Tuesday, September 25, 2007

No Theology Without Tradition

It has often been said that philosophy is the handmaid of theology. It might be said with equal truth that tradition is the handmaid of theology.

To properly interpret the Bible, we need church tradition, and in order to have church tradition, we need to saturate ourselves in church history and the theological systems of past thinkers.

If by studying the Bible we come to a conclusion that runs counter to what the church has historically taught, then we should suspend our private judgement and go with what the church has said.

This does not mean that church tradition is a higher authority than God’s word. Church tradition is to theology what light is to vision. Light does not create the objects that we see but enables us to view them with clarity. Similarly, church tradition does not create theological truths, but it does enable us to view the Bible with a degree of clarity that would otherwise be alien to us.


Paul says in Ephesians 4 that certain people are called to be teachers. Throughout the history of the church, the Holy Spirit has raised numerous Christians up to fulfil this vocation. Even though they are now dead, they can still be our teachers. Men like Athanasius, Augustine, Ignatius, Polycarp, as well as more recent saints like the reformers and the great thinkers of the evangelical tradition. Since this cloud of witnesses is still available to teach us, we should avoid supposing that we can develop a theology without reference to their wisdom. To advocate theology without tradition is to imply that we do not need teachers, or at least that we do not need the great teachers of the Christian past.

The Wisdom of the Past

Even if it is possible to have theology without tradition, it is not possible to have good theology without tradition. To suppose that we can turn every Christian layperson loose with their Bible and expect them to autonomously develop their own theology, without reference to what the church has historically taught, is to invite the worst kind of theological aberrations. This applies even if the person is given the tools for correct exegesis. If it took the greatest minds of the church 4 centuries to work out doctrines like the Trinity, the canon of scripture and the various Christeological formulations, how can we expect each person to do this for themselves? (On the development of the New Testament canon, see http://www.bible-researcher.com/canon5.html)

Another reason why we should not approach theology a-historically is because then we will not learn from past mistakes. Sages throughout history have continually testified to the fact that by studying the errors of the past we can avoid the same mistakes. This applies as much to theology as it does to any other discipline. Alexander Solzhenitsyn said: “If we don’t know our own history then we simply have to endure all of the same mistakes and all of the same sacrifices and all of the same absurdities over again times ten.”

Alfred the Great said, “The past is given to those in the present to keep and guard those in the future, that lessons learned and obstacles overcome might contribute to the gospel’s assent and subvert the ready temptation’s lure.”

Alexis de Tocqueville said, "Since the past has ceased to throw its light upon the future, the mind of man wanders in obscurity."

Samuel Johnson said, “A contempt of the monuments and the wisdom of the past, may be justly reckoned one of the reigning follies of these days, to which pride and idleness have equally contributed.”

Ps. 88:12 reads, “Shall Your wonders be known in the dark? And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?”

The early church fathers recognised this truth and vigorously opposed the idea that we could develop theology just using the Bible without reference to church tradition. This was one of the main areas of contention with the Gnostics.

The Role of Tradition in the Early Church

Even before the New Testament was formalised, or in the churches that didn’t have a complete collection of the manuscripts that would later be collected together as the New Testament, the apostolic teaching was preached and faithfully taught. The apostolic teaching was not confined to written documents, but it was certainly embodied in the scriptures. The content of revelation – both through written documents and oral tradition – was identical even though the medium was different. Precisely because it was identical in content, it was so necessary not to interpret scripture outside the boundaries of the apostolic faith. For example, if I sat down with my Bible and came to the conclusion that Jesus wasn’t God or that He didn’t really have a material body, or something weird like that, it would be legimiate for someone to refute me, not by arguing against the specifics of my interpretation, but on the basis that my interpretation contradicts the rule of faith handed down by the apostles from the beginning.

This was where the debates with the early heretics hinged. The heretics appealed to secret oral traditions that the apostles had, allegedly, passed down. This was what the heresy of Gnosticism claimed. Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, maintained that the apostolic tradition was public and was mutually reinforcing with scripture. It is not possible to come up with a correct interpretation of scripture that reveals a hidden or secret meaning that everyone else has missed, because the scripture is the embodiment of the public rule of faith.

This public rule of faith was known as the regula fidei in Latin. The Apostolic fathers defended orthodox Christianity by appealing to the regula fidei or ‘rule of faith’, which “was essentially the content of the profession of faith that every catechumen was asked to recite from memory before his or her baptism. It was a summary of the faith taught by the Apostles and committed to their disciples.” [Meith Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura, p. 23] The Apostles’ creed represented this confession of faith, being a summary of the Apostolic rule of faith. It was a public tradition.

Because of this “there was simply no way of imagining possible conflict between the Christian Scripture and the Christian tradition – and, therefore, no necessity to choose between them.” [Albert C. Outler, cited in Jaroslav Pelikan, Obedient Rebels, (London: SCM Press Ltd.) p. 173]

During the first decades following Christ, there is no evidence that the Church considered the Apostles’ teaching to be entirely confined to written documents. However, they did teach that this public apostolic tradition had been safeguarded by being permantently recorded in the Holy Scripture. As Tertullian (AD 155-220) put it, the scriptures “indeed furnish us with our Rule of faith.” [Against Praxeas, ch. 11] “Because both the apostolic Scriptures and the apostolic rule of faith have as their source the Apostles, they are mutually reciprocal and indivisible for Tertullian.” [Mathison, p. 26]

Because of this, the fathers taught that scripture should be interpreted within the context of the apostolic tradition, the regula fidei. As Mathison puts it, “the regula fidei was the necessary context for the correct interpretation of that authorititve Scripture.” [Mathison, p. 23]

Where the heretics went wrong was in refusing to interpret scripture within the context of this public rule of faith, thus divorcing scripture from the apostolic tradition it embodied and preserved.

Because the scripture embodied, preserved and summarised apostolic teaching, the church fathers argued that all matters needed to be tested against the yardstick of scripture.

The reason these men instisted that everything must be tested by Holy Scripture was because they believed the scriptures embodied and preserved the apostolic tradition, the rule of faith. The proper interpretation of scripture was always within the context of this historic tradition. Thus, in the 4th century Athanasius (AD 293- 373) argued that the error of heretics is not in their appeal to scripture but in their appeal to scripture taken out of the context of the apostolic faith. Athanasius appeals to the sufficiency of Scripture as interpreted within this apostolic context.

Councils and creeds became increasingly necessary to defend the apostolic interpretation of Scripture against the attacks of heretics.

Keith Mathison gives a helpful summary of the situation during the first three centuries of the church:

For the first three centuries, we find a general consensus regarding authority. The New Testmanet which was the ‘inscripturaisation’ of the apostolic proclamation, together with the ‘older Scriptures,’ [the Old Testament] was the source of revelation and the authorritative doctrinal norm. The Scripture was to be interpreted by the Church and in the Church within the context of the regula fidei. If it was taken out of its apostolic context, it would inevitably be mishandled. Yet neither the Church nor the regula fidei were considered second sources of revelation or equal uthoeities on par with scripture. The Church was the interpreter and guardian of the Word of god, and the regula fidei was a summary of the apostolic preaching and the hermeneutical context of the Word of God. But only the Scripture was the Word of God."

Scripture & Tradition in the Medieval Church

During the Middle Ages, the understanding of scripture and tradition gradually began to change. As early as the 4th century, we begin to get hints of a two-source concept of tradition – one which allows for an extra-Biblical revelation to be authoritative as Scripture itself. Nevertheless, throughout the Middle Ages, the predominant view was that scripture alone was the final authority, but interpreted within the context of the public regula fidei.

During the 12th century canon lawyers argued that the pope had authority to interpret scripture, but they did not argue that he had the authority to create new doctrine. Gradually, however, there began to develop the idea that the Popes were the custodians of an oral tradition which represented a second source of authority. A number of new doctrines began to spring up about which the scripture said nothing.

William of Ockham (c. 1280-1349) was the first person to explicitly defend a two-tier model for authority.

Mathison sums the matter up as follows:

…the consensus of the early Church continued throughout most of the middle ages… In the changing environment of the twelfth century, the beginnings of a real movement towards a two-source theory can be discerned in the writings of the canon lawyers. The shift reaches a turning point in the work of William of Ockham in the early fourteenth century. He is one of the first, if not the first, medieval theologian to clearly and explicitly embrace a two-source theory of revelation. From the fourteenth century onward, then, we see the parallel development of two concepts of tradition. There are those who continue to maintain the position of the early Church by insisting that, although the Scriptures must be interpreted by the Church and in the Church according to the rule of faith, they are the sole source of authoritative revelation – ‘Tradition 1.' And there are those who maintain the existence of extra-scriptural sources of revelation equally as authoritative as Scripture."

This allowed the Roman church to become theologically insulated against the possibility of ever being corrected by a higher standard.

This sets the stage for some of the disputes that would occur during the Reformation. Martin Luther and John Calvin advocated a return to what Mathison calls ‘Tradition I’. They did this by asserting the doctrine of sola scriptura (‘scripture alone’). By this they meant that Scripture (interpreted in the light of the Apostolic rule of faith) was the sole source of revelation. They argued that over so many years the church had deviated from the teachings of the patristic era and needed to return. The reformation doctrine of sola scriptura was not a novel doctrine and neither was did it advocate private interpretation of scripture. Rather, it represented a return to the teachings of the early church.

Until the sixteenth century the ancient doctrine of Tradition I and the newer doctrine of Tradition II were both found within the Western church. Tradition I had been the only position for the first three centuries of the Church and the predominant position for the next thousand years. But when, in light of ecclesiastical tyranny and apostasy, men such as Luther and Calvin asserted Tradition I (in terms of sola scriptura), Rome reacted by defending and later, officially adopting Tradition II.” [Mathison, pp. 120-121]

In more recent times, the Roman Catholic Church has gone even further to say that their teachings are the one and only source for revelation. This includes both the revelation of scripture and the revelation of the Apostolic tradition. Scripture is authoritative only because the Roman Catholic Church says it is, while our only access to church tradition is through the Roman Catholic Church.

Because the Roman Catholic Church believes in an oral tradition handed down uncorrupted through the centuries and embodied in whoever happens to be the present Pope, the Roman Catholic Church believes it has the authority to actually create new doctrines. They do not see it as actually creating new doctrines, but as realising what the tradition always was. This means that whatever the Roman Catholic Church happens to officially be teaching at the moment automatically represents the church’s tradition and always did even though we never knew it before.

Thus, when the church began to teach the immaculate conception of Mary (the view that Mary was preserved from original sin), they taught that this always had been the Church’s tradition. As one Roman Catholic theologian puts it, referring to the doctrine of Mary’s Corporeal Assumption:

“…if that is the teaching of the magisterium of the moment, if that is the Church’s tradition, then it was always part and parcel of the Church’s teaching, part and parcel of tradition.” [Walter Burghardt, cited by Oberman, Dawn of the Reformation, p. 295]

This means that whenever the Roman Catholic formalises a new doctrine, they believe they are simply recognising and publicly acknowledging a tradition that has always existed. But this raises a problem. Because the Roman Catholic church has come up with many doctrines for which there is no record in the first thousand years of the church (such as the Immaculate Conception, Papal Infallibility, Purgatory, etc.), it follows that if these doctrines were part of a tradition at all, it must have been a secret oral tradition that was handed down. That is what the Roman Catholic church is forced to conclude. But this was the very view that the early church fathers so strongly opposed in the heretics. Their argument against the Gnostics, remember, was not so much that they were interpreting the Bible wrongly, but that they were willing to read into the scriptures a secret oral tradition which was outside the public regula fidei. This was akin to an argument used by the Pharisees who taught that God gave Moses not only the written law, but also an oral one, which was handed down through the generations to only a privileged few. The Pharisees used this idea to preserve their own power and a monopoly on interpreting the Torah. The common people had to go to the Pharisees to find out how the Torah was interpreted because only the Pharisees were heirs of the oral Mosaic tradition. The Roman Catholic church used the same strategy to preserve their hegemony on Biblical interpretation.

Scripture and Tradition in the Reformation

This sets the stage for some of the disputes that would occur during the Reformation. Martin Luther and John Calvin advocated a return to what Mathison calls ‘Tradition I’. They did this by asserting the doctrine of sola scriptura (‘scripture alone’). By this they meant that Scripture (interpreted in the light of the Apostolic rule of faith) was the sole source of revelation. They argued that over so many years the church had deviated from the teachings of the patristic era and needed to return. The reformation doctrine of sola scriptura was not a novel doctrine and neither was did it advocate private interpretation of scripture. Rather, it represented a return to the teachings of the early church.

Also at the time of the Reformation, there developed among the Anabaptists something which I will call Tradition O. This is known in history textbooks as the Radical Reformation. The Radical Reformers insisted that not only was Scripture the sole infallible authority, but that it was the sole authority altogether, and that it was to be interpreted within a historical vacuum. All that was necessary was “me and my Bible.” This opened the way for individualism and the kind of hermeneutical irresponsibility that arises from interpreting scripture outside the bounds of the historic apostolic faith.

Many modern evangelicals are the heirs of the radical reformer’s approach to the Bible. The Spirit-inspired Word of God becomes divorced from the Spirit-indwelt people of God, with the consequence that the Bible becomes a plaything and the source of endless speculation. In the end, the problem with this approach is the same problem that exists within the Roman Catholic church, namely autonomy. Whereas the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions result in the autonomy of the church, the radical reformer’s position resulted in the autonomy of the private individual who become a law unto him or herself. Scripture is interpreted according to the conscience and reason of the individual, so that the believer’s own opinion of what is and is not scriptural becomes the highest authority. Mathison puts the matter as follows:

"The Bible nowhere gives any hint of wanting every individual believer to decide for himself and by himself what is and is not the true meaning of Scripture. The classical Reformed doctrine of sola scriptura meant that Scripture is the sole final and infallible authority. It does not mean that the lone individual is the one to determine what that Scripture means. Scripture was given to the Church within a certain pre-existing doctrinal context that had been preached by the Apostles for decades. [The radical reformer’s position] denies the necessity of that context, and it denies the necessity of that Church. In doing so it denies Christ who established that Church and who taught that doctrine to His disciples. It is rebellion in the name of God against the authority of God for the sake of preserving the authority of man.” (Mathison, pp. 252-253)

Scripture & Tradition Chart

Tradition I

Position of early church and reformers (referred to as sola scriptural in the later case)

The Apostolic teaching is the rule of faith (regula fidei)


Scripture embodies the regula fidei and therefore must not be interpteted intependently of it

Scripture and tradition are mutually reinforcing

Tradition II

Emerges during the late Middle Ages

Scripture and tradition are two separate sources of authoritative knowledge

Extra-scriptural sources of revelation are equally authoritative as scripture

Tradition 0

The radical reformers and most evangelicals today

No regula fidei

No tradition has authority

Because no tradition has authority, scripture need not be interpreted within the context of the regula fidei

Private judgment of individual above corporate judgment of the Christian church

Tradition III

Later Roman Catholic Church

Only one source of revelation which is the Roman Catholic Church

Authority of scripture and tradition derived from the Roman Catholic Church

An Objection Answered

It has been suggested that if Scripture and the Rule of Faith / Apostles’ oral teachings were identical and if the scriptures furnish us with the Rule of Faith, then it is circular to say that scripture should not to be interpreted apart from the context of Apostolic tradition.

It is not circular to acknowledge that if the content of the Bible and the Rule of Faith are the same, then interpretations of the Bible which divorce scripture's teachings from the Rule of Faith are necessarily false. It is simply to say "if P then Q, then P and not Q must be false." If the Bible and the Rule of Faith are identical, then when evangelicals try to separate them (as they do when they say that private interpretation can, in principle, trump the historic rule of faith) they must be committing an error. How is that circular?

Post a Comment

Buy Essential Oils at Discounted Prices!