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Book Review: The Church, Tradition, Scripture, Truth and Christian Life

Reviewed by John Reese Franklin

Hierodeacon Gregory, The Church, Tradition, Scripture, Truth, and Christian Life: Some Heresies of Evangelicalism and an Orthodox Response. Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1995. Pp 54.

I wish that all Evangelicals would read this book. Hierodeacon [now Hieromonk] Gregory has done a masterful job of defending the Orthodox Church through an honest and contextual use of Scripture, just as Evangelicals are wont to support their polemical ramblings against Orthodoxy through a misuse of the Bible. He sets the entire tone of the book when he states that: "Orthodoxy is the very criterion of Christianity established by the Lord Jesus Christ Who said: ‘I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ (St. Matthew 16:18). This Evangelical promise of the Savior must always be the touchstone of any apologetic presentation of our Faith in these turbulent days of political ecumenism...."

The author divides his book into two sections: one, an exposition on the Church, Tradition, Scripture, and Truth; and the other, a discussion of the Christian life as it centers around the spiritual Traditions of the Fathers, the Cross, the Mysteries, and the Theotokos. In the first section, he contrasts Evangelicalism and its Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura with the true Faith of the Orthodox, which is based not only on Holy Scripture, but on Holy Tradition, the Holy Fathers, the Œcumenical Synods, and the spiritual authority by which the very canon of Scripture was decided in the Early Church. Father Gregory points out that Evangelicals somehow think that the Bible "dropped out of Heaven" and that there is a gap in Grace between the Ascension of Christ and the time that Luther nailed his theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg in 1517. He portrays with precision their sin of bibliolatry, a peculiarly Protestant form of idolatry which always reminds me of a cartoon I once saw of prim and proper Evangelical churchgoers quietly sitting in their pews, all intensely staring at a large pulpit Bible.

Father Gregory also gives us clear evidence that the sin of bibliolatry, of blind obedience to Scripture and a disdain for the Church to which it belongs, leads to a distortion of the basic teachings of the Christian Faith, which have been fully handed down to the Orthodox Church by "Scripture in context," that is, by the Bible as it reflects the Faith and life of the Church. I remember hearing of a Protestant Evangelical who was agonizing over the question of whom he should marry. He decided to open the Bible for an answer. The first thing that he read was, "Grace unto you." He thus concluded that he was supposed to marry a woman named "Grace." In precisely this way, Father Gregory points out to us, Evangelicals use the Bible for their own ends, each individual becoming an exegetical "Pope," as it were, and thundering forth with prideful orations on his self-serving interpretation of the Bible, ignoring Holy Tradition, the Fathers, and, indeed, the Church. In this process, Church teachings are rendered ineffectual and soon disappear. Finally, the author also demonstrates that outside Holy Tradition not only is Holy Scripture improperly employed and understood, but the Church itself is lost. Quoting St. Nectarios of Pentapolis, he avers that "Sacred Tradition is the very Church; without the Sacred Tradition the Church does not exist. Those who deny the Sacred Tradition deny the Church and the preaching of the Apostles." In other words, unless one recognizes Holy Tradition, he does violence to the Bible and rejects the Church of Christ. The Biblical "theology" of the Evangelicals is not only an assault on Scripture, but a total denial of the Church, since without the Church the Bible could not exist. The spiritual authority of the Church is one with that of the Bible and the two things cannot be separated: "The truth of the Gospel, therefore, holistically incorporates the Church, Tradition, and Scripture into a Christocentric Gestalt, for True Orthodox Christianity is the way, the truth, and the life."

In the second section of his book, Father Gregory points out that the Bible itself cannot be understood without a knowledge of certain spiritual traditions, that is, of certain Christian customs and beliefs that rise out of the Church and bind us to God. Without Holy Baptism, Chrismation, Holy Communion, and the Church’s other Mysteries, one cannot understand Holy Writ. The enlightening and enlivening spiritual traditions of Christianity alone give flesh to Scripture. Without devotion to the Theotokos, one cannot understand the meaning and importance of virginity. Without attachment to the Cross of Christ, in which there is literal power, one cannot interpret or understand St. Paul’s references to this powerful weapon against the Enemy. And without the daily practices of Orthodox Christianity—fasting, prayer, and spiritual exercise—, the deeper message of the Bible is lost. If bibliolatry, the ascendency of personal interpretation, and a rejection of the Church produce spiritual delusion, the Evangelical’s separation from the vivifying Mysteries and spiritual traditions of the Church constitutes an ontological blindness, such that he adds to the delusion of his prideful personal opinions an encompassing darkness: an inability to respond to Truth and to its attractive nature.

The spiritual life is serious business, wherein we confront things of eternal consequence. Father Gregory’s book very clearly tells us that we must choose between the errors of human religion—in this instance, Evangelicalism—and the Truth of Orthodoxy: between God and Mammon and between the Word of God, Who enlightens, and the empty words of personal Biblical exegesis. It is not an easy book and it makes no compromises. And therein lies its power.

This review originally appeared in Orthodox Tradition, Vol XII, No. 4, pp. 57-59.