I – Circular Authorities

II – Tradition

I. Circular Authorities

The post regarding sola scriptura brought about a number of comments, messages, etc. Some have stated that the quotations were out of context and do not prove sola scriptura. To the former, this is usually done by importing presupposed and late innovative understandings of “tradition” onto the text of the early church. To the latter, I never thought it would prove sola scriptura, but it would show that the idea simply wasn’t as crazy as many try to swing it. The reality is that the nature of the scriptures are fundamentally superior to tradition.

When discussing this there are these simple ideas: scripture, apostolic tradition, and councils. Before discussing this further, I want to point out the obvious: each claim of ultimate authority is ultimately circular, the question is where does one begin and end. For sola scriptura, we begin and end with scripture. For Rome and individuals like Jehovah’s Witness, they begin and end with their church (or organization for the Watchtower). Neither is verifible – they’re self proclaimed authorities, you must trust their word, and they’re built off of presuppositions. Cyril alledgely claimed infallibility of the church. How do we prove that claim of infallibility to be so? We can’t. We have to trust their word. Of course we can recognize where this falls apart with any self-authorized authority. Were the councils infallible? Well, yes, but only insomuch that they agreed with scripture (this becomes an interesting discussion when we consider the West’s insertion of the filioque clause years after a council met).

There needs to be a litmus test. A standard. How do we check the claims of something to be true theologically or doctrinally? A self-proclaimed authority (which in both examples has blatant errors)? Or scripture? Do we trust the Eastern Orthodox’s claim to authority or the Roman Catholics? They both claim the same authority (apostolic succession), they have different practices, the East has more viability historically, but the only litmus test is? “We can prove it from scripture”, but the proper interpretation is dictated by your system, so even if you can’t prove it, an answer to the contrary is wrong.

In truth, these groups, as much as they deny it are sola ecclesia, Philipp Shaff, in his history, summarizes well, “while the opposite theory [of sola scriptura] subordinates the Bible to tradition by making the latter the sole interpreter of the former and confining interpretation within the limits of an imaginary consensus partum.” As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone.” (1.2.85).

It is at the claim of tradition as a means of divine revelation that protestants and Roman Catholics part ways and for several reasons. Most predominately, and ironically, the rejection of Roman Catholic claims is the lack of biblical support for such claims. Not only this, but the claim of Rome is neither verifiable, sustainable, or viable. Most ironic when we realize that Rome as the seat of Peter is neither historically true (noted by the East even) and that most council participations were in the East, but the seat of Rome was superior over other bishops because…?

The claim of Rome is that there needed to be a means by which to infallibly authenticate the scriptures yet Michael Kruger notes the conundrum well, “How does the Roman Catholic Church establish its own infallible authority? If the Roman Catholic Church believes that infallible authorities require external authentication, then to what authority does the church turn to establish the grounds for its own infallible authority.” Kruger’s point holds weight in this discussion as he summarizes the position of Rome, “the Catholic model is to declare that the church’s authority is self-authenticating and needs no external authority to validate it.” (From his work on the Canon, Canon Revisited, which I highly recommend). Again, Rome’s criticism of the Reformers for claiming a self-authenticating authority, that is, sola scriptura, backfires in the establishment of a self-authenticating sola ecclesia. This means that we are left to simply decide which self-authenticating authority has more weight: either an institution that claims such authority for itself, or the scriptures which were the foundation that the institution was first built upon.

II. Tradition – Pulled from old show notes

When it comes to tradition we can look at Irenaeus to begin with, from his works there came an emphasis on Apostolic Tradition, the teaching of the apostles which had been handed down in those churches where the apostles themselves had been active. In the debate against the Gnostics, the church pointed to the rule of faith, which is a summary of apostolic teaching. Churches had their own versions, but taught roughly the same thing. The one most well-known, which was used in the Roman Church is called the Apostles’ Creed [no papacy, rosary, mariology, there]. (It is worth noting that this creed was not written by the apostles themselves despite the tradition that says contrary). At this time then, there was an emphasis on the churches that the apostles founded, in so much that individuals could claim that historically, and they were considered the safe keepers of the true faith which denied or opposed Gnostic teachings. This is why the church of Rome became so prominent in the West because there was only one church in the west that perhaps had some connection to a founder of an apostle, while the East had several apostolic churches. Throughout five centuries Rome would eventually become dominating the other churches in the West until the Great Schism in which it was virtually the only church “worth looking to.” 

Tradition is a term meaning handing over or handing down and it is used in scripture by Paul, for example. He notes that in his writings he is handing down the core teachings of the Christian faith in several instances such as 1 Cor. 15:1-4. 1 Timothy has this type of point as well. Of course, the NT uses tradition in a negative sense as well, but I think everyone is so familiar with that that I can just summarize with the point that such tradition which was seen as negative was human ideas or practices which are not divinely authorized. Irenaeus stated that the Gnostics interpreted the Bible in whatever way they desired. Irenaeus had a point that a continuous stream of Christian teaching, life, and interpretation could be traced from the time of the apostles to his own period in the 2nd century. So, the church was seen as able to point to those who have kept the teaching of the church and to the creed mentioned above that states core beliefs. Tradition, contextually, was a certificate of authenticity to the original teachings of the apostles. This meant that the false innovations and misrepresentations of the Gnostics couldn’t stand.

In the 5th century Vincent of Lerins brought tradition up again when he was concerned with Augustine’s views on predestination. Vincent saw some of Augustine’s views as unwise and hast innovations and called for a public standard to judge these doctrines. Vincent then called for tradition with the criteria of universality, antiquity, and consensus and this is called the Vincentian canon. This view, however, was criticized by Roman Catholics in the 19th century because it made tradition static, meaning, it only dealt with the past. Rome moved, then, in 1832 to Johann Adam Mohler’s understanding of tradition, which is a living voice within the church. He notes, 

“Tradition is the living word, perpetuated in the hearts of believers. To this sense, as the general sense, the interpretation of Holy Writ is entrusted. The declaration, which is pronounces on any controverted subject, is the judgement of the church; and therefore, the church is judge in matters of faith. Tradition, in the objective sense, is the general faith of the church through all ages, manifested by outward historical testimonies; in this sense, tradition is usually termed the norm, the standard scriptural interpretation – the rule of faith.” 

So, looking at tradition back at Irenaeus, there was a stressing of an authoritative interpretation of scripture within the context of the historical church. They were fixed and given, contrary to the notion of a living and active “sacred” tradition. So, this single source theory of tradition is based on scripture and tradition refers to a traditional way of interpreting scripture, namely, in relation to the core doctrines of the church. In the Reformation, this was adopted by the reformers, meaning that traditional interpretation could be retained if they could be shown to be consistent with scripture. Contrary to claims, Reformers didn’t elevate a private judgement above corporate, but elevated scripture over tradition. In fact, in many respects it was interactions with the early church fathers that lead the reformers to reject the errors of Rome. Interactions with church fathers by the reformers is evident in their writings. Luther affirmed that only scripture had divine authority for Christians and in that stated that scripture itself is its own best interpreter. The reformers set scripture over tradition and church fathers as authoritative while saying the bible is clearly understandable. 

Now in the 14-15th centuries we see the development of a dual source theory of tradition and this tradition was considered separate and distinct from revelation, and instead in addition to scripture where scripture was silent. In this view, this second source is to supplement deficiency on topics. So, this unwritten tradition lead to this view that tradition is based on two sources: scripture and unwritten tradition. Therefore, a belief that is not found in scripture can be justified in appealing to unwritten tradition. Discussing Trent is necessary here, the council of Trent had three parties present – those who held tradition was equal with scripture as revelation, those who believed tradition was secondary to scripture (and contains everything necessary), and those who agreed with the second group but held that apostolic tradition was inspired and infallible as an interpreter of scripture. They sought to find a decree that appealed to all three groups which had failed initially when they drafted a statement that said that divine truth was partly found in scripture and partly in tradition and thus both must be held to. The irony is that this view is the most common Catholic view today. This was shot down by the second group, and Trent voted to approve this decree, 

“Following the example of the orthodox fathers, the council accepts and venerates with the same sense of devotion and reverence all the books of the Old and New Testament (for God alone is the source of both), together with all traditions regarding faith, and morality, as proceeding from the mouth of Christ, or inspired by the Holy Spirit, and preserved in unbroken succession in the Catholic Church.” 

That second group could approve of it because drafted removed that tradition in general should be given an equal place with scriptures and replaced it with concerning faith and morals. So traditions that dealt with customs of worship were not equal with scripture, but only doctrinal traditions that dealt with belief and morality. The second group had been more concerned with the tradition that turning to the east for prayer would be on the same level as scripture. Nick Needham summarizes the second groups approval by saying, “This allowed this group to continue believing that all truth concerning salvation could be found in scripture, even if some of them were also in tradition.” Trent had a variety of position, and debates, on a variety of issues and so we need not assume otherwise, even on Justification.

The notion of inspired oral tradition outside of scripture simply cannot be validated which is why Vatican II moved a bit away from Trent, something, ironically justified by living tradition. When looking at the church fathers and finding the term “tradition” it is foolish to read back onto the fathers the 16th century conception of inspired tradition found outside of scripture. Irenaeus is often used, because of his interactions with the Gnostics. And sure enough he spoke of tradition, but contextually we easily see where Irenaeus’ view of tradition doesn’t look like Rome. Contrary, Irenaeus says the tradition is derived from scripture. Following his statement on “tradition” that is accepted, he lays out confessional truths, which are indeed found in scripture, 

“These have all declared to us that there is one God, created of Heaven and earth, announced by the law and the prophets; and one Christ, the Son of God. If any one does not agree to these truths, he despises the companions of the Lord; nay more, he despises Christ himself the Lord; yea, he despises the Father also, and stands self-condemned, resisting and opposing his own salvation, as is the case with all heretics. To which course many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believe in one God, the creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God.” (Against Heresies). 

Everything in this tradition. Is found in scripture. Contrary to such traditions as the Bodily assumption of Mary and Papal infallibility. Not only that, but these statements found in scripture are defined as the tradition Cyril discusses. Basil of Caesarea is often quoted as well while Basil defines tradition as practices and piety, not doctrine, and the irony is that Basil in the passage often cited from “On the Spirit” is that he advocates for facing the east to pray, a very tradition rejected as authoritative at Trent as we discussed. Whenever Basil goes into doctrinal statements, his appeal is to scripture rather than outside tradition, “Their complaint is that their custom does not accept this, and that scripture does not agree. What is my reply? I do not consider it faith that the custom which obtains among them should be regarded as a law and rule of orthodoxy. If custom is to be taken in proof of what is right, then it is certainly competent for me to put forward on my side the custom which obtains here. If they reject this, we are clearly not bound to follow them. Therefore, let God-inspired scripture decided between us: and on whichever side be found doctrines in harmony with the word of God, in favor of that side will be cast the vote of truth.” 

Basil also says, “Those hearers who are instructed in the scriptures should examine what is said by the teachers, receiving what is in conformity with the scriptures and rejecting what is opposed to them.” The early church fathers simply do not have the view that Rome perpetuates. 

Augustine states himself that “Holy scripture is the rule of faith for the church.” Remember that rule of faith is that tradition which is passed down. 

Augustine says in another work, “Let those things be removed from our midst which we quote against each other not from divine canonical books but from elsewhere. Someone may perhaps ask: why do you want to remove these things from the midst? Because I do not want the holy church proved by human documents but by divine oracles”

And, “Neither dare one agree with catholic bishops if by chance they err in anything, with the result that their opinion is against the canonical scriptures of God.” 

And a hard hitter, “If anyone preaches either concerning Christ or concerning His church or concerning any other matter which pertains to our faith and life; I will not say, if we, but what Paul adds, if an angel from heaven should preach to you anything besides what you have received in the scriptures of the law and of the gospels, let him be anathema.” 



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