Truth and Tradition: Or what Francis Turretin might say to Pope Francis

In light of the yesterday’s big news—the election of Pope Francis—it is good to be reminded why Protestants don’t have a pope but do affirm authority in the local church.

1 Timothy 3:14-15 reads, “I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.”

Paul with apostolic authority is writing a letter with Holy Spirit authority to Timothy, instructing him how to teach with didactic authority a local church that is called to have  ministerial authority as they guard the word of truth which has divine authority.  Sadly, somewhere in church history, roughly between the years 1100 and 1400, the Roman Catholic Church asserted its magisterial authority, arguing that church traditions are authoritative in matters of faith and practice.  Clearly, this went beyond Paul’s instruction to Timothy, and by the time of Martin Luther, the church had had enough.  The Protestant Reformation broke out, and that is why so many in the church today do not call Francis their ecclesial head.

Nevertheless, what kind of authority should the church have?  Timothy Ward in his illuminating book, Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of Godprovides a very helpful treatment on this subject. Discussing the historical debate between Protestants and Catholics, he cites another Francis, Francis Turretin, who lists five functions of the church related to Scripture.

  1. Keeper and preserver of Scripture
  2. Guide that points people to Scripture
  3. Defender of Scripture, vindicating the genuine canonical books from the spurious ones
  4. Herald who proclaims the truth of Scripture
  5. Interpreter given the task of unfolding the true sense of Scripture

These functions can be found in Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theologyvol. 1 (though all citations come from Ward, Words of Life, 152-53).  Turretin closes his explanation of the relationship between Scripture and the church by reaffirming the nature of the church’s authority: “All these [functions] imply a ministerial only and not a magisterial power.”  Explaining what this mean, he states,

If the question is why, or on account of what, do I believe the Bible to be divine, I will answer that I do so on account of the Scripture itself which by its marks proves itself to be such. If it is asked whence or from what I believe, I will answer from the Holy Spirit, who produces belief in me. Finally, if I am asked by what means or instrument I believe it, I will answer through the church which God uses in delivering the Scriptures to me. 

Rightly, Turretin and Ward point out the robust doctrine of church authority which is often missed by Protestants.  Yet, with biblical fidelity they show how the Scriptures are always the final, magisterial authority. No individual, nor any local church, can exist without tradition; the important thing to note, contra the Catholic Church, is that church authority is always delegated and derivative of the greater and higher authority of the Holy Scriptures.  Tradition is always under the review of God’s truth, even if tradition is what leads us to God’s truth.  In this way, it is the difference between the order of knowing (i.e., the church leads us to the truth of God, or it should) and the order of being (i.e., the truth of God creates and corrects the church).

Sadly, many Protestants will harden themselves against the legitimate authority in the church this week as they see the new pope take his seat.  Equally discouraging, many unassuming Catholics will continue to be misled by the vain notion that uninspired men can update and adjust the doctrines of the church, instead of standing on the foundation laid down by the apostles (see Eph 2:20).  May we be those who avoid both errors.

May we hold to Scriptures as the final source of authority, and may we benefit from and exercise the legitimate use of authority that Christ gave to his churches.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss