Friday, 20 May 2011

Cyril on Scripture and Tradition

"But in learning the Faith and in professing it, acquire and keep that only, which is now delivered to thee by the Church, and which has been built up strongly out of all the Scriptures. For since all cannot read the Scriptures, some being hindered as to the knowledge of them by want of learning, and others by a want of leisure, in order that the soul may not perish from ignorance, we comprise the whole doctrine of the Faith in a few lines. This summary I wish you both to commit to memory when I recite it , and to rehearse it with all diligence among yourselves, not writing it out on paper, but engraving it by the memory upon your heart, taking care while you rehearse it that no Catechumen chance to overhear the things which have been delivered to you. I wish you also to keep this as a provision through the whole course of your life, and beside this to receive no other, neither if we ourselves should change and contradict our present teaching, nor if an adverse angel, transformed into an angel of light should wish to lead you astray. For though we or an angel from heaven preach to you any other gospel than that ye have received, let him be to you anathema. So for the present listen while I simply say the Creed, and commit it to memory; but at the proper season expect the confirmation out of Holy Scripture of each part of the contents. For the articles of the Faith were not composed as seemed good to men; but the most important points collected out of all the Scripture make up one complete teaching of the Faith. And just as the mustard seed in one small grain contains many branches, so also this Faith has embraced in few words all the knowledge of godliness in the Old and New Testaments. Take heed then, brethren, and hold fast the traditions which ye now receive, and write them an the table of your heart. Guard them with reverence, lest per chance the enemy despoil any who have grown slack; or lest some heretic pervert any of the truths delivered to you."

Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386), Catechetical Lectures, 5:12-13 [italics mine]

Cyril wrote his catechetical lectures as a presbyter for the instruction of those preparing for church membership. As such they are a fascinating insight into the world of the early church, and they positively brim with scriptural references and allusions which display just how central the study and knowledge of the scriptures was in the life of the early church. This is an intriguing quotation, for it clearly reveals that Cyril regarded tradition ("that which is handed on to thee") as entirely derived from and subordinated to scripture (see italicised sentences). Tradition for Cyril seems to be basically the rule of faith. We have already seen that for Cyril, nothing is required to be believed as an article of faith unless clearly derived from scripture (see last post on Cyril), and here we can see that for him tradition is simply the content of scripture passed on to the catechumens in creedal form, particularly for the benefit of the illiterate and the working class, from which most of the converts of the early church came. There is no thought here of tradition containing extra-scriptural teachings or revelations.

Whether Cyril, or the other early church Fathers, were consistent in their application of the primacy of scripture is another matter, as is also the question of whether their exegesis of scripture was always sound; but what is clear is that the principle of the primacy and authority of scripture as set forth by Cyril is in its essentials the same as that set later by the Lutheran Fathers (see the discussions of scripture and tradition in Chemnitz's 'Examination of the Council of Trent' and Gerhard's 'Theological Commonplaces'*). Tradition, in the form of creeds and confessions, has its place in the life of the church, not as a source of doctrine, but as a means of collating, confessing and teaching the doctrine of scripture, and as subordinate standards of doctrine - a 'norma normata', a rule which is itself ruled by a higher authority.

* Note - I have referenced these theologians rather than the Book of Concord because the "human traditions" discussed in the Book of Concord are mostly traditions of worship instituted to merit grace, a different category of traditions from that under discussion here.

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