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.

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