How to read Scripture

Tradition vs. zeitgeist

The Vatican has suspended its dialogue with the Anglican Church, following the decision of its American branch to consecrate as a bishop a man who left his wife to enter a relationship with another man. The Russian Orthodox Church had already ended the dialogue for the same reason.

One of the very few blessings of this sad debate is that it forces a serious look at what we mean by tradition, and at how binding a force tradition is, or should be. For Catholics, and perhaps even more for Orthodox, tradition has an authority that it does not for most Protestants. Before we can get a sense about the right claims being made by the traditionalist and modernist sides here, it is important to see what is wrong with both of them.

Some defenders of the traditional understanding of marriage as limited to male and female partners use the Bible to make their case, and it is a strong one. I agree that this is a necessary sacramental symbol. To lean too much on a scriptural defense, however, or upon a continuous church tradition, could lead us to ignore or to downplay those situations in which we have in fact decided, not only as individuals but over time as a community, to ignore passages of Scripture or areas of tradition that we do not accept the way our ancestors did.

At the same time, tradition is an important voice-or better, a harmony of voices, a consensus-that should make us critical of merely...

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About the Author

John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.