Tradition As Servant, Not Master

The Case for Traditional Protestantism: The Solas of the Reformation I appreciate how Terry Johnson talks about tradition in his chapter on sola Scriptura (from his book, The Case for Traditional Protestantism).  It is important to remember that solo Scriptura (by Scripture alone) doesn’t mean we do not value or honor tradition at all.  Rather, it means that tradition is a useful servant, but not a lord or master.  (Note: I’ve edited this section a bit to keep it brief.)

“Tradition in the church can help preserve orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and prevent corruption.  Sure, some have elevated tradition to a status equal to that of Scripture.  Even among those who do not do so officially (as in  ‘Holy Tradition’), they may do so informally, refusing, ever, to change anything.  …That kind of traditionalism is wrong.  But there is a proper role for tradition…. We may refer to it as that of ‘witness.”

“So we honor tradition.  We consult the past.  We are not like the cults which claim that they have been the first to discover the truth.  We are slow to depart from our ancestors’ thoughts and ways.  We rely heavily upon their insights.”

“This, it seems to me, is the proper role of tradition.  It is a guide, a check, a safeguard, protecting the best of the past from the whims of the present.  It is never an end in itself or an authority in itself.  Tradition is always subordinate to Scripture.  But it has an important role to play.”

“What ought we to do, then, when we encounter a traditional practice? The simple answer is, Honor it.  Give honor to whom honor is due (Rom. 13:7).  Then ask, ‘Why is it there?  Why did they do this and prohibit that?’  Assume our forefathers had reasons and seek to understand why they thought their reasons were good.  Finally, depart from tradition only when the case to do so is compelling” (p. 33-34).

Terry Johnson, The Case for Traditional Protestantism: The Solas of the Reformation.

shane lems

The Fathers, Medieval Doctors, and the Reformers: Continuity in Scripture and Theology

 I appreciate how Richard Muller shows that the Reformers’ view of Scripture had its roots in the theology of the church fathers and medieval doctors.  We have a wrong view of the Reformation if we fail to understand that the Reformers stood on the shoulders of those who came before them in the church.  (Notice especially the first and last paragraphs of this extended quote – and watch for the sentence with “naked text” in it.)

“Just as the medieval view of text, canon, and exegesis is the proper background against which the Reformation and the subsequent development of Protestant approaches to Scripture must be understood, so also is the medieval doctrine of Scripture the necessary background to an understanding of the development of an orthodox Protestant doctrine of Scripture.”

“With striking uniformity the medieval doctors declare the authority of Scripture as the divinely given source of all doctrines of the faith.  They deal, for the most part, quite carefully and precisely with the concept of inspiration, recognizing the need to balance the divine and the human authorship of the text and, with surprising frequency, noting the relationship between the diversity of genre and literary style within the canon and the form taken by the doctrine of inspiration” (p. 37).

Later, Muller notes the following:

“The early Reformation view of Scripture, for all that it arose in the midst of conflict with the churchly tradition of the later Middle ages, stands in strong continuity with the issues raised in the theological debates of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  The late medieval debate over tradition and the late medieval and Renaissance approach to the literal sense of the text of Scripture in its original languages had together raised questions over the relationship between Scripture and churchly theology, between the individual exegete and the text, and between the exegete and established doctrine that looked directly toward the issues and problems addressed by the early Reformers.”

“It is, thus, 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 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” (p. 64-5).

Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, volume 2.

shane lems

The Ground of Our Religion

What is the difference between the Roman Catholic view of Scripture & tradition and the Reformed understanding of it?  Richard Muller summarizes it quite well in Post Reformation-Reformed Dogmatics Volume Two: Holy Scripture.  There is more to his discussion, but here’s one helpful paragraph.

“The Reformed orthodox stand in accord with the Reformers in their assertion that ‘Scripture is the rule of faith and manners [life matters]’ or of ‘faith and life’ and has, for this reason, been called ‘canonical’ since the time of the fathers.  Scripture must be this rule inasmuch as ‘the ground of our religion and the rule of faith and of all saving truth is the Word of God, contained in the holy Scripture.’”

“This assumption stands in direct antithesis to the Roman claim of the coequality of Scripture and tradition.  In the Roman model, Scripture serves as a ‘foundation to tradition,’ and tradition serves to remedy the ‘deficiency’ of Scripture, inasmuch as Scripture does not contain all the truths necessary to salvation.  Indeed, there are Roman traditions that have no foundation whatsoever in Scripture.”

“What is more, in the Roman view, the interpretation of the tradition belongs to the bishop of Rome: this is directly counter to the Reformed and Protestant teaching, which assumes that Scripture alone is the norm of doctrine and the sole source of revelation, ‘rejecting all verbal Tradition in reference to things necessary to salvation.’  Even so, writes [Edward] Leigh, Scripture is a ‘worthy’ canon or ‘rule of religion, faith and godliness, according whereunto the building of the house of God may be fitted.’”

“The Protestant orthodox interest in religion is parallel to their interest in Scripture as the sole ground of religion: their stress is on the right relationship between God and humanity and on the way in which Scripture and faith in the truth of Scripture offer a foundation not for religion in general, but for right religion, the Christian religion.”

In these paragraphs, Muller was quoting from Edward Leigh, the Westminster Confession, the Irish Articles, and William Ames.  The entire section can be found on pages 345-370 of the second volume of Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics.

shane lems
hammond, wi
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)

The Authority of the Church: What Kind?

The Reformed Faith: Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith I appreciate Robert Shaw’s explanation of Westminster Confession of Faith 1.10, which talks about the authority of Scripture and the authority of the church.

“’That Supreme Judge, by which all controversies in religion are to be determined, is no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture,’ is asserted in opposition to the Papists, who maintain that the Church is an infallible judge in religious controversies; though they do not agree among themselves whether this infallible authority resides in the Pope, or in a council, or in both together.”

“Now, the Scripture never mentions such an infallible judge on earth.  Neither Pope, nor councils, possess the properties requisite to constitute a supreme judge in controversies of religion; for they are fallible, and have often erred, and contradicted one another.  Although the Church or her ministers are the official guardians of the Scriptures, and although it belongs to them to explain and enforce the doctrines and laws contained in the Word of God, yet their authority is only ministerial, and their interpretations and decisions are binding on the conscience only in so far as they accord with the mind of the Spirit in the Scriptures.”

“By this test, the decisions of councils, the opinions of ancient writers, and the doctrines of men at the present time, are to be tried, and by this rule all controversies in religion must be determined (Is. 8:20; Matt. 22:29).

Robert Shaw, An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, 58.

rev shane lems

sunnyside wa

Far from Rome, Near to God

 Here’s a book that shows the darkness of the Roman Catholic Church: Far from Rome, Near to God.  In it, you’ll find fifty stories about modern day Roman Catholic priests who came out of Rome because of her unbiblical and gospel-distorting teachings.  Here are a few excerpts.  The first has to do with Rome’s doctrine of justification.

“I performed all my monastic duties to the last rule.  I whipped myself every Wednesday and Friday evening till at times my back bled; in penance I often kissed the floor; often I ate my meager meal kneeling down on the floor, or completely deprived myself of food.  I did many forms of penances, for I was truly seeking salvation.  I was taught that I could eventually merit heaven.  I did not know that the Word of God says, ‘For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works lest any man should boast’ (Eph. 2:8-9)” (p. 70).

Here’s another quote that has to do with Rome’s view that tradition and Scripture are equal.

“From childhood to age forty-four, seventeen years as a Roman priest (1955-1972), the Roman Catholic Church had been the pillar of truth to me, and my infallible guide to God.  This pillar of truth was not constructed solely of the infallible Scriptures, but also constructed of man’s traditions apart from Scripture, which were held to be revelations from God, but which in fact contradicted, and were in opposition to the plain teachings of Scripture.  [Later] the Scriptures became very real to me.  …The Roman Catholic church lost credibility for me, as it had taught as truth what was clearly contrary to the Scriptures.  I then chose the Scriptures as my standard of truth, no longer accepting the magisterium, or teaching authority of the Catholic Church as my standard. …the Holy Spirit led me to judge Roman Catholic theology by the standard of the Bible.  Before, I had always judged the Bible by Catholic doctrine and theology.  It was a reversal of authority in my life” (taken from chapter 8).

I could go on!  This book is a great “real-life” resource on what the solas of the Reformation mean – specifically sola gratia, solo Christo, sola fide, and sola Scriptura.  It is amazing how often these priests came to reject the Mass because of the teaching of Hebrews, reject Rome’s authority and tradition because they contradicted Scripture, and reject Rome’s semi-pelagian salvation “system” because of texts like Ephesians 2:8-9.  Again, this is pretty much a story-like study of the solas.

If I had to recommend three books for studies on Roman Catholicism, along with Rome’s own catechism I would recommend Sproul’s Are We Together?, and this one quoted above: Far from Rome, Near to God ed. Richard Bennett and Martin Buckingham (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009). 

shane lems

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

The Church as Cultural Ghetto?

 These are outstanding words from Don Carson, found in his chapter (“Challenges for the Twenty-first Century Pulpit”) of Preach the Word, a collection of essays on preaching in honor of R. Kent Hughes (edited by Leland Ryken and Todd Wilson).  In one section of his chapter, Carson talks about how the United States and Canada are becoming more and more ethnically diverse.  He says it is something we as preachers (and churches) can appreciate and something we should be aware of.

“The last thing the church needs in a city like Toronto or New York is a church that hunkers down into ethnically and culturally pure enclaves.  That is wrong biblically and stupid strategically.”

“Preachers who serve in most of our large urban centers, and even in many small centers, will face increasing cultural diversity in the populace where their church is located.  Woe to the church that lags way behind these demographic changes, for it is destined to become a narrow (and narrow-minded) enclave, instead of joyfully anticipating the day, in the new heaven and new earth, when men and women from every language and people and nation will gather around the throne.”

“Churches comprised of believers from diverse cultures will include different tastes in food, different views on how to bring up their children, different perspectives on individualism and family identity, different traditions with which they choose to identify themselves.  Yet what unites them in Christ Jesus is far richer than what divides them.  The preacher sensitive to these changes will be eager to establish a growing, empathetic, and biblically faithful distinction between ‘the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints’ (Jude 3 NIV) and an immense array of cultural differences over which it is unwise to divide.”

Carson also notes the danger of a church trying so hard to preserve the language and ethnic culture of its members – it is dangerous because preserving people’s language and culture can sometimes push the gospel out of the center.  In other words, a church has to be careful not to let its traditions, culture, or language trump the gospel. 

There’s a lot more in this chapter; I highly recommend it, along with the rest of this helpful book on preaching.

shane lems

sunnyside wa