Sola Scriptura and Tradition (Vanhoozer/Muller)

There is some misunderstanding in evangelicalism about the meaning of “sola scriptura” (Scripture alone). It would take a bit of time and space to go into detail on this statement. For now, I just want to point out one aspect of sola scriptura that people almost always forget: the important place of tradition in biblical exegesis and interpretation. In other words, sola scriptura absolutely does not mean that we throw out all tradition when we exegete and interpret the Bible. The Reformers most certainly and conscientiously stood firmly on much Christian tradition that preceded them. As an example, one only has to look through the author/source index in Calvin’s Institutes to see how frequently he referred to earlier theologians (e.g. Augustine, Aquinas, Cyprian, Gregory, and so on).

In fact, some people cast aside tradition in the name of sola scriptura and end up in the biblicist camp:

“At one extreme, the biblicist sees no need for tradition, nor for creative understanding. It is important not to confuse this view – call it ‘solo scripture’ – with sola scriptura. The main problem with ‘solo scriptura’ is that each individual biblical interpreter sees what is right in his or her own eyes: ‘One Christian measures the scriptural interpretations of other Christians against the standard of his own scriptural interpretation.’ ‘Solo’ scriptura thus denies the principle of catholicity.”

Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, p. 154.

In other terms, here’s how Richard Muller nicely explained it:

It is… entirely anachronistic to view the sola scriptura of Luther and his contemporaries as a declaration that all of theology ought to be constructed anew, without reference to the church’s tradition of interpretation, by the lonely exegete confronting the naked text. It is equally anachronistic to assume that Scripture functioned for the Reformers like a set of numbered facts or propositions suitable for use as ready-made solutions to any and all questions capable of arising in the course of human history. Both the language of sola scriptura and the actual use of the text of scripture by the Reformers can be explained only in terms of the questions of authority and interpretation posed by the developments of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Even so, close study of the actual exegetical results of the Reformers manifests strong interpretive and doctrinal continuities with the exegetical results of the fathers and the medieval doctors.

Richard Muller, PRRD volume 2, p. 63-64.

A proper Reformation/Reformed view of sola scriptura includes a healthy respect for and utilization of Christian tradition (or, as Craig Carter calls it, “The Great Tradition”). If a person says he or she believes the principle of sola scriptura but dismisses or ignores tradition, the bottom line is, that’s not sola scriptura.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015