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Misappropriating the Reformation (3): Sola Scriptura

The Protestant Reformation was triggered by a conflict over the issue of justification, that is, how our sins are forgiven and how we obtain salvation. To resolve this issue, it was necessary first to address the question of theological methodology: what is your final source of authority in answering theological questions?

The answer of the Roman Catholic Church, as codified by the Council of Trent (1545-1563), was that Scripture and Tradition are both sources of authority in the Church, and that Scripture must be interpreted in light of Tradition. Protestants argued that Tradition was not an independent source of authority, and that all questions of faith and practice had to be based on Scripture alone (Latin: sola scriptura).

At the same time, however, the major Protestant Reformers incorporated elements of Tradition into their liturgies (e.g. the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed) and made regular use of the Church Fathers and even some medieval theologians in their writings. Calvin and Luther, for example, both regularly cited St. Augustine of Hippo, among many other Patristic sources, and were influenced by the medieval mystic St. Bernard of Clairvaux. 

So were they sneaking Tradition in the back door, or was something more happening here?

A Place for Tradition within Protestantism?

The easiest answer is that the Protestant Reformers used earlier theologians and creedal statements when they believed they were faithful to Scripture. In other words, they used Tradition when it accurately reflected the teaching of the Bible, but not as an independent source of authority.

That much is true, but it is an inadequate explanation of the Reformers’ attitude toward Tradition. To understand why, we need to take a closer look at the different definitions of Tradition and place the Reformers into their historical context.

The great Reformation historian Heiko Oberman (1930-2001) spent a great deal of his career documenting the connections between medieval thought and the Protestant Reformers. In analyzing the Reformers’ ideas about Tradition, Oberman argued that we need to distinguish two different kinds of Tradition. The first, which Oberman labels “Tradition 1,” held that only Scripture was inspired and the authoritative source of doctrine. Scripture was to be interpreted by the church according to the regula fidei (the “rule of faith”), but neither the church nor the regula fidei were considered authoritative or supplementary revelation independent of Scripture.

Sometime around the late fourth century, St. Basil the Great (c.330-379) in the Greek-speaking world and St. Augustine (354-430) in the Latin-speaking world began to hint at a new understanding of Tradition as a second source of revelation that supplements Scripture. Oberman labeled this “Tradition 2.”

It isn’t clear if either Basil or Augustine fully intended this shift, and it took centuries before theologians picked up on the idea and began developing it. With the rise of scholasticism in the twelfth century (roughly the period of St. Anselm and his development of the idea of substitutionary atonement discussed in the previous column), theologians in the Latin-speaking world began to shift toward Tradition 2, though Tradition 1 remained the central understanding of the role of Tradition in the church.

In the fourteenth century, William of Ockham (c.1287-1347) became the first theologian to argue for a two-source view of revelation. From this point, the distinction between Tradition 1 and Tradition 2 became clear and was a subject of debate among theologians into the sixteenth century.

This is the context of the Reformation discussion of the nature of authority in the church. Luther, Calvin, and the other mainstream Protestant Reformers, as well as Lefèvre d’Étaples, Erasmus, and most Catholic humanist reformers, argued that Scripture alone was the source of revelation, not Tradition in way adherents of Tradition 2 understood it. But this does not imply a rejection of Tradition 1 and the regula fidei in guiding our interpretation of Scripture. They believed that the witness of the church throughout the centuries and the regula fidei were critically important for developing a proper understanding of the Faith. The mainstream Reformers never questioned the doctrine of the Trinity, for example, even though they came to it through Tradition guiding their understanding of Scripture rather than developing it anew for themselves.

The response of the Catholic Church to the Protestant rejection of Tradition 2 was to reaffirm Tradition as a second source of revelation at the Council of Trent. In fact, Tradition arguably trumps Scripture in Trent’s view, since the Council forbade interpreting Scripture in a way that would contradict Tradition. This made Tradition the gatekeeper and ultimate interpreter of Scripture. This decision, which was aimed at Protestants, would come back to haunt the Catholic Church in the trial of Galileo.

Not all Protestants accepted Tradition 1. Some on the fringes of the movement rejected any role for Tradition and insisted on reading the Bible with no guidance from the past theologians. The most obvious of these were rationalists such as Socinus and other anti-Trinitarians, though you find the same tendency in some Anabaptist groups. In general, however, these radical individualists were a small minority among Protestant Reformers. The descendants of the mainstream Reformers continued to read and interpret the Scriptures in light of the regula fidei.

The individualistic reading of Scripture did not go away, however. It experienced a resurgence in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries among liberal theologians, who argued that we needed to get rid of Tradition and read the Bible afresh with our own eyes, not according to the regula fidei. This is hardly surprising, considering that Unitarian rationalists wanted to get rid of many of the fundamental doctrines of the faith while retaining the label, “Christian.” The irony is that they defended their rejection of orthodox Christianity by claiming that their sole source of authority was the Bible and only the Bible, but they saw the Bible more as inspiring than inspired. Their rejection of Tradition made them the sole arbiter of what the Bible meant and what needed to be believed, and this enabled them to ignore anything that didn’t fit the tastes of their more enlightened time.

So where do modern American evangelicals line up on the question of Tradition?

Where We Are Today

Unfortunately, we’re largely with the liberals and the radicals on this, not with the historic mainstream Protestant tradition that we claim as our own.

To be sure, evangelicals tend to take Scripture more seriously than the liberals do and to hold the line more or less on orthodox doctrine. But that is not because they know or care about the regula fidei. Most don’t. And therein lies the problem.

We confess the authority of Scripture and its sufficiency for faith and practice, but we then interpret it as if it were written today, just for us. We read the Bible individualistically, largely ignoring the community of faith and the centuries of study and meditation on the meanings of the text by the great Christian thinkers of the past. Those who are inclined toward more of a scholarly approach will pay attention to things like literary genre and historical context, but rarely does anyone look at the regula fidei in interpreting the text.

And that, in turn, means we can easily be misled by new and novel interpretations of Scripture, interpretations which are determined more by our cultural biases than by the text. This is how the Gospel gets turned into the social gospel in classic liberal theology, or into the prosperity gospel, or the therapeutic gospel, or Sabbath Economics, or Liberation Theology, or …. It is also how we accommodate Scripture to our own cultural preferences, by, for example, supporting so-called “same sex marriage” or seeing America as God’s chosen people and our Constitution’s original intent as being the divine order for government.

At its root, the fundamental problem with taking the Bible in isolation from the historical tradition of interpretation and from the regula fidei is that it makes us and our cultural biases authoritative over Scripture: we alone determine what it means, and thus our views become the gatekeeper to the meaning of Scripture in much the same way that Tradition 2 does in the Catholic Church. And this, in turn, means that we implicitly believe that God speaks to us today but did not speak to the saints in the past or we wouldn’t feel so free about ignoring what He told them. This gives us a myopic view of the Church, as if it is just about us today rather than the united body of believers from all times and places.

Particularly as at least a subset of evangelicals seem bent on repeating the experience of liberal theologians by embracing a revived social gospel and by questioning many aspects of traditional Christianity, returning to a proper understand of sola scriptura, the regula fidei, and Tradition 1 is imperative if we aren’t going to go off the rails by departing from the faith given once for all. Reading Scripture in light of the regula fide will help free us from the limitations placed on us by our time and our culture and give us a plumb line that we can use to test our theology and practice.

Misappropriating the Reformation (3): Sola Scriptura

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