What God Has Joined Together Let No Man Separate: A Few Words on Scripture and Tradition

jenny-marvin-u3py_1Tcnuc-unsplashLast week, I offered a few (here and here), reflections on the important and challenging relationship between Scripture and tradition. This week, I offer a few more, beginning with a three-paragraph summary of sola Scriptura from Kevin Vanhoozer and Daniel Treier. Avoiding the error of thinking we can interpret Scripture by ourselves (solo Scriptura), it is important to understand that sola Scriptura affirms a proper, yet secondary, place for church tradition. That is, any historic church teaching is always evaluated and when necessary corrected by Scripture, even as creeds, confessions, and catechisms aid the church to read and understand Scripture. Put differently, the apostle’s possess a magisterial authority that comes from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, while the church catholic enjoys a ministerial authority that rises or falls as it properly understands and applies Scripture.

Bringing these three ideas together—Sola Scriptura, apostolicity, and catholicity—Kevin Vanhoozer and Daniel J. Treier, in Theology and the Mirror of Scripture, remind us how to avoiding separating what God has joined together. They write,

Mere evangelical theology is both catholic and apostolic. To say apostolic affirms the supreme authority of the commissioned testimony from the prophets and apostles—those “sent” to extend in writing Christ’s self-communication. Apostolic thus signifies the inspired human writings borne along by the Holy Spirit, who “speaks only what he hears” in bearing witness to the Word incarnate, Jesus Christ. To say apostolic identifies what anchors both faith and theology: the canonical gospel. To say catholic explains what is “mere” about evangelical theology’s focus, namely, what it believes with the whole church about the gospel of God and the God of the gospel.

Neither catholicity nor tradition need contradict sola Scriptura. To be sure, there is no place for supplanting divine revelation with merely human tradition (Mk 7:8)—beliefs and practices that have no basis in Scripture—in the pattern of theological authority. . . . Protestants who affirm sola Scriptura ought also to affirm catholic tradition as a Spirit-guided embodiment of right biblical understanding. With this thought we expand Luther’s observation: “God’s word cannot be without God’s people, and conversely, God’s people cannot be without God’s word” (On Councils and Churches). Sola Scriptura would be an empty slogan without a people living under Scripture’s authority. To assert the Bible’s supreme authority without at all specifying its meaning generates not an anchored but an empty set. What the catholic tradition “hands on” from one generation to the next is a pattern of orthodoxy (“right opinion”). If apostolicity provides the anchor, then catholicity is the rope that connects it to the ship of the faithful.

Catholicity—the consensus tradition passed down through the centuries—helps to address pervasive interpretive pluralism. Recall the problem: sola Scriptura as a rallying cry does not adequately delimit the range of acceptable interpretations, or even true from false teaching: most heretics in the early church were known for their “biblicism.” George Lindbeck is right: “The Protestant, beginning with the sola scriptura, needs to interpret the sola in such a way as not to exclude the development of doctrinal traditions possessing some degree of effective authority.” The catholic tradition, viewed theologically as woven by the Spirit into the pattern of ecclesial authority, reflects the process of right dogmatic development. As such, it is an element in the economy of light, that on which the “children of light” agree (Eph 5:8; 1 Thess 5:5). The church is a creature of the word, and its life is an embodiment of the word rightly received. Tradition plays the role of moon to Scripture’s sun: what light (and authority) tradition bears is derivative, ministerial, a true if dim reflection of the light of Christ that shines forth from the canon that cradles him. (pp. 116–17)

All in all, this is a helpful summary of sola Scriptura and one that merits consideration and conviction for those who hold Scripture as first order and tradition as second. What Vanhoozer and Treier provide is a pro ecclesia doctrine of Scripture that does not place the church over the Scripture (as in Roman Catholicism) but does rightly relate the church to the canon. I am convinced that Vanhoozer and Treier are basically correct to include ecclesiology when discussing the doctrine of Scripture, so long as the people of God created by Word of God continue submit themselves to Scripture as first order. (N.B. Not this first order).

And again, this recognition of the church does not conflict with Protestantism. Rather, as the Luther quote reminds us, the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura never denied the place of church councils or theological catechesis. Rather, the Reformation sought to purify the ministry of the church, not eliminate it. Therefore, those who affirm sola Scriptura need to rightly relate the apostle’s teaching to all other teachings. And with a proper orientation of Scripture and tradition, apostolicity and catholicity, we have the foundation of a healthy doctrine of Scripture, which leads to a healthy church. And inversely, a healthy church supports a healthy reading of Scripture.

With that in mind, let us continue to hold forth a principle of Scripture alone that is neither controlled by Tradition nor denuded of tradition. Faithful church teaching and historical traditions are a gift from the Lord and one that we should properly apply. In fact, when we do that, we actually find countless fathers in the faith that point us back to the Word of God, even if and when we do not agree with everything they might say. This is the ongoing work of the Spirit in the church and it is one whereby we can rightly affirm Scripture absolutely and tradition ministerially.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Jenny Marvin on Unsplash