Epistemology … Or, What is Truth?

I am about to weigh in here on a pretty technical topic that would no doubt be much better explained by someone with actual expertise in this field. However, as I did my due diligence googling (for several hours!), I was unable to find a good succinct discussion of this topic that was, well, “user friendly.”

Back in the day, a few decades ago, when I was attending Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri (an Assemblies of God college), our theology professor said we start with 2 Timothy 3:16, assume that is true and build from there. That verse states:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, (English Standard Version or ESV)

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, (New King James Version or NKJV)

In the Protestant understanding of knowledge we learned that there were two sources: general revelation (science and other forms of secular knowledge) and special revelation (the Bible). The topic was called “epistemology” or the “theory of knowing”. The following diagram illustrates the way the epistemology of most Protestant denominations works (courtesy my theology professor).

Protestant Epistemology

But then in the summer of 2015 I started looking into the Eastern Orthodox approach to Christianity. (I have blogged elsewhere about that journey.) When I ran into 2 Thessalonians 2:15 (in particular) in the context of Orthodoxy, that was reason to give me pause about all my assumptions.

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. (ESV)

Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle. (NKJV)

The follow diagram summarizes then how Eastern Orthodox epistemology works.

Orthodox Epistemology

Naturally this is not the only passage to make reference to tradition.

…“tradition” is paradosis in Greek. It means “that which is passed down” or “handed on.” Tradition is literally something that has been received from another and passed on to others. — from “Know the Faith: A Handbook for Orthodox Christians and Inquirers” by Michael Shanbour, http://a.co/8iMXMsI

So tradition can refer to spoken word or oral tradition.

But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us. (2 Thess. 3:6, NKJV)

Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you. (1 Cor. 11:2, NKJV)

In the following verses the word “delivered” is the verb form (paredoka) of the Greek word for tradition used in the above verses.

For I delivered [ traditioned ] to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once. . . . After that he was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. (1 Cor. 15:3–8, NKJV)

For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered [ traditioned ] to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread… (1 Cor. 11:23, NKJV)

More from Shanbour on this subject:

The early teacher and scriptural commentator, Origen (AD 185–254), attests to the common understanding of Tradition as the Christian criterion of truth. The teaching of the Church has indeed been handed down through an order of succession from the apostles and remains in the churches even to the present time. That alone is to be believed as the truth which is in no way at variance with ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition. — http://a.co/cRnPzvm

The rejection of tradition by Protestants was a reaction against the corruption and abuses of the Roman Catholic Church at that point in time. Shanbour points out:

For Protestants, tradition—this purely human and added component of the corrupt Roman Church system—was the problem. To the battle cries “faith alone” and “saved by grace alone ” was added “sola scriptura” (Scripture alone). After all, did not Christ condemn “the tradition of men” (Mark 7:8) during His earthly ministry? For the more radical Reformers, all Church Tradition came to be equated with a deceitful and corrupt tradition of men also warned against by the Apostle Paul (see Col. 2:8).  — http://a.co/70BejVV

Incidentally, contrary to what many assume, Orthodox Christians are encouraged to read the Bible in their personal devotions, but interpretation is to be guided by tradition: “knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20, NKJV).

The early church fathers made mention of tradition as well. Here are a few examples. These are just three of many citations Shanbour makes. 

St. Irenaeus of Lyons: For, while the languages of the world are diverse, nevertheless, the authority of the tradition is one and the same. (Against Heresies 1:10:2 [AD 189])

Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 150–215): Well, they preserving the tradition of the blessed doctrine derived directly from the holy apostles, Peter, James, John, and Paul, the sons receiving it from them . . . came by God’s will to us also to deposit those ancestral and apostolic seeds . . . according as they delivered it. For such a sketch as this, will, I think, be agreeable to a soul desirous of preserving from loss the blessed tradition. (Miscellanies 1:1 [AD 208])

The dogmas taught by strange sects will be brought forward. And against these dogmas will be opposed all those things that should be premised in accordance with the profoundest contemplation of the knowledge that will advance to our view, as we proceed to the renowned and venerable canon of tradition. (Miscellanies 2.302)

So what makes up this “tradition” that Orthodox Christians refer to? From the Orthodox Church in America:

Among the elements which make up the Holy Tradition of the Church, the Bible holds the first place. Next comes the Church’s liturgical life and its prayer, then its dogmatic decisions and the acts of its approved churchly councils, the writings of the church fathers, the lives of the saints, the canon laws, and finally the iconographic tradition together with the other inspired forms of creative artistic expression such as music and architecture. All of the elements of Holy Tradition are organically linked together in real life. None of them stands alone. None may be separated or isolated from the other or from the wholeness of the life of the Church.

https://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/doctrine-scripture/sources-of-christian-doctrine/tradition

Want to know more?

For more about epistemology, see the following article:

https://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/doctrine-scripture/sources-of-christian-doctrine

Revelation:

https://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/doctrine-scripture/sources-of-christian-doctrine/revelation

Tradition:

https://oca.org/reflections/fr.-lawrence-farley/the-consensus-of-the-fathers

How to read the Bible:

https://oca.org/reflections/misc-authors/how-to-read-the-bible

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