a following piece, I intend to trace the patristic use of “Tradition,” and its relationship to the supremacy of Scripture outlined above. From here I will distinguish the Patristic (and Anglican) view from that of the Roman and Eastern views. I believe once all of this is done, and all four sections written, the topic will have been sufficiently put to rest.

Pactum serva.

Further Reading:

  1. The Books of Homilies,
    1. A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading of Holy Scripture
    2. For them that Take Offense at Certain Places of Scripture
  2. Archbishop William Laud, Against Fisher, §16
  3. Archbishop James Ussher, Answer to a Jesuit, Chapter II.
  4. Jeremy Taylor,
    1. Dissent from Popery, 2.1.2
    2. Rule of Conscience, 2.2
  5. Bishop Edward Browne, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, Article VI
  6. E.J. Bicknell, A Theological Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles, Article VI


  1. Orthodoxy, Chapter 1
  2. Article VI
  3. Archbishop William Laud, Against Fisher, §16
  4. For a similar example of English patrimony, I direct the reader to the Confessions of St. Patrick. Though autobiographical, it is saturated with Scripture. It is readily discernible that St. Patrick’s chief theological reference was the Bible.
  5. St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter VII
  6. नेति नेति, “neither this nor that” – a classical expression of the via negativa within the Indian Tradition
  7. Liturgies of Sts. James & Mark
  8. St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter VIII
  9. Lancelot Andrewes, Private Devotions,
  10. “Twofold knowledge of God” or “two ways of knowing God”, Reason being one and Scripture another.
  11. “Through reason alone”
  12. Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter V
  13. Psalm 18:11.
  14. St. Hippolytus, Against Noetus, §9 (Emphasis my own)
  15. William Shakespeare, Hamlet , Act I, Scene 5.
  16. A Homily of the Right Use of the Church
  17. For them that Take Offense at Certain Places of Scripture
  18. Ibid
  19. For those unaware, the “Logos” is Divine Reason, or “Word” which St. John tells us is Christ in John 1:1
  20. Robert Daley, Origen: Spirit and Fire”, Foreword. Quoted from Boresma’s Scripture as Real Presence, pg. 119
  21. Again, I suppose this to be what our Homilies mean when they say that Christ is “not only with us by his grace”, “grace” being the Sacrament.
  22. Origen, Homilies on Leviticus, Homily 16.
  23. St. Jerome, Commentary on the Psalms, Psalm 147
  24. Eusebius of Caesarea, On Ecclesiastical Theology, Book III, Chapter 12 – I of course know that Eusebius was a semi-Arian and perhaps not the best source for doctrine. If this quotation irritates any let that person be satisfied with Origen. If that person is not convinced by Origen, let him look to St. Jerome. Whatever the case, the point stands.
  25. There are, of course, distinctions to be made between Holy Scripture and the Sacraments Proper, just as there are distinctions between the Sacraments themselves. In reality, “sacramental” does not go far enough in describing the providence at work in the framing of the Biblical Canon, but it will do for the current discussion. I direct the reader to Webster’s Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch.
  26. For more information on the definition of “Sacrament”, please see my previous essay.
  27. Richard Sibbes, God Manifested in the Flesh. Quoted from Dr. Beeke’s A Puritan Theology, pg. 31-32
  28. St Clement of Rome, Epistle to the Corinthians, Chapter 13
  29. St. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, VII, Chapter 16
  30. St. Cyprian, Treatise 9
  31. St. Augustine, The City of God, XVIII, Chapter 43
  32. Darwell Stone, Outlines of Christian Dogma, X §3. – Though an “Anglo-Catholic” dogmatic, I was pleasantly surprised by its uncontroversial nature. Any Churchman will find Stone’s work a valuable resource and accessible enough for any layman. Consider this my endorsement.
  33. Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, Chapter 4.
  34. See Terence G. Kardong O.S.B., Pillars of Community: Four Rules of Pre-Benedictine Monastic Life, Chapter 5
  35. Rule of St. Pachomius, Part III
  36. Dr. Greg Peters, The Story of Monasticism: Retrieving an Ancient Tradition for Contemporary Spirituality, pg. 46-47
  37. St. Pachomius, Precepts 140
  38. Horsiesius, Testament of Horsiesius, 51. Quoted from Stewart’s Cassian the Monk, 103
  39. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Emphasis my own)
  40. St. Athanasius, The Life of St. Anthony. (Emphasis my own)
  41. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers
  42. St. Benedict, Regula, Chapter 73
  43. The Anonymous Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pg. 249
  44. Ibid, pg. 507
  45. Ibid, pg. 557
  46. St. John Damascene, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book I §1. (Emphasis my own)
  47. Ibid, Book 4 §17 (Emphasis my own)
  48. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1, Q1., Article 8. -Please excuse the recourse to Medieval Theology, but the quote is simply too wonderful to not include.
  49. Bp. John Jewel, The Apology of the Church of England, Part II
  50. Origen, First Principles, Preface. (Emphasis my own)
  51. Origen, First Principles, Book I, Chapter 3. (Emphasis my own)
  52. Origen, Homilies on Leviticus
  53. St. Athanasius, Against the Heathens, 1 (Emphasis my own)
  54. St. Athanasius, Letter 39: On the Paschal Festival, §6
  55. St. Basil, Letter 2 (to Greogry). (Emphasis my own)
  56. St. Basil, Letter 46 (to a Fallen Virgin).
  57. St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures, Lecture 4 §17 (Emphasis my own)
  58. St. Cyril, Catechetical Lectures
  59. Ibid, Chapter 7
  60. St. Ambrose, Exposition of the Christian Faith, Book II, Chapter 11.
  61. St. Ambrose, On the Duty of the Clergy, Chapter 10
  62. Ibid, Chapter 32
  63. St. Ambrose, On the Holy Spirit, Book I, Chapter 14
  64. Ibid, Book IV, Chapter 1. (Emphasis my own)
  65. St .Theodoret, Eranistas, Dialogue I.
  66. Ibid, Dialogue III.
  67. St. Hilary of Poiters, On the Trinity, Book III.
  68. St. Hilary of Poitiers, Ad Constantius. Quoted from Archbishop Ussher’s Answer to a Jesuit, Chapter II
  69. St. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, Book VII.
  70. Quoted from Archbishop Cranmer’s Fruitful Exhortation to the reading of Scripture
  71. Ibid
  72. St. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, VII, Chapter 16
  73. Second Council of Constantinople, The Sentence.

Brandon LeTourneau

Brandon is your typical pseudo-intellectual who knows more than he should and less than he thinks. An Anglican Seminarian, known for his assertions of the Catholicity of the Reformation and his abiding love for the oddest bits of Church History. He hopes to one day serve the ACNA in an ecumenical capacity. Pray for him, a sinner.

'The Place of Holy Tradition, Part I' have 4 comments

  1. April 5, 2020 @ 1:52 pm Tim

    I really appreciated your quote from An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. I recently discovered this work and am currently reading it. I could hear Article 6 resonating in my mind when I read that part. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


    • Brandon LeTourneau

      April 5, 2020 @ 7:19 pm Brandon LeTourneau

      So glad you enjoyed it! I think St. Damascene is woefully underappreciated within Anglican thought. It’s rather unfortunate considering how similar many of his views were to what’s enshrined in the Articles. Another good example would be (likewise supporting Article VI) what he has to say about the apocryphal nature of the books of Wisdom and Sirach. I was happily surprised, however, to find that Browne’s Exposition of the Articles draws from St. Damascene’s work. Hopefully, more of us follow suit!

      Grace and Peace,
      Brandon LeTourneau


      • May 8, 2020 @ 1:24 pm Jacob

        Of course, St Damascene’s example is also interesting because his reading of Scripture led him to embrace the veneration of icons to an extent that most Protestants would reject (as seen in the Rev. Ben Jefferies’s article on Nicea II on this site). I hope a future part of this series addresses the question of how we can call ourselves guided by the Church’s traditional interpretation of Scripture while disagreeing with ideas that the Fathers believed to be Scripturally-based.


        • Brandon LeTourneau

          May 8, 2020 @ 4:40 pm Brandon LeTourneau


          Absolutely. It’s again unfortunate though that so many of the Protestant fold neglect the work of St. Damascene due to this position. The Anglican issue with Nicaea II is really threefold. The first is the strange nature of the council. The events are so abnormal that we have an entire homily dedicated to them! Secondly, the council was never really accepted in the West. If I recall, even Ratzinger touches on this. There are those, of course, like Darwell Stone who would rather emphatically maintain that the Synod of Frankfurt did not *really* reject Nicaea II. *If* that is the case, then Frankfurt needs to be seen as a Western clarification to the council, in which we’re still the same boat. The West has *always* had a strange relationship with that Council. Secondly, the Latin canons sent to the Western Church by the Greeks are just terrible. They completely collapse the dulia, hyperdulia, and latria distinction. Thus when the Reformers read the Latin canons, they were amazed (see Calvin) that this “Ecumenical” Council was demanding the *worship* (i.e. adoration) of images! So that is all to say that the issue is much bigger than St. Damascene, and far larger than simply a disagreement over a few passages of scripture. There are a good number of historical evens (and misunderstandings) that ought to be taken into account. And yes, I do hope to touch on this somewhat,, though I cannot promise that it will be too in-depth as it is somewhat outside of the scope of these essays.

          Grace & Peace,
          Brandon LeTourneau


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