I know that this has been horribly disrupted, but I want to try and finish this series of posts on the opening chapters of Father John Behr’s The Way to Nicaea (previous posts here and here). They may be dense, but the issues they raise are of crucial importance and once I’ve got these posts done I hope to write something that draws on this material to address some of the misunderstandings of Tradition that are all-too-common among contemporary Christians.
Having established the key relationship between Scripture – meaning the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets – and the Gospel, Father Behr turns his attention to the relationship between this symbolic coherence of Scripture – which is effected by the word of the Cross – and the appeal to canon and tradition. This coherence of Scripture which is expressed most explicitly in Saint Irenaeus’ The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, forms the basis for Irenaeus’ appeal to canon and tradition, which he develops in Against the Heresies. This involves a challenge to those, in particular the Valentinians, who “speak the same, but think otherwise.” While they quote Scripture, they have disregarded “the order and connection of the Scriptures” and so distorted it.
They have not accepted the coherence of the Scriptures, as speaking about Christ, but have preferred their own fabrication, created by adapting passages of Scripture to a different hypothesis, attempting to endow it with persuasive plausibility. (32)
To understand Scripture, it is crucially important that one has the correct hypothesis. While for some branches of knowledge finding the right hypothesis may be a tentative and pragmatic thing, we cannot philosophically demand demonstrations of first principles.
This means, as Clement of Alexandria points out, that the search for the first principles of demonstration ends up with undemonstrable faith. For Christian faith, according to Clement, it is the Scriptures, and in particular, the Lord who speaks in them, that is the first principle of all knowledge. It is the voice of the Lord, speaking throughout Scripture, that is the first principle, the (nonhypothetical) hypothesis of all demonstrations from Scripture, by which Christians are led to the knowledge of the truth. (33)
It is these first principles that are the basis for subsequent demonstrations and function as a canon to evaluate other claims to truth. Knowledge is impossible without such a canon, for enquiry would simply degenerate into endless regression and it is for this reason that Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement appealed to a canon to counter the constantly mutating Gnostic claims. Irenaeus writes:
…anyone who keeps unswervingly in himself the canon of truth received through baptism will recognize the names and sayings and parables from the Scriptures, but this blasphemous hypothesis of theirs he will not recognize. For if he recognizes the jewels, he will not accept the fox for the image of a king. He will restore each one of the passages to its proper order and, having fit it into the body of truth, he will lay bare the fabrication and show that it is without support. (34-35)
While Irenaeus enunciates the content of the faith that was delivered to the apostles, and sees this as received through baptism, the forms of this rule of faith is not as fixed as it would later become, for
The point of the canon is not so much to give fixed, and abstract, statements of Christian doctrine. Nor does it provide a narrative description of Christian belief, the literary hyposthesis of Scripture. Rather, the canon of truth expresses the correct hypothesis of Scripture itself, that by which one can see in Scripture the picture of a king, Christ, rather than a dog or fox. It is ultimately the presupposition of the apostolic Christ himself, the one who is “according to the Scripture” and, in reverse, the subject of Scripture throughout, being spoken of by the Spirit through the prophets, so revealing the one God and Father. … For Irenaeus, the canon of truth is the embodiment or crystallization of the coherence of Scripture, read as speaking of the Christ who is revealed in the Gospel, the apostolic preaching of Christ “according to Scripture.” (35-36)
Thus the canon is a mode of interpretation, and
The key elements of the faith delivered by the apostles are crystallized in the canon of truth. This canon expresses the basic elements of the one Gospel, maintained and preached in the Church, in an ever-changing context. The continually changing context in which the same unchanging Gospel is preached makes it necessary that different aspects or facets of the same Gospel be drawn out to address contemporary challenges. However, while the context continually changes, the content of that tradition does not – it is the same Gospel.