Tradition V. Scripture? A ludicrous idea to the medievals


Complete writings of church fathers before, during, and after the Council of Nicea (325)

Complete writings of church fathers before, during, and after the Council of Nicea (325)

Why did C S Lewis so strongly rely on the integrity of the Christian tradition? Why was he a “traditional” Christian–a reader of the church fathers, a student of the medieval mystics, an appreciator of scholastic theology? For one thing, he saw what many modern Christians do not: that the boundaries marked out by tradition and the interpretive frameworks provided by it strengthen our ability to understand and live the primary revelation of Scripture.

Tradition in the early church: Irenaeus and the Cappadocians address the heretics

One barrier that still stands in the way of broader acceptance of tradition among free-church Protestants is the misunderstanding of the Reformation that says that medieval Christians treated tradition as a source of authority separate from Scripture.[1] The notion would have been ludicrous to medievals. Scripture and tradition had never been separated in the early church. The church had met together in councils repeatedly to discern the meanings of Scripture. The resulting creeds (elaborated out of long-repeated local church creeds that developed out of the heart of worship) became part of tradition, as protections against wildfire teachings such as Arianism, docetism, and monophysitism.

The very New Testament canon itself, whose now-accepted list of books did not appear until 367 AD in an Easter letter of Athanasius, emerged out of a process of communal discernment led, as they believed, by the Holy Spirit. Which books and letters, when read in the congregations, evidenced spiritual power and truth by supporting and edifying the congregants and building up the church? No serious Christian thinker until the Wycliffes and Huses of the late medieval period—when tradition had become a crutch and a tool of power on the part of some of those at the top of the church—seriously doubted the seamlessness of Scripture and tradition and their necessity to one another.

From the earliest church – from Irenaeus battling the heretics, it is only the tradition, the narrative Rule of Faith, the proto-creeds and creeds passed down, that allowed Christians to hold together in their minds the true meanings of the narrated Scriptures, so that they could indwell those truths and be formed by them in their affections and habitual actions. Where the heretics went wrong, as the post-Nicene Cappadocians insisted, was (in Lewis’s terms) in “contemplating” that which is to be “enjoyed”—that is, making into a game of logic that which must be absorbed through the heart and lived in action. Those who refused to live the Gospel discipline, who played intellectual games with the text—they were the heretics. The Scriptures should not even be given to them to read—they do not belong to them, because they read them without reference to the Christian community, with its traditional linkages back to the apostolic witness.  This logic was followed throughout the Middle Ages, as Jaroslav Pelikan tells us, as “the definition of Christian doctrine was set by the authority of tradition.”


[1] Space does not allow a thorough correction of this misunderstanding, nor a full demonstration from the sources of the truth tradition’s function was always—at least, perhaps, until the end of the late medieval period—to protect and preserve the Gospel and pass it down generation to generation. Medievals had no desire to take away from or add to the primary revelation of Scripture, for they knew perfectly well the biblical warnings against adding or taking away from Scripture (e.g. Revelation 22:18-19). But two good corrections are Baptist patristics scholar D H Williams’s Evangelicals and Tradition and Roman Catholic Robert Louis Wilken’s Spirit of Early Christian Thought.

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One response to “Tradition V. Scripture? A ludicrous idea to the medievals

  1. Pingback: That Was The Week That Was | The Pietist Schoolman

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