The Christian “Oral Torah”

Recently, Orthodox Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein visited Northwest University. I had the honor of speaking with him for an hour or so about a variety of topics including, but not limited to, Oral Torah, Jewish-Christian dialogue, and creation theology. Amongst the many things which caught my attention, there was one thought he expressed which I thoroughly appreciated. In essence, he said that Jews are unique in that they’ve thought through their theology and recognize the source of their traditions. For Jews, that is the Oral Torah, which is the framework of traditions by which they interpret the Written Torah.

Attending a protestant Christian University, I have often witnessed people who operate from a stance of sola scriptura. Many people I know often understand their traditions as something which originated in the Pentecostal movement of the early 1900’s or in the reformations of the 16th century. Unfortunately, though, people aren’t always able to, or willing to, recognize that they to, just as Jews, have a sort of “Oral Torah”. By “Oral Torah”, I really mean the foundations and environment in which the Church traditions were formulated, which vary significantly and are not completely linear. Foundations of Christian tradition are present in theologians like Irenaeus, Augustine, John Chrysostom, and, really, any other theologian from the past 1900 years who has dialogued with the Church and made any impact, positive or negative. This lack of recognition is often realized in people not being aware of why they think or how they think. In their minds, their framework is simply the Holy Spirit and some biblical interpretation of the 1st century context of the New Testament, or the 4th century BCE context of the Hebrew Bible.

In reality, if Christians truly do hope to dialogue with others and better understand their own beliefs within a contemporary society, it is absolutely necessary to recognize the “Oral Torah” of Christianity, those elements which shaped Christianity into what it is today.

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