Scripture and Tradition

My friend Ryan Godfrey, a Roman Catholic, and I have agreed to write a number of short position papers on a variety of topics. We’ve agreed to answer a few questions in each paper, but there is no set format. We’ve also agreed to keep footnotes to a minimum, although I’ll probably break that rule frequently.

These are intended to highlight areas of agreement and disagreement, not to be sweeping generalizations about where we think each other is going to end up in eternity, or who should be thrown in the stocks, etc. etc. We will each post our own position papers, after which we’ll give each other time to respond. Those responses will also be posted here.

The first of our topics is Scripture and Tradition. I’ve posted my position paper below. Ryan’s can be found here.

Enjoy.

 

Scripture and Tradition

1. What is Scripture?

Scripture is the Triune God’s self-communication to his people, inspired by the Spirit, testifying to the Son, and revealing the Father. It is the revelation of Yahweh, given in the context of his redemptive covenant,[1] and has as its end both the communication of who God is and the transformation of his people into the Son’s image. It is thus a revelatory and redemptive document. “Scripture” is synonymous with “Bible”, and by Bible I mean the 66 books of the Protestant canon (more on canon below).

The source of Scripture is ultimately the Holy Spirit, who “breathes out” the text (2 Tim. 3:16), “carrying along” the prophets and apostles, who wrote it down (1 Pet. 1:21). Because Scripture’s source is the Holy Spirit, it is infallible and inerrant in everything it says. Further, because the Spirit inspires the scriptures, their aim is bound up with the Spirit’s, namely to testify to the Son and his work (John 16:4-15), bringing conviction, judgment, and repentance. The Spirit’s inspiration of the text also places the foundation for Scripture’s authority squarely in the hands of the Triune God. While the people of God certainly passed down what was given to them, the Bible’s source is ultimately God, not men.

Scripture is not the only means by which God has revealed himself, but it is the only enduringly accessible means by which his people know him. God’s power and creative act are seen through nature (Rom. 1:20-21), but general revelation is only properly interpreted by special revelation, and namely by Scripture. Other means of special revelation include events (e.g. Moses and the burning bush), direct communication (e.g. via the prophets), and, ultimately, the person of Jesus. We should be clear that the ultimate revelation of God is found in the person of Jesus Christ, but as soon as we acknowledge this fact we are confronted with his bodily residence at the right of the Father. He is therefore only known through the scriptures that testify to him. Likewise, we only know of and understand the events and direct communication both testaments through the scriptures. Thus the Bible is the only enduringly accessible means of special revelation available to the people of God. The Bible is therefore the Spirit-inspired Word of God that gives us access to the Word, the second person of the Trinity, who in turn makes known to us the Father. It is the ultimate authoritative source for Christian doctrine and practice, teaching God’s people about him and how to live in relationship with him.

 

2. What is Tradition?

Tradition is also authoritative, but derivatively so. Its reference point is always Scripture, because Scripture gives it its aim and operation. Both of these are captured in 2 Tim. 2:2 – “. . . what you have learned in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” Likewise in Deuteronomy 6 the people of God are instructed to pass down God’s instructions to their children. Tradition, then, is the faithful passing down of prophetic and apostolic instruction from one generation to the next. Note here, though, that this prophetic and apostolic instruction is Scripture. The prophets and apostles, or Old Testament and New Testament, are the source for the Christian tradition, and the Christian tradition is held accountable to be faithful to that source.

In the history of Christianity, this “passing down” has generally been accomplished in three ways – hermeneutically, doctrinally, and liturgically. Hermeneutically, the rule of faith has served as a summary of biblical teaching, both in terms of its redemptive narrative structure and its focus on Christ. Doctrinally, the three ecumenical creeds served as accurate summaries of biblical teaching on the nature of God and the work of Christ. Liturgically, early Christian worship was structured around scriptural patterns and ordinances (e.g. reading a Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, celebrating the Lord’s Supper). In each of these areas, though, their authority is derived not from their ability to explain an otherwise unfathomable text but rather from warrant given by the text for their instruction. For instance, Jesus gives the disciples the rule of faith on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:27, 44); Paul instructs Timothy and Titus to pass on sound doctrine in the Pastoral Epistles; and, as already noted, liturgical practices find their warrant and shape in Scripture.

 

3. What is the relationship between Scripture and tradition?

As is already evident by the way the previous two sections are structured and articulated, for Protestants, Scripture stands over and above tradition. Although tradition has a derivative authority in the life of the church, Scripture has the ultimate authority. Sometimes this means that parts of the tradition must be modified or rejected in light of fresh understandings of biblical teaching. Tradition certainly contains much weight, as does the community in which one practices their Christian faith, but Scripture supersedes both of these.[2]

An issue that presents itself immediately in this articulation is how to account for the canon and the rules that help us read it (regula fidei, creeds). With respect to the

canon, both Roger Beckwith for the OT[3] and, among others, David Trobisch for the NT[4] have demonstrated that the people of God recognized a distinct set of books for both testaments. I am more familiar with NT studies, and in that field MSS evidence for an early NT canon continues to grow. It is becoming commonplace in scholarship to recognize that, by the mid second century at the latest, the NT was circulating in four distinct codices – the four Gospels, Acts and the General Epistles, the Pauline Epistles, and Revelation. Given that this is the terminus ad quem for this means of circulation, it is possible, perhaps even probable, that John was responsible for the collection of the Gospel corpus (which includes his Gospel), the Acts plus General Epistles corpus (which includes his letters), and Revelation (authored by him). This leaves the Pauline letters, and many scholars recognize that Paul or one of his disciples probably collected and circulated these in a codex. In other words, the New Testament canon is not a product of fourth century council decisions, but of the recognition of the Spirit-inspired and apostolically testified character of these books by the people of God. Canonization is the church’s recognition of the inherent character of Scripture, not its decision about which books to include and exclude. It is thus a product of its source, the Holy Spirit, rather than of its recipients, the church.[5]

In terms of the rule of faith and the creeds, I’ve already noted the former’s reliance on Christ himself for its source and authority. Jesus taught the disciples to read the Scriptures, and the Spirit inspired the apostles to write that teaching down for us. Right hermeneutics is ultimately derived from the Spirit-inspired, Christ-testifying Word. Creeds, likewise, find their source in Scripture. As David Yeago has argued,[6] it is not enough to say that the three ecumenical creeds derive their teachings from Scripture; rather, we must say that their affirmations are found in Scripture. The creeds attempt to use conceptual terms to render accurate judgments about scriptural patterns of language. They are not documents that stand over Scripture, telling us how to read it, but rather the derivative summaries of Scripture’s doctrine. Thus Scripture stands as the norming norm of the creeds, and indeed of all confessions, conciliar decisions, hermeneutical methods, and Christian practices. It is the Spirit-inspired and Christ-testifying Word that has ultimate authority for Christian faith and practice, and it is this Word that calls the church to Christ, shapes her faith in Christ, and patterns her practices to transform her into the likeness of Christ.

 

[1] Scott Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading.

[2] See, for example, Alistair McGrath, The Genesis of Christian Doctrine. See also Heiko Obermann’s distinction between Tradition 1 and Tradition 2 (the latter of which is static and unquestionable, contra what I am arguing here).

[3] Roger Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church.

[4] David Trobish, The First Edition of the New Testament; idem, Paul’s Letter Collection. Another point to be made here is that the entire Bible is a tapestry of intertextual illusions, and it is apparent that the authoring process is one in which each book is tied textually to previous books. Thus the inherent Spirit-inspired and Christ-testifying character of Scripture is wedded together between books, making the recognition by the church of inspiration a relatively easier task.

[5] For more on this, see John Webster, “The Dogmatic Location of the Canon,” pp. 9-46 in Word and Church (London: T&T Clark, 2001).

[6] David Yeago, “The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma,” in Engaging Theological Interpretation of Scripture, ed. by Stephen Fowl.

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One thought on “Scripture and Tradition

  1. Hi Everyone,
    I’m glad Matt and Ryan are having this conversation. I read both your papers and I guess I find myself in a strange place since I am one that likes the Eastern Orthodox theological reflections on this topic better than the standard Catholic or Evangelical one. Here is a powerful quote from Theodore G. Stylianpolis that cuts across both the Catholic and Protestant views. He says, “Divine word and community, Bible and Church, cannot be played off against one another for they are both constitutive products of the same Spirit; just as there could be no church without the gospel, so also there could be no gospel without Church” (The New Testament: An Orthodox Perspective, p.57).

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