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.

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    5 Responses to “Wrapping up Tradition and Sola Scriptura

    • aldenswan.com » Blog Archive » Exploring the Twain 6: Tradition revisited Says:

      […] concerns the nature of authority in the church.  I’ve already explored this issue here, so I won’t repeat myself.  However, I will mention a few points that I may have […]

    • me Says:

      Steve, it’s interesting to study the history of Christian theology and philosophy and see where paths diverged. While I agree with the spiritual nature of the “one holy, catholic and apostolic church” there are things in the Western church – from Augustine (tho he isn’t purely western) on down – that trouble me. Rather than simply having an opinion – which I’ve held for many years – I think it necessary to try to define it a bit further. What basis – besides my own inclinations – are there for my beliefs?

      I’m currently researching the major differences between East and West, on grace, sacraments, etc. to see where they match and where they don’t. It’s a difficult task, as words are defined differently, etc.

    • Steve Martin Says:

      I really don’t believe that one church holds the original faith and others don’t.

      The Holy Spirit creates faith when and where He wills. There are people in all Christian churches that have faith…and those that don’t.

      There are two churches. The ones who sit in the pews on Sunday (or whatever day) and then there is the one that the Lord knows.

    • me Says:

      Actually, Paul claims that Peter backed down. Then, of course, there’s the whole Paul and Barnabas issue.

      The alternative to the Orthodox church possessing the original faith is not that no one does, but that “the whole church possesses the whole truth;” perhaps later traditions have some valid critiques? Is the EO claiming, in essence, infallibility, or immunity from outside criticism?

      I accept that the HS has a means of correcting error; but doesn’t the HS also influence the western church?

      These aren’t meant to be “gotcha” questions, but honest ones.

    • Gary Says:

      But I think you have a misunderstanding of how the Orthodox Church deals with error.

      Yes, a Church Father or Apostle can make errors. But that does not mean there is no Apostolic Church. Just the opposite is true. The Holy Spirit has a means of correcting the error…. Read More

      My understanding is that the Orthodox Church maintains that on issues that threaten the Church a council may be convened to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth to the gathering of Bishops (the Ecumenical Councils). The resulting teaching or practice must be accepted unanimously and then the local churches finally confirm this.

      This is in fact how the Apostles in the book of Acts resolved the differences between the Apostle’s Peter and Paul.

      Finally, if the Orthodox does not possess the original faith, and if no one else does, then the gates of hell did prevail against Christ’s church. I don’t think so….

      I am becoming a member of the Orthodox Church not because it is the Church I would have created if I could create one. I have been there done that. I am joining it because it is the one our Lord created.

      You really should check it out.

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