03 October, 2010

Gregory of Nyssa on the Primacy and Authority of Scripture

"If custom is to avail for proof of soundness, we too, surely, may advance our prevailing custom; and if they reject this, we are surely not bound to follow theirs. Let the inspired Scripture, then, be our umpire, and the vote of truth will surely be given to those whose dogmas are found to agree with the Divine words."
Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-c.394), On the Holy Trinity
Gregory was present at the 1st Council of Constantinople in 381AD, where Arianism was decisively condemned and the Nicene Creed was affirmed with an expanded clause on the Holy Spirit. This quote then provides an important insight into how he saw doctrinal authority working in the church.

The cited passage occurs early in the treatise, in the opening discussion of the matters under dispute concerning the Holy Tinity. The passage is notable for two reasons: a) inspired scripture is to be the umpire or arbiter of doctrinal disputes; and b) mention of the "vote of truth", which would seem to refer to the vote of synod or council delegates on a doctrinal matter under dispute.

One could deduce from this the following chain of doctrinal authority in the church: 1. Scripture is the primary doctrinal authority and judge in the church. 2. Synods or councils may be called to vote on matters in dispute on the basis of scripture's teaching; this is how the doctrinal authority of scripture is exercised. Not that doctrine itself is subject to a vote, but rather the synod or council, having discerned scripture's teaching, rejects the false teaching - the vote is on whose dogma agrees with scripture. This is consistent with the later Lutheran view of how the representative church (the church in synod) exercises its authority under scripture,as developed by theologians such as David Hollaz (see his Examen Theologicum Acroamaticum of 1707, in which, like Aquinas before him, he summarises and synthesises the teachings of previous dogmaticians).

Of course, synods and councils can err, and have done so in both doctrinal and administrative matters - even Gregory was deposed by a council once. This is not because scripture can err, or is not qualified to be the judge of dogma and doctrine, but because men may err and fail to interpret scripture properly, or they may even rebel against the teaching of scripture.

Finally, we must believe, because Jesus is Lord of the church, then the truth taught by scripture will prevail, even if at times that belief may seem to call for supernatural faith!
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