the Bible and tradition (or is it tradition and the Bible?)

Like so many issues, this is one in which some prolonged in-depth study could help, but like so many people, I simply don’t have time for that. What I’m thinking about here is with reference to our view of the church. And not really in terms of high church versus low church especially in worship, but more in terms of the church’s role (and apostolic succession, maybe a subject for another day).

Christian Smith in The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture makes what I think is at least an interesting, rather compelling critique of what he calls biblicism, or perhaps we could say to its extreme, the Protestant call to sola scriptura, which means the Bible only as our source of authority. Robert Gundry wrote a bracing critique of Smith’s book, an interesting read as well.

The critical issue for me is the place we give or more importantly scripture gives to the church and how our view and practice might differ from that. And because of that, how our view of tradition can be diminished from the biblical view. When you hold out the Bible as the authority, rather than the church as vested with something of that authority, you find not one church, but a multitude of churches which acknowledge the others as somehow less faithful or aligned to the truth. Hence the at least hundreds of denominations which have come out of Protestantism.

I would want to hold to scripture first instead of scripture only. In other words scripture would be given first consideration, followed by tradition/the church, reason being employed in that, and properly understood, experience following. I do feel uneasy about relegating the church to this place since it is in scripture called “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). I don’t think we give it nearly its due. The idea that all one needs is a Bible and the Holy Spirit flies in the face of the fact that what God gives to us from scripture in the gospel comes by the Spirit through the church no less. Where I would struggle is with the idea that the church hasn’t always gotten some things right. I think now of women’s role in the church. Not only that, but even if I accept a Great Tradition view of the role and place of the church, what place is tradition granted in comparison with scripture? It is one thing, and I think legitimate to accept that the church should be the arbiter of how scripture is interpreted, but quite another thing when what is advanced as authoritative is not taught in scripture. I’m thinking the counter argument would be something like what is taught somehow follows theologically from the teaching of scripture. I’m thinking here of the Roman Catholic teaching of the virgin (as they insist) Mary’s assumption as in bodily ascension to heaven.

And so I’m a bit caught betwixt two. On the one hand the church must keep going back to scripture to be both informed and formed. On the other hand scripture gives the church a role and prominence which is little if at all appreciated by evangelicals or in evangelical circles, yes in their churches. It’s with a shrug of the shoulders that how the church seemed to understand and do things as early as the second century, even arguably reaching into the first even matters. That seems to me to be fundamentally in violation of their own principle of interpreting all from scripture. Which ends up if not giving tradition as in the church and scripture equal authority, at least gives the church a special authority in its interpretation of scripture, the church hopefully allowing latitude on matters which may be debatable and do not impact the gospel.

To find something of a middle way as has been advocated in Anglicanism is commendable, even if that should not be a goal in itself. It’s about finding our place in a big picture in which the church itself is prominent. Something not to be left to ourselves.

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2 comments on “the Bible and tradition (or is it tradition and the Bible?)

  1. ISTM that Scripture itself denies the idea that it is our sole source of authority, as if there is no role for the church in understanding/ interpreting it. When the Ethiopian eunuch takes up the scroll, he is unable to understand it, and God sends Phillip to help him. IMO Phillip represents the Body of Christ, the Church, which enables us to receive the Word.

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