As a Baptist, I am staunchly in favor of religious liberty for all and the individual freedom of conscience required for that collective liberty. I’m also in favor of congregational rule in local churches. And more generally as a Protestant, I definitely confess sola scriptura. This does not mean, however, that I’m against confessions and creeds or their derivative authority.
I’ve written elsewhere about what it means for confessions and creeds to have derivative authority – that is, authority that is derived from its faithfulness to Scripture, the ultimate authority – and how that relates to the Protestant commitment to sola scriptura. Here I only wish to highlight the fact that Scripture itself suggests that Christ’s ministers are to disciple believers via passing on sound doctrine. In other words, confessing sola scriptura does not negate the (derivative, secondary) authority of tradition, but rather it is in these supremely authoritative scriptures that we find an analogy to tradition’s authority in Jesus and the apostles commanding Christians to disciple believers precisely by carefully passing down a summary of their teachings.
1. Christ Passes on Sound Doctrine
I could go all the way back to the OT and Deuteronomy 34 here, but I’ll stick with the NT for now. Jesus conveys the importance of tradition and its role in discipling his followers in many places; here, I’ll highlight two. First, on the Emmaus Road in Luke 24, Jesus schools his followers on how to read the Old Testament. We are not given the details of this discussion, but instead Jesus gives his apostles a “rule” to follow regarding how to read God’s Word. What we have in the NT is the administration of that rule via the apostolic deposit, i.e. the NT itself. The rule’s application has been inscripturated and thus serves as the rule itself – to be in accordance with Jesus’ rule is to be in accordance with the NT. Nevertheless, Jesus’ instructions here can serve as an analogy to the authority of doctrine. Doctrine is derivatively authoritative insofar as it is faithful to the inscripturation of Jesus’ rule – the Bible.
We also see Jesus commanding his disciples not only to baptize new believers but to teach all of Christ’s followers to obey “everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19). This summary statement includes what the apostles later write under the inspiration of the Spirit in the NT. He was telling them to pass on what he had taught them, which I would venture to say included how to read the OT Christologically, what to believe about Jesus, and how to follow him. Of course, now that Christ’s teaching is inscripturated, Matthew 28 just is referring to the NT. There is no outside equally authoritative tradition. My only point here is that Jesus’ command gives analogous credence to the idea of holding believers accountable to a summary of Christian teaching.
This is a direct command from Jesus to pass on something that is not Scripture itself but rather a faithful summary – Jesus’ faithful summary! – of Scripture. We do not have the Luke 24 conversation recorded. Arguably, we do not have everything that Jesus commanded (John 20). These instructions are passed down via the NT, and our subsequent administration of it must find itself in accordance with this inscripturated application of the rule. In other words, Jesus’ rule, in both Luke 24 and Matthew 28, is administered in his inspired Word. Our job now is to make sure what we pass down is in accordance with this supreme authority, the inspired Word of God in the Prophets and Apostles.
2. Paul Commands Timothy and Titus to Pass On Sound Doctrine
In the Pastoral Epistles, we find numerous instructions by Paul to both Timothy and Titus to pass on what they have learned to others. For example:
…remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine (1 Tim. 1:3).
…the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient…and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted (1 Tim. 1:9-11).
If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed (1 Tim. 4:6).
Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching (1 Tim. 4:16).
Teach and urge these things. If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing (1 Tim. 6:2-4).
O Timothy, guard the good deposit entrusted to you (1 Tim. 6:20).
Follow the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 1:13).
By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you (2 Tim. 1:14).
…what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2).
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Tim 3:14-15).
[An overseer] must hold firmly to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:9).
But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine (Titus 2:1).
We could add to this references to “the faith” and either guarding it or departing from it, as well as the hymns (e.g. 1 Tim. 3:16) and references to trustworthy sayings. In any case, from the list above it is apparent that Paul had trained Timothy and Titus in sound doctrine and expected them to pass it on to those they were discipling, and so on (2 Tim. 2:2). He seems to be referring to a summary statement about who Jesus is, what he’s done, and how to know him. There also may be some hermeneutical guidelines (e.g. a rule of faith) a la Luke 24 in mind in these passages, especially when Paul references speculation and Jewish genealogies and myths. Of course, what Paul is referring to as “the good deposit,” “the faith,” “sound doctrine,” “the teaching,” etc. is what then became inscripturated in the NT. Once again, there is no inspired authority outside of Scripture. But our point here is that these instructions by Jesus and Paul give us analogies to the ministerial role of tradition subsequent to the writing of the NT.
3. Ministers Pass on Sound Doctrine
These examples demonstrate that both Jesus and Paul (and I’d argue we could include the other apostles) commanded Christians to pass on sound doctrine. There’s no time to expand on this here, but, to clarify briefly, they also are clear that this “deposit” is faithful to the Word God has already given to his people in the OT and to the Word he was giving at the time to the apostles. In other words, this “deposit” was only authoritative insofar as it was faithful to God’s inspired and inerrant Word, both as it already existed in the OT and was being written in what we now call the NT. Of course, that sound doctrine and teaching was subsequently inscripturated in the NT. We do not have any source of inspired authority outside of Scripture. But, by way of analogy, ministers are still called to pass on sound doctrine that is in accordance with Scripture.
Tradition, then, is not at odds with Scripture per se, but is rather the God-ordained means of stewarding the faithful summary of Scripture. Tradition is a steward, or minister, of Scripture’s main point. It is a minister of how to read Scripture. It does not stand over Scripture, but like any good minister is used to pass on what has been entrusted to it. In this sense, it is authoritative, but only secondarily and derivatively. We could say the same thing about pastors and congregations; the authority that God has entrusted them is ministerial, and only effective insofar as they are faithful to the ultimate authority, God’s Word.