the value of tradition

“Tradition, viewed as the past teaching of the church in its confessions, creeds, and representative theologians, effectively represents the sum total of the accumulated biblical exegesis of the Christian church. It is not on a par with Scripture – some of it may even mislead us – but we neglect it at our peril and use it to our great advantage. …

This is where the common misunderstanding of the post-Reformation slogan sola Scriptura can be confusing. When the slogan was devised, it was never intended to exclude the tradition of the church. Instead, it asserted that the Bible is the supreme authority. Adherence to the idea that the Bible is the only source to be followed was the mistake of the anti-Nicenes in the fourth century, the Socinians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the nineteenth century, and many other sects and heretics. Effectively, it says that my understanding of the Bible is superior to the accumulated wisdom of every generation of Christians that has ever lived. Enough said.”

Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (2019), p33-34

10 thoughts on “the value of tradition

  1. Hello! I really appreciate the positive note on the value of tradition. I do have a question, though, particularly regarding the notion expressed in that last sentence in your quotation: “Adherence to the idea that the Bible is the only source to be followed [has been the mistake of lots of heresies and effectively] says that my understanding of the Bible is superior to the accumulated wisdom of every generation of Christians that has ever lived.”

    It seems to me that the Sola Scriptura position, in its essence, requires that a person be willing to challenge, potentially, even “the accumulated wisdom of every generation of Christians that has ever lived” if he is convinced–after much careful thought, study, listening to advice, pondering what others have said, humble prayer, etc.–that that accumulated wisdom contradicts what Scripture seems to be saying. Hopefully, of course, this wouldn’t need to happen very often if Scripture is sufficiently clear. But Martin Luther and the other reformers did, in some ways, do precisely this when they resisted the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century. There were positions regarding the Lord’s Supper, justification, episcopal church government, and other things that Christians had had pretty much a consensus on for over a thousand years that the reformers rejected because it contradicted their own reading of Scripture. Episcopal church government, for example, had been just about the unanimous consensus in the Church since at least the early second century, if not earlier–and yet the Reformed rejected it for presbyterian church government.

    So, in short, while I think Sola Scriptura is consistent with a great deal of humble deference towards tradition and the opinions of the great teachers of the Church through history, I feel that it must be acknowledged that it does require, in principle, a refusal to give implicit and unquestioning agreement even to the consensus of the tradition of the Church. According to Sola Scriptura’s core ideal, even such a consensus has to be checked against Scripture before being accepted–which inherently implies a potential willingness to reject that tradition if it contradicts what it seems to us that Scripture is saying. I think of Luther’s bold words at Worms: “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”

    (Full disclaimer: I myself am coming from a Catholic point of view, as you know, but very much interested in dialogue on this important point.)

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  2. Hi Mark,

    Yes, of course, Sola Scriptura does require ‘refusal to give implicit and unquestioning agreement even to the consensus of the Church.’ I haven’t reached the chapter in Letham where he discusses this as a topic in its own right – this quote is from the introduction. Its target is the metamorphosis of ‘sola scriptura’ into (or its misrepresentation as) ‘solo scriptura.’ The scriptures are meant to be read in and along with the church, not in isolation. Luther’s words at Worms are fully consistent with this.

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  3. Thanks for your reply. I agree that the true position of Sola Scriptura has Scripture being read and interpreted in the Church and along with the Church, in humble deference to the Church’s tradition, etc.

    I brought up my comments because I’ve seen some people take this idea of humble deference to a kind of extreme that would seem to compromise the essence of Sola Scriptura by saying that an individual Christian should not contradict the consensus of past tradition, even if his own reading of Scripture is contrary to it. Like you, I’ve never seen how that view could be squared with Sola Scriptura. For an example of that kind of argument (and a Catholic response to it, which makes for a very interesting conversation), see the article linked to below.

    http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/11/solo-scriptura-sola-scriptura-and-the-question-of-interpretive-authority/

    Have a great day!

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  4. Hi Mark,

    I need to say up front that I’m a bit pressed for time these days and I can’t embark on a long or detailed discussion of this (much as I’d like to in other circumstances).

    I also can’t follow the connection between your comments and the CTC link you’ve provided. I’ve had a look but it’s too long for me to read in detail. Would you be prepared to summarise?

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  5. Yes, I’m a bit pressed for time myself these days, so I definitely understand!

    In the CTC article, the authors are examining the writing of Keith Mathison, who had argued for a distinction between what he called Sola Scriptura and Solo Scriptura. Mathison seemed to want to avoid the conclusion that Sola Scriptura inherently implies that the ultimate deciding point for theological doctrine is one’s own personal interpretation of Scripture. He wanted to say that the Church trumps the individual in some ways, etc. The authors of the article argue that Sola Scriptura cannot avoid the unwanted conclusion, because Sola Scriptura insists that nothing is to be received with implicit trust besides Scripture, and so every other source, even the whole tradition of the Church, must be re-checked against what one thinks one sees in Scripture. Even though one ought to be humble and deferential to those wiser than oneself, to experts, to great theologians, church councils, and the whole tradition of the Church, and one must pray for God’s guidance, etc., yet one must ultimately rely on one’s own reading of Scripture where a disagreement between these seems to be unavoidable.

    The quotation you gave from the book in this post seemed like it might be raising some of the same questions, so I thought I’d point that out and ask about it. I wasn’t really expecting you to engage in an extended analysis of the CTC article. I just put it out there because it’s something I’ve read and found useful with regard to thinking about this issue.

    I do feel like some Protestants try to avoid the conclusion that one must ultimately rely on one’s own interpretation of Scripture, or at least they don’t want to acknowledge that Sola Scriptura leads there. As an example, back when I was trying to join the FPCS and was in a battle with my OPC church about that, I made arguments on the basis of Scripture regarding presbyterian church government to show why I was doing what I was doing and why I thought a lot of Presbyterians were being inconsistent in embracing denominationalism. The pastor of my OPC church told me I was being arrogant for putting my own interpretations of Scripture over the views of the great Reformed theologians. While I don’t think I was in fact going against the consensus of historic Reformed theologians, I found it jarring to be accused of acting arrogantly merely for following what seemed to me to be a consistent application of Sola Scriptura–trying to evaluate even widely-held and long-held practices and ideas based on what Scripture seemed to be saying about the unity of the Church, etc. Of course you can’t comment on that particular situation since you’re only hearing my account of it, but it’s just one example of a tendency I’ve sometimes–though certainly not always–run across in Protestant discussions of Sola Scriptura.

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  6. Well, Mathison is of course right to want to ‘avoid the conclusion that Sola Scriptura inherently implies that the ultimate deciding point for theological doctrine is one’s own personal interpretation of Scripture.’

    WCF 1.9. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is Scripture itself …
    WCF 1.10. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined … can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

    It doesn’t strike me as unusual that an OPC (or for that matter FPCoS) pastor would object to someone putting their own interpretations of Scripture over the views of the great Reformed theologians. It is not consistent with Sola Scriptura to jettison the accumulated wisdom of the church.

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  7. Are you saying, then, that when a consensus or a majority of great theologians, even just great Reformed theologians in particular, hold a position, we should put implicit trust in that position even over what it seems to us that Scripture is saying? We should assume that though it seems to us that Scripture is saying X, we are wrong about that, because the majority or consensus of Reformed theologians says that Y is true instead?

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  8. No, “implicit trust” is something we give only to God. That aside, yes, it is safer to assume that if I as an individual think that Scripture says X when the consensus of Reformed theologians says Y, then I am probably wrong.

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  9. So there is great deference to the consensus or majority opinion of Reformed theologians, but there is still a need to check all opinions against Scripture–that is, against what one believes one sees in Scripture after humbly, diligently, and prayerfully making use of all means of proper interpretation (including listening humbly and diligently to the great teachers and confessions of the historic faith). Is that a fair statement of what you’re saying?

    That makes sense. That’s how I’ve always understood the proper way of practicing Sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura is definitely compatible with a great deal of deference to tradition. But it does require even the highest and most firm traditions and opinions of men to be checked ultimately against what one believes one sees in Scripture. The only alternative to this is to stop trying to check traditional opinions by Scripture and instead to simply trust implicitly that they are right because they are the traditional consensus and so presumed not to be wrong.

    And I would add that even large groups of holy and revered theologians can be wrong sometimes, if they are not guaranteed by the infallible guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Reformers must have believed that, or they could not have justified taking positions contrary to the nearly unanimous consensus of the earlier theologians of Christendom on certain questions, such as the role of tradition in relation to Scripture, church government, certain aspects of how to articulate justification, and other things. The only way there ever got to be such a thing as “the consensus of Reformed theologians” was by that consensus arising from a break with earlier consensuses, to some degree at least, though of course there was also a great deal of continuity.

    Consensuses can arise because of the clarity of truth, but they can also arise from biases stemming from the fact that human beings tend to group together around established opinions. Hence, there is such a thing as a consensus of Reformed theologians on various things, but also a consensus of Lutheran theologians, of Catholic theologians, of Eastern Orthodox theologians, of Baptist theologians, of Buddhist theologians, of Muslim theologians, etc. Without there being an infallible assurance of protection of tradition by the Holy Spirit, there is of necessity going to be a lot put upon the shoulders of individuals to evaluate the various theological opinions out there by means of checking them against what they believe they find in Scripture.

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