I gave a lesson to my students recently on what the Bible is, and how we should read it. I really enjoyed teaching it, so I thought I’d share!
I gave a lesson to my students recently on what the Bible is, and how we should read it. I really enjoyed teaching it, so I thought I’d share!
Above, St. Irenaeus of Lyons
If the scriptures are the Word of God, how does tradition play a role in the church without undermining the uniqueness of the scriptures? How does it benefit the church without undermining biblical study? Many Protestants today take the approach of rejecting altogether any extra-biblical tradition. But is this healthy or safe?
Tradition has always been around ever since the conception of the church. And in fact, it was very important during the first five centuries of the early church. To understand the importance and role of tradition, it’s important to get a glimpse of how the early church fathers understood tradition.
Alister McGrath, in his Historical Theology, says this about the early church:
A movement known as Gnosticism emerged as a major threat to the Christian church during the [first century], partly on account of the fact that its teachings were similar to those of Christianity itself.Many Gnostic writers argued that salvation was achieved through access to a secret teaching, which alone ensure that believers would be saved. The “secret knowledge” in question, for same Gnostic writers, was almost like a form of “cosmic password”. When someone died, their spirit was liberated from its physical prison, and it was free to begin its long and complex journey to its final and glorious destination. To get there, it needed to get past series of potential obstacles, for which the “secret knowledge” was required.
Some Gnostic writers argued that this secret oral teaching had been passed down from the apostles, and that it was to be found in a “veiled” form in the Bible. Only those who knew about the Bible in a certain way would gain access to this knowledge, which was not publicly available…. (pg 37)
So within the first few decades of the church, Gnosticism had emerged which threatened orthodox teaching. And the problem was that they claimed to have a secret interpretation of the scriptures which they had received from the apostles. Something which was novel and different from the teaching of the other churches. How was the early church to combat this?
In response to the threat from Gnosticism, a “traditional” method of understanding certain passages of the Scripture began to develop. Second-century patristic theologians such as Irenaeus of Lyons began to develop the idea of an authorized way of interpreting certain texts of Scripture, which he argued went back to the time of the apostles themselves. Scripture could not be allowed to be interpreted in any arbitrary or random way: it had to be interpreted within the context of the historical continuity of the Christian church. The parameters of its interpretation were historically fixed and given. “Tradition” here means simply “a traditional way of interpreting Scripture within the community of faith”…
[Specifically], Irenaeus…argues that the living Christian community possessed a tradition of interpreting Scripture which was denied by heretics. By their historical succession from the apostles, the bishops ensure that their congregations remain faithful to their teachings and interpretations (pg. 38)
Irenaeus’ argument was that there was an historical, orthodox interpretation of the scriptures that went back to the apostles, and was passed down to the bishops of that time. One cannot simply have their “own interpretation” of scripture. Novelty is no friend of the church. It must go back to the traditional interpretation of the apostles and bishops. In this way, “tradition” is seen as a historically “verified” interpretation of scripture, passed on to the bishops and so on from the apostles. An interpretation which could be trusted.
And Irenaeus wasn’t the only which argued this. McGrath also cites Tertullian, saying:
A similar point is made by the Roman theologian Tertullian, in an early third-century analysis of the sources of theology dedicated to demonstrating the weaknesses of the heretical position. Tertullian here lays considerable emphasis upon the role of tradition and apostolic succession in defining of Christian theology. Orthodoxy depends upon remaining historically continuous with and theologically dependent upon the apostles. The heretics, in contrast, cannot demonstrate any such continuity (pg 39)
McGrath quotes Tertullian who says,
If the Lord Jesus Christ sent out apostles to preach, no preachers other than those which are appointed by Christ are to be received, since “no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son has revealed him”, and the Son appears to have revealed him to no on except the apostles who he sent to preach what he had revealed to them. What they preached…ought, by this ruling, to be established only by those churches which those apostles founded by their preaching and, as they say, by the living voice, and subsequently through their letter (pg. 39)
Tertullian says that only teaching which proceeds from the Father, to the Son, to the apostles, and to those sent by the apostles, is to be accepted as orthodox. That is, only biblical interpretation which follows this historical line is to be considered orthodox. Again, tradition is this historically verified interpretation passed on by the apostles.
As time went by, into the fifth century, another theologian Vincent of Lerins developed this thought on “apostolic tradition”. McGrath says:
Writing in the aftermath of the Pelagian controversy, Vincent of Lerins expressed his belief that the controversies of that time had given rise to theological innovations, such as new ways of interpreting certain biblical passages…But how could such doctrinal innovations be identified? In response to this question, he argues for a triple criterion by which authentic Christian teaching may be established: ecumenicity (being believed everywhere), antiquity (being believed always), and consent (being believed by all people). This triple criterion is often described as the “Vincentian canon”, the word “canon” here having the sense of “rule” or “norm”…
The problem that Vincent hopes to resolve is: how are authentic Christian teachings to be distinguished from those of heretics? (pg. 40)
So Vincent had this triple criterion: believed everywhere, always, and by everyone. One cannot simply just come up with a novel interpretation. It must find itself in line that rule of faith.
So then, tradition was the historical interpretation of the scriptures passed from the apostles down throughout the centuries. And when verifying a correct interpretation of scripture, all one need do is ask: is this believed everywhere, always, and by everyone?
In this light, tradition is not in competition with the scriptures, but actually protects them! But even more important, no Christian should approach the scriptures a-historically. Meaning, Christians today find themselves in this big saga called the Christian church, with smarter and godlier men and women before us. We must approach the scriptures, standing on their shoulders, depending on the apostles and the churches after them.
As a Protestant, I hold to the conviction that scripture is the only infallible authority for church and practice. This principle is commonly known as sola scriptura.
Scott Swain and Michael Allen say in their Reformed Catholicity that sola scriptura means that scripture “is the norm that norms all other norms and that is not itself normed” (p 42). They explain further, saying, “the process of receiving and transmitting apostolic truth has a terminus a quo, Holy Scripture, from which it flows and to which it is accountable.” (p 43)
What sola scriptura means, is that scripture is the only source of authority that is both infallible and unchangeable. It is the unique “norm” of churchly authority in that it is the only infallible authority.
The necessary corollary of sola scriptura is that the articulation of theology, creeds, ecclesial tradition, liturgy, et al, is necessarily not infallible. In other words, fallible men are attempting to express the truths found in the infallible scriptures. Swain and Allen explain this:
The various products and processes of church tradition are certainly fallible, and their existence and exercise are certainly accountable to their prophetic and apostolic foundation. (p 45-46)
In other words, because tradition or theological exercise is fallible, it is always subject to “chapter and verse” to validate their point. The Bible must be at the foundation.
Swain and Allen go on to explain that because the Spirit dwells in the church, she can and does have renewed reason to interpret scripture. Through the act of regeneration, the
‘gracious, sovereign movement of Word and Spirit outbids the fall.’ In its rescue and renewal by God, reason is raised and restored to its proper function within the economy of divine teaching. In terms of the present discussion, this means that everything that the Spirit does in us to illumine Holy Scripture, he does by us, by the instrumentality of created reason in its social and historical expression (p 37)
So theology and tradition is not a wasted effort. The Spirit does enable the church to interpret and explain the scriptures. However,
because [the church] has not yet received… the beatific vision (glorification), reason’s vocation is “inseparable from ongoing enquiry, from reformulating old questions, testing established beliefs, asking new questions, and so providing new resources for teaching.” Reason’s vocation is inseparable from a lively tradition of debate about what does and does not count as the faithful extension of tradition toward its goal, the knowledge and love of the Triune God (p 38)
What Swain and Allen are meaning to communicate here, is that the Spirit, as the church’s aid, produces real and meaningful tradition rooted in the scriptures. However, because the church is not yet glorified, not yet experiencing the beatific vision, the activity of the church in theologizing and traditioning is an ongoing, fallible process, as she grows up into maturity by the ongoing help of the Spirit.
Suffice to say, Protestants are pro-tradition. We see this in the articulation of creeds and confessions from the time of the church’s conception. However, we realize that the church has yet to experience her fulness, and is in the process of sanctification. Insomuch as she submits to the Spirit, she is able to articulate the theology of scripture in an accurate manner. Although, theology and tradition are subject to error because of the reality of sin.
Sola scriptura is this attempt to “ride the line” in an appreciation of historic creeds and tradition, while at the same time realizing that scripture alone is infallible, and that the church at times can “get it wrong”.
Unfortunately, there are two common reaction to the principle of sola scriptura. First, many reject sola scriptura because of its affirmation that scripture alone is infallible. The Roman and Eastern church chide sola scriptura because they feel it undermines historic tradition. Still others — usually from the evangelical side — misapply sola scriptura, and reject tradition or theology in any form, thinking it unhelpful and distraction.
Swain and Allen explain these two overreactions to the principle of sola scriptura:
We will suggest that two classic errors are evident in sola Scriptura as described by [many]. We might identify these targets as a theology at once both Donatist and deist.
First, there is a Donatist shift… [I]n the fourth and fifth centuries the Donatists believed that the church was pure, and, therefore, they opposed the return of those who had caved in to pressure during periods of persecution. They insisted that such disloyal church members could not be restored to good standing, precisely because they had a very elevated sense of the church’s holiness. A Donatist tendency can be seen in purist approaches to the church’s faith and practice. Here theological reflection cannot be helped by a flawed and fallen church. The church is divided, sinful, and marred by deformities. Thus, the call is to reflect critically and individually upon the practices of the church from outside those practices, rather than from within them… [Many] certainly describe a sola Scriptura Protestantism that is Donatist in style—wherein tradition can only be valid if perfectly aligned and generated by the Holy Scriptures. In so doing, zeal for biblical purity may well lead to overlooking the fullness of God’s involvements in ecclesial history and even his providential and spiritual leading of an imperfect but genuine church; her traditions, creeds, liturgies, practices, and spiritual authority may be dismissed because they are not hand-delivered in immaculate and resplendent glory.
Second, the modern era also births a deistic approach. Here theological practice is entirely and exclusively human activity with divine agency bracketed off to the past. Mark Bowald has argued that “most contemporary accounts of biblical hermeneutics are deistic.” 20 Nothing remains but a divine deposit left for the pious Christian or, perhaps, the objective scholar, to unearth and appreciate. The involvement of God is entirely described in the past tense: God did reveal, God did speak, God did give us an inscripturated Word. The present tense is entirely immanent, however, and involves only our own activities: receiving, reading, studying, questioning, critiquing, and so on. Method becomes important—whether historical or practical, hermeneutical or rhetorical. Because God is presumed not to be involved in the present horizon of communication, everything hangs on negotiating the text wisely and objectively. (p 56-57)
This explanation is incredibly helpful. On “donatist” side (usually an argument from Roman or Eastern churches), if tradition is fallible in any way, it is to be rejected. Tradition must either be infallibly declared, or rejected altogether. On the “deist” side, God has spoken, and does not speak any longer. And so traditioning or theologizing is a wasted effort. The only way to engage God is to “objectively” interpret the Bible. “No creed but Christ” mentality.
Both misunderstand sola scriptura. As Swain and Allen explain, sola scriptura
was not intended by its original advocates in the time of the Reformation as an absolute rebuke to tradition or a denial of genuine ecclesial authority. It was a spiritual characterization of the nature of that authority and the role of that tradition. (p 49)
Sola scriptura places a context to tradition and scripture, and how they relate together. Put simply, tradition, while good and important in regards to the maturity and growth of the church, is not infallible and always subject to the authority of scripture.