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Sola Scriptura and Tradition: Friends or Foes?

May 14th, 2018 | 14 min read

By Matthew Emerson

By Matthew Emerson

There are some colloquial ways that evangelicals of all stripes talk about doing theology. Phrases like, “give me chapter and verse,” “the Bible says it so I believe it,” and “the Bible tells me so” abound in popular doctrinal piety. At their best, these statements reflect an ingrained commitment to sola scriptura, an everyday way of expressing the fact that we will not believe anything that is not found in Holy Scripture. This is a praiseworthy commitment that all evangelicals should affirm – evangelicals should believe and confess only what is taught in the Bible.

Often, though, these colloquialisms are indicative not of a commitment to sola scriptura but to something more akin to solo or nuda scriptura, and also to accompanying methods of theological inquiry. In this approach, appeals to tradition, historical theology, particular theologians, or even systematic theology are cast aside, frowned upon, viewed as a hindrance to understanding what the Bible really says, and the like. We need to set aside any and every theological conviction so that we can get back to “just me and my Bible,” read it with fresh eyes without the (flawed) spectacles of confessional commitments, and so on. Sometimes this kind of attitude is implied in the statements with which we began, but sometimes it is more explicit, even if not stated in exactly the same terms as I’ve outlined here. We see this when authors, speakers, and pastors pit the Bible against tradition, as if tradition is some kind of oppressive enemy to be overthrown by revolutionaries radically committed to biblical authority.

This attitude toward tradition unfortunately misunderstands the biblical teaching about tradition as well as its function in the church and its location in systematic theology. First, the Bible expressly commands God’s people to faithfully pass on God’s Word. For instance, Deuteronomy 6 commands Israel to minister God’s covenantal instruction to subsequent generations, and the phrases “pass on sound doctrine” and “guard the good deposit” are constant refrains of Paul’s in the Pastoral Epistles. In these cases and others, the Prophets and Apostles are not referring to some extra-biblical content that is equal to Scripture in authority. Instead, they are instructing God’s people to remain faithful to God’s Word through teaching it faithfully. And, as Ezra shows us in Nehemiah 8, teaching God’s Word faithfully includes not only reading it aloud but also “giving the sense.” This hermeneutical responsibility of the church includes both interpretation of individual texts, as in, say, Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. But it also includes the collective import of interpretation, i.e. theology. This is presumably what Paul refers to repeatedly in 1–2 Timothy and Titus when he instructs his sons in the faith to “pass on sound doctrine” and “entrust to faithful men” what they have already learned.

There is, in other words, both a hermeneutical and a theological “sense” of Scripture that needs to be passed down to subsequent generations of believers. This sense is not the same as Scripture, because only Holy Scripture is inspired by God the Holy Spirit. But it is derived from it, and so insofar as it is faithful to the inspired words of Scripture is derivatively authoritative. This means of passing down the interpretive and dogmatic meaning of Scripture is commonly known as the regula fidei, or “rule of faith.” While, historically speaking, the rule is not defined in exactly the same way by any two persons in the early church, in general it is used to refer to the centrality of Jesus Christ for the meaning of all of Scripture and in the biblical storyline. Irenaeus’ concepts of hypothesis, economy, and narrative recapitulation capture this well. Jesus is the hypothesis of Scripture, in the sense that every text of Scripture fits together in such a way that the finished product is a picture of Christ. The church’s task is to explain how these individual texts fit into that larger mosaic of the Messiah.

This in turn leads to an exploration of the economy of Scripture, or how it fits together narratively. Here the point is that individual texts fit into the biblical storyline in some way. This is particularly important for what is now known as “partitive exegesis,” a reading strategy rooted in Phil. 2:5–11 that insists we understand passages about God the Son as referents either to his existence as such or in his incarnate state. To put in Augustine’s terms, the interpreter must understand that the biblical narrative makes a distinction, as do, implicitly, individual texts, between Christ “in the form of God” and Christ “in the form of a servant.” We cannot read the latter back into the former. Or to put it in contemporary dogmatic terms, we should be careful not to read the economic submission of the incarnate Son to the Father back into the immanent life of the Trinity. Finally, Irenaeus demonstrates that the Bible is full of narrative recapitulation, by which we mean that there is a typological crescendo that happens with a variety of persons, events, and places in the OT, each of which find their culmination in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Dogmatically, the interpretive rule described in the preceding paragraph and typified in Irenaeus is mirrored in early creeds and confessions, and particularly in the three ecumenical creeds. The Apostles’ Creed especially mirrors the narratival nature of the economy of Scripture, moving from creation to incarnation to death, burial, descent, resurrection, and ascension, to the work of Spirit in the Church, and finally to the Second Coming. These interpretive and dogmatic rules help the church understand the right sense of Scripture. They serve as a map or trail guide for the reader of the Bible, making sure they stay on the right path and do not swerve to the left or right where dangers hide.

There are good historical examples to demonstrate how this works in practice, and why it is so important. Before noting some of those, it is also important to recognize that the regula has a well-defined and appropriate place within the doctrines of pneumatology and ecclesiology. Regarding the former, in Jesus’ Farewell Discourse, he promises to send the Spirit who will guide the Apostles into all truth. This presumably includes not only the inspiration of Holy Scripture but also the proper understanding of it. The former is a matter of ultimate authority, as Scripture’s inspiration means that it is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16), not “by the will of man” but through men who spoke “from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Pet. 1:21).  The words of Scripture are the very words of God. This means that as the Spirit guides the Prophets and Apostles to write Scripture, the words that they write carry ultimate authority.

But Christ’s ministers do not merely read the words off the page without explanation; we still have to “give the sense” to God’s people. This interpretive function of the church is also guided by the Holy Spirit, but, for Protestants, it is not inspired as Holy Scripture is. Rather, the Spirit works through illumination, both with respect to individual readers and with respect to the church’s collective interpretive and dogmatic decisions. As a Baptist, illumination is a work especially seen in the community of believers, the local church wherein the signs of the kingdom are demonstrated. Whatever the Protestant denomination, though, these interpretations, confessions, and creeds do not stand alongside of Scripture as an equal in authority, but rather under and derived from the Bible’s ultimate authority. Nevertheless, inasmuch as they are faithful to Scripture, they are derivatively authoritative in their interpretation of it.

This work of the Spirit in illumination thus has an ecclesiological purpose, to guide God’s people into all truth. But it also has an ecclesiological location, namely as one of the “keys of the kingdom” given to Christ’s Church by our Lord in Matthew 16. The Church has derivative authority under the Lordship of Christ as expressed in his Word inspired by his Spirit. Christ’s Church is to bind and loose God’s Word by his Spirit on earth, and that in turn will be bound and loosed in heaven.

The new covenant community thus has a derivative, or ministerial authority, that is exercised in a variety of ways, but especially in the Protestant tradition through the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments (or ordinances for my fellow Baptists), and church discipline. Each of these relies on the power and authority of God’s Word, Holy Scripture, for its derivative authority, albeit in different ways. For our purposes, it is important to understand that tradition, the passing on of sound doctrine, is one of the ways that Church exercises its ministerial authority with respect to the proclamation of the Word. Insofar as our dogmatic, confessional, and creedal decisions are faithful to Scripture, they are derivatively authoritative. Or, to put it ecclesially, they are used by the Church to minister the Word to the people, particularly with respect to how to read the Bible and understand its theological import. (Here we could provide a taxonomy, or hierarchy, of tradition – ecumenical creeds and councils, particular confessions, individual interpreters, etc., but that will have to wait.)

This brings us back to our starting point – theological method. Scripture and tradition, while not equals, are also not enemies. Tradition, or, to put it more Protestant-ly, the faithful teaching of the Word of God to subsequent generations, is a servant of Holy Scripture. As servant, it must be obedient, subservient, to its master. As servant, if it goes against its master, it should be disciplined, and even cast out if the occasion is too grievous. (Here we would need to give a taxonomy of error, but that, too, will have to wait.)

As a Protestant, I believe that the Magisterial Reformation provided a needed and biblical corrective to the medieval teachings regarding soteriology and bibliology. But, as a Baptist, I also believe that the Magisterial Reformers did not go far enough – there was also needed an ecclesiological reformation, one that addressed not only the papacy but also the meaning of baptism and the relation between the church and the state. These correctives were needed not because Baptists rejected tradition – the earliest Baptists most certainly did not – but because they saw tradition as subservient to Scripture. Here, again, we’d need another post to define what qualifies as a valid motive for and means of correcting tradition, but suffice it to say that it ultimately takes the overwhelming and explicit support of Holy Scripture to do so. As a Protestant, I believe that kind of necessary correction occurred during the Reformation regarding soteriology and bibliology, and as a Baptist I believe it rightly occurred regarding ecclesiology. Tradition is subservient to and therefore should be corrected by Scripture when it departs from it.

On the other hand, when tradition is faithful, when it serves – ministers, passes down – the teaching of its master, Holy Scripture, faithfully, it is a friend to the Church, not a foe. It is a trusted guide, not a deceitful rival. This means that our attitude toward tradition should not be one of suspicion but one of friendship in the context of the new covenant community. And, to bring us back completely full circle, treating tradition as an enemy, and relying only on our own individual readings of Scripture, usually has disastrous consequences.

Arius, too, wanted to be faithful to Scripture. Arius insisted that he was reading the biblical texts as the authority for his faith. Arius also, though, rejected the “rules” of reading that had come before him. He did not read, say, Proverbs 8:21–31 within the economy of Scripture, but insisted that texts which reference the Son’s creation or submission refer to his life prior to the incarnation. Thus he (or at least, other subordinationists influenced by him) could proclaim, “There was a time when the Son was not.” This kind of reading insists on only saying what the Bible says. We cannot import any other extra-biblical categories or interpretive strategies onto our reading of the biblical text. We cannot and do not read texts canonically, i.e. in light of other biblical texts. There is no analogia fidei or, therefore, any regula fidei. We could also point to Matthew Caffyn, an English General Baptist who was convinced of Socinianism some thirteen centuries later. He, along with his fellow Socinians, also read Scripture this way. The word “Trinity” isn’t in the Bible, and neither are Trinitarian lynchpins like the eternal relations of origin. Since we must be biblical, we must only say what the Bible says, and the Bible doesn’t use these terms or concepts. Therefore, we must reject the doctrine of the Trinity. And so on. It turns out, then, that by insisting that theology remain fettered to mere repetition of biblical language, Arius and the Socinians actually say more than the Bible says. And not only do they say more, but they completely depart from biblical teaching.

What is missing from these departures from the tradition on supposedly biblical grounds is an understanding of just how biblical the tradition has sought to be. For instance, with respect to the doctrine of the Trinity, of course the term is found nowhere in the Bible. But this misses the point of theological and creedal decisions. As David Yeago has put it in his essay, “The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma,” theology is the attempt to use conceptual terms to make appropriate judgments about patterns of biblical language. There are at least two important facets of this definition for our purposes. First, this definition clarifies that conceptual terms are not standing over the Bible or used apart from the Bible, but are rather intricately connected to the biblical data. In other words, the terms “Trinity” or “homoousios” or “eternal generation,” while not in the Bible, are nevertheless accurate reflections of what the Bible teaches. We could say the same about the “rules” discussed above; as mentioned earlier, “partitive exegesis” was taken from Phil. 2:5–11, and the Christological “hypothesis” was derived from passages like Luke 16:31; 24:27, 44; and John 5:48. These terms and concepts are thus faithful summaries or judgments on Scripture’s teaching. And to the extent that they are faithful, they are (derivatively) authoritative.

The other point we need to take from Yeago’s definition is that many confessional and creedal phrases or terms are judgments on patterns of biblical language, not merely on “chapter and verse.” In other words, not every doctrine has a slam-dunk proof-text, but that does not necessarily mean that the doctrine is not thoroughly biblical. Again we could point to the doctrine of the Trinity – there is not a slam-dunk proof-text for it. But we could point to patterns of language in the Bible that do teach the doctrine of the Trinity. Scott Swain and Fred Sanders have both recently pointed to the divine names as one of those patterns; the Father, Son, and Spirit are each called by appellations only used for God in the whole of Scripture. We could also point to the unique actions, attributes, and (received) adoration of God in Scripture, all of which are appropriated to each of the three persons of God in Scripture. Thus the doctrine of the Trinity is thoroughly biblical, even if we cannot point to one Bible verse in order to prove it.

If we were to insist on merely repeating the words of the Bible in order to do theology, we would not have the doctrine of the Trinity. If we were to insist that we lay aside tradition, as if it were a rival of whom we should be suspicious, in order to do theology, we would be casting out not a rival but a friend and guide. And when people have done this in the past, it has turned out to be disastrous for theology and for the Church. Insisting on merely repeating words from the Bible in our theological construction ends up saying more than what the Bible says. Arius shows us that.

Matthew Y. Emerson (Ph.D., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Dickinson Chair of Religion and Assistant Professor of Religion at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Along with R. Lucas Stamps he serves as co-executive director of the Center for Baptist Renewal. He is the author of Christ and the New Creation (Wipf and Stock, 2013) and Between the Cross and the Throne (Lexham, 2015), along with a number of essays and articles.

Matthew is also the co-editor of the Journal of Baptist Studies, and, along with Stamps and Christopher Morgan, the co-editor of a forthcoming volume on Baptist catholicity with B&H Academic. His research interests include biblical theology, early Christian interpretation, and Baptist catholicity. Matt is married to Alicia and has five beautiful daughters.

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