Scripture and Tradition — Sorting through all the Issues

Dear Reader,

I would like to once again revisit the relationship between Scripture and Tradition. I gave my own thoughts on this topic previously when I discussed sources of authority in the church (see here and here). Since then I have read and reviewed (here)  Keith A. Mathison’s book, The Shape of Sola Scriptura. Reading Mathison’s book both clarified and muddied my own thoughts. My purpose now is to try to do some sorting of all that is buzzing around in my head.

As Mathison states in his conclusion, the real question is not if we refer to tradition but what tradition(s) we make use of. Even those who claim to rely upon Scripture alone (what Mathison calls the Tradition 0 or solo scriptura position) come to the text with preconceived ideas which they have gotten from other sources, whether their own imaginations, their parents, their teachers or their favorite rock anthem (the possibilities are endless). I am not going to spend a lot of time critiquing the so-called solo scriptura position. It has one fatal flaw which I think is pretty obvious which is that it leads to utter subjectivity and no way to discern right from wrong or orthodoxy from heresy.

Instead, I’d like to turn to the three other positions which Mathison defines (though I am not overly enamored of his categories). He calls them Traditions 1, 2 and 3. You can find a little more detail on them in my review of his book. I’ll begin with a brief review of these positions and then discuss the pros and cons of each.

The Positions

Tradition 3, as Mathison defines it, places a person or group of people above both Scripture and Sacred Tradition. This is the view of today’s Roman Catholic Church. For a more in-depth look at the Catholic position, with quotes, you can look back out those previous posts. The condensed version is that the Catholic Church holds that Scripture and Tradition are two branches of the teaching passed down from Christ to the Apostles. They are complementary but not identical. Christ also gave authority to his disciples, and especially to Peter, which was also handed down through the ages (this is known as the Apostolic Succession). These men, the leadership or Magisterium of the church, are given the authority to tell us what is contained in Sacred Tradition and also to rightly interpret both Scripture and Tradition. Ordinary believers, even local priests, are not able to do this. In this way, the Church (big “C”) is evelated over Scripture and Tradition both as it is the only one with the authority to tell us what they are and what they mean.

By Mathison’s definition, “Tradition 2” is that in which Tradition interprets Scripture. That is, Tradition tells us what Scripture means. I find this position somewhat of a straw man. Because Tradition in the church (whatever church you are speaking of) is oral tradition, it must necessarily be passed down by someone. And if there is a someone telling us what Tradition is, then there is a someone telling us what that Tradition means and therefore also what Scripture means.

The Eastern Orthodox church makes Scripture subject to Tradition. It believes that Christ gave one body of knowledge, Sacred Tradition, to His apostles. The most important parts of this were written down and became the New Testament. Scripture then stands as a part of Tradition. However, the Eastern Orthodox still believe in Apostolic Succession, saying that the bishops as a group show apostolic authority when they agree with one another.  Thus, they recognize the authority of the church councils. This is not really then Mathison’s Tradition 2 since there is still a body of people who are charged with preserving Sacred Tradition and interpreting it.

Tradition 1 is the position Mathison himself adheres to and which he says was that of the early Protestant Reformers (like Calvin). It is what they meant by sola scriptura, that Scripture is the only infallible rule but that it must be interpreted by the church (not the individual) in the context in which it was intended. This context is really a very narrow version of tradition (which Mathison himself would acknowledge). He speaks of the regula fidei or Rule of Faith as the guide by which we must interpret Scripture. He makes clear in his book that this rule is found on the creeds of the church, paryicularly the Apostles’, Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds. As I tried to make clear in my review of his book, I feel that Mathison is selecting just one possible rule (actually a few, since he doesn’t pick just one creed) and that though he makes a lot of good points in his book, he fails to explain this particular choice, defend it, or show that it is the rule that the Reformers would have used.

The main difference I see between Mathison’s position and that of either the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches is that his tradition is tangible and finite. he can point to it and say “here it is” and we can know the whole content of it. Having defined it, he can’t come along later and add to it or detract from it. Though to be honest, since he doesn’t pick one creed, or even one set of creeds, it is not as tangible and finite a position as I would like it to be.

Critiquing the Positions

Christianity is a diverse enterprise these days. Mathison tries to define four positions, but though his categories are helpful in framing the discussion, they don’t truly reflect the range of beliefs out there.  As I see it, there are really two extremes. On one side we have the Tradition 0, solo scriptura, crowd which, though few would acknowledge it openly, says that whatever Scripture means for you is what it means.  There is no outside standard, whether traditions or people, by which to judge an interpretation’s correctness. On the other side, we have something like the modern Roman Catholic Church which acknowledges that the authority to rightly interpret lies ultimately in one person (though even the Roman Catholic Church does not really go quite so far as this or as it could). Really the question seems to be: How many people can interpret Scripture? Another way of asking this might be: How many truths are there? Solo scriptura says that we have as many interpretations as we have people. Unfortunately, this leads to a world in which we cannot judge what is The Truth. On the other hand, if we have one person telling us what is true then we can have One Truth. Of course this is only  valuable insofar as that truth is, well, true. And in between we have an almost limitless number of permeations of those two positions.

I’ve gone back and forth on how to write this section. I want to say something about the problems with each major position, but I don’t want to be petty, I don’t want to get bogged down in the details or side-tracked on smaller issues, and I don’t want to repeat myself. And, honestly, what I find when I think about it is that the criticisms that apply to one position tend to apply to most if not all of the others.

So let me say it this way — Here is the problem: While we would all love for the Bible to be 100% clear and unarguable, it is clear from the present situation that those claiming its authority can still believe vastly different things and all back up their positions (to varying degrees perhaps) with biblical arguments. Even Satan uses biblical proof texts (Matt. 4:6) so it should come as no surprise to us that almost anyone can use the Bible to support their position.

Given this circumstance, we must then have some means of discerning between true and false interpretations of Scripture.  We might come up with principles (“Scripture interprets Scripture”), outside information (Sacred Tradition) or people (bishops, the Magisterium, the “Church”), but somewhere, somehow we need to refer to something else. The alternative is to say that there is no absolute truth, that the Bible can mean one thing to you and another to me (in which case Satan’s take is just as good as Jesus’). I’ll concede a slight variant to this — we could say that there is absolute truth but that we just can’t know it in this life. But then really what is the point of Scripture if it is not God telling us what He wants is to know? If we can’t know what it means, He might as well have not communicated at all.

As Mathison points out, everyone, everyone comes to the Word with some preconceptions. Even if we acknowledge no outside standard, we have a whole host of influences in our past which inform our own thinking. No one can truly hold to the solo scriptura approach. The question we all have to answer is: Why do you believe whatever or whomever you believe? The Roman Catholics, for example, would say that Protestants are subjective because they have no one standard of interpretation. But if we were to ask them why they believe the Scriptures mean one thing or another ultimately the answer is “because the pope says so” (there may be layers in between which involve words like “Tradition” and “Magisterium,” but ultimately this is what it comes down to). So then we may ask, Why do you believe the pope? One answer which is given is “Well, Jesus gave Peter special authority in the Bible and that has been passed down through the generations to his successors.” But Protestants and Eastern Orthodox and really everybody else look at the same texts and do not see the primacy of Peter. So how do we know that this is what the Bible means? Again, we are back to the same question. Another response might be that it is the tradition of the early church or that the church fathers tell us about the primacy of Peter and of the successive bishops of Rome. But here we are just really pushing off the problem again because there is no less debate over what the church fathers say than over what the Bible says. If anything, because there is even more material available and because it is a less well-defined body of material, it is even harder to say what the early fathers said (and that is if we even care, which many Protestants don’t).

In the end, almost everybody uses circular reasoning at some point and everybody hits that wall where they have to say “I believe it because I believe it.” In other words, we are all subjective. Today more than ever we are all “cafeteria Christians.” We have a wide array of choices before us and even if we never abandon the tradition we were raised in, we are to some extent choosing what to believe and what church to be affiliated with.

Evaluating the Options

If we all to some extent pick our church, we must before we do so have some criteria by which to choose. The catch-22 here is that our church tells us by what criteria to judge but we must first pick a church so we need some criteria before we officially subscribe to one set of criteria.

How we initially judge will be informed by a number of things. We are reasoning creatures, and while I personally believe that our sense of reason was corrupted in the fall, it does still remain. We also have consciences, inborn senses of right and wrong, which may steer us one way or anther. We have feelings (also created good but fallen) which may tend to sway us, and we have past experiences which may tend to make us gravitate toward one choice or away from another.

The questions we have to ask and which any scheme of biblical interpretation has to answer are:

  • Who can rightly interpret the Bible? — and a follow-up question: Where does their authority come from?
  • What outside sources are used?
  • What principles are used?

I am going to concentrate on the first two of these because it is in them that all the major differences between the branches of the church on this issue seem to lie.

Catholicism

As to the who, the Roman Catholic Church says the Pope (with the Magisterium, but if you read the specifics the Magisterium cannot disagree with the Pope) interprets the Bible. It should be remembered that (at least while all is going well) there is only one legitimate pope at a time, there are multiple popes over the course of history and the past ones have as much authority as the present one and so in some sense there is a body, albeit a small one, of people who interpret. Their authority is due to their apostolic succession. It comes ultimately from Christ who appointed apostles who appointed successors and so on.

The main advantage of the Catholic position is that it claims a clear line of authority and has one living ultimate authority to which to appeal. Its main drawback is that it has to maintain and defend its consistency. If a pope contradicts himself or a previous pope, it undercuts the Catholic claims. If a pope behaves poorly or says something which is later contradicted, a shadow is cast upon his legitimacy. And without this legitimacy, the Catholic position has little ground upon which to stand. I would add, with Mathison, that having one authority is only valuable insofar as that authority is correct. The consequences if that authority is wrong are dire indeed if no dissent is allowed.

Sacred Tradition, though it is relied upon by the Catholic Church, does, as Mathison says, become subservient to the human hierarchy because it is they who tell us both what the traditions are and what they mean. The fact is that almost 2000 years after Christ’s ascension, there is no definitive statement of what Sacred Tradition contains and therefore we rely upon those to whom it was entrusted.

Eastern Orthodoxy

In the Eastern Orthodox churches, there is a group of people, the bishops, who, as long as they agree with each other, provide right interpretation. Their authority is due, as in Catholicism, to their apostolic succession but also to a right adherence in matters of faith and morals since apostolic authority can be lost in Eastern Orthodoxy.

The Eastern Orthodox get around some of the problems the Catholics face by not concentrating authority in one person (who could then let one down by going astray) and also by allowing that apostolic authority can be abrogated. The problem for them is that whenever there is a disagreement among bishops there must be some way to determine who is orthodox and who is the heretic. Since the general test is agreement with one’s fellow bishops, one would assume that if one bishop disagrees that he is the rebel. But what if there is a larger split? I honestly don’t know anything about the history of orthodoxy since 1054, but we can look back at the early church councils which were called to deal with heresies. Though in retrospect we are able to say that Arianism, to take one example, was an error and has since been suppressed, at the time it would have been very hard to say who was right and who was wrong.

Though they have different understandings of the nature and status of Sacred Tradition, the Orthodox are open to the same charge the Catholics are — that a purely oral tradition necessarily becomes subservient to those who maintain it. Both of these branches, then, really depend in their views upon the legitimacy of their claims of apostolic succession. If we are not convinced that Christ established a continuing line of authority through the apostles (and in the Catholic case the primacy of Peter as well) or if we believe that such a line was at any time broken, then there is no legitimacy for the authority of either of these branches of Christianity. Both branches acknowledge that the line continues in the other though the Orhtodox believe that the bishops of Rome (that is, the popes) long ago abrogated their authority so that that branch is effetivley wiped out. The Catholics believe that apostolic authority continues in the Eastern Orthodox bishops but that they are outside of the proper church since they don’t submit to the pope as the successor of Peter. How then do we know that apostolic succession and the primacy fo Peter are real? Well,the Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic churches tell us so; they tell us that the right interpretation of Scripture shows these things. Protestants, of course, would disagree and say that the Bible  and the history of the early church show no such thing and that apostolic authority ended with the first generation of apostles.

One final observation before we turn to the Protestants — though both claim to hold the Tradition passed down from Christ, there doesn’t seem to be any consensus between them as to what that Tradition is. As I said, though neither defines it well, they seem to view it quite differently which would lead to the conclusion that one or the other (at least) must not have the actual Sacred Tradition.

Protestantism

Protestant churches vary. Many give at least greater authority to interpret the Bible and determine right doctrine to either the leaders of the church or the church as a whole. A few, like the Anglicans, will claim apostolic succession, but most do not and therefore have to answer the question of where authority in the church comes from. Though it is my own branch, I think this is a weak point in the Protestant position. There is usually some sort of passing down of authority, as when hands are laid on at an ordination. Sometimes leaders are chosen by other leaders; sometimes they are chosen by the congregation or by some combination of these two. Usually there is some recognition that one is fit for leadership because he (or she) has gifts or qualities given by God which are then recognized by the leaders or the people. One might say that authority in Protestant churches (for the most part; it is hard to generalize with Protestants) comes from right adherence in matters of faith and morals combined with some sort of recognition by others of this reality.

With no clear line of authority to be traced beyond a certain point, Protestants are faced with a problem of origins — that is, where did the authority of the first Protestant ministers come from? And if their authority is based upon having right doctrine then we must first know what that doctrine is. But it is the leaders of the church (often) who tell us what that right doctrine is. So as we trace a line back we will ultimately reach a point where we must ask who first determined what was right and how did they determine it?

Without apostolic authority to fall back on, having the right beliefs becomes even more important in Protestantism. So then having standards by which to judge what is right also becomes more important. Most Protestant denominations do not claim to have Sacred Tradition. While some do take the extreme position of saying “the Bible only” (what Mathison calls solo scriptura), many others pick a certain standard or set of standards on which to base their doctrine. Mathison himself picks the early church creeds (though not specifying which). My own denomination relies upon the Westminster confession combined with its own Testimony which responds to the confession. Perhaps because they have no clear line of human authority to maintain traditions, Protestants tend to choose written standards on which to base their theologies. The advantage of this position is that there is something anyone can refer to and which is not inherently dependent upon people. The disadvantage is that any such standard is arbitrary (why this creed or that confession?) and likely open to interpretation itself.

Conclusions?

What conclusions can we come to then? I agree with Mathison that it is impossible to come to the text without presuppositions and biases. There is no solo scriptura and to try to hold such a position leads to a multiplicity of interpretations and ultimately to a state in which whatever anyone believes is right and therefore nothing is truly right or wrong.

On the other hand, all the major branches of Christianity at some point use circular reasoning. There is always a point beyond which we cannot get or at which we must say “it is this way because I say it is.”

One option at this point is to abandon the whole thing. One could easily conclude that because there is no unanimity in Christianity that it cannot be true. I don’t think we need to go there, however. Looked at from another angle, one can actually be amazed how many different churches and denominations agree on some pretty central truths — that there is a God who created everything we know, that man sinned, that God sent His Son in the person of Jesus to die on a cross, rise from the dead and ascend to heaven and thus in some way to redeem us from our sins and restore us to our Creator and that there is a resurrection of the dead and that there will be eternal life for those whom Christ redeems. Though we may disagree on some other issues which may seem important as well — like how salvation happens and what is necessary for salvation and even how the two natures of Christ interact (which was the dispute at the Chalcedon and separates the Oriental Orthodox and Assyrian Church of the East from their brethren) yet there is still agreement on the basics that I have listed above. Is this enough agreement? It really depends on your perspective. It is reminiscent of Paul’s description of a Christian confession in Romans:

“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9; cf. I John 4:2)

While I personally hold a fairly low standard for what is essential, both for salvation for an individual and for a church to be considered a “true church,” I also think that ideas matter very much. So while on one hand I would say that I am impressed by how much agreement there is on these essentials even 2000 years later, on the other I do not think that this means that it doesn’t matter which church we choose. The specifics of what we believe about who God is, who we are, and how we are saved are going to play out in other ways. In other words, while I may believe there are a large number of “true churches,” I also believe that some are better, that is closer to the truth, than others.

A church near me had a sign out front recently which amounted to “whatever you believe is okay here” (I can’t recall the exact words). The extreme position is out there. But for the rest of us, I think we are making some assumptions which are so basic we don’t even think about them. One is that there is a Truth, that there are right and wrong interpretations of Scripture. This, I think, is essential to our understanding of what Scripture is. If it is the Word of God, if it is how He chose to communicate with us, then we must believe that it is understandable by humans (which humans is another question). If God’s communication to us is of any value, we must be able to comprehend it.  Likewise, if it has no specific meaning, I would argue that it is worthless. One could argue (and the church near might well do so) that God might want to communicate one thing to you and another to me and to a certain extent this is true, but ultimately God must be one thing or another. Either Jesus is God or He isn’t. Either Moses parted the Red Sea or he didn’t.

A second assumption we are all making is that uniformity is to be expected, that if Christianity is true then we should all be believing basically the same things. This comes out in our criticism that the solo scriptura position leads to too much diversity in opinion. I happen to agree that it does, but does this mean that our message is always undercut if we can’t present a unified front? Scripture does lead us to believe that Christians will have unity (Phil. 1:27, 2:2; I Peter 3:8) though it also tells us that there are matters on which we may disagree (Rom.14:5). Determining which matters it is necessary to agree on again gets us back to the subject of discernment and how we can judge what it true and what isn’t.

What then are the answers? I think that is something we each must decide. And I think that even those who choose the Catholic Church with its claim that only the Magisterium can interpret Scriptures are themselves first making judgments about what is true. They may choose to submit themselves to another’s authority (as most Christians do to some degree) but they are choosing which means they are making determinations and judgments of their own. I can’t tell anyone, even my children, what they should believe and who they should submit themselves to. But I can suggest some questions we should all consider:

  • Where does authority in the church come from? What makes it legitimate?
  • Can that authority be lost and if so, in what circumstances?
  • Do I believe in apostolic succession? The primacy of Peter?
  • Do I believe that there is a body of knowledge known as Sacred Tradition which has been passed down from Christ to the apostles and their successors?
  • Whether I accept Sacred Tradition or not, what other standards do I use and why choose them over other options?
  • What principles should be used to interpret Scripture?
  • Who am I submitting myself to and why?
  • To what degree I am submitting myself? Am I free to leave this body if I choose to? Or are there certain circumstances which make it alright to leave? Do I want to be able to leave?

The Role of the Holy Spirit

Why after 2000 years is there any Christian church? Why do we still adhere to some fundamental truths, though there may be much we disagree on? Christ promised that He would preserve His church.

When I make criticisms like that placing the authority for interpretation in the hands of one man seems like a bad idea, I understand that the Catholics themselves would not see it this way. For them the pope is the successor of Peter to whom it was said, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).  If a pope is infallible, in the Catholic view, then it is not because he is a sinless or wise or perfect individual but because God preserves him from error (at least when he speaks ex cathedra in matters of faith and morals).

Similarly, Protestants will say that they don’t need apostolic succession because God raises up leaders. When a congregation votes to call a pastor, it is not just the individual opinions of how ever many separate people, it is the Holy Spirit working in hearts and minds and providing unity.

The problem is, of course, that one cannot really judge another’s claims regarding the work of the Holy Spirit. We all put Him in the process somewhere but it is a very easy thing to claim “God told me so” and a very hard thing to prove to another’s satisfaction.

So I suppose I could add to my list of questions above, Does this seem like the work of God to me? Is He at work here? Of course to know what the work of God looks like, I must read and rightly interpret His Word which brings us back full-circle to our initial problem. In the end, I don’t think any one of us is going to be able to fully defend his or her choice, but we do have to make one.

Nebby

 

 

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