January 27, 2007

Scripture and Tradition in Protestantism

At the new blog Metaphysical Frameworks, Johnny-Dee (also of Fides Quaerens Intellectum fame) discusses the meaning of sola scriptura in its application to the practical methodology of Protestant theology. His suggestion is that "protestants consider the Bible to be like the Constitution, and the theological tradition to be like legal precedents from the Supreme Court." In other words, the determinations made by previous generations of Christians as to the teaching of Scripture are to be given great weight and not overturned lightly, but, ultimately, they are interpretations of Scripture and it is Scripture that is ultimately authoritative. Therefore, as much weight as they may be give, there are indeed cases where such traditions can be overturned.

I think this is, overall, an excellent interpretation of the sola scripture principle. However, I would like to point out one thing that Western Christians frequently miss due to our fixation on the Catholic-Protestant Scripture vs. tradition debates: at least the canon of Scripture, and probably also the idea of its inerrancy, are themselves extra-Biblical traditions. Perhaps we would like to say that it is an interesting theoretical property of the system of Protestant theology that all of its views can be derived from Scripture - and, indeed, it does seem that at least inerrancy can be so derived - but these are postulates which we, in practice, take prior to our study of Scripture, on the authority of tradition. What I here mean by tradition is not the particular interpretation of Tradition in the Eastern Orthodox Church which I have argued for, but simply the literal, etymological meaning of the word: that which is handed down from one generation to the next. Ultimately, we believe in the canon on the authority of the Church; we believe it because we were told by people we believe to be in a position to know. This is even acknowledged by the Westminster Confession which, after stating in 1.4 that Scripture does not depend on the Church's testimony for its authority, nevertheless goes on in 1.5 to list the testimony of the Church as the first of the several means by which we know the truth of the Scripture. I will discuss this and its relation to the other means listed at greater length if I ever get around to writing the fourth part of my Why Believe the Bible? series, but the point for me is that I think it is highly unlikely that any of the other means would be likely to provide rational ground for belief in precisely the canon we have with no more and no fewer books.

The real point that I'm trying to make here is that the strict disjunction of Scripture and tradition in the West is not actually an accurate way of speaking, but is a product of a particular historical (and continuing) debate. It would be more accurate, I think, to view Scripture as the Constitution and tradition as the total legal system (of course, there is no legislative process in this analogy; only judicial intepretation of the Constitution).

I think Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians can agree on this picture; where we will disagree is on the degree of authority of various interpretations (as I understand it, the Orthodox tradition holds the seven ecumenical councils to be totally infallible, and anything contained in the liturgy to be as good as infallible for practical purposes).

Posted by Kenny at January 27, 2007 7:03 PM
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Comments

I think the Constitution/Legal Precedents is a good analogy, but it isn't perfect. I would also add that the Bill of Rights is a type of "tradition" upon which "essentials" were listed. I think those are the laundry list of confessionals, statements of beliefs, creeds etc that all have a similar thread of essentials.

One great article that looks into this subject is this: http://www.bible.org/page.php?page_id=689

Another great source on the discussion is a book I am reading: "The MOsaic of Christian Belief" by Roger E. Olsen.

Additionally, the TTP course on bible.org goes into this discussion as well.

I have been thinking and studying this issue off and on for a while. These are some thoughts. Scripture is essentiially Tradition in writen form. We, as Evangelicals, owe in large part of our current Bible to the Early church who formed it over time using a variety of methods, consensus, and ancient textual criticism. We have reinforced our Bible by it's going through major liberal and conservative textual criticisms and it mostly holding up well. We have also believed without much evidence that the holy Spirit has helped in directing the church to produce the Holy Bible. However, as James Sawyer seems to indicate an excellent way of seeing how the Bible has come together is looking at it from the a Christological point of view and seeing it's development and purpose.

Thats my rambling in my discussion with and about Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholics. I think in many senses Biblology is a mystery in which Scripture was put together, God Breathed, and established. We have part of the picture, but not the whole.

Posted by: vangelicmonk at January 29, 2007 1:51 AM

Vangelicmonk - thanks for your comments. Haven't heard from you here for a while!

For the record, the post I linked to is actually in large part a discussion of the book you mentioned. I'll take a look at the other article.

Posted by: Kenny at January 29, 2007 11:15 AM

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