Which came first? Tradition or the Bible? (chapter 2 from Evangelicals and Tradition)

Which came first? Tradition or the cannon of Scripture?:  Tradition did.  The cannon of Scripture which we have was determined by humans who made up the tradition, guided by the Holy Spirit.  But  which has the most authority?  The canon of Scripture.  We reject traditions which go against what we received in Scripture.  In chapter 2 of Evangelicals and Tradition, Williams attempts to show that the Bible depends on tradition.  At some level the dichotomy between tradition and the Bible is in some ways nonsensical, and nonbiblical, as well as ahistorical and atheological. 

Oftentimes we evangelical and free-churchers think of tradition in opposition to the Bible.  But there is an integral link and co-dependence between them.  The canon of Scripture as we know it (the books which we have and which we take as authoritative) came to be solidified hundreds of years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The judgement of which books were ‘in’ and which were ‘out’ was determined in large part by the historic tradition– what their reputation was and if they had been accepted generally by the orthodox (not heretics).  So in a very real and important sense, we who rely on the Bible rely on the work of the Holy Spirit through tradition to have brought those early Christian leaders involved in that decisionmaking to have made right decisions.  When we believe that the Bible is the complete word of God, we are ascenting and submitting to the decision of tradition and historical leaders of both the apostolic period (up to around 100AD) and the patristic period (~100-500).

This is another of the important points Williams makes in this chapter– that it is not merely the apastolic period that we as evangelicals and free churchers ascent to, but the patristic period as well– into the 500-600’s.  We generally subscribe to the theology of the first four councils, from the Niceane  (325), Constantinople (381) Council of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedonian council (451). Generally we would hold to the teachings of these councils.  Roman Catholics hold to these plus 17 more after that (by some counts): http://www.dailycatholic.org/history/councils.htm

But the point remains that in these early church councils of the patristic period, many doctrines were solidified and clearly articulated which we would hold today as essential teachings of an orthodox and sound church. 

In speaking of tradition, we often think of it not only as Roman Catholic, but as unchanging.  Williams challenges both of these assumptions.  Since any protestant church would hold fully to the first four councils, it seems that this is the starting origin for Protestants just as well as Catholics, so there is nothing particularly Roman Catholic about these 4 councils, as far as Williams sees things.  Second, with regard to tradition, he points out that tradition is something more living than static: “If tradition is an active and progressive moevment within the life of the church, we should be able to talk about how tradition is articulated and shaped in each age.  As a living entity, the tradition acts as a creative force within the Christian faith…”48  Tradition is not just what happened a long time ago.  It is what we are doing now.  Our present church’s practices are contributors to the history and tradition of the church.   Evangelicalism and free churches play an integral part and write an important part of church history.  For example: undoubtedly the explosive growth of non-denomenational churches and their more relaxed less formal structures, worship, and even worship centers have had an impact beyond their walls– they have influenced the Roman Catholic church, the ways that other mainline denomenations have developed their worship, and these influences continue to shape church strategy and practice across denomenational lines.   Evangelical theological emphases and developments have affected the catholic church and been an important part of the universal church movement.   It would be facile to interpet Vatican II merely as a response to Protestants, where laycatholicism was encouraged more explicitly, mass was brought into the vernacular (non-latin) and generally a more open-handed generous Roman Catholicism was established, but there is also little doubt that Vatican II is in some sense responsive to Protestantism.  As Williams says, “After all, Protestants want to defend the influx of traditions lately brought into church history by Protestantism such as sola fide, the egalitarian priesthood of all believers, and ecclesial voluntarism” (i.e., that the Bible is central to our faith, and that laypeople are the real foundation of the church, and can be active in carrying out church ministry– you don’t need to be  a priest or pastor). 

But any reform or clarification of new tradition emphases have been built on the foundation of a given tradition.  Protestants protested aspects of tradition like the sale of indulgences, but they wanted to go back to the ‘pure’ traditions of the early church.  We usually speak of the canon of Scripture– meaning the set authoritative texts in the Bible which we trust.  But Williams says there is also a cannon of tradition– some basic traditional assertions of what Christianity is which have shaped Christianity and in fact shaped the Bible.  Of course “this description of the patristic tradition as connonical is not meant to equate patristic authority with that of the Bible.  Any of the ancient church fathers would have been horrified to find their written legacy placed on par with the Holy Scripture.  Simply put, the tradition is not revelatory in the way Scripture is revelatory.” 60-1  That understood, the first five or six centuries of church history function, Williams argues, as a cannon of tradition, since fundamental theological judgements made in those early stages of Christianity have “been the basis for directing the subsequent course of theology.”  He says, “In other words, the apostolic and patristic tradition is foundational to the Christian faith in normative ways that no other period of the church’s history can claim.”

The somewhat radical claim of Williams in this chapter is that tradition was a cannon of its own really, and Williams points out the passages in the New Testament where the essentials of faith are laid out– as being taught and passed on from Paul to the churches.  But he is clear always that “Scripture possesses a normativity that is superior to the tradition.”  The Bible was inspired by God, and the Holy Spirit worked through early Christians to help determine the books of the Bible.  And the tradition was what they usually relied on– tradition passed on through letters of Paul, as well as teachings and practices which were passed on from generation to generation.  The process of arriving at a unified cannon of Scripture “was a gradual and untidy one that emerged out of the worship and liturgical practices of the early churches” Williams says.  But “what the church believed was canonical long before it took written form” 55  In other words, the early church members knew what was right belief, and they determined which books should or shouldn’t be included in the Bible in large part because they conformed to those beliefs that had been carefully passed on through church teaching and fellowship.    Evangelicals need to hear that not only Scritpure but also the tradition was superintended by the work of God’s Spirit.  God’s sovereign purposes were at work in the formation and preservation of the church’s structures of belief.  Believers are thereby called on to receive3 this gift as an indelible part of their earthly pilgrimage” 

In locating the beginning of this ‘tradition’ which Williams thinks we should hold to, he first goes to Scripture– we find that standard rules of belief adn living grounded in the redemptive death of Christ were central t othe teaching in th eearly church (long before the New Testament was determined or even written).  Williams points to passages such as I Corinthians 15:3-4 where Paul points out the essence of the gospel message: Christ died for our sins, was buried, and was raised on the third day.  When early church Christians first received pauls letter from II Timothy 1:13-14 where paul says “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus.  Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you” Paul is writing about the oral tradition and teaching he had given to them, which they were passing along through oral tradition and practice.  Apart from these letters of Paul which were passed around among some of the churches, most of the early churches relied not on written cannon (many of the church people couldn’t read anyway) but on the gospel as it had been told them, and on what they learned through the worship practices and hymns and teaching of the elders in the church.   During the early church, most Christians were exclusively relying on “the transmission of the faith before it was rendered into text (i.e., a letter or narreative) and certainly well before there was any kind of codification of Christian texts.”59   So we see evidence from letters Paul wrote which were later included in the Canon of Scripture that before he wrote these letters there was a tradition and message which had been given to the early believers, not reliant on the new testament (since it hadn’t been assembled) but reliant on the oral tradition and received practices passed on to enhance and teach and instruct Christian life and belief to Christians.  Acts 2:42 implies just such a situation: “They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

But there is tradition from the end of the first century through the second, third, fourth and fifth centuries as well, where theology was being developed and solidified– theology which today we hold as self evident, up until 325 was still in debate.  This period from 100-500 is referred to as the Patristic period.   The Patristic writers ‘gave the first reflective responses to Scripture, formulating these responses within the daily pastoral practice of experience and teaching, having authored the first Christian catecheses, commentaries, and sermons.” 62  Williams refers to the writings of Iraneus’s discussion of the “canon(or rule) of faith, and Tertullians’s concise summary version of the rule of faith from North Africa at the time or those of Hippolytus and Novatian and Origen’s On First Principles, all of which give brief and or unifing presentations of Christian theology, including explanations about the relationship of the members of the Trinity. 

At the beginning of the 4th century, there was no consensus about “1) How divine is Jesus Christ?…2)How is a trinitarian understanding of God compatible with the oneness of God? 3) How does Christ’s divinity relate to his humanity and vice versa, assuming the full reality of both?” 66  This was what the Nicene Creed resolved, and the doctrines of the Nicene Creed are the answers we as evangelicals and free church protestants generally believe as the right answers.  “Unto the present day then, the Nicene Creed is the statement par excellence of what the Christian church believes, as one finds in the liturgies of Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and various Protestant orders of service.” 72 

A perhaps even more important point brought out in this chapter is that the reformers (Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon) were much more favorable to the traditon of the church than most evangelicals of the 19th or 20th centuries.  Williams points out that the reformers– including Luther, Calvin, and Malachthon were all supporters of the tradition, in that they pointed back to it positively.  Certain aspects of tradition were rejected, but much of the tradition was held in high esteem by these reformers.  Williams writes, “By advocating the sufficiency of Scripture, Luther never intended to reject the sources that the church had held and used for the past fifteen hundred years.”  As for Melachthon, he “cited the early fathers and creeds throughout the Augsburg Confession as authorities for determining the true Christian faith from the false.  The first article of faith states, ‘The churches among us teach with complete unanimity that the decree of the Council of Nicaea concerning the unity of the divine essence and concerning the three persons is true and is to believed without any doubt.'”  Of the councils Calvin said “‘I venerate [them] from my heart and desire that they be honored by all” 75 

The reformers view seems consistent with Vincent of Lerins, who, writing a hundred years before Gregory the Great had claimed that “the canon (of Scripture) suffices alone on any matter.  But he acknowledged that the Bible cannot function in isolation from the early church’s tradition lest it fall prey to faulty interpretation”77  I think that when evangelicals hear this, they think that they must listen to what the Pope tells them to think about the Bible.  But this can be taken instead to mean that we must and really only can understand scripture in light of the earliest views of it– the views of those who were closer at hand to the origin than we ourselves were– to help give us light and insight into the meaning of Scripture.  And at any rate we have no choice but to depend on the insight of the early Christians and the tradition insofar as we accept their opinion regarding the list of books which we find and accept as authoritative in the connon of Scripture.  To be Bible believing Christians, we have to realize our Bible rests in some sense on the work of the Holy Spirit through those who made up the tradition of the early church periods– both patristic and apostolic. 

Williams writes, “Clearly, for the Lutheran, the Reformed, some Anabaptist Reformers, and virtually all the medieval writers, the patristic age acted as the norm of the apostolic and catholic faith.  It was, in effect, the theological canon of the church.  The shape of the major doctrines finally achieved in the fourth and fifth centuries had become a permanent fixture of the Christian faith.” 77

Towards the end of this chapter, Williams tries to make it clear: “This chapter is not advocating the patristic legacy as if it were an ecclesiastical charm bracelet, nor should it be interpreted to mean that a reclamation of all or any one aspect of the ancient tradition will solve all the denominational splits and doctrinal muddles that beset contemporary Christianity.  As stated in the preface, the notion of ressourcement is not about romantically reappropriating the early fathers as if they hold all the answers for contemporary Christains and churches.”78

Williams main point, as I understand it, is to help us consider that there was tradition before the Scriptural cannon of the New Testament, and that that historical tradition is in some important part what the Holy Spirit worked through to provide us the written canon of Scripture as we now have it.  This is in no way to undermine the premacy of Scripture, but to heighten our awareness and respect for tradition– seeing it not as an adversary to Scripture, but as an essential way that God has worked in his church throughout the ages.  To think that less traditon is somehow more Godly is simply wrongheaded.

What is especially exciting to think about is the concept of tradition as an ongoing process.  The history of the church continues to be written, and the tradition of the church continues to be formed, in our faith practices and our Church fellowships.  We continue the tradition, and hope to remain faithful to it, guided by the Holy Spirit, and seeking to more fully realize the work of Christ’s redemption here on earth through our own congregations and Christian living.  I hope that my own faith and practice will be renewed and strengthened by taking the tradition of the Church and the early church fathers more seriously.  Hopefully an awareness of the importance of those who have come before us and who the Spirit used in their broken humanity to establish right doctrine and practice early in the church will help us to take the tradition handed to us more seriously, and us to want to learn more about that tradition, both theologically and historically, as we pursue a life devoted to Christ and his Church.

Thanks to God.  May God have mercy on us all.

ps  Sorry this is so long!


One response to “Which came first? Tradition or the Bible? (chapter 2 from Evangelicals and Tradition)

  1. Canon not cannon.

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