"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, August 16, 2013

Edith Humphrey on Scripture and Tradition

Nearly two years ago now, I interviewed the Orthodox biblical scholar and theologian Edith Humphrey about her book on liturgy, published in 2011. Well, she's a busy woman, and has another book out this year: Scripture and Tradition: What the Bible Really Says (Baker Academic, 2013), 192pp.

AD: Tell us about your recent background, and in particular what led you from your last book on liturgy to this new book, Scripture and Tradition

EH: Thanks for the opportunity to talk to you about my new book. In some ways, Scripture and Tradition may seem like a spin-off from Grand Entrance: Worship on Earth as in Heaven because one of the major questions people ask about worship styles is why a particular liturgical (or “non-liturgical”) tradition has developed in the way that it has. Why is there no instrumental music in the East, while organs and other instruments are used in the East: is this simply circumstance, or do these things have theological foundations and implications? Or why does my childhood ecclesial community, the Salvation Army, not baptize or celebrate the Eucharist, but instead dedicates babies and calls worshippers to the altar and holiness table to “give their lives as a living sacrifice.” Are the shape and content of such rites optional, responding to felt needs with “no disputing about tastes,” or are there some traditions that have been given and that we are to receive from the apostles and thus from the Lord? Is there “Holy Tradition”? If so, how do we tell the difference between mutable traditions, good in their own time but not necessary for every age, and the ongoing Tradition of God? No doubt I was thinking about some of these issues as I did the comparison of worship services in my book on worship, Grand Entrance, but the focus of that book was very particular—to remember that our worship is entrance into the very presence of God.

My book on worship touched frequently upon questions of tradition, but it was not these hanging threads that led me to write Scripture and Tradition. Instead, my husband asked me one of his annoying but tantalizing questions one day, “Why don’t you write a book about what the Bible says concerning tradition?” and I promptly responded that I was too busy. Then, one night when I couldn’t sleep, the question came back to haunt me. So I sat down in the living room, searching my Greek New Testament for places where the verb paradidomi (“I give over as a tradition”) and the noun paradosis (“tradition”) are found. I was stunned, because, being raised on the King James and then the original NIV Bible as a Protestant, I did not remember these particular passages as speaking specifically about tradition. A quick search in those translations confirmed my memory. For in these translations, the English word “tradition” is used in negative contexts, but avoided and paraphrased where the same Greek words are used positively, such as in St. Paul’s “Be steadfast firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught, whether by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). This midnight treasure-hunt and discovery became the nucleus of a new book. The more I read, the more I discovered the rich teaching about worship that is both latent and explicitly articulated in various books of the Bible. To start with what the Bible itself says would, I hoped, turn a topic that is a source of conflict among Christians into words of encouragement. From there the book grew.

AD: Drawing on Jaroslav Pelikan among others, you recognize the tension in discerning what constitutes tradition and how to relate to it--what to keep, what to jettison. Tell us a bit about that tension. 

Jaroslav Pelikan (of blessed memory!) distinguishes between “tradition” as the “living faith of the dead” and traditionalism as “the dead faith of the living.” Perhaps we might want to respond to his first statement, that the dead are “alive” in Christ. However, his point is well taken. Tradition is God’s gift to the Church, and has an honoured place among us: some traditions, for example, the creeds and ecumenical councils, are indispensable--part of our DNA, so to speak.

Other traditions, however, we know very well have changed through the years, and are not the same across the world, even among a single communion. For example, the Russian jurisdictions of the Orthodox church sing the beatitudes at the opening of Divine Liturgy, while the Antiochian do not. The Antiochian Church of North America retains a full 40 days of feasting at Easter, whereas other jurisdictions revert to Wednesday and Friday fasts after Bright Week. It would be easy for the more rigorous to scorn those whose tradition is different, or for a liturgical enthusiast to deplore differences in liturgy in another jurisdiction. (“What is the difference between a terrorist and a liturgist? You can negotiate with a terrorist!” Ba-dum-dum!) Our brother Jaroslav, now among the blessed himself, reminds us that our focus is to be the Lord, the Holy Trinity, and not any “ism” at all. Tradition is good, kept where it belongs, and not worshipped. Tradition for its own sake rather than for the sake of the One who gave it, is a deadly thing. This would be parallel to those Jewish rigorists who made the Torah the center, rather than the Lord of the Torah, and so missed God’s greatest action in Jesus. We might think, too, of some fundamentalists who formally make the Bible the center, but forget that the Incarnate Word is the one to whom the Bible witnesses. (And they sometimes don’t notice that it is really their interpretation or tradition about the Bible that becomes the center of their teaching, either!) So, then, what we have received is a great gift, but our adoration goes to the Giver!

AD: As director of programs in theology at my university, I realized shortly after starting here that basic biblical literacy could no longer be presupposed, even in homes of self-identified church-going Christians. So I put together a new course, "Introduction to the Bible" for our students. Your introduction also tells of your experience with such illiteracy among your students, both in Montreal and Pittsburgh. What do you think are some of its causes today? What can be done to mitigate it? 

The causes of biblical illiteracy are not so very difficult to trace. First, there is a lack of interest in disciplined reading in general: our culture is more oriented to the image, and schools do not give priority to repetition or rigorous memorization today. Then, there is the postmodern distrust of history in general, and the Bible is considered one of those “old books”—a classic that culture has, by and large, outgrown. The Bible is relegated in many minds to the same place as that foggy and eccentric bishop in The Princess Bride who rapsodized on “mawwiage, that dweam within a dweam.”

In the Catholic and Orthodox communion, perhaps we have considered that an intimate knowledge of the Bible is the purview of the clergy, and that we only need what we get in the liturgy on Sunday. (This may have been mitigated partially since the changes at Vatican II, but at the same time that Bible study became more common in the Catholic communion, discipline in general also flagged.) Even though Protestants historically have stressed knowledge of the Bible, many from these churches have abandoned close study of the Bible due to a fixation upon personal spiritual experience as the end-all and be-all of the faith, and an over-emphasis upon God’s grace freely given (which sometimes obscures the need for human effort, including Bible study). Besides this, the multiplicity of new translations (however helpful) has obscured our common knowledge of specific verses of the Bible, which Christians used to know by heart. Whatever the reason, it is absolutely the case that the Scriptures are not known one tenth as well today as they were 60 years ago, and this holds true across the Christian communities in North America, though it is a more egregious problem in some places than others.

AD: Your introduction references your time in the Salvation Army, and also draws on the insights of Anglicans among whom you spent some time. (I first came across your name in the 1990s in Canada when you were associated with the Anglican Essentials movement, yes?) What do you think Eastern Christians can learn from those two traditions in particular? What are they lacking in light of Eastern Christian theology? 

Well, I suppose that a look at the daily life of a Salvation Army congregation might encourage historic churches to recover a love for Bible study, because that this continues to be the life-blood of Salvationists. Perhaps some of these studies are not deep, and rarely do they incorporate the insights of the Fathers, but it is simply true that the detailed and personal knowledge that an ordinary Salvationist has of the Bible would put most members of the Eastern churches to shame. Also, love and care for the poor and the marginalized is palpable there: I recently attended a “meeting” (divine service) with my mom, and the presence of the handicapped and minority groups was remarkable! (Those caring for them before, during and after the service were not the pastors, either: most members consider that they have a ministry).

As for those Anglicans who take the Scriptures and their tradition seriously (over against the revisionists who have over-run the national churches of the US and Canada), we can, I think, consider their zeal for evangelization and their strong exegetical preaching and teaching as helpful models. These communities call us back to our roots, for of course the early Church devoted itself to the teaching of the apostles, and continued in the apostolic mission: in their strengths, such sectarian communities are reminders to us of aspects of our identity that we may have put on the back-burner. My Orthodox father in Christ once commented that we could compare an Orthodox parish to an evangelical Protestant mission, likening one to a state-of-the-art hospital, while the other is more like a tiny clinic in a developing country. That is, the historic Church has all the riches of the Christian tradition at its disposal, all the “tools” and spiritual resources for healing, whereas a Salvation Army corps only has the bare minimum (and not always that), for it knows nothing of the mysteries, of the disciplines of corporate fasting, of the deep traditional prayers of the Church. However, if it uses what it has, some healing will come to folks where a perfectly equipped but indifferent parish can fail. May it not be that we, with all that we have, are less dedicated to the work of the Church in the world that God loves—more is demanded of us because so much more has been given (or received)!

AD: I wonder if you are familiar with the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who speaks of an "epistemological crisis" that often develops between traditions. Such a crisis, he says, happens when Tradition A is challenged by Tradition B and the latter seems to have better answers to the issue at hand. Tradition A must then decide whether to scornfully ignore B, collapse and admit defeat, or incorporate (critically but appreciatively) B's insights into A's life. I mention this because you seem to have taken the third route with regard to your time in Protestant traditions. You don't scorn those traditions, but graciously draw on them to help Eastern Christians see what is good in them--and what is lacking. Is that a fair assessment? 

What you say makes some sense to me, although I think that MacIntyre’s typology doesn’t quite do justice to the reality. There is also a situation where Tradition A has become weak in some areas that are rightfully part of its own tradition, and Tradition B has accentuated this part, while neglecting other important things, perhaps while jettisoning these things. In that case, Tradition A can take a page, so to speak, form Tradition B’s notebook, while also being wary of the entire trajectory that Tradition B has taken. I think that the emphasis upon evangelism is perhaps obsessive in some evangelical communities. (For example, there is a common saying among evangelicals: “The Church is the only institution that exists for the benefit of others rather than its own members.” But this forgets that the purpose of the Church is to worship first, and that evangelism is not is primary raison d’être.)

Yet, it is also the case that the historical churches, in many places today, have become lazy, and are content to present the Church as a kind of fulfillment to those who have already been evangelized, rather than serving and speaking to those who know almost nothing about the Way. The Holy Spirit's free and can go where he wishes—so indeed, we can learn from sectarians. But this does not mean that we should relativize the difference, or back off from what we have been taught about the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

AD: Tell us to what extent you think Christian differences over "tradition" are related to the difficulties of translating into English the Greek terms you discuss in your first chapter. 

Earlier I mentioned that several influential English translations (e.g. the KJV and the original NIV) avoid the word “tradition” when paradidomi and paradosis are used positively. There is also a difficulty simply in the English in that we don’t have a verb “to tradition” that parallels our noun, so that we have to use a paraphrase like “to pass on.” Both the avoidance of the terms (which come from the early Protestant allergy to Roman Catholic tradition) and the peculiarities of English certainly reinforce a tendency among some Protestants to consider tradition to be a category that is at odds with the gospel. But it is not all in the translations. The translations that avoided the term “tradition” are reflecting teaching from “non-traditional” or protesting communities, not creating this attitude. More crucial for Christian differences concerning tradition are the disagreements of the past (between Protestants and Catholics) and the inability to understand these disagreements from the inside (Orthodox). That is, there is now a long tradition of dispute concerning the meaning and place of tradition in the West, beginning with the fight of sola scriptura versus Scripture and Holy Tradition, complicated by the Anglican tradition of the “three-legged stool” (Scripture, Tradition and Reason) and hopelessly confused by various expressions of the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” (Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience) which is now appealed to in many different communities. Western Christians often do not even know why they have a visceral reaction for or against tradition. Eastern Christians who have not known the debate from the inside are apt to walk into a minefield in talking to those who have such reactions. This is not a matter, then, merely of translating the Greek New Testament, but of the history of the Church, especially from the Reformation to today.

AD: The end of your third chapter briefly refers to some Anglicans who "privilege" (to use a favored academic pseudo-verb!) their own views in matters of sexuality and abortion over Paul and Scripture generally. How can O/orthodox Christians respond to such claims--or can they? 

It may be helpful for Orthodox Christians (and others who hold to Scripture as interpreted by Holy Tradition) to point out that these are not single hot-button issues, but indicative of an entire stance of faithfulness, or lack of it. The rise of the “Wesleyan” Quadrilateral as an interpretive method has emboldened some biblical scholars and pastors to appeals to “experience” (their own, or that of contemporary Western society) as a “trump card” in deciding whether to follow the Bible and the consistent witness of the Church in these matters. The words of the Apostle Paul are neutralized because he is said simply not to have had a broad enough experience in matters of gender, for example: if he were among us today, he would change his mind in accordance with the broad inclusivity of the gospel. Similarly, the traditional understanding of the Church regarding the sanctity of life, a stance drawn from Scriptures as a whole, and its applicability to the unborn, is questioned because (say some) we now understand that personhood is to be “in relation.” The unborn child does not have this capacity, and the rights and needs of the mother are more significant. But we worship a God who created them “male and female” and who himself became an embryo, sanctifying childbirth, human life, and human sexuality. Attention both to the specific texts that deal with gender and the sanctity of life, attention to the consistent witness of the Church in these issues, and attention to the entire story of salvation are all important in this time of confusion. This balanced approach removes the issues from the center of attention as stand-alone issues, helping us to keep the focus upon our Incarnate Lord, born of a woman, who graced a wedding between a man and a woman at Cana. It prevents moralism, but allows us to show why these issues matter today.

AD: Your sixth chapter talks about trying to discern between Tradition and human traditions. Does Scripture itself offer any guidance here? 

Yes, indeed, I think so, though sometimes the difference can only be seen in retrospect. The best clues we receive are, I think, in the decision-making passages of the early Church. In the first council of the Church, decisions were taken regarding which instructions should be given to Gentiles who had become Christians—did they need to be circumcised or not? The decision the James and the others took is presented with reference to custom, knowledge and reason, and it appears as a kind of compromise. The Gentiles did not need to keep the whole law, but should avoid meat offered to idols, avoid porneia (sexual immorality, or possibly, the specific immorality of close inter-sanguinal marriages), and not eat meat with blood still in it. Though this was an early and general council, its specifics have not been maintained by all Christian communities since, especially the command having to do with properly-bled meat. Why have Christians not felt so bound? The clue is in the language of deliberation (“it is my judgment,” Acts 15:19), and the reasons given by James for the decision—“For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath" (Acts 15:21).

Why these rules? Because they know Moses and will understand why we are saying these things. (Notice he does not give theological reasons, but cultural ones). The ruling made it possible for Jewish and Gentile Christians to live in peace, and its main reason was summarized in some later versions of the Acts passage which omit the actual commands, and simply put a version of the Golden Rule in its place. This was a compromise measure meant to promote the harmony of the early Church.

The spirit of the regulation continues, as do the principles of morality and faith in one God, but its specificity is no longer necessary in later contexts. We may also take note of the decision process—the witness of various members of the community is heeded, the Old Testament Scriptures are searched for words about the Gentiles, and the focus is upon God’s action in Christ. The issue at hand is put in the context of the larger picture; there is collegial discussion among the leaders; and the bishop speaks, taking all of this into consideration. This tells us that when making decisions about tradition in the Church, this is not a solitary or hasty affair, but it requires care, discernment, and deference of one to the other. As I say in the book, deciding between mutable traditions and Holy Tradition is not a matter for the arrogant, the hasty, or the faint of heart.

AD: Your conclusions speaks of "newcomers" engaged in "'cherry-picking' of the Tradition." That, it seems to me, is an especial danger for Catholic and Orthodox converts today. What suggestions would you have to avoid the pitfalls of such an approach? 

That is interesting. My experience with converts is that they tend to go whole hog and become purists about everything rather than engaging in a pick-and-choose cherry-picking! I was actually thinking more about intrigued Protestants who fasten upon a particular part of the tradition without seeing how it relates to the whole. Consider the Reformed Christian who stumbles upon icons, and blithely puts them up on his or her wall without a thought of Calvinist theology, and without understanding that these icons are not little illustrations of the gospel, but part of an entire theology of Incarnation. Or the more sophisticated theologian who loves the Eastern emphasis upon “mystery” but uses it to downplay the importance of the ecumenical creeds. Or the biblical scholar who fastens upon the “Christus Victor” approach to atonement in order to get away from sacrificial language—but doesn’t notice that the Eastern liturgy is full of the language of sacrifice! For those who are tempted to flirt with aspects of Eastern Christianity, as well as for new converts, I recommend that they start reading the Fathers (start with St. John Chrysostom’s sermons!), and attend Divine Liturgy and Vespers. This puts the elements that they are in love with in context, and prevents distortion or one-sidedness. It also is in the worship that we really come to understand. As Jesus invited, “Come and See!”

AD: Sum up the book briefly and tell us who you think should read it. 

The book demonstrates from the Bible that Scripture and Tradition are intertwined, and that if one accepts the authority of Scripture, one will not dismiss Tradition. It discloses some of the history of the debate, and current tendencies today. Its target audience is evangelical Protestants, but I think that it holds interest for for Catholics, Orthodox and mainline Protestants as well. It is always helpful for traditional Christians to appreciate the biblical center of our Holy Tradition, and it may be helpful for more “liberal” Protestants to consider how we have come to be polarized in these areas, that is, the reasons for our disagreements today.

AD: What are you at work on now? What are the upcoming writing projects? 

I am finishing off an article on “sacrifice and sacrament” for a volume to be edited by Hans Boersma and Matthew Levering, a "Handbook on Sacramentality."  I am also about to begin a long-term work, reading the apostle Paul’s passages on righteousness and justification through the eyes of the fathers, moving towards a book entitled (provisionally) "Let Us Meditate Upon Your Righteousness."   I am also planning a more popular book about the importance of mediation in the spiritual life, tentatively entitled "Mediation and the Immediate God."

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