The Reformation Context (Part 8)

The study of the Sacra pagina (sacred page) has a long-standing history in the Christian church. The Protestant reformers were not the first to defend the authority of Scripture. In fact, the whole of the Western church would have adhered to the doctrinal notion that the Bible is God’s holy inspired and authoritative word to man. This view was complicated by the Church’s view of tradition. The Reformation, however, was not a fight over “Scripture or tradition”, but rather a fight for the proper place of each.

No theologian worth his title would have denied the authority of Scripture in the Medieval era. It was the foundation of all doctrinal belief and church practice. Aquinas, for example, for all his commitment to the scholastic method was also the author of numerous commentaries – covering nearly every book of the Bible. Other scholars of the time followed suit in strong defense of the authority of Scripture. Henry of Ghent, for example, wrote:

We must believe the Holy Scriptures simply and absolutely more than the church because the truth in Scripture is always kept steadfast and unchangeable and no one is allowed to add to, subtract from, or change it. (Quoted in Reformation Theology, 151)

There has always been a strong emphasis on the authority of Scripture, and yet, by the late Middle Ages, the role of tradition was beginning to challenge the place of primacy that Scripture had long-held.

Tradition had always been acknowledged as significant and important. Tradition served as a “tool meant to assist the believer in understanding Scripture’s meaning;” it was viewed as holding a complimenting or “ministerial” role under the authority of Scripture (Barrett, God’s Word Alone, 45). Tradition, thus, had a place in the conversation, a place that had been established by the Early Church fathers and was recognized throughout church history. The clash between Rome and Reformation, then, is not “Scripture vs. Tradition.” The debate, rather, centered around “two concepts of tradition” (Oberman, The Dawn of the Reformation, 270). This first view, what Heiko Oberman calls “Tradition I” (T1), emphasized the “single exegetical tradition of interpreted scripture” (280). Tradition assisted the church by giving us the common understanding of the Scriptures themselves, which were the authority. The second view, “Tradition II” (T2), argued for a “two-source theory which allows for an extra-biblical oral tradition” on par with Scripture in its authority. Barrett explains:

This view holds that Scripture is not sufficient in and of itself, nor the sole infallible authority and source of divine revelation. Scripture must now share that stage with church Tradition, its equal in many respects. This means that ecclesiastical Tradition is not a subordinate authority to Scripture, but an equally infallible and ignorant authority. (God’s Word Alone, 46)

T2 came to be a dominant view in the late Medieval period. It had seeds planted as far back as Basil the Great (330-370), and even in some of Augustine’s writings (though the exact meaning of his words has been debated throughout history), but it came to be the position taught by the Roman Catholic Church on the eve of the Reformation.

As the Medieval period progressed closer towards the modern era, the gap between Scripture and tradition was growing ever wider. Various Pope’s began to claim ever-increasing supremacy. So, Pope Gregory VII, in 1075, declared the infallibility of the Roman Church. Innocent III claimed that the pope was mediator between man and God. Boniface VIII declared the autonomy of the Pope – only God had the right to judge him, everyone else (including emperor) was subject to “Roman Pontiff.” These claims didn’t go without contest, and a more nuanced debate within T2 view arose: who had ultimate authority to decide matters of doctrine? The Curialists argued that the Pope did, while the Conciliarists argued that church councils did. Both still operated from within the T2 position, but their debates actually clouded the issue of authority. Historically, doctrinal authority came from Scripture and was passed down through tradition. Now, it was unclear exactly where to look. This dynamic serves to prepare the soil for a renewed focus on the Sacred Page itself., but not at the expense of the valuable contributions of tradition.

The Reformation is often cast as a fight for the Bible. There is real truth in that description. Yet, knowing something of the historical context helps us to see more clearly the nuances of the clash. The reformers were not anti-tradition, nor were the claims of “sola Scriptura” claims against the proper and valuable use of tradition. Scripture must always hold the place of supreme authority in the life and faith of the church. Yet, to discard the valuable and proper place of church tradition, would be to dishonor our theological forebears and to risk Orthodoxy itself. For tradition serves as a sort of guard rail protecting us from our own isolated personal and fallible interpretations. Scripture is infallible and authoritative, but we as interpreters are not. We need, then, the safety of one another to help us check our assumptions, our interpretive decisions, and our biases. We need tradition to hold us accountability. The Reformers follow this proper use of tradition, as we will see, and Protestants today need to as well. Tradition has a place in the life and faith of the church; it’s a place in submission to the Bible, but it’s still a valuable place.

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