In yesterday’s blogpost, I outlined a doctrine of Scripture’s sufficiency, arranging Kevin Vanhoozer’s articulation of sufficiency into a fourfold taxonomy—sufficiency caricatured (i.e., what sufficiency is not), sufficiency simpliciter, material sufficiency, and formal sufficiency. The last of these is the most debated, because it gets wades into the intersection of Scripture, tradition, and interpretation, as well as the insufficiency of human knowledge. While Scripture is sufficient for all that it promises to do, we are insufficient in ourselves to understand the Word of God.
But this is the point that Vanhoozer addresses with respect to formal sufficiency. Instead of solving the problem of our insufficiency with a church authorized interpretation (i.e., the Roman Catholic magisterium) or a personally authorized experience of God and his Word, Vanhoozer presses us back to the Scripture with the all-sufficient aid of the Spirit. In this articulation of formal sufficiency, Vanhoozer addresses the ministerial role of tradition. And it is this proper use of tradition that I want to outline here.
In his book, The Drama of Doctrine, Kevin Vanhoozer gives six reasons for accepting and applying tradition, when done under the greater authority of Scripture. In other words, the tradition that Protestants seek is not written with a capital ‘T’. It is not put on the same level as Scripture, but as children of God who have come to life by the Spirit and the Bride (Rev. 22:17), we need the teaching of the church, along with the creeds and confessions that help articulate biblical truth. Similarly, we need to rightly understand the role of tradition and avoid wrong uses and absolute dependence on human institutions. However, affirming the fact that the church is not a mere human institution, but the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit, we can and should seek to benefit from the church universal and the church local.
With that positive approach to the church in view, I want to share five of Vanhoozer’s six ways that tradition can and should be applied in the life of the believer and the life of the church. Again, you can find these points outlined in Vanhoozer’s, The Drama of Doctrine.
Five Reasons Protestants Should Not Protest The Proper Use of Tradition
In a chapter directly addressing the relationship between Scripture and tradition, Kevin Vanhoozer articulates six reasons why biblical interpretation requires a healthy respect for and proper use of tradition. Highlighting one of these—the inevitability of tradition—we are reminded that we all approach Scripture with rose-colored (or lime-colored or haze-colored) lenses. And admitting this, we would do well to stop saying or believing that our situation does not impact our interpretation.
At the same time, Scripture calls us to conform ourselves, by the Spirit’s aid, to the living Word of God. Therefore, we must avoid the postmodern error of defining Scripture by our situatedness or accepting divergent interpretations as equally legitimate because diverse community will produce divergent beliefs. Rather, affirming the unity of Scripture and the authority of the text (Textus Rex), we can acknowledge that our divergent interpretations do not mean that Scripture is multi-directional or location-specific. Rather, Scripture stands above all interpretation. Still, there is a place for tradition in our interpretations and knowing and receiving (or rejecting) the traditions of church help us to do that. So admitting the inevitability of tradition, here are five proper uses of such tradition. (Vanhoozer actually lists six, but I am not including his technical discussion on tradition being fashionable).
1. Tradition is Biblical
Any proper (or Protestant) argument for tradition must begin with Scripture: Is affirming tradition biblically warranted? To that question Vanhoozer answer in the affirmative and he brings his receipts (proof texts) to prove his point.
Tradition or paradosis is a New Testament concept. The apostle Paul speaks of what he “delivered” to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:3-5) concerning Jesus. He also exhorts the church at Thessalonica to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by by word of mouth or by our letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). Even the particulars of Christian life must be “according to the tradition”: “Now we command you to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us” (2 Thess. 3:6). To be sure, Paul follows Jesus in rejecting the traditions of the Jewish elders as misunderstandings of the drama of redemption (Mark 7:8; Col. 2:8). It is nevertheless clear from the above that there is a right apostolic tradition that is authoritative. (155–56).
Lest we confuse what Vanhoozer is saying, we must reassert: He is not putting post-apostolic tradition on the same level as Scripture. He is simply stating that Scripture presents tradition positively. And if the gospel has definitive content, truth that must be passed to the next generation, then it is proper to speak of tradition as something the church should teach and that disciples should receive.
2. Tradition is Traditional
It follows from the biblical nature of tradition that a biblical church would esteem tradition. Throughout church history we find this to be the case, even if there are examples where tradition has been overemphasized. Positively, tradition has served to protect the church from error and enabled to the church to return to orthodoxy grounded in Scripture. To this point, Vanhoozer observes the positive and negative ways Christians have employed tradition.
The early church acknowledged no material difference between Scripture and tradition: tradition is simply Scripture properly interpreted. Irenaeus and Tertullian are among the representatives of the so-called coincidence or coinherence view. Obermann describes it as “Tradition 1” and claims that it was the unanimous position of the church for the first few centuries. Vincent of Lérins is another influential representative. His famous principle—that the church must hold what has been believed “everywhere, always, and by everyone”—was intended to provide a guide to the church’s interpretation of Scripture, not a rationale with which to legitimate extrascriptural revelation. Church tradition is necessary because heretics, reading the same biblical texts with other frameworks, have misinterpreted Scripture. But there was no question of appealing to Scripture against church tradition, for the content of each coincides.
From this positive assessment of tradition, Vanhoozer clarifies that Tradition 1 is neither a traditionless “Bible and me Christianity” (Tradition 0), nor a combination of Scripture plus Tradition, as found in Roman Catholicism (Tradition 2). All in all, the church has always affirmed the goodness of tradition, so long as proceeds from Scripture and does not rise above it.
3. Tradition is Inevitable
The most practical argument for affirming the place of tradition is the fact that it is unavoidable. Here’s how Vanhoozer puts it,
One of the few ideas on which there is a near unanimous consensus in contemporary hermeneutics concerns the decisive importance of the reader’s context. Twentieth- and twenty-first-century thinkers have unanimously answered Nein [No!] to Bultmann’s celebrated query “Is exegesis without presuppositions possible?” Context involves more than sociopolitical and cultural location, however. There is also a context of belief: beliefs about the world, about the biblical text, and about God. “What the church knows” (e.g., that the God of Israel is also the Father who raised Jesus Christ from the dead) is the indispensable context for right interpretation of Scripture. To participate in the church is to be privy to those privileged presuppositions that enable a properly Christian interpretation of Scripture. (156)
Vanhoozer helps to affirm the place of the reader, without putting the reader and his place over the text. There is, to borrow the title of another of his books, meaning in the text. The interpreters job is not to create meaning, but to discern the meaning that is there. Such ability to find the meaning will be impacted by what he knows about biblical history and Christian doctrine; there is always a hermeneutic spiral in reading Scripture. Tradition plays its part in that spiral. And thus, even as tradition is not ultimate, it is inevitable. Therefore, faithful disciples of Christ must come to a proper understanding and use of tradition.
4. Tradition is Philosophical
From the practical to the philosophical, Vanhoozer reminds us that all epistemic endeavors require and/or create a community. And with such a community comes a history of interpretation, which leads to any number of traditions. He observes,
All rational thought presupposes a shared context of intellectual commitments and assumptions, in short, an intellectual tradition. Even modern biblical criticism is a tradition-bound form of inquiry, despite its pretension to objectivity. Individual biblical critics are members of a community, a scholarly society with a common interest in biblical literature. Even scientists think out of traditions (think of the difference between Western and Eastern approaches to medicine). Similarly, theologians operate within diverse Christian traditions. Christian theology is “faith thinking in community” [Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking, 230]. Tradition-based rationality need not be relativistic, however, “as long as the true and ultimate object of concern, and the criterion upon which critical activity proceeds, is not the tradition but rather the reality which lies beyond it” [ibid., 98]. (158)
Importantly, Vanhoozer argues against the postmodern relativism of our age. Tradition and traditions do not mean that every interpretation is correct, or that all traditions are equal. It is simply the case that the Bible creates (an interpretive, as well as a performative) community. This is the church. And hence wise disciples will remember that tradition helps—or hinders—our understanding of Scripture and the realities to which it points.
5. Tradition is Spiritual
Finally, after surveying the “biblical, historical, philosophical, and cultural reasons for thinking highly of tradition as the framework for the church’s interpretation of Scripture,” Vanhoozer highlights the most important reason for properly applying tradition—the Spiritual. He writes,
Tradition—the life and practices of the church—is ultimately a work of the Holy Spirit. Reinhard Hütter argues that the “core practices” that comprise the church as a living tradition are not “poetic” or “performative” activities at all—not something humans do in the first instance—but rather something that the Spirit does in and to the church, which the church consequently “suffers.” The church becomes the distinct “public” of the Holy Spirit, and tradition becomes the “history of the effects” of the Spirit. (159)
Taken this way, tradition is not simply human. It is work of the Spirit in the new humanity of the church. Certainly, this truth does not absolve the church from error, but it does recalibrate our thinking about tradition. Tradition is more than a manmade attempt at interpreting the Bible. Tradition, and various church traditions, are evidences of the Spirit’s work of regeneration and gathering.
In Defense of Tradition . . . Rightly Understood
All in all, we can see why and where tradition is necessary and useful for the church. Tradition, when it does not rise above Scripture, is a handmaiden serving the bride of Christ. And more, when the bride of Christ learns from her forefathers, she grows in the wisdom necessary to read, understand, and apply the Word of God.
In this way, we can say that Scripture is sufficient in its content (material sufficiency). And, with the ongoing work of the Spirit, we can also say the Word of God is sufficient for biblical interpretation (formal sufficiency). But this latter sufficiency comes in part from what Scripture creates—namely, the Spirit-filled bride of Christ. Taken in this way, we have no reason to fear tradition and every reason to profit from it, as a gift from the Lord.
Truly, if we ignore our confessional heritage and the traditions of the church, we will only create new traditions divorced from the universal church. Nature abhors a vacuum, and if we eliminate the place of tradition in our discipleship and doctrine, then we will simply fill that void with new idiosyncratic beliefs—ideas that don’t benefit from a proper use of tradition. For that reason, we should make a proper use of tradition, so that we may continue to walk in truth of Scripture—sufficient as it for life and godliness.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
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