Tradition and Biblical Interpretation

Codex Vaticanus

A leaf from Codex Vaticanus, one of the earliest extant manuscripts of the Greek New Testament.

Tradition, I think, is a scary word for evangelical Protestants. But all it means on its letter is something handed down — from Latin trado: trans (over, across) + do (give) — something passed from one generation to the next, from one group to the next. As I’ve pointed out before, all Protestants, whether they admit it or not, adhere to some form of tradition. As Christians, everything we believe is by necessity traditional: it was not handed to us by God directly, but given to us by the Christians before us. Even the Bible is a collection of traditional writings: documents that were handed down to us from the Early Church. All Christians follow in the tradition of someone, whether it’s the Roman Magisterium, Martin Luther, John Calvin, or John Wesley. Ultimately, all Christians hope they are following in the tradition of the Apostles. If they are not — if they claim to be rejecting all tradition — then their Christianity must be seriously suspect.

Likewise, the way we interpret the Bible is traditional. Christians do not approach the biblical books as texts in a vacuum. Our readings are generally viewed in the light of the whole of Scripture. We read the Old Testament in the light of Christ’s fulfillment of it (with notable exceptions, such as the translations of the RSV and NRSV); we read the New Testament Epistles in the light of the Gospels and of each other. We approach Scripture with preconceptions of theology and doctrine. A prime example is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity: All orthodox Christians read the fullness of the doctrine of the Trinity in Scripture, but it is not at all written on Scripture’s face. We recognize the Trinity because the Church’s ancient theologians and exegetes have fleshed it out for us, hammered it out by generations of successive argument and refutation of heterodox views. Likewise is the doctrine of the fully human, fully divine nature of Christ and His hypostatic union. Even the canon of Scripture itself — what documents we accept as part of the Bible and what documents we reject — depends on the tradition of the Fathers of the Church in the first Christian centuries, arguing for and against the inclusion of various texts. Protestants read Scripture in the firm paradigms of their doctrinal traditions, whether Lutheran, Calvinist, Arminian, or so forth, appealing to the traditions and commentaries of great theologians of the past — with the result that despite their proclamation of sola scriptura, their understanding of Scripture is by necessity deeply rooted in tradition.

The Catholic Church reads Scripture in the same way — only with the whole of apostolic and patristic tradition behind its interpretations. As an historian (revisionists aside) builds his interpretations on those of his predecessors, the Catholic Church’s doctrinal framework is founded upon the traditions of popes, councils, great theologians and thinkers, all the way back to the Church Fathers, the first generations of Christians after the Apostles themselves. The Church proclaims its adherence to Apostolic Tradition, both that handed down orally and that written, and it is the early Fathers who attest to our traditions back to the hands of the Apostles.

As I have written before, the New Testament writings handed down to us are at best a fragmentary record of the teachings of the Apostles and Early Church; the Sacred Tradition handed down through the Church Fathers fills in the gaps and completes our image. But the Fathers also read and interpreted Scripture; and it is only in the light of their Tradition that we can properly understand the Bible. As for the historian, one of the crucial tasks in approaching a primary text, in understanding the thoughts and intentions of a writer, especially one of an ancient time and culture, is to understand how his words were received and understood by their primary recipients. The earliest Church Fathers, such as Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, are at most only thirty or forty years departed from the writing of the New Testament: they are the New Testament’s primary recipients, and within living memory of the Apostles. To separate the New Testament texts from the understanding of these early Christians, as a strict reliance on “sola scriptura” does — to read the New Testament in a presentist view, without the light of the interpretations of the Early Church — risks taking it out of context, or else grossly misinterpreting it.

Some Protestants do read the Church Fathers — but many are selective in their readings, reading the parts of Augustine especially, for example, that seem to support their Reformation theologies. Taking the Church Fathers, or any writer, out of their historical context in this way is as dangerous as it is with Scripture. For Augustine was a bishop of the Roman Church, operating in and upholding its traditions. His views must be interpreted against his position and his entire belief system; he would not have sanctioned his doctrines being used to support any theology that opposed the Catholic Church.

The fact of the multiplicity of Protestant readings and interpretations of Scripture — that there is less doctrinal agreement among Protestant churches than at any time prior — that there are more fragmented Protestant denominations than ever before (more than 33,000) — proclaims the utter failure of sola scriptura, and the danger of severing the interpretation of Scripture from tradition and authority. This is not a new phenomenon with Protestants: at the root of every heresy has been the decision to reject traditional doctrine and follow one’s own interpretation.

Before I began converting, the idea of giving up one’s personal, individualistic interpretation of Scripture to accept the teachings of a rigid and authoritative institution seemed to be an anti-intellectual subjugation of individual thought and will, and a recipe for abuse. For couldn’t the Church teach that Scripture said anything they wanted it to say, to justify their extrabiblical traditions? Wasn’t the freedom of the Christian to think and read the Bible for himself the only insurance he had against manipulation and deception? But I now see that the truth is just the opposite. The Christian who is “free” from authority is much more susceptible to being misled and exploited. It is the authority of the Church — the authority handed down from the Apostles — that protects us, that ensures the integrity and orthodoxy of our faith. And this protection is built into the system: Today’s prelates cannot abuse their authority, they cannot introduce inventions or radical reinterpretations, because the root of their authority and their interpretations is the Tradition of the Church — which is open, accessible, and visible for any Christian to investigate and in which to verify the truth.

4 thoughts on “Tradition and Biblical Interpretation

  1. “For couldn’t the Church teach that Scripture said anything they wanted it to say, to justify their extrabiblical traditions?”
    The Roman Catholic church has come a long, long way since the Reformation. But at the time, this was not just a possibility–it was the painful, harsh reality. There would have been no need for a sola scriptura position if the Magisterium was not so corrupted and could no longer be relied upon.

    Oddly enough, you have a point that this very charge laid against the Roman Catholic church (that they can make up whatever they want) applies equally, if not more so, to sola scriptura interpretations.

    “Today’s prelates cannot abuse their authority.”
    I would strongly deny that claim, for we see it in the news all the time. It’s not an accusation against the Roman Catholic church–it is the reality of all authority everywhere that, no matter how much one guards against it, abuse of authority will also occur because we are humans.

    • You’re right. Thanks for keeping me honest. 😉 I thought of the situation at the time of the Reformation as I was writing. Definitely then, there were a lot of abuses going on, largely because a small percentage of the faithful could read, and an even smaller percentage of that could read the Latin Bible, and an even smaller percentage of that could read the Bible in its original languages — practically nil there, since the texts simply weren’t available. The Latin Bible, as it existed then and especially as the Church interpreted it, could certainly be used as a tool of manipulation.

      But yes. Especially in the branch of Christianity I came from, there’s such a tendency and a capacity to twist Scripture to say whatever one wants it to say. I’m thinking especially of the “prosperity,” “health and wealth,” “word of faith” teachings. And those people on TV have no one to answer to.

      And the last thing — yes. I knew it was an extravagant claim when I said it. What I really should have said was that they cannot abuse their authority without somebody calling them on it. And with all the talk in the media these days about abuse of authority in the Catholic Church, it’s a matter of opinion whether anybody is doing that or not.

    • I meant to add: we definitely owe the Reformers big time for pushing for the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, which has been a benefit for all Christians. It’s a shame that the Catholic Church opposed even that so violently. The fear, I imagine, was losing control of the message. And that happened anyway, for both Catholics and Protestants, for the worse.

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