Sola Scriptura, Tradition, and Bible Interpretation

The idea for this post, the framework for yesterday’s post, and a couple quotes today come from Contra Sola Scriptura by an Orthodox believer.

Tradition and the Ancient Churches

Most of us, when we hear a Roman Catholic use the word "tradition," think of pronouncements from the magisterium, the Roman Catholic hierarchy, or from the pope himself.

The Roman Catholics do believe that the church, or the pope himself when he speaks ex cathedra, can reveal new traditions. They don’t believe their new traditions violate Scripture, but they will defend their right to establish new tradition. They don’t require themselves to go all the way back to the apostles to verify that tradition.

What I personally didn’t realize until the last couple years is that the Eastern Orthodox Churches, which are the "catholic" churches of the world outside of Europe and America, do not see tradition that way.

The article I reference above is written by an Orthodox believer and he says:

The notion of an extra-scriptural revelation coequal to Scripture was rejected in the Montanist controversy. The early Church recognized the Apostolic Tradition in both written and oral forms as interdependent and binding on the Church. There is no historical evidence in the early Church of an extra-scriptural authority independent of Scripture.

Here this Orthodox believer argues, and insists he is speaking from the Orthodox point of view, that there is no tradition in addition to Scripture.

Instead, he insists, Scripture and tradition, which must come from the apostles and not from any other source, are one and the same source:

The theology of the early Church had a singular source: The apostolic preaching in oral and written form.

That Orthodox author, Robert Arakaki ("robertar"), then quotes Richard Muller to establish the real difference between the Protestant and Orthodox understanding of Scripture:

The Reformation did not invent the view that scripture is the prior norm of doctrine, the source of all necessary doctrines, sufficient in its teachings for salvation. … What the Reformation did in a new and forceful manner was to pose scripture against tradition and practices of the church and at the same time, define scripture as clear and certain in and of itself and therefore "self-interpreting." (Emphasis mine)

One last quote to emphasize the difference between Protestant and Orthodox:

A more useful approach would be to describe the theological method of the early Church as "Scripture in Tradition" and the Protestant method as "Scripture over Tradition." Orthodox Christians can accept the former but not the latter.

In other words, the Orthodox would say that you need tradition to interpret the Scriptures. You cannot depend on your interpretation of Scripture to overthrow tradition.

Tradition and the Protestants

In that last sentence I almost wrote, "You cannot depend on your interpretation of Scripture to overthrow well-established tradition."

The Orthodox, apparently, are simply claiming that Scripture ought to be interpreted in the light of what the apostles transmitted to the church orally as well. If the apostles wrote the New Testament and interpreted the old by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, then it only makes sense that the traditions they passed to the churches orally would explain the Scriptures accurately.

I think even a Protestant could grant that.

What a Protestant could not grant is that the Orthodox Churches, two thousand years after the apostles preached, should be trusted when they tell us what those oral traditions of the apostles were.

We have to remember as we discuss the Protestant view of tradition that the Protestants were protesting against Roman Catholicism, not the Orthodox. The Roman Catholic Church that the Protestants left was a morass of superstition, ignorance, and idolatry. (There’s no better description of the problem than John Calvin’s letter to Cardinal Sadolet.) If we are to judge a prophet by his fruit—or a church by its fruit—as Jesus teaches in Matthew 7, then it is almost impossible for any religion to fail more miserably than late medieval Roman Catholicism.

Thus, it seems impossible that the Protestant Reformers could have drawn any other conclusion than that Scripture triumphs tradition. When it came to late medieval Roman Catholic traditions, not only did Scripture triumph that tradition, but so did common sense and human decency!

The tyrants in the magisterium of the late medieval Roman Catholic Church needed to be overthrown whether on a religious or a secular basis.

But now they are overthrown.

They are angry that they’re overthrown, and I’ve been dealt the most awful insults by Roman Catholics because I point out the long litany of evil their church has produced. Worse, in their eyes, is that because the fruit is bad, I make the tree bad, saying that the Roman Catholic Church is as evil as the fruit it has produced. (Not individual Catholics, just the hierarchy. It’s antichrist, and its fruit proves it.) Finally, because I have immersed myself in the writings of the pre-Nicene church, I’m able to point out that their evil hierarchy did not exist in the second and third centuries and that their supposed apostolic succession is a myth.

And now that they’re overthrown, it’s high time that we, the descendants of those who rightfully overthrew the power of the Roman Catholic magisterium, get back to truth.

The fact is, whether we are prepared to take the word of the Orthodox Churches on the matter of apostolic traditions or not, it is not that hard to find out what the apostles taught their churches on most major issues.

We Protestants have not done that … and for good reason.

It would overthrow most of what’s important to fundamental and evangelical Protestants.

Arakaki (who wrote the post linked at the top of the page) quotes Philip Schaff, one of my favorite historians, to establish that. Keep in mind as you read this that Schaff was a Calvinist, prone to that weird sort of arrogance I’ve only found in Calvinists. (It’s difficult to explain, but it makes it almost impossible for them to even notice when they’ve been completely contradicted by Scripture or bested in an argument.) Far form being a Roman Catholic, he was part of the most conservative strain of Protestantism.

On the other hand the theology of the fathers still less accords with the Protestant standard of orthodoxy. We seek in vain among them for the evangelical doctrines of the exclusive authority of the Scriptures, justification by faith alone, the universal priesthood of the laity; and we find instead as early as the second century a high estimate of ecclesiastical traditions, meritorious and extra-meritorious works, and strong sacerdotal, sacramentarian, ritualistic, and ascetic tendencies, which gradually matured in the Greek and Roman types of catholicity. (History of the Christian Church, vol. II, sec. 160)

Let me make a correction before I proceed. It is not true that the universal priesthood of the laity is not found in the early fathers. I know off the top of my head that it’s found repeatedly in Tertullian’s writings. What is true is that no one before Cyprian, a century and a half after the last apostle died, refers to a leader of the church as a priest.

Even the rest is true only if you interpret his words a certain way. What does "a high estimate of ecclesiastical traditions" mean? The second-century churches most certainly did not have the rigorous liturgy of later, larger churches. On the other hand, they did have set prayer times up to 7 times a day, they refused to kneel on Sundays in commemoration of the joy of the resurrection, and they loved the cross as a symbol, though they did not wear it hanging from their neck.

I say that because I don’t want to concede Schaff’s wording. I don’t think it’s accurate. But that the theology of the fathers doesn’t jive with the important doctrines of Protestantism? There’s no doubt that’s true.

The question is, do we care? Are we willing to find out what the apostles taught, and to adjust our Bible interpretations accordingly?

Therefore, brothers, stand fast and hold to the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or our letter. (2 Thess. 2:15)

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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