Debunking the Protestant “T” word part V (conclusion): Learning to love tradition


This article is continued from “Debunking the Protestant ‘T’ word: An edifying tale, part I,“ “Debunking the Protestant ‘T’ Word part II: How to spot a heresy, “Debunking the Protestant ‘T’ Word part III: What was the beef at Nicea?“ and “Debunking the Protestant “T” word part IV: How sausage was made.”

So now in conclusion: Some of you may be inclined to say: “All I need is my Bible, and I know everything about God and Jesus and salvation that I need to know.” I hope you’ll see the moral of this story about the Council of Nicea. The doctrine of the Trinity—that is, the doctrine that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all uncreated, all co-eternal, all equal in divinity—is, in one sense, all over the Bible. But in another, very literal sense, the Trinity is never mentioned even once in the Bible. Nor is the exact nature and relationship of the “two natures of Christ”—his divine nature and his human nature. Those were clarified at later councils. Nor will you find in the Bible every detail of the right way to run a church—including church government, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and so much more. (That’s why there are so many denominations!) Nor, of course, does the Bible contain instructions about what job each of you should take, or who you should marry.

You can and should ask the Bible each of those kinds of questions. But it’s not a great idea to just ask the Bible. In fact, I’d put it this strongly: The bigger your question, the more important it is that you check your interpretation against those of other wise, discerning Christians. And on the very biggest questions—the questions at the heart of our faith—it is absolutely essential that you refer to that “T” word that makes Protestants so uncomfortable. I mean the church’s historical Tradition. Early bishops. Early councils. Important documents describing early worship and church discipline, like the Didache or the Apostolic Constitutions. Or if you don’t personally check those teachers and documents, you’d better hope your leaders have done so. Otherwise, how do you know you haven’t got hold of something that sounds fine and Biblical, but in fact is a partial truth . . . just partial enough to be seriously wrong?

At this point, some of you with a little historical knowledge (which, like any other form of knowledge, is a dangerous thing) will be saying: Aha! But the Protestant Reformers didn’t do that! They believed in the principle of Sola Scriptura—the notion that the Bible is our only authority. Calvin and Luther didn’t go running to the church fathers and the early documents to make sure that what they were teaching was right, did they??

Well, as a matter of fact, they did. For example, in John Calvin’s famous Institutes of the Christian Religion, you’ll find hundreds of references to the writings of early Christians—the so-called “church fathers.” When Calvin, Luther, and the rest talked about Sola Scriptura, they most certainly did not mean that the church ought to pitch out the window all of the teachings of its wisest scholars, pastors, and bishops since the days of the apostles. They did not mean “Nuda Scriptura”—the Bible naked, by itself; just you and the Bible in a room, alone, with no guidance on how to interpret it. They meant that Scripture was the most important authority—the final authority. They meant that if you find someone teaching something that doesn’t square with the testimony of the whole canon of Scripture, you’d better beware. But they didn’t indulge in the kind of individualistic, rationalist mode of Bible reading that unfortunately so many evangelicals practice today.

Is everything we read in Scripture straightforward? Do we know how every bit fits with every other bit? No. Let’s be honest! Some parts, on the face of them, need more interpretation than others. So it’s crucial to understand that when we read the Bible, we do so as part of a 2,000-year-old conversation about what all its bits mean in relation to each other and in relation to human life: past, present, and future. It is the same conversation that those bishops entered when they sat down at the emperor’s summer palace some 1700 years ago to try to understand the Bible’s witness on the relationship between Jesus the Son and God the Father. That’s what we mean by Tradition. And even we Protestants need it!

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6 responses to “Debunking the Protestant “T” word part V (conclusion): Learning to love tradition

  1. Professor Armstrong,
    Excellent piece.
    Wasn’t it Nicea where St. Nicholas (yes THAT St. Nicholas) punched an Arian in the face? Sausage indeed! :-)

    Here’s where I run into trouble. As you have shown, the data of scripture needs proper and contextual interpretation and Tradition helps with that. But Tradition is also basically a set of data that itself needs proper interpretation. The Councils of Jerusalem, Nicea, Ephesus, Constantinople etc, made definitions with authority. The Church had the mandate from God to issue binding and normative dogmatic definitions through the Spirit leading her to all divine revelation (even the canon was formulated with this pattern). Sifting through the scriptural, traditional and historical data doesn’t guarantee our embrace of divine revelation. Someone needs to take the data past the level of scholarly opinion and on to divine authority or all you have left is what we see in Protestantism (as you alluded to) varying and opposing opinions about scripture, tradition, and history and no one having the ability to command the assent of faith, procure ecclesial unity, forbid schism, and define heresy with certainty. The interpretive authority of the Church is such that we are to submit to those who have the rule over us as Hebrews says. If I pick a confession based on what agrees with my interpretation of scripture, I am the ultimate authority and then, when a better scholar comes along and I am compelled to change my confession it will be because my interpretation of scripture has changed not because I have discovered divine revelation. This is a bit perplexing, but Rome’s paradigm is making more sense than I expected.

  2. Thanks Prof Armstrong. I think this is something the American church needs to look at again, as so many believe it is “Nuda Scriptura” and are unwilling to look to a tradition or acknowledge that anything happened in Christianity before 1517.

    And, now I have a “West Side Story”-like vision of the two rival songs running through my head!

    • Thanks for dropping by, Annette. When are you going to take another course with me? :)

      • I’d love to take another class with you – especially the one on postmodern patron saints. However, I’m not sure how that would work in the inministry format. A lot to read, judging by the syllabus you posted earlier.

        I’m reading Dante as a result of your book. Almost through purgatory already… I can’t believe this is something written in 1300. It really is remarkable in terms of poetry, religious ideas and roman/greek mythology (all individually and collectively).

  3. Thanks Magdalena. Well, I love and appreciate the Book of Common Prayer. It does not contain everything one needs for the Christian life, but it sure sets the table for a rich and robust worship. And I don’t think the Anglicans are wrong when they see worship (not doctrine, per se, except as worship also imparts doctrine) as the appropriate centering of church identity. Plus, it’s win-win because you’ll get bigger chunks of Scripture every Sunday in Anglican worship than you will almost anywhere else–yes, even among the free-church Protestants who claim to venerate Scripture so much. In fact, in many of those free-church churches, you get much more topical than exegetical preaching . . . but that’s another topic for another day. :)

  4. Next time someone gives me a hassle about Tradition and Prayer Book, I am just going to refer them here. Anglicans say that Tradition is distilled into the Book of Common Prayer; we follow and believe scripture and we live out our lives as Christians through the prayer book.

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