Scripture and Tradition

 I was talking to a friend of mine who has some roots in and appreciation for the Anglican church.  We got to talking about the role of tradition in the Christian life, and both of us agreed that tradition rightly understood is a strength of historic Christian churches (i.e. ordered liturgy, prayers, creeds, calendars, etc.).  This, of course, has to do with sola Scriptura.  The question is, does tradition fit in with the Reformation slogan ‘Scripture Alone?’  Richard Muller explains that it does.  I appreciate how he states this.

“The strongly worded arguments of Protestant theologians of both the Reformation and orthodox eras against the idea of a coequal authority of Scripture, tradition, and church, typically summarized by the phrase sola Scriptura, must never be taken as a condemnation of tradition or a denigration of the authority of the church as a confessing community of believers.  The Reformation took as its point of departure the late medieval debate over the relation of Scripture to tradition and assumed that tradition stood as a subordinate norm under the authority of Scripture and deriving its authority from Scripture.  This assumption of the fundamental value and rectitude of the church’s faith insofar as it was genuinely grounded on the biblical Word allowed place in the Protestant mind both for a use of tradition and for a churchly use of confessions and catechisms as standards of belief.”

This is a great balance for which to strive.  We should neither avoid tradition nor revere it, but instead appreciate it, utilize it, and remember that the Word stands authoritatively over tradition – as it stands over the church herself, of course.

The above quote can be found on page 345 of Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. II.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

8 thoughts on “Scripture and Tradition”

  1. It almost seems like Muller is putting tradition on a parallel with Confessions; he uses the phrase “subordinate norm” to describe tradition, while we often use the phrase “standardized norm” (*norma normata*) to refer to our Confessions. Then Muller finishes this paragraph with “…place in the Protestant mind both for a use of tradition and for a churchly use of confessions and catechisms as standards of belief.”

    Being somewhat familiar with Muller, I’m sure if given more context he would subordinate traditions to confessions, correct? I could see where giving the same weight to both tradition and the Confessions would create some problems.


  2. In one sense, our Confessions certainly are a part of our tradition since they are a product of those who came before us.

    However, confessions need to trump tradition. It would make sense to test our traditions against the confessions, however, it would not be right to adjust confessions to match ever changing traditions.

    Unfortunately, it seems to be in vogue lately to do the latter; for example, the Federal Vision attempts to play down the Confessions’ interpretation of Paul because of supposed cultural biases of the authors. This ‘new perspective’ certainly is not traditional now, but it could be some day. Some would even argue that confessions have a ‘shelf life’ and ought to be totally replaced (and/or eliminated altogether) every so often.

    Confessions need to be held to a higher standard than traditions, and traditions ought to be tested against the confessions. There should be a clear delineation of authority: Scripture -> Confessions -> tradition. This is why I grimace a bit at Mueller’s paragraph- this order needs to be expressed as clearly as possible.


    1. Thanks for this post! CW, perhaps you could be a little more specific about what you mean when you speak of “tradition.” And when you say that Confessions ought to trump tradition, how do you determine which Confessions carry such power? Are you merely speaking of the confessions produced during the ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries or are you including later “Reformed” confessions?


      1. Sorry for the delayed response… I’ve been away from the computer for awhile.

        I would define tradition broadly as any historical influences which condition how we understand God and respond to him, Within this broad scope would be narrower eccumenical aspects like liturgies, worship and prayer books, etc. Traditions can be very good and must be respected, yet, although it sounds a bit anachronistic, traditions are always changing. They are different from generation to generation and for each different culture. New traditions, both good and bad, come alongside existing traditions and sometimes replace the old altogther.

        The Confessions I’m referring to would be the Reformed Confessions, though the earlier church councils provide similiar benefits. Confessions summarize scripture’s teaching on four main issues- Who is God, who are we, how are we saved, and how must we therefore live. These formulations do not change with each passing age the way that traditions do. They offer a consistent unity to how we interpret scripture.

        As I mentioned in the earlier post, there seems to be a disturbing trend within Reformed churches to treat the Confessions as subjective traditional relics rather than objective (imperfect though they be) summaries of what we believe. Just to be clear, I don’t think this is Muller’s position, I just think we all need to be more intentional in how we express the relation between tradtions and Confessions.


  3. CW: I think I would differentiate between “tradition” and “traditions”. I am not a Catholic but I did find Yves Congar’s The Meaning of Tradition to be quite a helpful sparring partner.


    1. CW: go back in your Muller reading and see what he says about Tradition 1 and Tradition 2 (which also goes back to Oberman). Further, the Reformed scholastics taught an important difference between a ministerial use of tradition and a majesterial use of tradition, which Muller also discusses in places. He should be able to help you answer these questions.


  4. As a Roman Catholic, I admire the balance expressed here and have noted it in other Reformed writers. It is reminiscent of the attempt on the Catholic side to strike a similar balance between Scripture and Tradition through the notion of the material sufficiency of the Bible (see Congar’s Tradition and Traditions already mentioned). Unlike the latter, however, the Reformed scripture principle, even in its most poised appearance, suffers from significant impracticability – and the more nuanced it is the greater the problem. Who is to ultimately judge the relationship between the meaning of Scripture and the Church’s tradition(s) – whether doctrinal or liturgical? If that office belongs to a centralized authority (however understood), you still end up with something practically resembling the Roman system, regardless of how it is construed on the level of theory. But if that office belongs to the individual conscience, i.e., if you don’t have a centralized authority possessing the acknowledged right to interpret the meaning and injunction of divine revelation, then you end up with confessionalism (which substitutes agreeability for genuine authority).


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