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.

Oct 31 2009

Rethinking Tradition and Sola Scriptura

Rethinking the Reformation concept of Sola Scriptura is a rather intimidating task, especially for someone who was raised Lutheran (and especially on Reformation Day!).  Sola Scriptura – the principle that says that the sole authority of the Church rests in Scripture alone – is one of the hallmarks of the Reformation.  It was a response to the abuses of Church Tradition by the Roman Catholic Church, who had added teachings that included Papal Infallibility, the Immaculate Conception (the belief that Mary the Mother of Jesus was born without original sin), and of course, the doctrine of Purgatory and the benefits of purchasing Indulgences.  It was this last doctrine that prompted Luther to post his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Chapel.

Martin Luther saw the dangers in following the obviously arbitrary doctrines created by the RCC, and at the Diet of Worms (yeah, I’ve always laughed at that, too) made this famous statement:

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.  God help me.  Amen.

The interesting thing about Luther is that he actually tried to follow church authority, going back to earlier Papal teachings that contradicted those he was questioning.  When he found out that he couldn’t reconcile the various “authoritative” teachings, he turned to the only unchanging authority, that of the Bible.

Sola Scriptura has become foundational to hundreds of protestant denominations, each of which follow “the plain meaning of Scripture” but yet disagree with each other on any number of points.  When someone claims to follow “the plain meaning of Scripture,” you really have to ask, “which one?” To most evangelical Christians, sola scriptura has come to mean, “the Bible means whatever I think it means.”  I have heard this theory of Biblical interpretation referred to as “solo scriptura.”

How far we’ve come from Martin Luther, whose intent was never to disregard the tradition of the Apostles, but rather to remove the authority of men from the Church.  The irony is that today, each Christian who asserts his own right to interpret the Bible for himself is once again relying on the authority of man, not the authority of the Bible.


Sola Scriptura is not without its problems.  For one thing, the Bible didn’t exist in it’s current form(s) until the 4th Century; it wasn’t just handed down from God with a gold-embossed burgundy leather cover.  Decisions were made – by men – as to which of the many books that had been collected met the standards of Scripture. Even then, there were books – such as those we call the Apocrypha, as well as some we find in our Bibles today – that have been routinely questioned.  Luther himself questioned the inclusion of one or 2 books.  How, then, could Luther rest on the Bible’s authority alone?  For that matter, how could the Church of the 2nd and 3rd centuries exist without what is considered by many to be the sole authority of the Church?  It seems obvious that Luther had some different thoughts in mind when spoke of the Authority of Scripture alone.

While I haven’t found any specific quote from Luther defining sola scriptura, he does give some clues as to his thinking:

Now it is the office of a true apostle to preach of the Passion and resurrection and office of Christ, and to lay the foundation for faith in him, as Christ himself says in John 15[:27], “You shall bear witness to me.” All the genuine sacred books agree in this, that all of them preach and inculcate Christ. And that is the true test by which to judge all books, when we see whether or not they inculcate Christ. For all the Scriptures show us Christ, Romans 3[:21]; and St. Paul will know nothing but Christ, I Corinthians 2[:2]. 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” (Prefaces to the New Testament, LW 35:396).

Luther, it seems, was never ruling out the authority behind the Bible: Apostolic Authority.  For Luther, the key in determining whether a book deserved to be included in the Canon of the Bible, it had to contain the Apostolic message.

The point Luther was making, and which is more obvious today than ever, is this: no man has an infallible interpretation of the Bible.  This, then, begs the question: Where is such authority to be found, if not in the Bible itself?  This is not to suggest that the Bible is not authoritative; I believe that it is.  The problem is in the exegesis, the interpretation.  It seems logical to conclude that either there is no source of authority in interpretation, in which case we have problems, or there is an authority, in which case we should find it.

Next, we turn to the issue of Tradition.

Sep 14 2009


No, I’m not trying out for Fiddler on the Roof.  I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the concept of Tradition (and tradition) in church theology.  Yeah, I know, I tend to think about some obscure things.  First, a little background:

Tradition, with a capital “T”, is also known in the Eastern Orthodox churches as Holy defines Holy Tradition as “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.”  Holy Tradition is not given equal status with Scripture, however it is seen as authoritative as far as the interpretation of Scripture goes.  It does not change or grow with understanding or time.  While in the Roman Catholic Church the Pope can “amend” church doctrines, there is no one in the Orthodox Church with that authority.  Again, Tradition doesn’t change, it just is.

This, of course, is debated by all other churches.  The RCC has, as I have pointed out, a different approach to church authority, giving preference to the Pope.  This is really what the Reformation was all about.  One of the main doctrines emphasized by Luther and the other reformers is sola Scriptura, or “Scripture alone” as the church’s source of authority.

Protestants: Sola Scriptura

While by and large the protestant churches all affirm this, there are many different approaches, which in part explains why there are so many different churches and traditions (with a small “t”).  One problem is that many evangelical churches have no respect whatsoever for the earlier church teachings, instead preferring their own unique twists of interpretation.  Personally, I find this quite dangerous, allowing for much bizarre error to creep in, and allowing for bizarre creeps to mislead many people.

What I find really interesting, however, is that so many churches say “sola Scriptura” but in practice have their own form of tradition that controls them as much as the Eastern Orthodox is guided by their Tradition.


I’ll pick on the Lutherans because I was one, and still hold to a lot of Lutheran approaches to things.  Luther, of course, rejected the Pope’s authority in favor of Scripture alone.  However, over the years, the Lutherans developed a number of documents that defined the “Lutheran” faith, including the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles, Luthers’ Catechism and the Formula of Concord. These are all published in one rather large volume known as The Book of Concord.  Some Lutherans, especially in the Missouri Synod, will quote this as much if not more than the Bible itself.  It is interesting to me that the church that first developed Sola Scriptura holds so strongly to a 2nd book.


For Calvinists, there is also a slough of documents that guide their interpretation of Scripture. There is the Westminster Confession, Calvin’s Institutes, the TULIP, and so on.  Calvinists, even more so than Lutherans, will default to Calvinist Tradition rather than go back to Scripture.

All the rest

To look at the rest would take far too much time; nearly everyone has some kind of tradition guiding them, even if it is to be “blown to and fro by every wind of doctrine.”  Some, of course, are less dogmatic than others. The ELCA (Lutheran) and the Episcopal Church have all but left the faith, setting aside even Scripture as authoritative.  Then you have those who follow whatever “prophetic word” floats by.  Fundamentalists are dognatic, but in violation of the clear meaning of Scripture as well as any other source of authority or interpretation.


There are many in the “emerging” movements which have chosen to be “blown to and fro” with concepts such as “open-source theology” or even becoming somewht “interfaith.”

My own thoughts

My personal belief is that Scripture – while being open to each individually – is not necessarily open to all individual interpretation.  I think it is important to look to the Church Fathers (2nd-4th Centuries) for guidance, as well as look at the wise men through the ages.  However, I am not convinced that the early Church Fathers had everything perfect.  I think Luther recovered some major truths, but not all.  (I can’t say the same for Calvin, however.)

For example, there are some people with new thoughts about Biblical interpretation, such as NT Wright, who are coming under attack by Calvinists, Lutherans, and others as he dares question traditional interpretations of core doctrines such as Justification.  Now, I tend to think Luther’s thinking follows Paul as closely as possible; however, Wright has some interesting thoughts. Should he be dismissed simply because he doesn’t follow the TULIP or Concord?  Not necessarily.  I don’t even mind if he disputes Chrysostom or Polycarp; I don’t think they saw in the mirror any clearer than Paul did.

Bottom line, I think we need to be open-minded, but with a very healthy dose of respect for historical interpretations of the Bible.  If your own thoughts don’t fit in any existing tradition, then it’s time to rethink.  You may have a valid point, but it’s more probable that you’re simply wrong.