If you haven’t read Part One or Part 2 of this series, feel free to do that before continuing on. These posts are the equivalent of my thinking out loud about the concepts of sola scriptura (the sole authority of the Bible) and Tradition (extra-Biblical teachings of a church that are held to be to some extent authoritative; this differs from “small t” tradition, which includes a number of cultural and ceremonial things that have significance, but aren’t considered either apostolic or authoritative). I am undoubtedly wrong about some of my understanding and assumptions about various church traditions and doctrine, but such is life. This is not an attempt to present a thesis on the issue, I’m just thinking things through and inviting you along.
In this post, I will try as best I can to outline some basic views of Tradition and authority, as I understand them.
“Evangelical” is a rather broad category, and for the sake of this post it will refer to modern, non-liurgical churches. Evangelicals have their various traditions. While they will claim that the Bible is their sole authority, their interpretations are often ruled by their particular tradition. For example, one common tradition is Calvinism; those who are hard-core Calvinists will always read Scripture through Calvinism’s Five (or Four, if they’re wimps) Points of the TULIP. Other churches have other traditions that filter how their folks interpret Scripture, and some – not unlike the 2nd Temple Jews – have added rules and regulations to Scripture such as Tithing, not having fun, and so on.
In general terms, the modern evangelical church takes an a-historical view of tradition; that is, the ancient faith – that known in the first few centuries A.D. – is interesting, but has no merit in terms of Biblical interpretation (unless someone wants to quote Athanasius in support of the Trinity). I have heard it claimed that modern evangelicalism is the true faith of the Apostles and therefore has the true Apostolic Succession (the teaching of the Apostles, handed down without alteration). If this is true, then evangelicals dismiss anything pre-Calvin (Luther tends to be dismissed as he wasn’t “protestant” enough, although people like the 95 Theses concept), with some exceptions for some of Augustine’s concepts and the concept of the Trinity. As you may have guessed, I’ve already dismissed the claims of modern evangelicalism.
Those churches I have categorized as “historic” are those with an historic view of Tradition; basically the Eastern Orthodox Churches and to some extent the Roman Catholic Church. I say “to some extent” as the RCC has, in my opinion, departed from the original view of Tradition and Apostolic Succession.
The historic view of Tradition understands that the Apostles instructed the 1st Century Church both orally and in writing, with oral instruction no less authoritative than written. Consider 2nd Thessalonians 2:15:
So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.
or 1st Corinthians 11:2:
Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.
Apostolic traditions were distinguished from “traditions of men” (Col. 2:8). As I have mentioned in the prior posts, the “Word of God” is mentioned often in the Epistles, before the Gospels were thought to have been written. It is obvious that the early, oral teaching of the Apostles was considered no less authoritative than the later written Epistles; and we know that not everything was written down.
Are we to then conclude that we are free to ignore those oral traditions held by the ancient church, while the Thessalonian and Corinthian Churches were instructed otherwise? (Oh, well, when you put it that way…)
The Eastern Orthodox Church’s concept of Holy Tradition is possibly not what you think it is. One description says it is, “the deposit of faith given by Jesus Christ to the Apostles and passed on in the Church from one generation to the next without addition, alteration or subtraction.” The Orthodox, more than any other branch of Christianity, has maintained familiarity with the many other writings of the first few centuries of Christianity including 1st and 2nd Century writers like Clement, Polycarp, and Ignatius. Polycarp, by the way, was a student of John (disciple and author of the Gospel), and knew others who had known Jesus personally; this is documented in writing (if that matters to you) by Irenaeus, who studied under Polycarp.
The Orthodox holds the Bible as the central, most important part of Apostolic authority. Holy Tradition also includes the early Creeds (Apostles, Athanasius, Nicene), as well as the decisions made by the 7 Ecumenical Councils (of which Nicea was the 1st, in 325AD). To the Orthodox, Tradition grounds them in the past and prevents drifting into heresy. At the same time, the Orthodox have a very developed eschatology, so that they exist in the present, looking both to the past and to the future.
Of all of the branches of Christianity, the Orthodox are the least likely to change; the Divine Liturgy is essentially that written by St. Basil (shortened form by St. John Chrysostom) in the 4th Century. There is certainly something to be said for having a good knowledge and record of the past (and a belief that this is the apostolic tradition that has been passed along).
I don’t really understand that much about the Roman Catholic concept of Authority, except that their concept of Apostolic Succession is more focused on the authority of men as opposed to the authority of the teaching. At some point the Roman church developed the concept that Peter was in essence the first pope, and that apostolic succession was based in Rome; the Pope is considered “the vicar of Christ” and at times is infallible, the source of authority for the church. In the beginning, the Roman Bishop was just one of 5; Rome, however, claimed primacy and the rest, as they say, is history. The Roman church added 14 additional “ecumenical” councils to the original seven; apparently they redefined the word “ecumenical.”
Doctrines added by the RCC include the Immaculate Conception of Mary, adding the filioque clause to the Nicene Creed (in 1274), Papal Infallibility, the whole Purgatory and Indulgence thing, and so on. The RCC also adopted doctrines originating with Augustine that in essence changed the Christian faith, adding the doctrine of original sin.
Luther, beginning with the sale of indulgences and the worship of relics and moving on to the obvious fallibility of the Pope, attempted to reform the church, bringing it back into line with the historic faith. He even distanced himself from Augustine, to some extent. As I mentioned before, Luther’s concept of sola scriptura was meant to strip away “doctrines of men” without tossing the original apostolic faith.
The Church of England’s website states:
The Scriptures and the Gospels, the Apostolic Church and the early Church Fathers, are the foundation of Anglican faith and worship in the 38 self-governing churches that make up the Anglican Communion. …
- We view the Old and New Testaments ‘as containing all things necessary for salvation’ and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.
- We understand the Apostles’ creed as the baptismal symbol, and the Nicene creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith …
Anglicans trace their roots back to the early church, and “uphold the Catholic and Apostolic faith.”
And so …
As you can see, there is a wide variety of thoughts as to the role of Tradition. In my next post, I will attempt to explain my current thinking on the issue, if that is even possible …