In today’s milieu of theological discussions, it seems prudent to properly define our terms and ensure that all participants are on the same page. The onset of post-modernism certainly hasn’t helped matters and our discourse is often given over to confusion more than anything else. I’ve noticed this especially in discussions between Roman Catholics and Protestants regarding the issues of sola Scriptura and the proper role of tradition. There’s a great misunderstanding on each side both in terms of the definitions themselves as well as the history behind them.
The point of this article isn’t so much to refute Roman Catholic arguments as it is to help fellow Protestants to understand what sola Scriptura actually means while at the same time articulating an appreciation for tradition in its proper role. Many Protestants have an incomplete or even distorted view of what constitutes tradition. In a knee-jerk reaction against Rome, there are Protestants who deny that they have any kind of tradition at all. While having good intentions, they mistakenly assume that upholding the doctrine of Scripture-alone means eschewing tradition altogether.
Yet as Keith Mathison and others have demonstrated, there is a huge difference between sola Scriptura and so-called “solo” Scriptura. Roman Catholics and Protestants alike seem to miss the difference. This, I believe, is what has given rise to the “solo” Scriptura defense among Protestants who simply don’t know any better. Here we see the importance of church history along with a solid understanding of basic theological terms. The modern Evangelical church is woefully ill-equipped in this regard.
As the basis for this discussion, we must recognize that the church universal has both Scripture as well as tradition. Rome and the Reformers agreed on this point. The debate wasn’t whether tradition has a role, but to what degree. More specifically, how do Scripture and tradition relate to one another? To what degree can tradition be considered authoritative?
Historically, the early church considered Scripture alone to be divine revelation. The interpretation of Scripture was not to be left up to every individual on his own, but within the counsel of the church according to the regula fidei (or “rule of faith”). It’s noteworthy that the early church never considered ecclesiastical interpretations of Scripture to be in any sense a form of divine revelation. Learned men within the church could certainly render their interpretations, but their counsel was not considered a higher authority than Scripture itself. At the same time, neither did they elevate the traditions of the regula fidei to the level of Scripture.
As the church moved into the Middle Ages, a gradual shift took place where a new view of tradition was forming. This new two-source view, in which tradition would be seen as a second source of revelation, gained acceptance in many quarters. To be sure, the view of the early church was still dominant even at this point in time, but the two-source view gained in popularity. This was a continual debate in the medieval church and would become a major dividing line during the Reformation.
Europe in the 16th century became the theological battlefield on which this issue would be carefully articulated by both sides. In Martin Luther’s famous debate with Johann Eck in 1519, we see the first serious confrontation on the issue of authority. During the debate, Eck cornered Luther on the issue of ecclesiastical authority. Luther made plain his view that the papacy was not infallible and neither were church councils. Divine, infallible teaching comes from Scripture alone.
In response to the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church fired back with the various decrees of the Council of Trent. Here they affirmed their stance of placing Scripture and s0-called “sacred” tradition on the same level:
…the purity itself of the Gospel be preserved in the Church; which (Gospel), before promised through the prophets in the holy Scriptures, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, first promulgated with His own mouth, and then commanded to be preached by His Apostles to every creature, as the fountain of all, both saving truth, and moral discipline; and seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand; (the Synod) following the examples of the orthodox Fathers, receives and venerates with an equal affection of piety, and reverence, all the books both of the Old and of the New Testament–seeing that one God is the author of both–as also the said traditions, as well those appertaining to faith as to morals, as having been dictated, either by Christ’s own word of mouth, or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic Church by a continuous succession.
Trent was where the dividing line was clearest. It was here where the Roman Church officially anathematized themselves by, among other acts, placing their own earthly authority on par with that of God Almighty. These statements would be reiterated at the First Vatican Council and remain part of Rome’s teaching to this day.
The magisterial Reformers not only followed Luther’s lead in bringing back the early church viewpoint but they likewise didn’t eschew tradition. All of the confessions which came out of the magisterial Reformation were not only consistent with the ecumenical creeds of the early church, but they subordinated themselves to the authority of sacred Scripture by professing Scripture as the only infallible rule for faith and practice. Creeds, confessions, and other statements of the church would most certainly be used and to great effect, but they are never to be seen as divine revelation.
In my next post, we’ll look more deeply into what it means to have a right view of tradition and how it is properly applied.