Edith Humphrey: Scripture and Tradition

Dr. Edith M. Humphrey is the William F. Orr Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Prior to her service at PTS, she taught at several colleges and universities in Canada, and was professor of Scripture at Augustine College, Ottawa, Canada, from 1997-2002, where in her final year she served as dean.

October 2014
Alvin Rapien
Edith Humphrey
Who are your greatest influences?

I have been influenced by so many, both face-to-face, through writing and prayers, that it is hard to say. My father, who was an autodidact, and a high-school English and History teacher, and my mother, who was a faithful and perceptive Christian (a Martha type!), were of course the most formative. During my early years and throughout my life, C. S. Lewis has been my constant companion, from the Magician’s Nephew through to his philosophical and literary works, my favourite being Till We Have Faces, where he clearly shows awareness of the hope of theosis. While I was in the Salvation Army, I was greatly helped by Norman Coles, a Salvation Army officer, in University, I was influenced by Prof. Alexandra F. Johnston, and while in Anglicanism, by Oliver O’Donovan and N. T. Wright, not to mention the courageous stance of Bishop Robert Duncan, just retired as Primate of the ACNA. The draw to Orthodoxy came in my late thirties, when I met Fr. Maxym Lysack of Ottawa, and began to read Alexander Schmemann, Vladimir Lossky, Paul Evdokimov and Kallistos Ware. These are only a few of the most significant academic and pastoral influences in my life!

What book(s) are you reading right now, and why?

Currently I am reading St. John Chrysostom on Romans, Paul Gavrilyuk on Florovsky and Fr. John Behr on the Apocalypse of John (a soon-to be published article of which he has given me a sneak preview). The first is in preparation for a book on the righteousness of God that I hope to frame during my sabbatical next year, the second is in preparation for a discussion at the Orthodox Theological Society of America, and the third is simply something Father John gave me because we share an interest in Johannine literature and apocalyptic writing.

What was your journey into Orthodoxy like?

It was long and eventful! From the first time that I met Orthodox Christians and attended my first Great Vespers (a Saturday evening service) until my chrismation and reception in Pentecost 2009, there were about thirteen years of thinking, reading, and serving in the church and the academy. In some ways, becoming Orthodox was a fulfillment of what I had learned and lived first in the Salvation Army, then in Anglicanism; in other ways, it was a radical change. (My oldest daughter and my husband took the plunge first: my daughter, very early at the beginning of that thirteen years, and my husband towards the end of it. Now, all the members of my family are worshiping in an Orthodox context!). For me, the decisive moment came unexpectedly, as I had anticipated remaining an Orthophile Anglican, like Evelyn Underhill. Nine months before my decision was taken, I had served at the Global conference of Anglican (reformers) in Jordan and Jerusalem, and thought that I had a role in that continuing movement. In February of 2009, events in the newly formed ACNA (Anglican Communion of North America) confirmed my growing impression that our unity as reformers was very tentative, since as evangelicals, anglo-catholics and charismatics, we had many ecclesial and sacramental differences. At the same time, I had a rare “word” from the Lord, calling my attention to the place of holy Mary, not as one who stands BETWEEN Christ and Christians, but as one who offers Him to us in a very particular way: the prayer for the Meeting in the Temple (the Presentation) commanded my attention and held it. ““Christ, the coal of fire, whom holy Isaiah foresaw, now rests in the arms of the God-bearer Mary as in a pair of tongs, and He is given to the elder” To Simeon, and to us, I realized! As with the coal in Isaiah 6, Christ was both mediated to us through others (as the coal was with tongs) and immediately present (as the coal was on Isaiah’s lips). For me, this was the one major doctrinal problem that I had retained from my Protestant years, and the Lord resolved it through that prayer, in connection with research I had been doing on Isaiah 6. Other misgivings, like the cultural oddness of Orthodoxy, and leaving behind my beloved hymnody, paled beside this realization that we are interconnected with a host of others, and with real heroes in the faith, including the Mother whom Jesus gave over to his beloved. And so I made the move. Several wonderful things have come of it: I now am part of the ancient Tradition of a church that goes back to the first century; I have resources such as the ascetical life, ancient hymns, and confession to help me through difficulties; I no longer conceive of my role as Christian and academic in a defensive mode, but a constructive one, because of this solid foundation.

You have explored what the Bible states about tradition in your book, Scripture and Tradition. What is the biggest misunderstanding you encounter about tradition?

Many people believe that tradition is stultifying and repressive, where it is the living experience of the Church. Also, many think that it a separate authority to judge Christian matters, whereas Scripture and Holy Tradition are always intertwined. English speaking readers are sometimes misled by their Bibles, which tend to reserve the word “tradition” for use in a negative context (e.g. what pagans or Pharisees practiced) . In fact, the same words for tradition (noun and verb) are used POSITIVELY, too, and in key parts of Scriptures, including teaching about the resurrection, or worship, or the place where Jesus “gives over (traditions)” his Spirit at his death.

You are a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). How should Orthodox Christians interact with Protestant theology?

It is important for Orthodox Christians to know something about Protestant theology before speaking about it. There is a good deal of misinformation, reaction and over-reaction. Not all Protestants are the same, on many scores—that is, of course, why there are so many denominations. It is helpful to read the best of their scholars, and consider what they say carefully, and respectfully, not assuming that they are schismatics and therefore necessarily heretics. Where many of the major differences will come is, of course, in the area of ecclesiology, or the teaching about the nature of the Church. We have to understand that our view of the Church is actually offensive to Protestants, because it sounds arrogant. (“You don’t think we are Christians?”) I think it helpful to remember that it is the Orthodox way to say where the Church is rather than to complain about where it isn’t. Similarly, our emphasis upon theosis will make many of the most small “o” orthodox Protestants very nervous, because it sounds like Mormonism. They do not have recourse to the distinction between “essence” and “energies” as we do in our tradition, and so “becoming god” will sound pagan to them. Being aware of these differences is very important, and seeing the links is helpful, as well, for example, the teaching of Charles and John Wesley on Holiness. We need, of course, to be honest as well, and to think carefully about WHY we differ concerning how we talk about salvation, about the church, and about the sacraments. We can, also, be reminded of the best in our own traditions in reading the best of Protestant theologians. They have had challenges in the past which we are only now facing today, as our Orthodox churches did not need to deal with the Enlightenment, etc. What clear thinking Protestants (and Catholics) have to say about mission, about standing for Christ in a hostile environment (Bonhoeffer), about learning the Bible (sometimes evangelicals put us to shame!) can and should enrich us!

In your book Grand Entrance, you wrote about worship in Scripture, the historical liturgies of the East and the West, as well as the “worship wars” in America. For those that come from a Protestant background, what corrective do the ancient liturgies offer?

The ancient liturgies preserve a balance of Christian motifs, postures and prayers, opening up windows so that we can see more of the Triune God whom we worship. Without this balance, worship services can often devolve into a lesson organized around a particular theme, rather than an encounter together with the living God of all truth. (Recently I was at a Protestant service where the Communion service was co-opted to speak about feeding the hungry, and the sacrifice of Jesus was hardly mentioned, for example.) The ancient liturgies also face us in the right direction—mostly towards God in confession, adoration and listening! Certainly worship services can help to teach us, can move us emotionally, and can give us pleasure because of their artistry, but worship does not take place in a lecture hall, a movie theater, or a concert hall. These other ‘serendipitous’ moments aside, it is entrance into the presence of God, with a whole company of others, some of whom we see and others (including the angels) who remain mostly unseen. This movement towards God, and out of ourselves and our preoccupations, is the main gift given to us in the classical liturgies.

You are working on a project regarding the Church fathers’ readings on justification language in St. Paul’s letters. Can you give us a tiny bit of insight on what your studies are revealing?

I have barely started this project, but I am discovering that the Church fathers did not break up justification and sanctification in the common way that Western theology does. Especially St. John Chrysostom’s words concerning what Paul said in 2 Cor 5:21 are startling: “Reflect therefore on what great things God bestowed on you… ‘For the righteous,’ he says, ‘He made a sinner; that He might make the sinners righteous.’ But look, he didn’t just say this, but what was far greater… For he didn’t say that God “made” Christ a sinner, but “sin”… that we also might become – he did not say just righteous,’ nor even just “righteousness,” but “the righteousness OF GOD.” So, St. John here puts our becoming, our growth in Christ, alongside our salvation, and understands the Apostle’s words to refer to how God became man (even to the point of being “made sin”) so that we could become God’s very righteousness! I think that this is quite amazing because it retains the distinction between God and creation even while putting forward the hope that we should regain the image of God, since we are in Christ. We need a robust view of the “otherness” of God (which the Fathers had, surrounded as they were by paganism, and informed as they were by the Old Testament). Only then can the work of the Holy Spirit in us be seen as the miracle that it really is. God died for us that we might live in Him! A second book that I will be working on concerns God’s use of mediators in our lives (other Christians, saints, the Theotokos Mary), even while he is personally, immediately present with us. I have entitled that, provisionally, “Mediation and the Immediate God.”

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