Nov 9 2009

Wrapping up Tradition and Sola Scriptura

Well, actually, I’m just wrapping up my short series of posts looking at the issues.  To revisit them, here’s the list:

  1. Rethinking Tradition and Sola Scriptura (in which I introduced sola scriptura)
  2. Rethinking Tradition and Sola Scriptura 2 (in which I introduced Tradition)
  3. Rethinking Tradition and Sola Scriptura 3 (in which I discussed various views of Tradition)
  4. Re Considering the issue of Tradition (just a bit of added value)

And, of course, I’ve often touched on these issues here over the last 2 years or so.  But, I find it personally helpful to think through things every so often, to consider new (and old) information.  In this way I find that I am, like the reformers, semper reformanda (always reforming).

The original concept of sola scriptura, “by scripture alone,” was based on Luther’s testimony at Worms:

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other.

This stands a marked contrast to the common evangelical approach of “this is what the Bible means to me,” aka solo scriptura.  While the Bible can certainly give us personal insights, this does not mean that we can interpret the Bible willy-nilly, taking verses out of both textual, cultural and historical context.  Luther never intended to disregard the Apostolic teachings; he meant to avoid “traditions of men” as had corrupted the Roman Catholic Church.

Insofar as the evangelical church has ignored much of the early church and has let cultural and philosophical influences change how we read and interpret scripture, evangelical “tradition” is highly suspect.   I am to the point where I seriously have to question everything from Augustine to the present; Augustine compromised theology in order to make it rational, as he understood the concept, inventing doctrines like Original Sin.  The enlightenment further compromised theology, as did romanticism and existentialism.  We in the west now view everything through Cartesian and Augustinian lenses.  As such, the evangelical church has no authority; the “plain reading” of the Bible is not “plain” at all – even within one denomination, people can’t agree.

The Roman Catholic Church claims to be the original, Apostolic faith.  However, I have a very hard time accepting the RCC as having any authority whatsoever.  While it has certainly reformed itself since Luther’s time, it still suffers from a great many heresies, including claiming an authority which rests in the office of the Pope.  Also, it, too has been corrupted along with the rest of the West by Augustinian and Enlightenment thinking.  It’s history of disagreements and heretical decrees speaks for itself.

So, when the Pope reaches out to the Eastern Church or to the Anglican Communion seeking unity, I admit I am suspicious.  All along the RCC has believed that “unity” means for other churches to submit to the Pope, who, as I mentioned, has no Biblical or Apostolic authority.  The RCC is not, as it turns out, the original church.

This leaves the Eastern Churches, the Orthodox and Coptics.  It says much that these churches have not changed the essential nature of the faith, ever.  If there is a church group that has Apostolic Authority, it would have to be the Orthodox.  It is the Orthodox who has retained all of the ancient documents as well as oral tradition. They have successfully kept out heresy, and have avoided the theological and ethical scandals of the later traditions.

The question now is, “Can we be sure that the Orthodox have not erred in accepting ‘tradition’ as authoritative when it was just opinion?”  Is being the original church enough?  Timothy Ware explains what constitutes “Tradition” in the Orthodox church:

To an Orthodox Christian, Tradition means the Holy Bible; it means the Creed; it means the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils and the writings of the Fathers; it means the Canons, the Service Books, the Holy Icons, etc. In essence, it means the whole system of doctrine, ecclesiastical government, worship and art which Orthodoxy has articulated over the ages [The Orthodox Church, p.204]

In evaluating apostolic authority, we have to consider that we know from Paul’s letters that apostles do make errors. Paul specifically nails Peter, for example, as well as other unnamed apostles for teaching legalism.  Are we assuming that the Church Fathers didn’t make errors?

While many are able to accept that the Orthodox Church possesses the original faith, and has Apostolic authority, I am not yet at that place.  Perhaps I am still too entwined in rationalism – I do consider that a possibility.  But, while I will agree that the Orthodox Church has the greatest – and perhaps only – claim to the Apostolic faith, I cannot accept that all of the trappings of orthodoxy are apostolic.

That being said, I am more and more developing a great respect for Orthodox theology and spirituality, and will agree that if the 1st and 2nd century Christians taught a certain way, it is well worth considering.  I would go so far as to say that when interpreting Scripture, one should look to the early church for guidance.

Tradition is more than just looking back to the way things were done in the old days. Tradition is looking back to an understanding of Christianity that was shared with people who were within a generation of the Apostles – who better to show us how Scripture and doctrines were understood?

I am quite glad that the Orthodox Church has expressed a willingness to dialog with the Anglican Church of North America (and find it amusing, and proper, that Calvinism is one of the 3 big concerns); for me – and apparently also to the Eastern Church – the conservative Anglicans sit (to borrow a phrase) at the intersection of East and West, a place where I currently find myself.

Nov 5 2009

Rethinking Tradition and Sola Scriptura 3

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…)

Eastern Orthodox

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).

Roman Catholic

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 …

Aug 23 2009

A Tale of One-and-a-half Churches – a sequel

This week my intention was to visit a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, as to my recollection I have never been to one.  I picked a local church based on the info on their website.  They seemed to know exactly what they believed, which I appreciate.  I also appreciated that they met at 10, which gave me an extra hour to sleep in.  However, I chose to leave part-way through the service and head over to St. Paul’s Episcopal, where I have been regularly attending, to catch their late service.

My decision to leave was based on a couple of factors, one of which kind of surprised me.  First, I was slightly annoyed that although they had brand-new Service Books in the pews, they didn’t use them.  Instead, they had reprinted everything – including the hymns – in the bulletins, which ended up being several pages.  The fact that people would rather waste paper than take the time to pick up a book was actually annoying to me. (Although, a benefit is that I now have a copy of their liturgy, which I’ll hang on to.)

Next, they use “communion cards.”  I was raised Lutheran (LCA) but don’t know what these are.  Why do they keep a record of taking communion?  And, I found out as I read the card that I wouldn’t be able to take communion because I hadn’t gotten “clearance” from an elder first.  Fine time to point that out, after the service has begun.

However, the real reason I decided to leave was that the Lutheran service lacked the pomp and respect that I have become used to in the Episcopal church.  There were no kneeling benches.  I never knelt in church before 9 months ago, and now I miss it.  The Gospel was read from the front, not down among the people.  No one crossed themselves.  The whole service just felt “flat.”  The pastor was cheery enough, but the whole process somehow lacked joy, as well as the sense of reverence that is inescapable at St. Paul’s.

So, I escaped during a hymn.  Walking into St. Paul’s, I felt at home, and loved every minute of it.  Even the sermon – delivered by a guest priest, the Rev. Karen Tiegs – was fantastic, tying in today’s Gospel and Epistle readings. So, I spoke to the priest in charge after the service, and we’re going to get together in a couple of weeks.

Of course, I know that the Episcopal church has issues.  However, I haven’t heard anything in this church in the last 9 months that I have a problem with.

So we’ll see.   It’s an interesting journey.

Aug 16 2009

A Tale of Two Churches

I went to two churches this morning, one at 9:00 and the other at 11.  One was a typical contemporary evangelical service, not unlike many others I’ve been to over the years. The other was the Episcopal church I’ve been attending for several months.  There was a vast difference in style, as one would expect. However, today I became aware of one distinction in particular which bears some reflection.

Church #1

First, I want to be clear that I am not saying church #1 is in any way a bad church, as evangelical churches go.  On the positive side, they really understand how to be welcoming.  We were very warmly greeted by people who seemed genuinely happy to see us (granted, one greeter was someone I happened to know).  Second, they started precisely at 9am.  They even had a TV screen in the lobby counting down the seconds until church started.  Even though most people were late, that didn’t stop the worship team.

Here’s the thing with church #1: The service, which was 90 minutes long, consisted of only two items, worship (that is, singing about 4 worship songs) and the sermon.  As far as the worship portion went, the band was very good (and loud), and the songs were for the most part well-chosen, including 2 contemporary versions of older hymns (including Amazing Grace, always a winner).  The pastor was a fair speaker, but talked way too long, and said virtually nothing that couldn’t have been said in under 10 minutes.  Then they did a quick offering during a reprise of one of the worship choruses.

Church #2

On the other hand, at St. Paul’s Episcopal we sang about the same number of hymns, not counting various liturgical choruses and a responsive chant of Psalm 111.  They read selections from the Old Testament, the Epistles, the Gospels, and of course the chanted Psalm.  There was a sermon – barely 10 minutes, but well thought-out and providing food for thought (a little pun… the text was John 6:51-58) on a very difficult text.

We also publicly confessed sin, received an affirmation of forgiveness, spent time in intercessory prayer, proclaimed our faith in reciting the Nicene Creed, corporately prayed the Lord’s Prayer, heard some amazing special music and celebrated the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist).

All that, in under one hour.

Food for thought

Again, I did not particularly dislike church #1.  But again, the contrast between my 2 church experiences this morning reveals something, I think, about evangelical Christianity.  I keep coming back to Marshall McLuhan’s concept “the medium is the message,” because I think it’s directly applicable to church. What we do – or not do – and how we do it reveal both our priorities and our beliefs.

It is easy to see in the Episcopal worship service what they believe and what they value: Scripture, worship of the Trinity, a commitment to the historic faith and the ever-present work of Christ as celebrated in the Eucharist.

In church #1, it was not so easy to discover what they believed. I presume – because I know the denomination – they are Trinitarians and believe in the authority of Scripture, but I wouldn’t know this from the service. It was evident that they valued contemporary music and a quality sound system, and that they valued the perspective of the pastor (the sermon took the majority of the service).  But, what does what is lacking in the service say about their beliefs and values?

I am not blaming church #1 for their rather featureless service; I believe they inherited a contemporary, anti-liturgical and anti-historical form and have taken it for granted. It possibly has not occurred to most of them that they leave the service with relatively little, and having done very little.  Fellowship, corporate singing and some teaching are, of course, not without value; the question is, is it enough?