Why Protestants Should Care About the Church’s Historical Tradition

When arguments break out about the Constitution in public life, almost everyone has a natural tendency to grab a copy of the document, point to a passage that appears to support their views, and declare that the question is immediately settled. The Constitution’s Ninth Amendment—“The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people”—is a prime example of this: most liberal and conservative scholars agree that this language was not meant to confer substantive rights, but this has not kept some commentators from making broad claims about the Amendment’s implications.

I attribute this in part to a flood of cultural messaging—much of it valuable!—about the need to recapture “the original intent of the Constitution.” Such commentary, however, needs to be tempered with recognition of the fact that hard questions do exist: the Founding Fathers were writing within a dramatically different cultural context than that of 2017. The overwhelming majority of conservative constitutional scholars have rejected the language of “original intent” in favor of “original public meaning.” In so doing, the ground shifts away from an unanswerable question—what did the author mean by this?—to a question that can be partially answered through historical research: what were the public meanings of these words mean at the time in which they were first written?

While I’m not suggesting that the same hermeneutic is applicable across both constitutional and scriptural texts, the concept of “original public meaning” illustrates an important reality for any project of textual interpretation: interpretive communities matter (this is an expansion of an argument I’ve made previously). In other words, it’s risky to assume that a text is self-interpreting, since readers will naturally bring their own unexamined cultural baggage to the interpretive task.

One of the most compelling arguments against five-point Calvinism, in my view, is the fact that its theology was not embraced by the early New Testament church. Irenaeus’s defense of free will is particularly germane, given that Irenaeus was taught by Polycarp, who in turn had been taught by the Apostle John himself. While I have great respect for the coherence and sophistication of the Calvinist intellectual project, I am simply not confident that the original meaning of central TULIP passages (Romans 9 springs to mind) clearly supports a Reformed salvific architecture. If the early church had done other than it did, I would feel quite differently.

In the face of such a classic objection to strong-form sola scriptura—the fact that the Bible of today emerged from an early conciliar process of literature selection and review—Michael Kruger’s book Canon Revisited aims to develop a theory of the biblical canon as self-authenticating. To support his position, Kruger advances several “rules of recognition” used to assess which scriptural texts are canonical and which are not. Among these rules of recognition is the principle that a canonical book must have been widely used by the early church. This results in a tension that Kruger never addresses: in attempting to reject the claim that the institutional church defines what is canonical, Kruger must rest on a variation of that same claim. Functionally speaking, there seems to be little difference between a formal pronouncement that certain books are canonical and a de facto recognition of the same. In both cases, the institutional church (broadly defined) establishes authoritative doctrinal parameters and articulates a coherent witness.

I suggest, as a Protestant, that a historically-grounded response to the common Calvinist sola scriptura critique (that only the Reformed paradigm treats the Bible with the seriousness it deserves) is preferable to a thrust-and-parry approach based on dueling Bible verses. Appeals to the interpretive tradition of the early church recognize that we are limited (both spiritually and epistemologically) when we come to the text: it seems reasonable to espouse the view that the biblical analysis of A.D. 180 is more likely to correctly capture textual meaning than the analysis of A.D. 1536 (or, for that matter, A.D. 2017). The interpretive community of the church should matter to the Christian, as does (for the judicial conservative) the interpretive community surrounding the Constitution’s formulation.

Reasonable minds may (and do) disagree about the consensus or correctness of an interpretive community’s decisions, and the voluminous amount of historically-oriented legal and biblical scholarship testifies to this. But constitutional and biblical interpretation alike ought to begin from a starting position of intellectual humility—one that takes the insights of those communities seriously.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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