“The principle of sola scriptura was not intended to be nuda scriptura!” Sola Scriptura can sometimes be interpreted as a view that history, tradition, and theology make little difference (or cause problems) in my reading the Bible. The ideal is to just have me and my Bible, without preconceived notions or opinions. Tradition, on this view, is seen as an impediment to my understanding scripture. In chapter 3 (of Evangelicals and Tradition, which we are reading for our Tuesday night book club) DH Williams argues that the tradition is not an impediment, but positively valuable for understanding scripture. To think that knowing the history and tradition cause you to get a warped view of scripture is akin to thinking that a trip to visit France is best done without any travel guides, or that learning calculus or Hebrew is best done on ones own with no instruction or aid, just me and my calculus textbook or Hebrew reader. “It may come as a surprise to some readers that for most of church history Scripture and tradition were perceived as generally compatible with each other. The tradition, or the catholic teaching, was the distillation of biblical truth and theoretically always existed in an interrelated harmony with Scripture.” 85
The Protestants certainly criticized certain Roman Catholic views, especially those which arose between 450-1200, but to throw out all of tradition and history because of some of it was not scriptural is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. “Like streams coming out of the same spring, the tradition and the Bible, represented by the work of the Holy Spirit in the church, were realized only in the presence of each other. The Bible, no less than the other two, was not to be understood in grand isolated [just] because it had primal authority.”
I think Williams, as a Baptist, captures the typical evangelical view on tradition well when he writes: “The theological concern goes like this: The Bible is revelation and therefore necessary and binding upon Christiqan belief and practice, whereas the tradition is human-made adn therefore extraneous and nonbinding. The one is cononical and completely authoritative, while the other is noncanonical but has pretensions of such authority. In cruder descriptions, the Bible is from God, while the tradition is of human origination emerging from the church as it w as before the Protestant Reformation.” In short, evangelicals think that those churches which emphasize the historical tradition do so at the cost of losing focus on the Bible. On the other side, those like the Roman Catholics or Anglicans who focus on the historical tradition often feel that the evangelical ends up with a fairly superficial understanding of scripture at times. What is ironic is that both the Roman Catholic and the evangelical feel that they are more ‘historically accurate’– the Roman Catholics feeling that they have consistently held to the teachings of the historic church, while the evangelicals feel that they have gone back to the beginning to get it as it was at its source (think of the ‘Acts 29’ network movement– picking up where the book of Acts left off) “One side focuses on the virtue of its perpetuity through church history, while the other stresses its conformity to antiquity in relation to the earliest stages of the church history. Roman Catholics have attempted to argue for a more or less “steady-state” theory of doctrine, based on the unchanging character of its tradition and church, while Protestants have had to show, despite their criticisms of tradition and church, that they more truly represent the teaching of the ancient church.”
Williams points out that ‘with rare exception do the early fathers appeal to tradition independent of scriptural teaching” In other words, the early fathers held Scripture in high esteem, and didn’t think of historical tradition as competing with Scripture– scripture was always preeminant and most important. Williams says this was true of the early church fathers because “first, the idea that extrabiblical traditions possess the same authority as Scripture is a development of the later Middle Agest. In the second place, tradition was not conceived as an addition to Scripture nor as a source that functioned apart from Scripture.” As an example he quotes from the fifth-century Syrian bishop Philoxenus of Mabbug who wrote, “The truth, the accurate account, which is the lasting and steadfast, is revealed only by the revelation of God. If one should seek something outside of these things which are set down in Scripture, one cannot understand.” The creeds are merely summarizations of Scripture, not additions to it. They are meant to help clarify, and to protect from heretical understandings. Williams points out how that Syril, Origen, Tertullian, Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine all held tradition to be the faithful companion to Scripture, not a competitor. “Scripture was the authoritative anchor of tradition’s content, and tradition stood as the primary interpreter of Scripture. In other words, the tradition was not a novel set of beliefs and practices added to Scripture, as if it were a separate and second revelatory source.” 93 Augustine says, “For whatever you hear in the Creed is contained in the inspired books of Holy Scripture.” 94
But Augustine was also quick to point out that one doesn’t understand scripture in isolation– we stand on the shoulders of others who, by the work of the Holy Spirit, arranged the cannon of Scripture, and we are blessed with those who came before us to help clarify theological understanding of the Trinity, the nature of Christ, the nature of our salvation, etc. He says, “what do we possess that we have not received from another? And if we have received it from another, why give ourselves airs, as if we had not received it?” 95 Williams says, “the church’s faith functioned as a hermeneutical guideline for reading the Bible.” Augustine is famous for saying “I believe that I may understand” and it is this faith, and the historical help of the Christian tradition which help us to understand– faith seeking understanding. For Williams, to think that we understand Scripture better without any history is simply ill conceived: “In sum, the right interpretation of the Bible is indissolubly linked to th ehistoric faith professed in the church and to the ordering of believer’s loves. Without the right faith, wrontg interpretation of the Bible, especially in regard to ambiguous or difficult passages, could only result, and one’s love, however sincere, would become misguided.”
“To treat the Bible in isolation from the tradition of th echurch, as it was located in the ancient rule of faith, baptismal confessions, and conciliar creeds, would have been incomprehensible to the Christian pastors and thinkers of the patristic era. From their perspective, a radically biblicist view might easily be driven by a desire to avoid the truth of th echurch’s teaching.”
For many evangelicals though, the tradition and the church as still seen primarily as a hindrance to understanding scripture: “One of the unintended hazards of “Scripture alone” is that it typifies Scripture as an isolated authority, completely independent of th echurch from which it emerged. Thus sola scriptura has been construed by many protestandts as if finding the truth of Scripture is an enterprise best done without the church or even in spite of the church.”
But this radical bible-and-me viewpoint which cuts itself off from tradition is not what the early reformers envisioned at all, says Williams. “Magisterial Reformers such as Luther and Calvin did not think of sola scriptura as something that could be properly understood apart from the churhc or the foundational tradition of the church, even while they were opposing some of the institutions of the church. The principle of sola scriptura was not intended to be nuda scriptura!” The Bible is the primary revelation of God, but must be seen in the broader context of the work of the Holy Spirit in the world. Of course the Holy Spirit works through means other than the Bible– through our Christian friends, through a word of advice from a holy friend, through the Holy Spirit’s conviction on our hearts– and through the tradition of right understanding given to us through the history of the church and the work of the Holy SPirit in the hearts and minds of those who came before us. So Scripture is the primary revelation of God, and it should be used to judge the truth of these other ways the Spirit speaks to us (through prayer, our friends, etc– they should not say something contrary to Scripture) but we don’t mean that the Holy Spirit can only speak through Scripture. Williams highlights Wesley’s view, “He noted that solus should be interpreted as “primarily” rather than “soley” or “exclusively”. The guiding principles of Scritpure and fiath were never meant to be seen in isolation from the consensual and foundational tradition of the church.” 97
The problem with not at least referencing or acknowledging the tradition is that if an individual reads the Bible with no guidance whatsoever they could end up with all kinds of crazy views. In speaking of Wesley, Williams comments, “There was no question in his mind that the only responsible way of interpreting Scripture was through the faith of th eearly fathers and th ehistoric expressions of the church. To use Scripture without this tradition was to make biblical understanding captive to every whim of personal interests and experience. He had learned from reading the fathers how often the concept of Scripture alone had been used as a platform for supporting heresy.” Williams claims that one unintended consequence of the focus on sola scriptura is the rampant individualism common among evangelical churches today. It is thought that the Bible can be understood just as well by the individual alone and in isolation as with fellow believers in a community of accountability. Williams claims that at the heart of this hyper-individualism are two perceptions about religion common to many evangelicals and free churches. First, is a rejection of ecclesial authority–a distrust of the church as an institution, and of pastoral authority. Second, Williams things that often it is believed that the priesthood of every believer demands the rejection of almost all religious authority.
The traditional Roman Catholic view tended to discount the priesthood of every believer, especially prior to Vatican II. The Protestants, in rejecting the ecclesiastical authority of the church, focused on the priesthood of every believer. What this leads to in the thinking of many evangelicals is that they are their own priest and don’t need priests to access God through Christ. They can go directly to Christ as a priest themself. But what is often overlooked is that the priesthood of all believers mean that all of my brothers and sisters in Christ are priests to me as well– spokespeople of God and administers of Christs grace to me. So instead of only one priest, I have hundreds of priests to whom I can look for the grace of God and the blessings of the church. This goes along well with what Williams says about understanding the Bible in community: “The Bible is capable of being understood only in the midst of a disciplined community of believers whose practices embody the biblical story. As part of this embodiment, we are in need of “spiritual masters,” namely, the venerable voices of the historical church whose journeys empower and enlighten our own pilgrimage toward what is authentically Christian.”101
There is more to Chapter 3, but I’m approaching 200 words so I’m going to end here. This question of sola scriptura and what it means is central to determining an evangelical or free church stance towards the tradition. If one believes that tradition and history are in competition with Scripture, then one will reject tradition, but it isn’t possible to reject tradition and simultaneously take from the tradition the cannon of Scripture, the Trinity, the Christology and Soteriology of the Early Church fathers and their creeds. So this position of biting the hand that feeds you, and pretending to receive no gifts from tradition when in fact you are heavily indebted to it seems misguided and contradictory. It seems instead that an understanding of the early church fathers can in fact help to enrich ones proper understanding of Scripture, and give guidance to avoid errors and unsound doctrine which has been avoided in the past. The tradition also provides a forest within which to stand.
May God have mercy on us all…