We Have Tradition Too! – Part 2

In Part 1 of this article on tradition, we looked at the distinction between sola Scriptura and so-called “solo” Scriptura while emphasizing the necessity of tradition.  Sola Scriptura does indeed mean “Scripture alone” as the ultimate authority of faith and practice, but this doesn’t mean that biblical interpretation is done in a vacuum.  The practice of modern Evangelicalism appears to be the me-and-my-Bible approach of “solo” Scriptura in which all tradition is thrown out altogether or otherwise made subordinate to the interpretative whims of the individual.

With respect to the individualism found in modern Evangelical approaches to biblical interpretation, it is important to concede that Roman Catholic critics are at least partly right.  There is most certainly an element of the “lone ranger Christian” at work here along with a very low view of the church.  Membership in the local church is now seen as something loose or fluid, assuming that it exists at all.  Yet where these same Roman Catholic critics err is their assertion that this situation in modern Evangelicalism is somehow representative of historic Protestant teaching.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Aside from Scripture, the magisterial Reformers consciously and openly appealed to early church fathers as well.  They made it clear that their efforts at reforming the church were not rooted in something novel, but had the backing of centuries of church tradition.  Indeed, John Calvin relied heavily upon the testimony of early church fathers in his famous reply to Cardinal Sadoleto in which he articulated a systematic defense of Reformation doctrine.  In particular he cited Chrysostom in echoing the warning to beware of those who promote new doctrines under the auspices of the Holy Spirit, for the Spirit affirms what God has already spoken in the Scriptures rather than theological novelties.  Both Rome and the Anabaptists had been guilty of the latter.

Obviously there’s a vast difference in how Rome uses tradition versus how it is used in confessional Protestantism.  At the root, of course, is the issue of authority.  Yet it’s important as well to recognize how each view manifests itself.  The Dutch Reformed scholar Herman Bavinck puts it this way:

The difference between Rome and the Reformation in their respective views of tradition consists in this: Rome wanted a tradition that ran on an independent parallel track alongside of Scripture, or rather, Scripture alongside of tradition.  The Reformation recognizes only a tradition that is founded on and flows from Scripture.  To the mind of the Reformation, Scripture was an organic principle from which the entire tradition, living on in preaching, confession, liturgy, worship, theology, devotional literature, etc., arises and is nurtured.  It is a pure spring of living water from which all the currents and channels of the religious life are fed and maintained.  Such a tradition is grounded in Scripture itself.

I don’t think that I could improve upon that statement at all, but I will simply add that a spirit of worldliness seems to underwrite the whole notion of tradition being a separate track alongside of Scripture.  Here lies perhaps another difference between Roman Catholic and Protestant views of tradition: the latter serves to keep worldliness at bay whereas the former facilitates it.  The Reformed tradition’s regulative principle of worship is probably the best example of this.  Doing what God demands in worship and keeping it within biblical limits is definitely a tradition which flows out of Scripture rather than running against it.

Today’s Evangelical churches are in such a theological chaos precisely because they have abandoned the confessional traditions inherent within the early church as well as historic Protestantism.  It’s not enough to simply say, “We believe the Bible.”  What does that mean, exactly?  Mormons, Roman Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and a host of other heretical groups will say that as well.  A bare bones “statement of faith” on a church website just doesn’t suffice.  What we believe regarding the nature of Scripture itself, attributes of God, justification, ecclesiology, worship, and other doctrines must be defined with clarity.

The creeds of the early church were a product of such a necessity to carefully define essential doctrines in order to combat heresy and false teaching.  Indeed, the confessions produced by the Reformation served the same purpose.  There’s an organic continuity between these early creeds and the latter confessions, both having Scripture as their foundation.  To be sure, no tradition is infallible.  All traditions must be tested in the light of Scripture.  We must use the lenses of Scripture to discern, for example, which of Augustine’s teachings are consistent with biblical truth.  B.B. Warfield understood this when he said that the Reformation was the triumph of Augustine’s soteriology over his ecclesiology.

Borrowing an old expression, we can eat the meat and spit out the bones.  That’s what we are called to do with respect to traditions.  While Scripture and tradition are not on the same level, neither are they necessarily at war with each other.  So long as a particular tradition flows out of Scripture, there will be no conflict.  Those traditions which have no foundation in Scripture must be thrown out.  Evangelicals are guilty of holding onto traditions which are the products of “seeker-sensitive” appeal and “church growth” marketing rather than the Word of God.  Once again, worldliness has invaded the church.

A good tradition points us toward the truth of Scripture and remains in submission to it.  The challenge for Protestants today is to engage this discussion of tradition rather than run from it.  We must understand that tradition itself is not the enemy, but rather intrusions from the world.  Just as Scripture is seen by the world as something strange and peculiar, those attributes ought to characterize our traditions as well, especially our worship.  In the spirit of semper reformanda, may our traditions mirror what we find in God’s word.

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6 Responses to We Have Tradition Too! – Part 2

  1. Someday, can you write a blog post about why you think Catholics are heretics? I’d be interested to see what your basis for that hypothesis is.

    • I believe I answered that question, at least partly, in these two posts. One of the main differences is the issue of authority. Rome believes in a dual authority: Scripture plus tradition, both of which are on the same level. Any group which takes the word of man and puts it on the same level as the Word of God is engaging in heresy. There are other issues to be sure, but this is a big one.

  2. Jeff says:

    Sir if tradition is to flow from Scripture, How would you explain when Scripture uses tradition as a reference (Jude 9 and Jude 14)?
    Calvin in his Commentaries on the Book of Jude Says
    (Jude 9) “Peter gives this argument shorter, and states generally, that angels, far more excellent than men, dare not bring forward a railing judgment. But as this history is thought to have been taken from an apocryphal book, it has hence happened that less weight has been attached to this Epistle. But since the Jews at that time had many things from the traditions of the fathers, I see nothing unreasonable in saying that Jude referred to what had already been handed down for many ages. I know indeed that many puerilities had obtained the name of tradition, as at this day the Papists relate as traditions many of the silly dotages of the monks; but this is no reason why they should not have had some historical facts not committed to writing.”
    And (Jude 14) I rather think that this prophecy was unwritten, than that it was taken from an apocryphal book; for it may have been delivered down by memory to posterity by the ancients. Were any one to ask, that since similar sentences occur in many parts of Scripture, why did he not quote a testimony written by one of the prophets? the answer is obvious, that he wished to repeat from the oldest antiquity what the Spirit had pronounced respecting them: and this is what the words intimate; for he says expressly that he was the seventh from Adam, in order to commend the antiquity of the prophecy, because it existed in the world before the flood.
    But I have said that this prophecy was known to the Jews by being reported; but if any one thinks otherwise, I will not contend with him, nor, indeed, respecting the epistle itself, whether it be that of Jude or of some other. In things doubtful, I only follow what seems probable.
    So if as you say “tradition which flows out of Scripture” (your man made tradition) for it looks like to me that Calvin left Jude in his canon because of Tradition, So what the new name of your man made tradition?
    Please answer with Scripture for I would not want you to use your fallible tradition “To be sure, no tradition is infallible”.
    How can we know which traditions are apostolic and which are merely human? The answer is the same as how we know which scriptures are apostolic and which are merely human—by listening to the magisterium or teaching authority of Christ’s Church. Without the Catholic Church’s teaching authority, we would not know with certainty which purported books of Scripture are authentic. If the Church revealed to us the canon of Scripture, it can also reveal to us the “canon of Tradition” by establishing which traditions have been passed down from the apostles. After all, Christ promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church (Matt. 16:18) and the New Testament itself declares the Church to be “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

    • Using Jude 9 and 14 is a pretty weak argument against sola Scriptura. Jude is not saying that those references are inspired no more than the Apostle Paul is saying that the pagan poets he quotes in Acts 17:28 are inspired. In both cases, the authors are quoting non-inspired sources with which their audiences were familiar. Additionally, the subsequent quotes from Calvin certainly do not prove anything with regard to the supposed inspiration of this tradition. Nor do I see anything in those quotes to indicate that Calvin believed that they were inspired or in any way on par with Scripture.

      I hardly think that what you quoted above is in any way indicative that Calvin only included Jude in the canon because of some tradition, written or unwritten. That’s really a stretch. To say that Calvin brings up additional evidence to show how it may be inspired is not the same as asserting that he believes this to be the main argument. Since you seem apt to quote Calvin’s commentaries, I really think it would behoove you to read his commentary on 2 Tim. 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:20 for starters.

      To quote Dr. James White from his debate with Gerry Matatics:

      Now, we see in Scripture, for example, in the Old Testament, the revelation ceases with Malachi. The Jews themselves, for example Amishina, recognized the prophetic voice left Israel after Malachi. So you have 400 years in between periods when they disagree about that in regards to Deuterocanonicals.

      But the point is when Jesus appears on the scene those religious leaders, called the Scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, had religious traditions. They had traditions that they claimed to be inspired. They claimed to be directly from Moses and have the same authority as Torah. Never once do you find Jesus citing these. Never once do you find Jesus submitting to these things. Instead, what do we find in the Lord Jesus’ ministry? We find him specifically citing Scripture as the final argument in any of the arguments he has with the Scribes and Pharisees.

      In point of fact, Jeff, you have yet to respond to my argument regarding the attributes of God. As I said, Scripture most definitely reflects God’s communicable attributes. So-called “sacred” tradition cannot. Scripture is self-attesting and doesn’t contradict itself. Tradition is not self-attesting. In the case of the Roman Church, its tradition not only contradicts Scripture but it also contradicts itself in numerous areas. The most obvious example that comes to mind for me is the doctrine of transubstantiation which contradicts the Council of Chalcedon. Rome’s false gospel, which is a glorified form of semi-Pelagianism, contradicts the Council of Orange. And so forth.

      Just look at the stark contrast between Vatican I and Vatican II. Is this really the church which has “consistently taught” the same things for the “past 2,000 years”? Obviously not. Scripture alone has consistently been the source of truth for the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. No tradition of men can say likewise. Scripture does not affirm any tradition which is God-breathed or on par with it.

      By saying that we need church authority in order to determine which books are part of the canon, you are blaspheming the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Scripture determines Scripture. To say that there must be a human authority to determine the canon of Scripture is to say that there is a necessary authority above God Himself. No group of men can have power within themselves to determine the canon. God’s sheep hear His voice. The Holy Spirit who dwells within all believers reveals the canon to the church, not the other way around.

      Finally, 1 Tim. 3:15 is also not a refutation of Scripture-alone and is an extremely weak argument. The church is indeed the “pillar and ground of the truth,” but only because it conforms to God’s holy word–the very reason Paul himself states for writing this epistle as he says in the first part of verse 15.

  3. I don’t think Jeff is blaspheming the Holy Spirit by saying that. If Christ could work miracles through His Apostles, surely He could send the Holy Spirit to them and through them in discerning the inspired books of the Bible. Do you not then agree historically that the Catholic Church was the one that first compiled the Bible?

    “God’s sheep hear His voice. The Holy Spirit who dwells within all believers reveals the canon to the church, not the other way around.:

    This is a great statement and actually sounds pretty Catholic. 🙂 We totally agree that the sheep hear the Shepherd’s voice and that the Holy Spirit is the one to reveal the canon to the church…but then the Church must share such revelation with the rest of the flock, you know? Jesus prayed for unity, that all might be one– it makes sense He would establish a shepherd (Peter, etc.) to guide His sheep with the power of the Holy Spirit. Though I completely agree that the Holy Spirit inspires each of us and guides each of us on a personal level, I don’t think we can say that regarding Scriptural doctrines–look at all the different interpretations out there! Surely Jesus would not leave us so confused when He prayed for unity. 🙂

    Grace and peace,

    • Thank you for your comment, Laura. I would like to say at the outset that I’m part of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. I worship as a part of that church every Sunday and have communion with the saints of this universal body. I’m just not part of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC), which is altogether separate from the catholic church.

      To answer your question, I don’t agree that the RCC compiled the canon of Scripture as the RCC didn’t even exist in the first century. The primary of the Roman church and the development of the papacy were much later developments and certainly cannot be found in Scripture. The church is indeed built upon the teaching and testimony of the Apostles. I agree wholeheartedly with that statement. However, this apostolic teaching is found in the canon of Scripture rather than the traditions of men.

      I also respectfully disagree that the statement I made sounds anything like what would come out of Rome. Historically, Rome’s position has been that the church produced Scripture rather than the other way around. Indeed, the reality is that the Scriptures are the testimony upon which the church itself is built. The Bible is our foundation, the only infallible rule for faith and practice.

      Christ Jesus is our Shepherd. We do not need an earthly shepherd, whether it’s a pope or some other figure. The Book of Hebrews makes that abundantly clear, contrasting the eternal priesthood of Christ with the temporal priesthood of Aaron.

      As for the various interpretations of Scripture, I am not suggesting for a moment that there is not a role for teachers in the church or that tradition is unimportant. I would invite you to read parts 1 and 2 of the article I posted above. And to be sure, the traditions of Rome can be interpreted just as wildly as people interpret Scripture. Having a magisterium and papal authority certainly have not stopped the confusion and contradictions I see within Roman Catholic teaching, past and present.

      It is indeed blasphemy to assert that a group of men have attributes which only God has. God alone produces Scripture and gives the church the means of identifying it and discerning, the Holy Spirit indwelling the hearts of the saints. Moreover, Rome’s position of denying the sufficiency of God’s holy word is indeed blasphemy, for it sets the opinions of men on the same level.

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