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. Continue reading

In Defense of Tradition: Five Reasons Protestants Should Not Protest The *Proper Use* of Tradition

photo of church during daytime

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. Continue reading

Love Came Down: A Christmas Meditation on John 3:16

rawpixel-com-445786Christmas is a time filled many wild and wonderful traditions.


For instance, the Japanese celebrate Christmas with their favorite holiday meal—Kentucky Fried Chicken. Since 1974 KFC has been the Japanese’ Christmas meal. If you traveled to the Philippines in this season, you’d come across a festival of giant lanterns, where 11 different village compete to build the largest and most elaborate lantern.

If you go to Europe, you will find the Austrians pair Saint Nicholas with a demonic figure named Krampus. St. Nick rewards the good boys and girls; Krampus punishes the bad ones. And if you go up to Iceland, you will hear of 13 Yule Lads—13 tricksy trolls who break into homes and lick spoons, slam doors, and steal yogurt.

Here in America too, Christmas is filled with tradition. From gifts under the tree to long lines at the mall, from Santa Baby to the Trans-Siberian orchestra, our country celebrates the season with all sorts traditions that make us feel the Christmas spirit. Continue reading

A Case for Using Commentaries Earlier Rather Than Later

In his lucid book on the doctrine of Scripture, Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of GodTimothy Ward makes a helpful observation regarding the use of commentaries.

I have sometimes been encouraged by others, both as a preacher and as a Christian who reads Scripture for myself, only to turn to Bible commentaries as a very last resort, when, after much wrestling and searching for myself, I still could not make out the sense of a passage—or perhaps just to check that what I thought was its meaning was not entirely off-beat. There is certainly merit in not simply turning to learned books to find ‘the answers’, as a lazy short-cut to avoid wrestling with Scripture for myself. Yet increasingly, when reading Scripture, I find myself wanting to turn to a good Bible commentary sooner rather than later.

My reason is this: a good commentary will give me an insight into the consensus view on the meaning of each passage held by the generations of believers who have come before me. Working within that framework seems to be a sensible, humble and faithful place to start. For most Christians, who lack the time, resources and perhaps also the inclination to do the research themselves, good preaching will be a crucial means by which that historic consensus on Scripture’s meaning is conveyed to individual believers. For that, of course, the preacher needs to be, as he should be, well educated in biblical, historical and systematic theology (173).

Surely, prudence must be exercised with the use of commentaries and their non-use or delayed-use.  There can be a kind of latent pride associated with not using commentaries, but as Ward points out there can also be an unhealthy over dependence.

Either way, we cannot abandon the tradition of the church.  We must learn how to glean from the past without becoming enslaved by it.  His counsel, therefore, merits consideration and frees us who labor in the Word to turn to the commentators as we need, not just after we have merited their comments.  In the end, we must give a final account for our own interpretations (2 Tim 2:15), but since the church (and its ministerial tradition) exist as a pillar and buttress of the truth, it is good and right to read the Scripture with the Reformers, the Fathers, and others who help us see what Scripture is saying.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

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