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The Bible and Tradition

The Fathers did not understand theology as a theoretical-speculative science, but as a positive science in all respects. This is why the Patristic understanding of Biblical inspiration is similar to the inspiration of writings in the field of the positive sciences.

Scientific manuals are inspired by the observations of specialists. For example, the astronomer records what he observes by means of the instruments at his disposal. Because of his training in the use of his instruments, he is inspired by the heavenly bodies, and sees things invisible to the naked eye. The same is true of all the positive sciences. However, books about science can never replace scientific observations. These writings are not the observations themselves, but about these observations.

This holds true even when photographic and acoustical equipment is used. This equipment does not replace observations, but simply aids in the observations and their recordings. Scientists cannot be replaced by the books they write, nor by the instruments they invent and use.

The same is true of the Orthodox understanding of the Bible and the writings of the Fathers. Neither the Bible nor the writings of the Fathers are revelation or the word of God. They are about the revelation and about the word of God.

Revelation is the appearance of God to the prophets, apostles, and saints. The Bible and the writings of the Fathers are about these appearances, but not the appearances themselves. This is why it is the prophet, apostle, and saint who sees God, and not those who simply read about their experiences of glorification. It is obvious that neither a book about glorification nor one who reads such a book can never replace the prophet, apostle, or saint who has the experience of glorification.

The writings of scientists are accompanied by a tradition of interpretation, headed by successor scientists, who, by training and experience, know w what their colleagues mean by the language used, and how to repeat the observations described. So it is in the Bible and the writings of the Fathers. Only those who have the same experience of glorification as their prophetic, apostolic, and patristic predecessors can understand what the Biblical and Patristic writings are saying about glorification and the spiritual stages leading to it. Those who have reached glorification know how they were guided there, as well as how to guide others, and they are the guarantors of the transmission of this same tradition.

This is the heart of the Orthodox understanding of tradition and apostolic succession which sets it apart from the Latin and Protestant traditions, both of which stem from the theology of the Franks.

Following Augustine, the Franks identified revelation with the Bible and believed that Christ gave the Church the Holy Spirit as a guide to its correct understanding. This would be similar to claiming that the books about biology were revealed by microbes and cells without the biologists having seen them with the microscope, and that these same microbes and cells inspire future teachers to correctly understand these books without the use of the microscope.

And, indeed, the Franks believed that the prophets and apostles did not see God himself, except possibly with the exception of Moses and Paul. What the prophets and apostles allegedly did see and hear were phantasmic symbols of God, whose purpose was to pass on concepts about God to human reason. Whereas these symbols passed into and out of existence, the human nature of Christ is a permanent reality and the best conveyor of concepts about God.

One does not, therefore, need telescopes, microscopes, or a vision of God, but rather, concepts about invisible reality, which human reason is by nature allegedly capable of understanding.

Historians have noted the naiveté of the Frankish religious mind which was shocked by the first claims for the primacy of observation over rational analysis. Even Galileo’s telescopes could not shake this confidence. However, several centuries before Galileo, the Franks had been shocked by the East Roman claim, hurled by Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), of the primacy of experience and observation over reason in theology.

Today’s Latin theologians, who still use their predecessor’s metaphysical approach to theology, continue to present East Roman theologians, such as the hesychasts, as preferring ignorance to education in their ascent to union with God. This is equivalent to claiming that a scientist is against education because he insists on the use of telescopes and microscopes instead of philosophy in his search for descriptive analysis of natural phenomena.

The so-called humanist movement in Eastern Romania was an attempt to revive ancient Greek philosophy, whose tenets had already been rejected, long before modern science led to their replacement in the modern West. To present this so-called humanist movement as a revival of culture is to overlook the fact that the real issue was between the primacy of reason and that of observation and experience.

Protopresbyter John S. Romanides