“Whether by word of mouth or by letter…”

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The US Constitution is a prime example of how the same words can be interpreted in many different ways. Sometimes this is just a way to get around the clear meaning and other times it is simply a problem with language. There are many cases, with this founding document of a nation, that it would be nice if we could have some further explanation. Sure, you can read some of what the writers and signers said elsewhere in order to try to fill in the blanks. But, in the end, without them here, we don’t truly know how they would respond to the demands of our modern economy, technology, and needs.

This only gets murkier when dealing with Scriptures written two millennia ago. Yes, every Bible-thumper and their brother thinks they have a clear understanding while everyone else is just making things more difficult than they really should be. I mean, “The Bible Says It, I Believe It, That Settles It,” right? And yet, if I were to answer that with, “do you bury your poo outside of your property, in a hole you dug with a trowel, as instructed in Deuteronomy?” I’m guessing that suddenly what the Bible says would become a bit less settled as those using this phrase made some sort of theological exemption and that’s okay, there are things in Scripture that aren’t perfectly clear without some further explanation.

But what is more intriguing to me is what is completely left out that would be so obvious to early Christians that it wouldn’t even be worth mentioning in the letters. As the saying goes, more is caught than taught, and sometimes the most important things never do get written out. In other words, if we were writing instructions on how to drive a car, we would probably assume that the person knows how to get into the vehicle or sit facing forward. However, from the Bible, do we know how the early church structured their services or generally lived? Would they even recognize us as Christians? The reality is that there are gaps that many today just fill in with assumptions and it is usually these different extra-Biblical assumptions that lead to many divisions.

In the Protestant world “extra-Biblical” is practically a curse word. How dare you ever have a rule, custom, or tradition that goes beyond the written text! That’s false religion or something! This is why Orthodoxy is often dismissed by those seeking to strip down Christianity to the Biblical bare bones. It is a special kind of ignorance.

A good illustration? In World War II there was a study of returning aircraft and the damage that they had to determine how to better prevent future losses. The Center for Naval Analyses concluded from this that the aircraft needed more protection in these most heavily damaged areas. However, Abraham Wald, a Hungarian mathematician, begged to differ. He reasoned that the aircraft returning had survived and those that had been hit in more critical areas did not. In other words, what needed to be done was the very opposite of what the others had concluded. They needed to better armor those areas that weren’t damaged in the returning aircraft. This tendency to misinterpret evidence, based on what we have rather than what is missing, is called “survivorship bias” and can lead to woefully incorrect ideas.

This is what the Bible says about what is written versus what is not:

So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

(2 Thessalonians 2 NIV)

The “letter” is what we have received in Scripture. These are the books of the Bible, canonized by the Church and believed to be truly inspired writing for this reason. But the “word of mouth” is where things are more interesting. What of the Apostle’s teaching (or tradition according to the KJV) is not written in their letters and how do we know what is missing?

The Orthodox, of course, say that this is the tradition of the Church and tie their legitimacy to the fact that there is a line of secession going all the way back to the Apostles, by the laying of hands and ordinations, and this only makes sense. The Church (note, not an individual or even the institutions) is what keeps the spoken teachings of the Apostles preserved like it did the Bible, and also serves to provide the correct understanding of Scripture. Because we should know, as Peter warned, that the Bible does not provide its own interpretation: “[Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:16 NIV)

However, it isn’t just the non-Orthodox that fall victim to their own bias. There are parts of the Church tradition, whether spoken or written, that slip through the cracks. We all have blind spots. We all have our distortions of concepts and errant assumptions. The difference is, that the Orthodox, if they are truly seeking to be Orthodox, are at least making some effort to incorporate the sayings of the Fathers and have a grasp of those “word of mouth” traditions not necessarily ever expressed in Scripture. In doing this, in understanding how Christianity was practiced by the faithful throughout the centuries, it becomes that much harder to distort the words of the Bible.

In the end, Christianity is about Communion, not easy textbook answers, not following an instruction manual, not standing alone, but real relationships. The more important being that between ourselves and God. However, a relationship with God implies love for our brothers and sisters. It means we are rubbing elbows with other Christians and the Saints. As Fr. Anthony put it, in his fatherly council to me, “there are no Lone Rangers” in Christianity, we can’t put the words of Jesus to practice in solitude or isolation. It’s not in removing ourselves that we are purified, it is in our getting messy and involved in the life of the Church of imperfect people (like us) that we are changed. That is taking up our cross. That is the hard part of Christianity we would rather run from.

Learning never stops in relationships. Christ Jesus did not come so we could house church with the few other perfect people who have the proper understanding of a book according to us. Instead, the very act of Incarnation was God choosing to be around those undeserving and impure, to identify with them and their suffering, which should be the impulse of those filled with the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit, St Paul tells us, that will bring “unity” and a “bond of peace” which should span centuries or the current divisions because: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6 NIV)

8 thoughts on ““Whether by word of mouth or by letter…”

  1. Great points, Joel. Are there apostolic teachings that didn’t make it into New Testament books? Were there traditions that were only passed on orally and thus preserved only through the Christians who followed the apostles?

    This is one area where Eastern Orthodoxy has really appealed to me, since you guys recognize this possibility. So far, though, from my study of the early church, it doesn’t seem like anything essential to the faith is missing from the NT. For centuries, the only further traditions they mention seem to be very minor details (see Papias’s writings, for example). So I’m not sure that Eastern Orthodoxy necessarily has an edge on Anabaptism or Protestantism here. Do you know of any traditions outside the NT that actually change how the faith is practiced?

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    • Why not “come and see” for yourself? I’m guessing, given a Protestant background, you’re looking for a list of propositions or practices, traced back to the early church and, therefore, more authentic somehow than anything else. But the reality is, that the Church a body, it is a family, the entire history matters and not just what you (or your tradition) have picked and chosen. It’s really interesting to me that the Amish still observe Ascension day and Pentecost, while Mennonites, along with the rest of the Protestants have done as Martin Luther feared, and “thrown the baby out with the bathwater.” Truthfully, if you are making an honest inquiry, you should just spend time with Orthodox people, asking them questions about what they do and why, secondhand information or hearing it from me in writing simply isn’t what it is about. As my blog explained, Christianity is about Communion and relationships. Go to an Orthodox church, and learn first-hand, locally…I’m sure the parish priest will be more than glad to answer your questions!

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      • Actually, Joel, I’m not from a Protestant community, nor do I (or my church) hold to a recognizably Protestant theology. We probably side with the Eastern Orthodox on about as many issues as we side with the Protestants on.

        I’m very open to changing, but, if you really want to know, I “came and saw” and so far it seems that my church is closer than the Eastern Orthodox Church is to the faith that the apostles taught and that was lived out by the first nearly three centuries of Christianity. You’re welcome to “come and see” my church if you like.

        I honestly would be glad to know if you know of apostolic traditions that aren’t in the NT, since it sounded like you believe there are such traditions. Maybe I misunderstood you. Anyway, I’m currently researching this issue so that I can post my findings on my website.

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      • Anabaptists are part of the Protestant Reformation. Sure, they classify as the “Radical Reformation” and yet emerged as part of that general unrest in Europe starting with Martin Luther. And most conservative Mennonites have borrowed heavily from Protestantism. I mean, do you have Sunday School, Revival meetings and a pulpit? Guess where that came from. So, yes, maybe Old Order Mennonites and Amish have much in common with the Orthodox, but conservative (and liberal) Mennonites are heavily influenced by various Protestant teachers and movements.

        Anyhow, you want me to describe a banquet because you are someone who intellectualizes the ‘Christian’ experience, but I am saying to “taste and see” because that’s what Orthodoxy is all about. I understand where you’re coming from, as someone skeptical entering Orthodoxy, but the anwers came *after* I started to attend and in some really mysterious ways too. If you’re serious, you will take the time to sit down at the table and form real relationships with Orthodox people. That’s the starting point. I’m not going to shove a tract in your face and call that Christian evangelism.

        You’re either hungry for truth or you’re content with what you have. I’m fine with you being content, if that’s the truth. But you really do remind me of this Buddhisty guy, named Adam, who begged me for help and yet when I told him to start coming to church he wouldn’t. He wanted help on his own terms. He couldn’t hear a word I said when I told him about Naaman needing to dip in his river Jordan. He was still content to be miserable and doing things his own way rather than do something different. Not saying you are him, I’m just saying that those truly hungry will come to the table and eat.

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      • Lynn Martin

        Sure, you can call us Protestant; it just seems that when our lives differ from Protestants even more than Protestants differ from Orthodox, and when our foundational beliefs differ significantly from both, the term seems a less useful descriptor.

        I find it strange that you seem to feel I’m not already eating at a table, and that I do not have a part in the family of God or the body of Christ. Maybe I’m misunderstanding you. But if I weren’t being fed, I’d come looking for a table. Since I’m already being fed, the only reason I would look for another table is if the food there were healthier than the food here.

        That’s what I’m wondering. If you happen to know whether your food is nearer to what the doctors (the apostles) prescribed, I’d be glad to hear it. But you seem to want me to choose my table based on the taste of the food rather than discussing their respective levels of nourishment. I do recognize that the Orthodox often have better-tasting food, but that’s not my question.

        If I’m at a feast which contains the nutrients that the apostles prescribed, why should I need to taste another feast *before* asking whether that feast contains the true apostolic nourishment? Is it surprising that I would want to know whether your meal is closer to the apostles’ prescription before risking my health on it? God bless.

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      • You do realize that I lived, as a Mennonite, for decades of my life, right? I know how they classify. There is a broad range of Mennonites in my family, from very liberal to very conservative, and all have a distinct Protestant flavor. Yes, Anabaptists were the “Radical Reformation” and yet most mainline Mennonites today are Evangelicals in a bonnet or pushing political pacifism.

        Anyhow, don’t distort my words. You asked about Orthodoxy, and I told you to have to experience Orthodoxy to understand it. That’s not at all questioning your commitment to your version of Christian religion or making a judgment. It simply is what it is. If you want to learn about Orthodoxy, go to the banquet table and eat. If not, then I can’t help you.

        As far as Christian commitments, you’re not doing very good at being a peacemaker right now, you seem quarrelsome and more interested in debate than actually learning about Orthodoxy. That’s why I’m not engaging other than to say “come and see” which is the best I can do for you. If you’re serious, that’s what you’ll do.

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      • Lynn Martin

        I’m sorry if I offended, Joel. Thanks for clarifying what your intent was; I seem to have misunderstood.

        It may be that the reason we evaluate Anabaptists differently with regard to Protestantism is that I evaluate them based on lifestyle and worldview, not by flavor or worship practice. But I may be misunderstanding you again.

        As an Anabaptist, I’ve considered it worthwhile to offer clarificatory questions or comments on posts where you criticize Anabaptists. But we don’t seem to have hit it off. If you’d rather I wouldn’t comment, let me know, and I’ll stop.

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      • I wouldn’t say that I’m offended, but certainly a little annoyed. Maybe you’re offended. But why? Why are you so set on defending a Protestant subset or however you wish to classify them when we should both be pursuing the Truth instead? What I see is sectarianism. You want to argue one side versus the other, while here I was simply inviting you “come and see” as that is the Orthodox approach. It’s not really about winning online arguments or the theory of things, it is about the experience and relationship. That’s why Christ came, the Incarnation of Truth, and that is why the Orthodox worship is something that must be first-hand. Go meet an Orthodox priest, pepper him with questions if you want the best answers. Why would you go to me, a hardly recovered conservative Mennonite, who has much the same approach as you, that sort of aggressive stuck between our ears approach, when you could simply take a Sunday (or Saturday evening) and meet people?

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