Tradition & Scripture: How Tradition Can Contribute to Evangelical Alchemy

There can be no doubt among Protestants and Roman Catholics alike that the discussions surrounding the issues of Scripture and Tradition (and/or [t]radition depending on definition of terms) have been historically marked by virulent criticism, often accentuating and perpetuating poor arguments and thereby creating more heat than light. One such argument is that which seeks to pit Tradition against or over Scripture and vice-versa. Protestant detractors often make comments such as, “You are all about the traditions of men whereas we stand firm only on the Holy Word of God.” Yet “it may come as a surprise to some readers that for most of church history Scripture and tradition were perceived as generally compatible with each other.” In following, an attempt will be made to elucidate a healthy relationship between Tradition and Scripture and what role Tradition might serve in light of its historical usage among Evangelicals. Moreover, attention will be given to the assets, benefits, risks and liabilities of Tradition and how one might navigate these waters. Hopefully it will be demonstrated that Tradition is not antithetical to Scripture and that its appropriation is not merely preferable but essential to the future of Evangelical faith.

Since precision is of great value in discussions such as this one, a defining of the following terms are in order: (T)radition, (t)radition & tradition(s). Against many common notions, consider the proposed definition of the first term:
Tradition is not merely an oral substitute for the written teaching; it retains its raison d’être (reason for being) even in matters where Scripture has spoken; it is the progressive understanding of the riches possessed objectively from the beginning of Christianity, held and enjoyed in a truly Christian spirit, and transformed by reflection from ‘something lived implicitly into something known explicitly…it is the communication of the entire heritage of the apostles, effected in a different way from that of their writings.

Our second word, (t)radition, is used in this paper to refer to the process of handing down (otherwise known as the transmission process). This includes both written mediums and unwritten mediums. It is important, however, to be cognizant of the fact that unwritten mediums move beyond the lone category of oral tradition to include the beliefs, liturgy and practices of the apostolic faith. It would be proper to include (as mediums) baptism, the Eucharist and the creeds, among other things, in this category. Nuanced differently (as some do), these same elements could be shifted into the category of (T)radition since their operation might be coterminous with the unfolding of the Gospel within the believing community.

Finally, tradition(s) may be defined simply as any and all ecclesio-theological traditions that have at one time or another existed. This might include an entity as expansive as the Roman Catholic Church to the much smaller Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Moreover, this could include less institutional movements such as the Waldensians in the late Middle Ages or Evangelicalism.

In light of these definitions, how should the relationship between Scripture and (T)radition (and even (t)radition) be defined and what role should Tradition have in doing theology? We must first realize that Jesus didn’t come down from a mountain and hand over the Bible in Mosaic fashion in its canonical form to the first Christians. The canonization process of the Bible took centuries before crystallizing in the third and fourth centuries and concluding in the fifth century under Constantine. Therefore, the Bible wasn’t the sole arbiter of orthodox teaching during this period. Both Tradition (originating with Christ and passed on through the Apostles), (t)radition and the pluriform (for they were not collated yet) Scriptures (which were in oral form early on and in textual form as the movement grew), shaped the Church. Further, the books that made it into the canon were accepted precisely because they matched the Church’s Tradition of teaching.

Thus, it can be assumed that the scriptures were mutually informed by an entire set of apostolic practices ((t)raditions) presupposed by many of its authors and practitioners. Consider Yves Congar’s suggestion:

We should be prepared to find that the apostles had not recorded in writing all the rules which they gave the Churches, in view of the fragmentary and occasional nature of their writings. What do the written documents we possess tell us of the preparation for baptism, of the eucharistic celebration, of the way to deal with sinners, and so on? St John tells us that he had not written everything concerning Christ, at least with regard to his miracles (John 20. 30; 21. 25). The apostles preached before they wrote (cf. 1 Cor 15.1); they preached more than they wrote, and their letters speak of certain of their actions and speeches which are not recorded in writing.

Protestant theologian D. H. Williams echoes an equally important judgment speaking of (T)radition: “There is no question that the Christian Tradition, expressed in the kerygmatic, ethical, and worshipful life of the churches, preceded the Christian writings, and functioned as completely authoritative before the advent of the New Testament.”

In light of such statements we are pressed to accept the helpful distinction that some theologians have made known as the “co-inherence” of Scripture and Tradition. A rigid line between Tradition and Scripture may not be drawn because of the mutual (though not complete) informing of both to each other. Williams summarizes this well:

The patristic mind comprehended tradition and Scripture in reciprocal terms. While Scripture had the primacy of place for the fathers, they did not believe apart from the church’s traditional teaching and language of worship. Scripture was the authoritative anchor of tradition’s content, and tradition stood as the primary interpreter of Scripture. In other words, the tradition was not a novel set of beliefs and practices made as an addition to Scripture, as if it were a secondary revelatory source.

Scripture was formed by, around and through Tradition (and (t)radition), and vice versa!

The next logical question then is to ask whether or not this exalts Tradition above or to the same level as Scripture in terms of authority. Oden rightly balances the tension by saying, “precanonically tradition is prior to Scripture; postcanonically Scripture is prior to tradition.” Thus, it may be helpful to use the phrase prima scriptura (Scripture first) as opposed to sola scriptura (Scripture alone). We rightly hold Scripture above all, yet we allow for (and promote) recourse to (T)radition for proper interpretation when needed.

We see this position clearly in the history of the church when Augustine argued against Maximus, contending that one is forced outside of Scripture to explicitly interpret that which is implicit in the text. To insist that this interpretational pattern denies sola scriptura is also to deny the basis for the formulation of such doctrines as the Trinity (which no Protestant will want to do!), thus forcing the literal follower of sola scriptura to abstain from asserting orthodox belief. Thus, Scripture is uniquely authoritative but can never be severed from the Tradition in which it was formed, moves and has its being.

What role did Tradition have for the reformers and what role does it have in my own church? Cardinal John Henry Newman has said “that to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” While it can be said that many Evangelical Protestants lack a historical justification for their faith (and Christians in general!), it certainly cannot be said about the Reformers. Indeed, Williams notes that “the very ideal of the Reformation pointed beyond itself to a more foundational past.” In speaking of the view of the Church Fathers among the Reformers he says that , “to depict the Reformers as despisers and haters of the Fathers is ill-founded, he (John Calvin) argues, because ‘[i]f the contest were to be determined by patristic authority, the tide of victory—to put it very modestly—would turn to our side.’” Indeed, the Reformers frequently appropriated the Great Tradition for their theology! But do the current theological method(s) of Evangelicals concerning the relationship of Tradition and Scripture reflect the majority opinion of the Reformers? There is good reason to think otherwise!

There are, however, some Evangelicals that appropriate elements or entire aspects of the liturgy, polity and theology of the Tradition. The church I attend, Wellspring Anglican Church, is one such example of an ecclesial community which appropriates ortho-praxis. What are our sources for theology and what weight do we give to each respective source?

Anglicans (or Episcopalians) commonly and historically refer to the “three-legged stool or, perhaps better, the four-legged bench.” The three-legged stool (which is widely used by Anglicans) refers to the trio of Scripture, tradition and reason with the four-legged bench having the same three and adding on the category of “experience”. Ephraim Radner ruminates on what Thomas Hooker meant when he developed the three-legged stool and its (more recent) transformation with the addition of the authority of experience:
For Hooker, doctrine was to be established on the basis of Scripture. Reason was thought to yield moral truths open to all people of good will. These truths were in no way thought to be opposed to the witness of Scripture…For its part, tradition was a minor matter, referring as it did to those aspects of the life of the church that had a venerable history and were not to be changed unless shown to be contrary to the witness of Scripture or contrary to the light of universal human reason. Experience, our current favorite source of moral and religious knowledge, was not a category Hooker would have separated from reason.

While Hooker was a Puritan, his thoughts are consonant with Anglican theology. One will notice even upon a cursory reading of this quote that Scripture is given prime authority while tradition (probably including both (T)radition and (t)radition for Hooker) is revered and maintained consistently unless it goes against Scripture. Whether or not one allows for the category of experience in our current age, one can see how Hooker’s distinction allows for productive theologizing. The beauty of Anglicanism is that it allows for the historical developments of the Apostolic Faith to play an active role in the life of the church while gleaning the best of the Reformation insights.

Thus, both Scipture and (T)radition (and even (t)raditions) play an active role in Anglican theology (as well as Reason and experience).Thus concerning the Scriptures, Anglicans believe the following as outlined in the Thirty-Nine Articles:

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is neither (not) read therein, nor may be proved thereby, although it be sometime received of the faithful, as godly and profitable for an order and comeliness: yet no man ought to be constrained to believe it (is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed) as an article of the faith, or repute it (or be thought) requisite to the necessity of (as necessary to) salvation.

However, the three Creeds (Nicene, Athanasian and Apostles) are fully accepted given that they “may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture” and “Traditions of the Church” (including both (T)radition and (t)raditions) are to be followed unless they (1) need to be contextualized or (2) they go against Scripture.
Is it possible that such a heavy incorporation of tradition into theology could create problems? Absolutely! Olson’s acute observation raises what is perhaps the greatest threat:

The trouble with traditionalism is that it tends to place the theological consensus of the ancient, undivided church (or some interpretation of it) on the same authoritative plane with Scripture and thus undercuts the church’s ability to reform itself by appeal to God’s Word. In matters of theological development and debate, tradition should get a vote but never a veto, whereas Scripture is the gold standard by which every idea—including those developed within tradition—must be tested.

Although his point downplays the fact of the matter that Scripture itself was determined (to some extent) by (T)radition and (t)radition, it is in consonance with Oden’s earlier thesis that post-canonically tradition is prior to Scripture.

Further, the potential rewards drawn from the deep well of both (T)radition and (t)radition are worth the tension that is introduced into one’s theological method. Such a context will help the Church to be (1) less inwardly focused on “contemporization and self-fulfillment,” (2) more horizontally aware of our brothers and sisters who have gone before us, (3) more foundationally grounded historically and theologically and thus (4) less likely to repeat the mistakes of the past (especially heresy!).

What can my church do to help realize the positives of using tradition in theologizing without embracing an unhealthy traditionalism? First, we need to become more open to other avenues of knowledge, truth and value. At the 2007 ETS/EPS conference J. P. Moreland set forth the critical observation that Evangelical Protestants have become over-committed to the Bible to the detriment of other valuable epistemological sources. A greater appreciation and appropriation of the historic faith can help counter-balance this problem.

Second, we can equip our parishioners to be aware of the issues discussed in this paper and thereby help them implement the great (T)radition and (t)raditions of the Church in a discerning and informed manner. Third, we can remain consistently committed to the Sriptures (as the Apostolic faith teaches) and maintain them as the chief source and determining norm for theology. Finally, must return to the “ ‘map’ of ancient Christian thought and practice” whereby we can have a “place to stand as we seek to address the current challenges facing Christian integrity.” The increasing struggles within the Anglican Communion demonstrate the need to be anchored into something deeper than the culture in which we presently exist.

The goal of this essay has been to understand and propose the place of tradition (in its various forms) for the practice of theology. We have seen that it is a false dichotomy which understands the tradition of the church as a distinct and separate category from that of Scripture. Moreover, the understanding of the early church and the consensus of the Reformers underscore the value and importance of tradition for the life and thought of the Church. Anglican churches tend to appreciate and appropriate (T)radition and (t)radition more than many tradition(s), yet we face great challenges in the present. Jaroslav Pelikan’s states that , “tradition is the living faith of the dead while traditionalism is the dead faith of the living” ; it is imperative for Evangelicals moving forward to appropriate the former whilst avoiding the latter.
1. D.H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 85
2. Yves Congar, The Meaning of Tradition (New York: Hawthorn Publishers, 1964), 30.
3. Ibid., 24.
4. The idea here is that some require baptism and the Eucharist of participants of the Church. This normally flows out of the conviction that (1) they are commandments of Christ himself and (2) they in some way aid the sanctification process that would not be possible without their operation.
5. This specific term is borrowed from theologian W. David Buschart, author of Exploring Protestant Traditions: An Invitation to Theological Hospitality.
6. Dictionary of the New Testament and Its Developments, rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1997), s.vv. “canon.”
7. D. H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999), 45.
8. Congar, Meaning of Tradition, 37.
9. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 68.
10. Ibid., 95.
11. D. H. Williams, Tradition, Scripture, and Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 27.
12. Thomas C. Oden, The Living Tradition, vol. 1 of Systematic Theology (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006), 332.
13. Roger E. Olson, “The Tradition: Why We Should Still Give Scripture Pride of Place,” Christianity Today, November 2003, 54.
14. D.H. Williams, “The Search for Sola Scriptura in the Early Church,” Interpretation 52 (1998): 354-356. Maximus attempted to develop theology from Scripture alone but found himself in the end still “outsourcing” to the conciliar creed of Ariminum.
15. Williams, Sola Scriptura, 362.
16. Cardinal John Henry Newman, An Essary on the Development of Christian Doctrine (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1888.), 8.
17. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 202.
18. Ibid., 190.
19. Olson, The Tradition, 54. Olson writes that “numerous evangelical churches like to think that tradition is a Spirit-quenching fire extinguisher.”
20. Ephraim Radner and Philip Turner, The Fate of Communion: The Agony of Anglicanism and the Future of a Global Church (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006), 154.
21. Ibid., 156.
22. Gerald L. Bray, Documents of the English Reformation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 287.
23. Ibid., 289.
24. Ibid.
25. Olson, The Tradition. 54.
26. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 216.
27. Ibid., 215-217.
28.J.P. Moreland, “How Evangelicals Became Over-Committed to the Bible and What can be Done about it.” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society Conference, San Diego, CA, November 14, 2007).
29. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition, 218.
30. Ibid., 218-219.
31. Jaroslav Pelikan, Vindicating the Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 65.

Bray, Gerald. Documents of the English Reformation. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994.

Buschart, W. David. Exploring Protestant Traditions: An Invitation to Theological Hospitality. Downers Grove: IVP, 2006.

Congar, Yves. The Meaning of Tradition. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1964.

________. Tradition and Traditions. London: Burns & Oates, 1966.

Martin, Ralph P. and Peter H. Davids. Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments. Downers Grove: IVP, 1997.

Newman, Cardinal John Henry. An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1888.

Oden, Thomas C. The Living God, vol. 1 of Systematic Theology. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. Vindicating the Tradition. New Have: Yale University Press, 1984.

Radner, Ephraim and Philip Turner. The Fate of Communion: The Agony of Anglicanism and the Future of a Global Church. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006.

Williams, D.H. Evangelicals and Tradition. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005.

________. Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999.

________. Tradition, Scripture, and Interpretation. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006.


7 Responses to Tradition & Scripture: How Tradition Can Contribute to Evangelical Alchemy

  1. Ben says:

    Clint, Thanks for your essay. I’m at a transition point in writing my thesis, so I’ve been thinking a little bit about these things. My project concerns a re-interpretation of Paul in light of patristic uses of his writings to construct their soteriology. I’ve just about finished the patristic side, so I’m working on the methodological justification for why it’s good to read paul in light of his early interpreters. Accordingly, the role of tradition and scripture are weighing heavily on my mind, and I’m right in line with what you are arguing for. I have a couple of questions for you:

    1) Do you think it was the Reformers themselves that got it wrong or their progeny with the terminology of sola scriptura? Calvin and Luther were both very connected to patristic writers, but their progeny seemed to move further on the spectrum than what their mentors modeled. But, I don’t know reformation history at all, so I could be off with that.
    2) What can we do with tradition that is based on much different hermeneutical models than what we would find valid today–e.g., allegory?
    3) Related to 3), if there are multiple traditions around a certain text, does that mean that texts have more than one meaning? If not, what criteria do we use to judge whether something is a better or worse reading of the text?

    One area ripe with this discussion is that of the world of theological interpretation. They tend to want to read the Bible with the church as a whole, which includes historical writers. However, this also goes hand in glove with a post-modern hermeneutic of multiple meanings. Do you have any thoughts on this area?


  2. Clinton says:

    Hey Ben!

    Thanks for stopping by and reading through the essay. I was just telling a friend of mine the other day about your dissertation and how I wish I had thought of it first! I hope things are going well for you at Durham. Concerning your questions:

    1) Yeah, I definitely do not think that Calvin or Luther would appreciate contemporary Protestant views of the relationship between Tradition & Scripture. You are right when you say that Calvin and Luther were intimately familiar with patristic literature. David Steimetz has a book entitled “Calvin in Context” which speaks of this in the chapter “Calvin and Patristic Exegesis” [I believe he also has a book entitled “Luther in Context” which is similar]. Guys like D.H. Williams at Truett and Thomas Oden are doing a great job to challenge contemporary views. See D. H. Williams’ “Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church” and “Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism.” The latter of these two has a chapter on Scripture & Tradition in the Reformation and I think he hits on both Luther and Calvin in this chapter. The radical reformers definitely took things further than I think they should have been taken, esp. with regards to views on Tradition and also ecclesiology. This is why I think Anglicanism as a via media is a healthy path. What we have with the radical reformers is, in effect, a commital of the fallacy of accident (or “dicto simpliciter ad dictum secundum quid”). One is not justified in rejecting ALL views of the RC church just because SOME of their views were aberrant. Again, this is why I see great value in the Elizabethan Settlement which established Anglican identity into a middle way. Without any historical ecclesio-anchor, many churches have become a-historical in the name of being true to “Scripture Alone,” which was never what Luther or Calvin would have wanted. Moreover, their cry “Sola Scriptura” must always be kept in context of fighting against a church that they literally thought had become the seat of Satan. This is why in our present context I prefer Prima Scriptura.

    2) This is THE question…and it is REALLY tough. In my mind, it seems that more weight should be given to patristic interepretations given their historical proximity to the events themselves. But it is obvious that they did work from a different hermeneutic. So whatever the answer is, I don’t think that it will be unilateral. It seems as though an eclectic approach which takes interpretations on a case-by-case basis is needed. However, here are at least three things we could keep in mind:. (1) Weigh patristic readings against grammatical-historical interpretations and see which reading makes the most sense of what we now know in light of sociology, history, NT criticism, etc. (2) Follow some of the same roads scholars take in interpreting midrashim, intertextuality, etc.-maybe insights can be gleaned for this question from the expanding corpus of literature on Use of the OT in the NT. As an aside, (I was just thinking about this the other day actually), any NT student knows that we have TONS of methods of NT study. Why can’t we have Paleo-Criticism or Patristics Criticism or Tradition-History Criticism ( Excuse my coining of these phrases…maybe another title would be more helpful)? I think if more research was done in the area of use of the NT in the PA (patristic age) then we might be closer to answering this question (maybe it has & I am ignorant). (3) Allow more room for allegory in hermeneutics ( I believe D. H. Williams talks some about this). EVERYONE allegorizes somewhere, the question is when is it ok to do so.

    (3) I don’t think this means that texts have more than one meaning anymore than multiple views of the trinity in early church history means that there isn’t one orthodox view. I think that this is where (T)radition comes in as a filter for (t)radition or traditions(s). We can use the “rule of faith” (which in its basic form predates the text) spoken of by patristic authors, and accepted by all Orthodox Christians, as a hermeneutical filter for interpretation. If an interpretation is consonant with the rule of faith, then it is accepted PROVISIONALLY. But then, there will still be the need to adjudicate between these multiple interpretations. And this is where I am lost and do not know what to do.

    I definitely appreciate your comment in regard to post-modern interpretation & historical/theological interpretation. I think you are definitely onto something. It is already difficult to know how to adjudicate between readings yielded from just those who approach the text from a historical-grammatical camp. Throw in reading with and through the church and you only further complicate the issues. I think that it can be done, however, but one cannot make the mistake (as many advocacy group interpreters do[i.e.postcolonial, feminist,etc.]) of equating multiple possible interpretations with multiple meanings.

    Anyways, I just wrote a lot and I am not sure that I even got close to answering your questions. I hope some of this, at least, is helpful.

    By the way, I would love to talk to you sometime about areas that you think might be promising for PhD research that also might interest me.


  3. Ben says:

    Thanks for your thoughts. It’s an important area, and always fun to dialogue about it. The thing I’m starting to wonder about it is the ‘one meaning’ issue. I don’t want to drink the postmodern cool-aid, but patristic writers also were interested in the many ‘senses’ of the Bible. But following on this is how we test what are good and bad readings. I think that can be really messy.

    A friend of mine brought up this concept to me about some protestants talk of subjecting all tradition (as norma normata) to the test of Scripture (as norma normans). I don’t know where it fits in with sola scriptura.

    Shoot me an email [do you have it?], and let me know what you are thinking about. My subject expertise is pretty small but I’d be happy to chat about things.


  4. Clinton says:

    Hey Ben,

    I will email you within the next few weeks. Thanks for you comments!

  5. […] my has a nice essay on the role of scripture and tradition in the evangelical context.  See here: Tradition & Scripture: How Tradition Can Contribute to Evangelical Alchemy.  Responding the the abuse of sola scriptura, he promotes the concept of prima scriptura.  […]

  6. Clinton says:

    For those wondering…when i uploaded this essay my footnotes appeared at the bottom of the essay but did not stay in the essay. Sorry for the confusion.

  7. Amie Jacobs says:

    Super great read! Truely.

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