“Nuda Scriptura” and the Authority of Tradition

Bible painting

Bearing down on the thesis today. But I wanted to point you in the direction of an incisive new post by Bryan Cross, relevant to what we’ve been talking about recently, over at Called to Communion: “Sola Scriptura Redux: Matthew Barrett, Tradition, and Authority.”

In it, Bryan responds to a “Reformation Day” post by Matthew Barrett of California Baptist University at the Gospel Coalition, “‘Sola Scriptura’ Radicalized and Abandoned,” which argues that sola scriptura never meant for a total abandonment of tradition, but that Protestants should value and uphold a ‘healthy’ adherence to tradition. But as Bryan rightly points out, the proposition of submitting only to the tradition that one believes agrees with Scripture actually submits tradition to one’s own interpretation of Scripture — and isn’t submission at all. As I asked a few days ago, “What authority does your interpretation have?” To presume that one’s own understanding of Scripture is the very voice of Scripture places oneself as the ultimate authority.

In the course of Matthew’s article, I happened across a term I hadn’t seen used before, one Matthew uses to describe the position many Protestants put themselves in who abandon all else but the bald face of Scripture: nuda scriptura, “bare Scripture” — which, as I’m beginning to think more and more, most aptly describes the whole concept of sola scriptura: the Emperor’s New Clothes that no one dares admit are not clothes at all, but the thin covering of one’s own self-assurance. I have yet to hear any answers offered to my challenge: If we are supposed to hold all doctrine to the word of Scripture, and reject anything not found there, why isn’t that teaching found in Scripture? Why do we not find the earliest Christians following that precept? If the Church Fathers were such faithful adherents of sola scriptura, why did every one of them accept and teach and pass on unchallenged the many “unscriptural” teachings of tradition?

The peace of Christ to you today.

The Emperor's New Clothes

5 thoughts on ““Nuda Scriptura” and the Authority of Tradition

  1. In response to your challenge, I perceive a difference between sola scriputra and nuda scriptura. There are lots of things that Christians do and say that is not found in scripture–the form of the liturgy, for example. That doesn’t make it wrong. Sola scriptura doesn’t deny those things, and even the German Evangelicals taught that only those abuses which directly contradicted the good news should be abandoned. Nuda scriptura, that absolutely everything Christians say and do must come from scripture, and everything not explicitly found in it must be abandoned, is an extreme, and I argue wrong, interpretation of sola scriptura.

    • Thanks, Ken. What do you think of those questions I asked the other day? Do they have answers? Or is there some reason why the doctrine can stand without answers to them? Am I misunderstanding something?

      I agree that there is, on its face, a difference between “nuda scriptura,” and sola scriptura. But it’s only a difference of degree. Sola scriptura, as you state it, is applied only selectively: “I will reject only those things that (according to my interpretation) contradict Scripture.” “Nuda scriptura” is the same idea taken its logical end: “If anything is contrary to the plain word of Scripture (according to my interpretation), I will reject it.” In both cases, your standard depends on your own interpretation of Scripture.

  2. You make it seem as if no Christian has any authority to interpret the Scriptures for him/herself. I am not a Calvinist – never was and never will be, and I think that while they got quite a few things wrong, the Reformers’ rejection of the so-called tradition was a good thing. Now, I think that Sola Scriptura should not have been declared as a doctrine, but rather like a pragmatical maxim or a motto, which while not present in the Bible is particularly important right now – at the time of the great falling-away. Hey, look, I interpreted that myself, but of course my claim has no authority as it was not ratified by the Catholic church or doctrine, right? I personally think that my interpretation holds more water than that of say, the infallible Pope Honorius I.

    • We must be clear what we mean by “authority.” Does the Christian have the mental faculties, the capability or possibility of interpreting Scripture? Of course. But what authority does that interpretation have? If it is only based on his personal understanding, then only the authority that the Christian himself has; or otherwise the authority of whatever he bases his interpretation on. Am I capable of interpreting historical sources, drawing my own conclusions, and arguing them? Sure — but who the hell am I, and who is going to listen to me? I don’t even have my master’s degree. Protestants treat the matter of the authority of Scripture as if it is somehow different, as if individual believers wielding Bibles have authority to teach and define doctrine, when really they have only their personal understanding.

      On what authority is the doctrine of sola scriptura based? Only on the interpretations of Martin Luther, who to be fair, was a well-educated doctor of theology. But on what authority did he base his interpretations? Even experts must base their understanding on authority. How do we know what we know? If we pull doctrines out of hats with no foundation in history or Christian tradition (by tradition, I mean all Christian doctrine and teaching that had been handed down, not big-T “Tradition”), then that doctrine must be held accountable.

      So no, your personal interpretation of Scripture has in itself no authority. If you back it up with the authority of Scripture scholars and Church Fathers, then you can say it has authority. But that authority would still be insignificant in comparison to the combined authority of all the ages of the Magisterium of the Church. Whether your interpretation “holds water” is irrelevant if it has no authority. On the other hand, whatever Pope Honorius taught out of his office as pope, ex cathedra, carries with it the authority of the Church.

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