The Reformation Context (Part 9)

The battle of Scripture vs Tradition is a common way of summarizing the conflict of the Reformation, but it’s a simplistic one. Last week I argued that the Reformation was more accurately a contest between views of Scripture and views of tradition. The Reformers, in fact, were not anti-tradition, but were more accurately against a form of tradition that saw ecclesiastical practice as superior to the Word of God. In its proper place, tradition helped the Reformers to defend the true doctrine of the church.

It may come as a surprise to some that Protestants do value tradition, that even the Reformers did. We may not acknowledge it rightly, but non-Catholics do have an unspoken place of importance for church tradition in our life and practice. Car Trueman helpfully explains:

Every time a Protestant minister takes a commentary off his shelf to help with sermon preparation, or opens a volume of systematic theology, or attends a lecture on a theological topic, he practically acknowledges the importance of [tradition], whether he cares to admit it or no. A belief in scripture as a unique and all-sufficient cognitive foundation for theology does not, indeed, cannot, preclude the use of extra-biblical and thus traditionalsources for help. Protestantism and Catholicism both value tradition; the difference lies in the source and authority of this tradition: Protestant tradition is justified by, and is ultimately only binding insofar as it represents a synthesis of the teaching of the one normative source of revelation, holy scripture. (“Better than Chick Lit II”)

We do value tradition, in its proper place as a communication of the true teaching of Scripture. In fact, tradition helps us to uphold church doctrine in important ways. Appealing to tradition gives us a sense of uniformity with the thousands of years that went before us, he calls into check new and divergent developments, and it encourages us to be humble in our interpretation and application of Scripture. The reformers saw all of these truths clearly and appealed to tradition at times as a support in the defense of reformation theology. Their theology was not really new, it was the true teaching of the Scriptures passed down by the faithful witness of the church. Tradition became a help, then, in fighting against both he corruption of the Roman Catholic view of tradition, and the radical reformation’s rejection of tradition.

The Reformers valued tradition because it pointed to their inheritance of true church doctrine, over and against the Roman Catholic Church. Throughout their contest with Rome, the Reformers did not see themselves as departing from church tradition. In fact, they saw departure as the particular error of Rome. Tradition was far more supportive of their own view of Scripture’s supremacy, of the significance of grace in salvation, and of the proper role of the church. In fact the reformers often quoted the early church fathers in support of such doctrines. The drew from the forebears, especially Augustine, to declare that theirs was the more accurate representation of the historical theology of the church.

Such appeals were made possible because of the help of Renaissance Humanism. It is nearly impossible at times to separate the Humanist movement from the Reformation. Humanism had, in many ways, birthed the Reformation and nearly every one of the magisterial reformers was a trained Humanist. Humanism was a cultural renaissance that rejected the scholasticism of Medieval education and turned towards the Greek and Roman classics. It was a return to the sources (ad fontes, back to the fountain or source). Humanists were seeking to go back to the roots of classical thought and as such there was a renewed interest in studying the Scriptures in the original languages and the early church fathers themselves. There was, particularly, something of an Augustinian renaissance that occurred in the mid-fourteenth century. Many of the reformers saw themselves as “retrieving Augustinianism” (Barrett, 452; see also Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, 46-48).

The Protestant reformers were regularly attempting to claim the church fathers as their own, and to evidence their uniformity to classic Christian teaching. So, Luther quoted many church fathers in his debates, especially Augustine. The index of the Institutes reveal that Calvin had copious quotations from them, and in his address to Francis I he attempted to demonstrate the harmony of his views with the fathers. Even in his treatise On the Councils and the Church (1539), Luther demonstrated great appreciation for these historical councils, even while he critiqued the development of their authority. In fact, for the reformers it was a serious issue if one could find no support among the church fathers for a particular belief.

Tradition became important not only in their debates with Rome, but also in their defense of historical Christianity against the so-called radical reformers. As Gerald Bray has noted:

But it soon became that certain individuals were in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Some of the more radical groups wanted to deny the Trinity and the divinity of Christ on the grounds that these were part of the corrupt tradition of the church and not doctrines that had been directly revealed by God in the Scriptures, but the mainline Reformers recoiled from such an extreme. They came to realize that the church’s extrabiblical tradition was a mixed bag – some of it was the result of ignorance and corruption, but much of it was a faithful interpretation of the meaning of revealed Scripture. (Reformation Theology, 108-9)

Where so-called radical reformers wanted to depart from orthodoxy, the Reformers demonstrated how out of step with the church such people were. Luther and Calvin were not leaving the church, but seeking to return the church to its true heritage. Church history was vitally important for that reason.

Tradition was not the problem. It was the view that tradition, apart from Scripture, had its own inherent authority. Where Scripture represented the right interpretation of the true Word of God it was to be honored and followed. Where man’s teaching was elevated above Scripture and could not be supported by Scripture, it was to be rejected.

The Reformers were not anti-tradition. By the time the Second Helvetic Confession was written (1562) the Reformed church had well established their belief about tradition. That important document of the Calvinistic churches of Switzerland notes that the preaching of the Word of God “is the Word of God” (chapter 1). That is to say, insofar as the preacher represents the Word rightly then his preaching is authoritative. Tradition carries authority, not inherent to itself, but borrowed from the Scriptures in so far as the tradition represents the true teaching of Scripture.

Today, our interpretive communities and the thousands of years of church history should be valuable tools to Protestants. We do much harm to ourselves and our churches if we ignore them. A right view of tradition serves us all well, it keeps us bound to text in a unique way, and reminds us that we are not the first to read the Bible. We need tradition and we all utilize it even if we think we don’t. Yet, tradition is only valuable if it is in its proper place under the authority of Scripture.

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