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On the Misuse of Christian Tradition: A Response

The proper relationship between the authority of Christian Scripture and authority of Christian Tradition avails itself to no easy answers. From a historical viewpoint, much of the early development of both remains hotly debated. From a theological perspective, centuries (and sometimes millennia) old debates continue to shape thinking and lead toward answers long before any explicit consideration of this relationship comes into focus.

Yet there seem to be boundaries—a “highway of orthodoxy” if you will—which suggest (or perhaps demand?) a certain perspective on the Christian understanding of the interplay between Scripture and Tradition, a stance which holds a) Scripture as inspired and authoritative (overly precise definitions aside); b) Tradition as important for properly interpreting Scripture (or, if you prefer more Protestant phrasings, “interpreting within the community” or even “Scripture interpreting Scripture”); and c) both Scripture and Tradition as necessarily in conversation with one another (i.e., neither allowed to dominate the other).

Of course, within the “big tent” of Christianity there exist excesses and insufficiencies on each of these points. Fundamentalist Protestants tend to overemphasize the inspiration of Scripture and Liberal Protestants often reject the authority of the Scriptures. American Evangelicals know hardly anything of Church Tradition (save their own communal practices) and Roman Catholics are typically accused of bowing the knee too much toward Tradition. I could continue with this type of analysis and dive into specifics, but you grasp the point: holding Scripture and Tradition in their proper, historic, orthodox tension continues only with considerable difficulty.

n spite of my awareness (and own continued wrestling) with these complicated matters, I was astonished to read a recent article at Conciliar Post by Christian McGuire on the Misuse of Sacred Scripture. Now certainly Christian and I agree on some things, many things in fact, not the least of which is that Christian Scripture tends to be misused, particularly by Protestants. Yet there are other aspects of his presentation that seem to entail the misuse of Christian Tradition. Being convinced that difficult topics do not excuse inaccurate or dogmatically denominational arguments, I am compelled to respond (and to direct you to the response article of Conciliar Post Managing Editor Benjamin Winter as well). The purpose of this response is to offer pushback against what reads like an over-emphasis on Tradition at the expense of a robust theology of Scripture and a proper understanding of the dynamics necessary to yield a fruitful dialogue between the Church and Her Scriptures.

In the first place, I wonder about the functional Marcionism of the arguments made in this article, especially since the totality of the arguments made are rooted in examples (often themselves problematic) from the New Testament. Marcion, you may know, got into some trouble in the second century on account of his rejection of the Old Testament (along with sections of the developing NT canon). While I will be the first to admit that much of contemporary theology obsesses over the New Covenant at the expense of the Old, a developed (and historically orthodox) understanding of the relationship between Christian Scripture and Tradition recognizes the long-standing authoritative nature of the Jewish Scriptures which preceded even the bodily arrival of Jesus. Whenever it was in history that Christian practices divorced from Jewish praxis, orthodox Jesus-Followers maintained and (re)interpreted the Scriptures of Judaism. Christian wrestling with truth claims has always been grounded in the reality of the Scriptures of Israel. To neglect this fact remains historically untenable and theologically dangerous. The article in question often appeals to Tradition as pre-existing the New Testament, a claim worthy of dispute on its own, but also problematized by the authority of the Jewish Scriptures and their formative role in the formation of Christian thought.

Next, the argument that “anyone familiar with the canon of Scripture must admit that no book of the Bible is theologically revolutionary: every text is meant to impress upon the reader doctrines that had already been established in tradition” seems an imbalanced replacement of Scripture by Tradition. For in truth God is the ultimate source of doctrine, not Scripture or Tradition. To elevate either Scripture or Tradition over the Divine is idolatry of the worst sort. Christian rightly notes the deficiencies of Protestant hyper-textualism. But replacing that with amorphous oral tradition preceding Tradition without returning all truth back to its origins remains shortsighted.

As for whether or not any book in the canon is theologically revolutionary or not, that seems best left to a discussion of defining terms. If the force of this statement indicates that the New Testament writings abide by the establishedregula fide instead of innovating, I find that generally to be correct, though its application to the Scripture-Tradition debate seems a reach. If we presume that every biblical book was written only for the community which produced it, it may be that they were not produced with any revolutionary intentions. If, however, some biblical books were written with evangelistic and theological goals in mind (and this seems far, far more likely in my literary-historical understanding), then we should not be at all surprised to see (for example) the Johannine corpus’ form of Christological statement and development, claims which are considerably more brazen at times than what comes to us in Jewish-Christian writings like Matthew and James. Such claims are indeed revolutionary, not only in their original contexts, but also for the millions of people exposed to their contents throughout history.

Third, the claim that “the structure of the Sacred Text does not befit an instruction in the principles of Christianity” perplexes me. Why does the structure of the canon matter? Why not the particulars of any given book? After all, it was Church Tradition that gave us the structure of the canon and the Scriptures themselves that contain the contents. Christian goes on to write that, “It is clear that the sacred text does not concern itself with the exposition of every facet of Christian doctrine.” Indeed. To my knowledge, no work—even great works of systematic theology—concerns itself with every aspect of Christian doctrine. Even the magisterial Catechism of the Catholic Church and great summas of the medieval Church fail to meet this standard. Again, the article correctly notes that the biblical theologies of many Protestants improperly avail themselves to epistolary literature as if they were systematic treatises without regard for context. But to say that “If God had intended for the Scriptures to act as the vehicle by which we are taught doctrine, the Bible would look very different than it does today” is to neglect some of the fundamental contexts and contents of the Bible. What is Paul’s letter to the Romans if not a vehicle for instructing the Roman church on doctrinal points? Let us neither read the Bible as teachings out of space and time nor as needing to conform to 21st century standards of systematic theology.

The final claim treated here argues that “while Christian orthodoxy can be proved from Scriptures, it seems highly unlikely that it can be humanly deduced from them.” This again might be properly understood as an appeal to the sufficiency of the Holy Spirit, for no one apart from the Spirit of God may declare the Good News that Jesus is Lord. Alternatively, this might be taken to mean that theological inquiry does not consist primarily of deductive reasoning but involves lived faith. But once again the force of the argument seems off-kilter when applied to the Scripture-Tradition debate. Christian cites the variety of Scriptural interpretations as the chief argument that prevents Christian Orthodoxy from being proved from the canon. Yet it is telling that for all its variations, the orthodox Christian Church has consistently turned to the Scriptures as the first line of defense against those very same varieties of theology, a practice extending as far back as we have alternative and/or heretical positions to refute.

It is indeed the case that the particular Greco-Roman working of the Trinity found in the Chalcedonian Definition does not readily spring from the pages of the Bible. Even so, the claim that the study of the Scriptures does not reveal a Trinitarian deity or “a solid understanding of the mystery of Christ’s full humanity and full deity” astounds and concerns. Clearly, the insights of Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Augustine and other Christian theologians are remarkable guides in locating and properly interpreting Scriptures pertaining to these important theological issues. Yet we cannot miss the crucial fact that these great heroes of the faith constructed their arguments for understanding God out of the conceptual universe of the Scriptures. To denigrate the importance of the text for Christian theology while simultaneously elevating the authority of tradition cannot but appear an inaccurate interpretation of Christian Tradition itself.

I applaud Christian for beginning (or rather, continuing) this particular intra-Christian conversation and for making a number of important points on the (largely Protestant) misuse of the Scriptures. But we must not forget that excesses in one direction of the Scripture-Tradition paradigm do not excuse excesses in the other. If Protestants focus too much on 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Catholics and Orthodox must resist the urge to overemphasize2 Timothy 3:14-15. Instead, we must recognize that Christian Scripture and Tradition influence, interpret, and speak the Gospel in concert with one another. May we strive ever onward toward a fuller understanding of the Scriptures and Traditions of the People of God as we grow and serve together.

Note: This piece originally appeared on Pursuing Veritas.

Jacob Prahlow

Jacob Prahlow

Christian. Husband of Hayley. Father of Bree and Judah. Lead Pastor at Arise Church in Fenton, MO. Alumnus of various institutions. Cubs Fan. Co-Founder of Conciliar Post.

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