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.