Jan 20 2010

More thoughts on Sola Scriptura

I ran across a great little post on the Wittenberg Trail webring on the issue of sola scriptura. Unfortunately, you’ve got to join before you can read any of the article, so a link will do little good for most folks.  So, I’ll reprint a portion here along with credit and a link.

The author is John L. Moseman, who from comments in the post, was Eastern Orthodox prior to becoming a confessional Lutheran.  The Orthodox, of course, do not hold to sola scriptura, due to their stand on Tradition.  John shares that it was the book of Galatians that challenged his belief in Tradition, and converted him to sola scriptura.

Here’s the body of his post, a shot commentary on Galatians:

“PAUL, an apostle (not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead),” 1:1

This here in the first verse of this epistle is something that gets repeated, why? It is fundamentaly important that our faith is not handed down by men but God. What does this mean? That God can come into us and by his Word lead us in faith and direction. For the longest time I was hung up on Apostolic succession but it is not the men but the Word of God that propels the Church. RCC and EO would stress that their bishops were given the Holy Spirit but as Paul goes on to say that this is not the litmus test for teachers of the true faith.

” I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” 1:6,7

It is so evident here that false doctrine was coming from within the Church and that when these teachers turned from Christ on the cross they started making new doctrines. To me this stresses the importance of maintaing true doctrine found in the Gospel.

‘But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.
For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ. ”

Right here it is expresses that even if it is an Apostle, an angel, priest, pastor, bishop or any other in the church that with they are not preaching THE WORD that they are not from God. To me this is where Sola Scriptura comes in with a bang, that it is not the pastors but the Holy Spirit, which comes from the Word. Without the Word of God we are hopeless as he goes on to explain that even the Apostles where confused. When they went on their own, when they relied on their authority and not on the Word. Here it is evident that in the Word we do have the authority of God. It makes it clear that if one is not in the Word or preaches the Word in truth that they are not of God. It becomes false doctrine. Also is it me or does he in a off shot way give creedance to Sola Scriptura when looking in the Scriputures to make his point?

“But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man.
For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ.
For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”

Here it is simple though we have to hold true to the traditions and they have their place. Without the Word of God behind it, breathed in it, it is not of God. This was evident to Luther. So here we see that Sola Sciptura is not isolating the traditions only the ones not adminstered by God breathed in by his Word. So how can Mr. Hahn seriously hold that the Bible does not teach Sola Scriptura when it is clear right here that the Apostles authority directly comes from the Word and the Word alone.

I suggest everyone to read the entire epistle. Later on in it you start to see St. Paul correct and say that the Apostles had been in error suggesting that they where confused when the failed to keep the Gospel in perspective. The basic truth is that RCC and EO are right about some things. They error when they put the infalliable authority of God in man’s hands and not in the Word. This why even some of our Lutheran pastors error they are corrected by the Word.

Some interesting things to think about.  However, there are a few other things to consider:

  1. The New Testament that we have today is a product of Tradition.
  2. The Gospel Paul talks about is the Apostolic message that the EO believe has been passed down through Tradition.
  3. The question is, is Tradition the Apostolic message, or merely the traditions of men?  Perhaps a combination?

Any other thoughts?

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 …

Nov 2 2009

Rethinking Tradition and Sola Scriptura 2

In my last post, I discussed a few of the issues surrounding the concept of sola scriptura, that doctrinal authority is limited to that found in the Bible.  I discussed that the doctrine has evolved from its original intent into what could now be called “solo” scriptura – in other words, my interpretation is all that matters.  Luther, however, understood the authority behind the Bible. While Luther did not have the benefit of the vast history of the Eastern Orthodox churches (very few of the early writings were available in Latin, much less German), he was still aware that the authority of Scripture depended upon the teaching of the Apostles. As I quoted,

Whatever does not teach Christ is not yet apostolic, even though St. Peter or St. Paul does the teaching. Again, whatever preaches Christ would be apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate, and Herod were doing it.

For most modern evangelicals, tradition (regardless of whether it is capitalized or not) is thought of as the rumors, myths, hearsay, and old-wives tales of an ancient Christianity that is sometimes interesting but of very little value when it comes to either theology or practice.   This anti-historical bias is, unfortunately, a key element of the modernism which has permeated evangelicalism.  We assume that what we know now is automatically more factual and reliable than what someone would know in, say, the 2nd Century.  Christians in the 1st and 2nd centuries didn’t read, for the most part, and probably didn’t think critically.  Aside from Paul, that is.  And, since much of “tradition” was passed along orally, who can trust it?  Right?

We now have thousands of fragments of various books, and through modern analytical processes, we obviously are better able to understand the meaning of the Gospels and Epistles then those who understood 1st Century Israel and actually knew what all of the words meant.   Right?

Well, isn’t it?  After all, who needs to know what 1st and 2nd Century Christians like Polycarp (who actually knew John and some of the other disciples) thought?  Did you even know that there was a guy named Polycarp who knew some of the disciples, and who taught other guys like Irenaeus who also wrote stuff?  It doesn’t matter, because now we have John Piper.

Okay, so I’m being facetious.

The thing is, the Gospel began as oral tradition.  There are dozens of places in the Epistles where the writers speak of the Word of God as something which was presented orally.   Furthermore, the Gospels we find in our Bibles are thought to have been written after many or all of the Epistles.  The Gospel – the Word of God – is presented throughout the New Testament as authoritative, even though it was at that time oral tradition. The Word of God, in fact, existed before there was a Bible. (Athanasius was the first person that we know of to list the same 27 books we have in our modern New Testaments – in 361AD.)

Now, consider the Bible itself.  The Canon of Scripture – those books which were considered authoritative – was disputed for hundreds of years.  Luther himself questioned 4 of the books – including Hebrews, James and Revelation – though he left them in the Bible he translated to German.  Still today there are disagreements about the books we refer to as the Apocrypha.  The Bible is a product, if I can use that word, of Tradition.  The Canon (i.e. the list of accepted books) was not handed down on golden tablets; it came about “the old-fashioned way”: by prayer, study and debate.

Now, if that isn’t enough, let’s consider more recent forms of Tradition.  Many Lutherans, when faced with issues of Biblical interpretation and Doctrine, don’t just wrestle with the text; they go to the Book of Concord and Luther’s writings.  Reformed folks (and many others) look to Calvin.  For that matter, much of what we accept as Biblical Doctrine is not “the plain meaning of Scripture,” but the opinions of Augustine (original sin, anyone?).

The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds are a part of Tradition.  The concept of the Trinity, argued so famously by Athanasius at the Council of Nicea, is tradition.

Whether or not we want to admit it, we all rely upon the some church tradition.

When considering the place of tradition, there are some considerations. First, is a tradition that started in the 15th Century more or less reliable than a tradition that dates back to the 1st Century?  Also, we have to consider the possibility that the 1st and 2nd Century Christians actually passed down what they had received from the Apostles?  (btw, we know from the New Testament that not everything was written down.  We also already know that we can trust Oral Tradition, otherwise we would have issues with the four Gospels.)  Third, do we think that the Christians of the 1st – 3rd Centuries actually understood what was passed down?  Can we trust their opinions? Finally, how authoritative is “Tradition?”

In my next (and probably last) post in this series, I’ll discuss various church traditions’ thinking on tradition.