Sola Scriptura and Sacred Tradition

Bible

This weekend I met with my friend Josh the Baptist, my oldest and dearest Christian friend. Over the years he has not been the most amenable to Catholicism — he once told me, years before either of us had any idea I would end up here, that he didn’t believe Catholicism was Christian. But he has nonetheless been very supportive of my faith and my journey. We picked at some doctrinal and theological points the other night. Both of us realized points where we needed to learn and firm up our arguments. Iron sharpens iron.

I realized talking to him, as I am realizing more and more talking to other Protestants, that one of the fundamental obstacles standing between Catholics and Protestants, if not the fundamental obstacle, is sola scriptura for Protestants and Sacred Tradition for Catholics. For Protestants, Scripture is the sole, exclusive authority for doctrine. Catholics found their doctrine on the union of Scripture and Tradition. Not only is this divergence an obstacle to agreement, it’s even an obstacle to understanding. Protestants are so fixed in the sola scriptura mindset that the very idea of rooting beliefs in Tradition is foreign and incomprehensible. Likewise for Catholics, the idea of rejecting Tradition because it’s not in Scripture seems absurd.

Because Scripture and Tradition are two different vessels for transmitting the deposit of faith — both that which was written down and that which was spoken (2 Thessalonians 2:15 ESV). It makes little sense to a Catholic to reject the oral tradition of the Apostles simply because it was oral tradition. The Gospels themselves were written from testimony that had persisted in oral tradition for at least thirty or forty years. Neither Christ nor the Apostles made any attempt to compose a formal, encyclopedic, or exhaustive compendium or catechism of the Christian faith. The writings that make up our New Testament never purport to be the whole, complete body of Christian Truth — in fact, they admit of themselves that they are not (John 21:25 ESV). The Law of the Old Testament was self-consciously the whole, written legal code of the Hebrews, given to govern their people and their relationship to God. But the New Testament is a scattered collection of various documents, comprised of selective narratives for specific audiences; epistles written to specific recipients to address specific concerns; and an apocalyptic prophecy. We should receive these writings for what they are, and not expect them to be something they are not.

The Protestant argument is that the Holy Spirit preserved for us the sum of what we needed in Scripture. The Catholic argument is that the Holy Spirit preserved for us the sum of what we needed — in Scripture and Tradition. Personally, I find the Catholic argument more palatable and reasonable. As an historian, I highly value primary sources written by the hand of people who experienced an event, but I don’t reject other sources that received information secondarily and then declare that the only knowledge I will accept as true comes from the primary documents. A fair portion of the New Testament documents are actually secondary sources, not written by Apostles (Mark, Luke, Acts, probably Hebrews) but by their followers, who wrote down the testimony and teachings of others as they were passed down to them. (That number is even more, if you consider that Matthew and Luke appear to have used Mark as a source.) Yes, the Holy Spirit guided and inspired the New Testament writers — but just so, we believe that the Holy Spirit guided and protected the passing down of apostolic teachings through Sacred Tradition.

The New Testament never claims to be the sole rule or source of faith. No one prior to Luther attempted to make it so, nor would early Christians have found sola scriptura in any way comprehensible. St. Paul writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV) — but neither Paul nor anyone writes that Scripture alone is profitable or acceptable. In fact, just a chapter before, he had said otherwise (2 Timothy 2:1-2 ESV):

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

What Paul is describing is oral tradition, the passing down of sacred teachings from generation to generation by word of mouth. This is the beginning of apostolic succession. Men chosen and approved were ordained to receive the deposit of apostolic teaching; so that by the succession of consecrated bishops, whose lineages could be traced back to the Apostles themselves, the Christian faithful were assured of the integrity, orthodoxy, and wholeness of their faith. As Clement of Rome wrote in ca. 95-96, a mere generation after the Apostles, himself a successor of Peter (1 Clement 42, 44):

Through countryside and city [the Apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier. . . . Our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry.

And St. Irenaeus, a century later, in ca. 180 (Against Heresies, III.3.2):

[We confound the heretics] by indicating that tradition derived from the Apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops.

Most Protestants, whether they admit it or not, adhere to some form of extrascriptural tradition. It permeates the entire Church, in all that Christians do and how they do it. The basic order of worship, the singing of hymns following by the reading of Scripture and a sermon, is as old as the Church, but found nowhere in the Bible. The celebration of the Lord’s Day on Sunday, in commemoration of the Resurrection, rather than on the Jewish Sabbath, is a nearly universal Christian tradition (excepting Seventh-Day Adventists and the like), but found nowhere in Scripture. The bare bones of the Church’s liturgical calendar, Easter and Christmas, are observed by nearly all Christians and even most of the secular world, but not mandated by Scripture. Even the canon of Scripture itself, on which sola scriptura depends, cannot be derived from Scripture alone. The canon of the New Testament was hammered out through questioning and disputation by successive Church Fathers and councils over the course of the first three centuries. Likewise, the doctrine of the Trinity, taken for granted by most Christians today, is nowhere laid out plainly in Scripture. It took centuries of theological wrangling by the Fathers and councils, disputation with heretical sects and condemnation of numerous heterodox views, for the orthodox Trinitarian dogma to fully emerge.

More subtly and seriously, the schools of scriptural interpretation which shape the Protestant reading of the Bible, through sola scriptura, are firmly ensconced in tradition. Most Protestants raised up in a particular theological tradition — in Calvinism, or Armininianism, or Lutheranism, or Wesleyanism — tend to adhere to the interpretations that they are taught. They are likely to read and understand the Bible the same way their pastors do, and possibly the same way their fathers and grandfathers did. Protestants appeal to great theologians and exegetes of the past — to the tradition of biblical interpretation having been handed down — all while not recognizing that their Christian understanding is colored and supported by anything but sola scriptura.

Letting go of sola scriptura is probably a significant hurdle for many Catholic converts from Protestantism. It never was for me. I had been reading the Church Fathers for five or six years before I converted. I have admired the traditions of the Church for as long as I can remember. By intellectual training, I have learned to operate in a traditional paradigm, through history and historiography, citing authorities of the past as support for truth. A good year or two before I made any move toward the Church, I found that I had already given up sola scriptura.

11 thoughts on “Sola Scriptura and Sacred Tradition

  1. Many Protestants and Catholics have come closer together on this topic, I think. Sola Scriptura at its beginning was a reaction to the severe un-Biblical abuses by the church at the time. When Luther challenged those abuses, he needed to find his authority to do so somewhere that wasn’t the very system perpetuating and condoning the abuses. For him, the only thing that could trump tradition, and thereby correct the abuses, was scripture.

    There are different degrees of Sola Scriptura as well. For some, it means that unless it is specifically mentioned in the Bible, it must be thrown out as un-Christian–that’s taking Sola Scriptura to its extreme. For others, like myself, Sola Scriptura means that the Bible is the standard by which we must judge, but it is not the exhaustive list some try to make it. It merely means that tradition can’t conflict with scripture. An analogy I might experiment using is the relationship of state laws to federal laws in the US. State laws can’t contradict federal laws, but anything the federal laws don’t cover is open and free for the states to do with as they see fit. Using your examples, the basic order of worship, worship on Sundays, and the church year aren’t condemned by scripture (or even commented on), and so we are free to do with them whatever we feel is right–usually tradition. Sola Scriptura for me is not a rejection of tradition altogether; it is the subordination of tradition’s authority to the authority of the teaching of the Bible.

    • Thank you for this. That’s very interesting — I didn’t know there had been efforts at reconciliation on this. I really think this is the fundamental divide for a lot of Protestants, especially evangelicals. Most of them tend toward the stricter interpretation — see my second post on this (in which you get a mention).

      I tend to agree with your approach to Scripture and Tradition. Catholics also believe that Tradition doesn’t conflict with Scripture, and we believe that nothing we hold in Tradition does conflict. Catholics place Scripture and Tradition a little more in balance, as two different sources that inform each other. One can’t read Scripture without understanding the tradition from we’ve received it, and Tradition completes the picture Scripture gives us.

      • It helps that Roman Catholics and Lutherans have done a lot of work in reconciling our differences. In the USA, the Roman Catholic/Lutheran dialogue is the longest continuous bilateral dialogue between two churches (can’t find the source for that). We’ve learned a lot from each other, and I know for a fact that the dialogue has helped the (participating) Lutheran churches better understand and accept their Roman Catholic heritage.

        • I have read a little bit about that dialogue. I know when I was researching for the posts I made on grace and justification a few weeks ago, I ran across this document: the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church. I think such conversations are definitely valuable. It seems like, though, as far as any real reconciliation, some of the main issues today are the same issues that are causing splits in the major Protestant denominations, such as women’s ordination and homosexual ordination and marriage.

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  5. “More subtly and seriously, the schools of scriptural interpretation which shape the Protestant reading of the Bible, through sola scriptura, are firmly ensconced in tradition. Most Protestants raised up in a particular theological tradition — in Calvinism, or Armininianism, or Lutheranism, or Wesleyanism — tend to adhere to the interpretations that they are taught. They are likely to read and understand the Bible the same way their pastors do, and possibly the same way their fathers and grandfathers did. Protestants appeal to great theologians and exegetes of the past — to the tradition of biblical interpretation having been handed down — all while not recognizing that their Christian understanding is colored and supported by anything but sola scriptura”

    This is very true, and it is an glaring error on our part. We do NOT interpret the Scriptures simply by themselves. We arrive at our conclusions based on the theological framework of our choosing. To argue that this is NOT the case would be non-sense.

    • Hi Jim, thanks for the astute comment. So which do you think is the greater error: to rely on the tradition of what wise people before us have believed and taught, or to insist, even to oneself that one is not relying on tradition?

      God bless you and His peace be with you!

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