We Have Tradition Too! – Part 1

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.

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13 Responses to We Have Tradition Too! – Part 1

  1. You made mention of sola Scriptura, but didn’t properly define it. And what is the big difference between solo and sola?
    Reason I’m asking is because I want to hear your viewpoint as to how sola Scriptura is biblical.
    And another – if the pope is infallable and divine and infallable teachings come from Scripture alone, then how can any man (Calvin, Luther, Martin – any priest, pastor, deacon or the Pope) preach/teach/define any kind of church rules/doctrines/teachings?

  2. Oh – I should probably mention that I know the difference between sola and solo – I sounded really snarky and defensive when I asked that when I really didn’t mean to. :p
    I’m honestly curious.

    • Tina, these are some excellent questions. In the first place, I did indeed define the doctrine of sola Scriptura as meaning simply Scripture alone. Those who are familiar with this discussion know this bare-bones definition. The sticking point is not whether we as Protestants believe in Scripture alone (we most certainly do!) but in how we present the application of this doctrine. In Part 2 of this article, I’m going to illustrate what sola Scriptura is supposed to look like as opposed to the “solo” Scriptura I’ve carefully defined in Part 1.

      As for how sola Scriptura is biblical, the passage which comes to mind right off the bat is 2 Tim. 3:16, 17. Here we see Apostolic teaching indicating not only the sufficiency of Scripture but also the authority as well as the necessity of it. We know that the Christian is not complete without the Word (v. 17) whereas Rome denies the necessity of Scripture. Indeed, Scripture is inspired (v. 16, lit. “God-breathed” in Greek), an expression which is reserved only for Scripture. No tradition of the church can claim to have this level of authority.

      I would also appeal to Eph. 2:19-22. Here we see Apostolic teaching concerning the foundation of the church. Note what Paul is saying here. The foundation of the church is built upon apostles and prophets, with Christ as the cornerstone. These are once-for-all events, not to be repeated in the history of redemption. The laying of this foundation happened before we had a closed canon. Since the church did not have the full counsel of God as such, they had to rely upon the direct instruction of the Apostles themselves who were providentially preserved on earth until their deaths.

      When you build a house, the foundation is laid only once. It doesn’t happen again. So like the miraculous gifts (e.g., speaking in tongues), the oral teaching of the Apostles was limited to the Apostolic Age. Scripture was still being written during this time…the canon was still open.

      With the death of the Apostles came the closing of the Apostolic Age and with it the closing of the canon. Yes, there is an Apostolic succession– Scripture itself. It is only within the pages of Scripture where we find Apostolic teaching. I don’t believe it was a coincidence that Paul’s second letter to Timothy was one of the last things he ever wrote. As the Holy Spirit directed his pen, he included the God-breathed character of Scripture as part of this teaching precisely because it is the foundation of our faith and practice.

      As for your last question, I will simply reply that Scripture’s infallibility does not negate the teaching offices of pastor/elder, deacon, and husband/father. Am I infallible? Absolutely not, but that doesn’t mean I’m not qualified to teach my family the things of God and lead them in family worship. All believers are equipped with the Holy Spirit and only through the eyes of faith do we see Scripture aright in the first place. Iron sharpens iron (Prov. 27:17) and we are to test each other in light of Scripture, the only infallible rule for faith and practice.

  3. Jeff says:

    My good Sir in your answer above you say “Scripture was still being written during this time…the canon was still open.” I would like you to show me in the Bible when it closed. Also by what authority would anyone open canon after closing?

    • I believe that Rev. 22:18-19 is a good start in addressing at least your first question. Here we see the same kind of documentary clause found in the OT which shows us two things: A) the NT writings are God-breathed just like the OT writings, and B) that since this clause is contained with an apocalyptic prophesy by the last surviving Apostle, it is indicative of a closed canon.

      You ask by what authority…my answer is the authority of the Holy Spirit. Since the Scriptures are God-breathed, they are therefore ἀυτόπιστος (self-attesting) as such. This, my friend, goes back to the very character and attributes of God Himself. As we see in Gen. 15 and elsewhere, God swears by Himself only. He can swear by no equal or higher authority than Himself. He has done this with respect to the creation and administration of His covenants…He does this with Scripture as well.

      Therefore God does not need or require any kind of ecclesiastical authority to affirm what He has spoken. The Holy Spirit is who gives us the canon of Scripture. Indeed, the canon is revealed to the church, not by the church.

  4. Jeff says:

    John did not list the book in the Bible. He was only speaking of the Book of Revelation. So when Jewish Scholars in 90 AD only accepted 39 books where they Authorized by the Holy Spirit?
    And then Luther add (Alone) “Allein” to Romans 3:28 was that Authorized by the Holy Spirit? when he used 39 Book for his OT canon.

    • First, the principle applies to Scripture generally whether he had a canonical list or not. You miss the point entirely. Revelation was understood to be the final revelation given to the church, as such it contains that documentary clause. You believe that God has spoken, do you not? If He spoke these words to His apostle John, then surely John would have known that Revelation would be the final addition to the canon, would he not? Given the nature of Revelation itself, it clearly communicates itself to be the final addition to the canon of Scripture.

      Second, I don’t care what Jewish scholars said in the first century. Jews are not Christians and therefore do not have the gift of the Holy Spirit. Don’t understand the point of that comment/question.

      Finally, Luther did not add “alone” to Romans 3:28 nor does anyone claim that he did. Even so, that verse you cited does indeed teach justification by faith alone. Apparently you missed the phrase “apart from the deeds of the law.” That would communicate an exclusion of works from justification. The word “alone” doesn’t have to be in the text in order to communicate the principle, just like the word “Trinity” doesn’t exist in Scripture yet it nevertheless teaches that God is Triune.

      • Jeff says:

        Martin Luther would once again emphasize…that we are “justified by faith alone”, apart from the works of the Law” (Rom. 3:28), adding the German word allein (“alone”) in his translation of the Greek text. There is certainly a trace of Marcion in Luther’s move (Brown HOJ. Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church. Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody (MA), 1988, pp. 64-65).

        Furthermore, Martin Luther himself reportedly said,

        You tell me what a great fuss the Papists are making because the word alone in not in the text of Paul…say right out to him: ‘Dr. Martin Luther will have it so,’…I will have it so, and I order it to be so, and my will is reason enough. I know very well that the word ‘alone’ is not in the Latin or the Greek text (Stoddard J. Rebuilding a Lost Faith. 1922, pp. 101-102; see also Luther M. Amic. Discussion, 1, 127).

  5. Jeff says:

    Also in the Baptist Confession of Faith Chapter 1 Paragraph 2 in not supported be Holy Scripture.
    2 Tim 3:16 tells us that All Scripture is inspired… but it does not say what All Scripture is (and then list Books).

    • Actually, what you say is not true at all. The principle communicated in 2 Tim. 3:16 is the same principle by which the church knows the constitution of the canon. Just as all Scripture is inspired (“God-breathed”), so too its self-attesting nature reveals its canonicity by virtue of that very inspiration. Just as the Holy Spirit brings us God’s inspired word, so too it must demonstrate itself to be the Word of God.

  6. Jeff says:

    So your clamming that in your Bible 2 Tim 3:15 has the list. Would you mind telling us what Bible it is.

    So as you can see Baptist Confession of Faith Chapter 1 Paragraph 2 tells us what your (tradition calls Holy Scripture) I will say the list is incomplete and the Canon was closed in 407ad,

    • Where did I ever say that it contained a list? You obviously didn’t read what I wrote. Inspiration and canonicity are indeed to separate issues, but they are inherently connected. As I said before, all of this goes back to the attributes of God which we find manifested in the character of Scripture. You apparently want to ignore this essential issue entirely and instead get bogged down in semantics.

      The truth is this: the church did not produce Scripture. The church did not give us the canon of Scripture. Instead, the church receives the Word of God from God Himself and recognizes the canon because of the testimony of the Holy Spirit. You say the canon is closed. On what authority? God alone determines the canon.

  7. Pingback: We Have Tradition Too! – Part 2 | Reformed Virginian

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