02 August 2018

Sola Scriptura vs. Church Traditions

by Phil Johnson



I'm in Finland to speak to a group of Reforming church leaders on the subject of sola Scriptura. The conference here started tonight. I'll be covering topics like the authority, accuracy, and sufficiency of Scripture. I'll also be highlighting the dangers of vesting too much authority in ecclesiastical tradition—especially when our traditions might burden or obscure the simplicity of the gospel. Or worse yet, in some churches and denominations, long-treasured church traditions have often been used to adjust or nullify clear statements of Scripture (cf. Mark 7:13).

To be clear: I am not one of those who thinks we need to jettison every order of service, structure, or interpretation of Scripture that has some pedigree in church tradition. (I'm not an organoclast.) I would be the very last person to advocate ignorance of church history, show sneering contempt for the very idea of tradition, or recommend a haughty, overweening attitude toward godly churchmen and their beliefs and practices from past ages. Tradition has a legitimate place in the church; but that place is not near the top of the hierarchy.

Anyway, while I was at dinner with conference attendees tonight, a friend in America texted me a question about those very issues. He was asking if we could have an extended conversation when I get back in the office. I'm looking forward to that. Meanwhile, I thought his question so good and the issue so important that I decided to answer him briefly with a text message on the spot. My Finnish friends around the table were engaged in conversation with one another, so I thought I could dash off a quick reply without being impolite.

Wrong. My reply became a bit longer than planned, and by the time I finished thumb-typing, I was the only one left at the table. So with apologies to my Finnish hosts to whom I was unintentionally rude, here's my reply to my friend's question. My answer should give you sufficient clues to discern everything you need to know about the gist of what he asked. Here you go:

Short answer: as in all structures, authority is definitionally hierarchical. I think well-established ecclesiastical traditions can carry some authority, but never in a way that trumps the Bible.

In other words the practice and teachings of our spiritual forefathers ought to be studied and taken seriously, and though they have no authority to challenge or add dogmatic articles of faith to what the Bible teaches, certain traditions do have more authority than whatever "God told me this morning. . . "

I think one of the besetting sins of the current generation(s) is a tendency to ignore the voices of godly men who preceded us. Sola scriptura properly understood is not a recipe for each person arriving at his or her own interpretation of the text without any insights gleaned from commentaries, reference works, or the history of what godly men and councils have said in the past. (The notion that me and my Bible are all the instruction I'm willing to heed is what I would typically refer to as "nuda scriptura rather than sola Scriptura.")

In short, if I arrive at a belief or interpretation that no one before me has ever seen, my assumption should be that I'm probably wrong.

On the other hand, the danger of placing too much weight on tradition was shrilly rejected by Christ himself, so I'm inclined to think the greater danger lies there. But there's a deep, deadly ditch on both sides, and it behooves us to stay between those ditches.

See also: Sola Scriptura and the role of teachers in our spiritual growth.

Phil's signature

6 comments:

Bobby Grow said...

In principle: I agree. I would only add that the way us Protestants approach Scripture from a theology of the Word is a tradition itself. But that's okay if the tradition starts from the supposition that God has spoken (Deus dixit).

Sam Nelson said...

Many of the traditions which have been rejected by many evangelicals, like the rejection of images of Christ, the singing of Psalms and a strong submission to honor the Sabbath have deep Biblical roots.

Sam Nelson said...

Also the rejection of the Papist/pagan ChristMass and other unbiblical "holidays".

Titus said...

My impression from being a part of churches of various denominations is that the anti-tradition attitude holds vast sway in evangelicalism. I'm referring to what I think is the case with the majority of evangelical churches, i.e. that they use informal liturgy and are "low-church".

Of course, since all services and community life in churches must operate, of necessity, by some tradition and liturgy, what they are really doing is practicing traditions that mostly go back to 20th century. Often, it's not even recognized that they're swimming in this current, and if it is, then the rationale for rejecting centuries or millennia of tradition is some shallow seeker-sensitive rationale.

I will quibble that Jesus' emphasis is on tradition being the greater danger, given what he said in Matthew 23:2-3 about heeding the Pharisee's traditions overall, but also prophesying in Matthew 21:23,43,45 that their's and the Sanhedrin's authority will be forfeited and given to others due to the corruption and apostasy of their present leadership.

Connecting this passage with the Matthew 23 one has the benefit of contradicting the Catholic claim that such authority can never be lost, and with the Mark 7 passage you cited, that not even a Holy Spirit empowered leadership body is infallible on every point (Numbers 11:16-17), but an inspired Scripture is.

To summarize all this according to a common saying: Tradition is the living faith of the dead, and traditionism is the dead faith of the living. Jesus taught that the Pharisees and Sanhedrin had both elements at play in their teaching.

Frank Turk said...

So first: 100% endorse what Phil wrote here, as he wrote it, for the reason he wrote it, to the effect he means to bring it.

When I think about this topic, what comes to mind is this:

{{ Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. }}

The writer of Hebrews, before saying this, makes it clear that he means that all who came in faith before had the same object of faith as those immediately to whom he was writing. That means that there was something they could learn from what those who came before, in the past, learned or should have learned when they were doing what they did "by faith."

That means that the rest of us if we have the same faith, should be able to learn something from those who came before us in faith. It is in every way the same principle as learning from those who are in your local church who are also more mature than you, with more miles in faith under their feet than you, who are able to teach you something about the greatness of God and the goodness of God and the love H has for His people.

And with that, I'm going to be with God's people in God's house on God's day, and this morning we are going to talk about "fellowship."

Callef said...

Did I miss something? What was the friend's specific question?