by Fr. John Whiteford
There were several things that I studied in depth that began to open my eyes to the fundamental flaws in Protestantism, and also to the importance of Tradition: Textual Criticism, Empiricism and its role in Protestant Biblical Scholarship, the question of the inspiration of Scripture, the works of Thomas Oden, books about Orthodoxy, and then the writings of the Fathers themselves. I began studying the question of textual criticism as a result of studying New Testament Greek, and becoming aware of textual variations.
I read some books by John Burgon, who was an Anglican scholar of the 19th Century, who was born in Smyrna, and so grew up speaking Greek. He was an authority on Patristics, and wrote extensively against the work of Wescott and Hort – two Anglican scholars that popularized the approach to textual criticism that is reflected in the Greek text used by most modern Protestant translations, with the exception of the New King James Version, and a few other lesser known versions (and of course in the case of the King James Version, it was based on the Textus Receptus which essentially is the same as the text in most Greek Manuscripts, having predated Wescott and Hort by a few centuries).
I also read other more contemporary authors on the subject, such as Zane C. Hodges and Wilbur Pickering, and read debates in which Hodges and Pickering, advocates of what is now known as “The Majority Text” or the “Byzantine Text”, debated those advocating for the Wescott-Hort approach. This is a complicated subject, and it is too big of a topic to get into any depth here, but suffice it to say that I found the arguments in favor of the traditional Greek text more compelling, and those arguments depend in large part on a belief that God has preserved the textual tradition of the Church… which if you accept that, raises the broader question of the reliability of Tradition.
In a graduate level course I was taking on Scripture (which was tag-team taught by the two most liberal professors that I had), I chose to do a paper on the role of Positivism in Biblical scholarship. This is also a complex issue (though I go into some detail on it in my essay on Sola Scriptura) but I began to see the rationalism that is at the heart of Protestantism and has been since the days of Martin Luther and John Calvin.
In that same course, our final paper, which we were each in turn to present to the class in the final days of the semester, was to be an exposition of our personal theology of the inspiration of Scripture. I had noticed from the beginning of the semester that it seemed as if the entire purpose of that class was to convince the student that the Bible was full or errors, but to somehow also affirm that it was nevertheless inspired. I decided to actually put the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” to work, and so analyzed the question by first asking what Scripture says about itself, then what Tradition says about nature of Scripture, and then look at the question from the perspective of reason and experience.
You wouldn’t know it from attending most Nazarene Churches, but because the Nazarenes historically traced their roots through the Methodist movement to John Wesley, they have a remote connection with Anglican Tradition. I had some idea of that growing up in it, and reading Nazarene publications… in fact as a teenager, I actually fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays for about a year, because I had read that John Wesley fasted on these days, based on the practice of the “Early Church”. In Anglican theology, they have the concept of the three-legged stool of Anglicanism: their theology is based on Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.
John Wesley added one more leg to the stool (Experience), and so the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” was born. The basic idea is that Wesleyan Theology is supposed to be based primarily on Scripture, but Scripture interpreted by Tradition, Reason, and Experience – in that order of importance. In actual practice, however, you rarely heard any talk of Tradition outside of discussions of the doctrine of the Trinity, or Christology.
Most of my research on the question of the inspiration of Scripture focused on the question of what Tradition had to say about it, and since at that point I had more or less a “branch-theory” understanding of what constituted the Church, I analyzed it in terms of what the “Early Church” had taught on the question, then what the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, and then the various major branches of Protestantism had historically taught… with a special emphasis on the branch that I was on at the time. What I found was that all Christians had affirmed the idea that the Scriptures were fully inspired, and were in fact inerrant. I had good sources for most of those sections, but not for the Orthodox. But I knew enough about the Orthodox Church to know that I needed to adequately cover their perspective.
Since I had met Fr. Anthony Nelson and worked with him on several protests, I decided to call him up and discuss it with him.
When he explained the Orthodox understanding of the inerrancy of Scripture, it made so much sense that it essentially became the final conclusion of my paper. In short, his explanation was similar to the one I later found in the writings of St. Augustine (Letter to St. Jerome, 1:3). We believe that the Scriptures are inerrant because God, as the one who inspired them, is on one level the author. If, however, we find something in Scripture that seems at odds with reason, we conclude that either we have flawed reasoning, or we have misunderstood the meaning of the Scriptures, or perhaps we have a bad translation or a bad manuscript… but we know the Scriptures are true… and if we don’t know for sure which of the above factors is the cause for the apparent conflict with reason, we don’t spend too much time worrying about it, because our understanding of the Scriptures as individuals is not infallible, nor should we expect it to be. The Church’s understanding of the Scriptures as a whole is infallible, and if we remain under the guidance of the Church, we will not go too far wrong.
As St. Gregory the Theologian wrote:
“We however, who extend the accuracy of the Spirit to the merest stroke and tittle, will never admit the impious assertion that even the smallest matters were dealt with haphazardly by those who have recorded them, and have thus been borne in mind down to the present day: on the contrary, their purpose has been to supply memorials and instructions for our consideration under similar circumstances, should such befall us, and that the examples of the past might serve as rules and models, for our warning and imitation”
(NPNF2-07 St.Gregory Nazianzen, Oration II: In Defence of His Flight to Pontus, and His Return, After His Ordination to the Priesthood, with an Exposition of the Character of the Priestly Office, ch. 105, NPNF2, p.225).
When the day came that I presented my paper to the class, I presented the view which the Church had always held regarding the Scriptures, and made the case that if the Church has always taught something, it must be true, because it was not possible for the whole Church to affirm something that was in fact erroneous. The same professor that had lectured about tearing down the walls around our faith (at the beginning of my studies at SNU) was the one that most vocally challenged my thesis. At one point he made the statement that if I was going to argue that position, I would have to
“become a Catholic, accept the Apocrypha, the Pope, and Purgatory”.
I responded that if I could be convinced that the Church had always taught those things, I would accept them… but that I didn’t think that was the case [the Orthodox do accept the Deuterocanonical Books, but not the notions of the Papacy, or Purgatory].
At this point I had no idea that I would be making any radical shifts in my Church affiliation, but I did believe that I had discovered a new theological method, which could settle pretty much any theological controversy. No matter the question, one needed only to ask
“What has the Church always taught on the matter?”
Once you found the answer, the problem was solved; you just needed to conform to the teachings of the Church. And to be clear, at this point my idea of the Church was based on the branch theory of the Church, but even if you see the Church as a tree with branches, you still end up with the same trunk.