For Protestants, especially those who would call themselves Evangelicals (including myself), it is especially difficult for us to see the sense of Christianity, as proclaimed by the Eastern Orthodox Christians. A common stereotype that is used to characterise their standpoint, is that they subscribe supreme authority to tradition, which for Protestants have the most negative connotations possible. ("Whatever tradition could mean, however it is implemented, for whatever reasons, it cannot be a correct view of the truth.") For the Protestants, what they protest, is the assertion that scripture alone is the sole supreme authority on divine truth.

Here is a question, and a remark that will hopefully be helpful for those who wish to see Eastern Orthodoxy more clearly.

The question is this: How do one (you and me) view and conceptualise (i.e. how do you articulate your beliefs) Christianity, and based on what grounds do you justify your viewpoint?

The presupposition behind the question, is that everyone conceptualise, to a certain extend, in order to make any sense for the facts we know, and beliefs we subscribe to. In other words, speaking about facts and truths without being aware of a scheme of conceptualisation is meaningless. Thus, it does not make any sense to assert the proposition: Jesus is the Christ, without conceptualising this truth in the context where all the Old Testament connotations for the expectation and the anticipation of the anointed one is meant by the word Christ.

Now one confronts a problem: how should one decide between different schemes of conceptualising?

This is the point of my remark. I wish to illustrate this problem, using the example of the conflict between Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestant Evangelical view. As noted above, everyone has, and needs a viewpoint in life. The viewpoint is shaped by various things, but this is not important here. Moreover, everyone's viewpoint functions as the contact point with the world around them. Thus all our experiences, thoughts, and beliefs, are largely influenced by the shape and form of this viewpoint. This viewpoint is precisely the scheme through which we conceptualise all elements of life, and enables sense to arise.

Now the Protestant and Eastern Orthodox conception of Christianity are precisely two viewpoints. (Notice, I have not commit myself to the question whether all viewpoints are neutral, when it comes to the question of truth, i.e. whether all viewpoints are equally valid to approach truth.) My remark is simply this: for one to make clear statements about which viewpoint is correct, one is (consciously or unconsciously) setting up a clear criteria to assess different viewpoints, with an a priori preference to a particular standard for conceptualisation. Thus if one says: "Protestant's view of scripture is the only Biblical viewpoint on the matter", then he has already an a priori standard for how one should conceptualise Christianity. Equally, if one says: "Eastern Orthodox's view of the church is the only Apostolic viewpoint on the matter". In order to make exclusive claims about viewpoints, one must also make exclusive claims about standard of conceptualising.

Having put aside the preliminary remark, let us return to the question. How do Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestant Evangelicalism decide what critera to use in order to favour one scheme over the other? Here I suggest that the decisive difference is much more subtle than the typical distinction between 'sola scriptura' and 'tradition'. (Although Protestants often misunderstood, or have a naive caricature of what the Orthodox meant by 'Apostolic Tradition'.) The important difference lies in the question regarding the means of expressive communication of the Divine Truth by the Spirit.

The Protestant Evangelical doctrine of sola scriptura can be seen as an expression of placing supreme emphasis on identifying the difference in authority between different sources of the Spirit's communication. Thus, scripture is the normative form of the witness of the Holy Spirit. And when there is a conflict in doctrinal matter, sola scriptura provides a criteria for discerning which sources are more trustworthy than the other. This emphasis is obvious from a historical point of view, given that the Protestant reformation started by Luther raising objections on certain doctrinal teaching of the Catholic church. He identified correctly that the matter can only be settled, when a criteria for deciding which sources of doctrine, scripture or Rome, is more trustworthy and authoritative. We can see that this lays the foundation for the Protestant Evangelical emphasis - the necessity and urgency to discern true doctrine from false ones.

However, Eastern Orthodoxy continues to emphasis the fact that the 'Holy Tradition', tradition with a big 'T', is the primary form of the witness of the Holy Spirit. They refuse to reduce 'Holy Tradition', to any specific or particular source of communication (e.g. scripture, icons...etc). The criteria for faithfulness therefore, is to maintain the holistic expression of the Holy Spirit, through the totality of the Apotolic witness. This totality, they claimed, includes scripture (the canon), oral-traditions, Apostolic Fathers' writings, iconography, sacred music and art...etc. The fundamental concern of Eastern Orthodoxy is decidedly different from the Protestants: they wish to faithfully allow the Spirit to communicates Divine Truth through the holistic expressions He wishes to use - that is, cannot be reduced to some exhaustive set of particular expressions. With this attitude, one would be horrified to confront the question: is scripture alone sufficient to know God?

We can see, while the Protestant Evangelical view place emphasis on the minimum sources of expressions that we can truly identify as the true expression of the Holy Spirit, the Eastern Orthodox view place emphasis on the maximum sources of expressions that we can truly identify as the true expression of the Holy Spirit. This, I suggest, is the deepest difference between the two view point.


Pui Him Ip, Apprentice 2011-2012, from Cambridge (originally Hong Kong)

Pui loves... Hermeneutics


Pui Him Ip, Apprentice Blog, 08/05/2012