Wrestling with tradition and scripture

Posted by Edward Green  ·  Be the first to comment

I have been asked recently to explain the relationship between tradition and the bible with solid arguments that might make sense to Sola Scriptura Evangelicals. This it is a difficult task. The early Christians didn't work out a doctrine of the Trinity then experience the Triune God, rather they experienced God as Father, Son & Holy Spirit then guided by the Holy Spirit thought through the implications. Equally today Charismatic renewal has tended to precede Charismatic theology in many individuals lives.

My own love for the tradition started not in theological reflection but rather in experiencing God within that living tradition.

This is not the case for everyone - for the solidly Reformed looking for discussion of scripture and tradition 'Called to Communion' is probably a better place to start than my own reflections. It is unsurprising that those who hold a very strong Reformed faith convert to a Catholic faith of equal strength as seen in Sola Scriptura vs. the Magisterium: What did Jesus Teach? and Hermeneutics and the Authority of Scripture.

The position I hold is looser, a via media. The arguments of Roman Catholic thought are convincing, but I find myself wrestling with Tradition rather than submitting outright to the Magisterium and Sacred Tradition.

The first thing that I recognise is that we all understand our faith within an Essential Tradition. The books we accept as scripture, which vary slightly between Catholics, Protestant and Orthodox Christians is the primary example, being a tradition that isn't defined within scripture itself. As far as the New Testament is concerned tradition comes first, for without it, it would not exist.

The ecumenical creeds are also broadly shared. There is an agreed understanding of the nature of the Hypostatic union with healthy ecumenical dialogue with Miaphysites in the last century. Although the hyper kenotic teachings of some Charismatic groups has raised questions about their orthodoxy as I explored in Drawing a Line.

This broad tradition is generally accepted as essential, even by groups on the edge of protestant Christian faith. Groups that reject this tradition, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, tend to be regarded as sub Christian sects and the fullness of salvation within those sects is questioned.

I also recognise that although agreeable to scripture this Essential Tradition is not always explicitly expressed in scripture. For example whilst scripture explicitly expresses that Christ is both human and divine, the nature of this union is the work of theological reflection through tradition. For sacramental Christians the Eucharist is Christ's Body and Blood but the exact nature of this presence is not fully explained, and the sacrificial aspect the sacrament is something that is more implicitly expressed in the New Testament.

The early church did not feel the need to replicate its whole tradition in defining scripture. Apart from Revelation and some sections in Paul liturgy is absent; although I suspect it is possible recreate early essential practice from those texts. Instead there was an assumption of continuity with variation, by word of mouth and in letter.

This continuity with variation expresses how we also use tradition as a term with a more narrow sense, to denote a particular theological and liturgical framework that we practice in – how we believe, live and worship. For Protestants this may be Pentecostal, Reformed, Arminian, Evangelical and many other streams that overlap, whilst Prayerbook, Modern or Traditional Catholic are sacramental Anglican examples. For many Christians today who come to faith through the Alpha Course this too could be defined as a particular tradition.

Christians tend not to view this form of tradition as so binding, but these particular traditions are the lenses through which we read scripture. Admittedly some deny that they are reading scripture through such a lens which makes further dialogue difficult, breaking any assumption of continuity.

So this leaves me a number of questions.

Firstly what should be the root and source of our particular tradition?Secondly what should be contained in Essential Tradition, that which explicitly states what is only implicit in Scripture?Thirdly is tradition necessary for the fullness of Salvation - is scripture formally sufficient (not needing outside interpretation) or only materially sufficient (containing all that is required for salvation but requiring to be read with tradition).

On the basis of a general ecumenical acceptance of creedal theological understanding I cannot see how scripture can be considered formally sufficient for salvation. The Essential Tradition is required to interpret Scripture, and therefore required for fullness of salvation, although Scripture is materially sufficient.

The contents of that Essential Tradition has diverged over the centuries, between Oriental and Orthodox and Roman forms. However that divergence is minimal compared to the recent divergence in the west post-reformation. The reformers honestly responded to abuses in the Western Church, but in doing so their followers have increasingly rejected the wider Essential Tradition. Defining the bounds of an Essential Tradition is the conversation that the whole church, from Oriental to Western Protestant, continues to have in desire for greater unity.

Anglicans are in the middle of this conversation. Whilst acknowledging that an Essential Tradition is required to interpret scripture, I cannot confirm what is contained in this Essential Tradition in the way that Roman Catholics can refer to Sacred Tradition. This is frustrating, a wrestling, a commitment to an Indefinable Source.

A better question then is perhaps where do we start from – our particular tradition. As Western Christians do we start from the legacy of the Reformation, or do we return to the earliest witnesses? If a historian discovered a version of the Alpha course from the early 2nd century would we consider it important reading? In the Didache and the letters of St. Ignatius, St. Clement of Rome and others I believe we have such resources available to us. In acknowledging that we all view the scriptures through a lens of tradition, this is the lens that I endeavour to start with.

The Reformers were not ignorant of the tradition of the Early Church - it is not innovative to return to these Apostolic Fathers, those who knew the Apostles and followed the tradition that was shared as word of mouth as well as in letter. We need not read these sources without a hermeneutic, the same approaches that we apply to scripture, especially in terms of context and culture, can be applied.

This is the claim of Apostolical faith, a desire to be in continuity with the earliest Christians, without necessarily the absolute resort to the Magisterium or formal Sacred Tradition.

Much of what is expressed in this early tradition is implicit in the scriptures later Christians defined, but it is frequently in conflict with elements of post-reformation tradition. It is unsurprising that some Evangelical, Emergent and Liberal Christians instead suggest that the writers of the early second century had fundamentally misunderstood the faith that they received from the Apostles. But I struggle to see how this understanding is compatible with Jesus' promise that he would build His church.

Or perhaps the relationship is deeper than that.

In professing a desire to be Paleo-Emergent I rejected the idea that the Christ event could be separated from the Church event. To broaden this thinking, the intervention of the incarnation, the Church that grew from that intervention and communicated it, and the scripture that the Church embraced and defined, cannot be disentangled and separated without losing their essence. This ongoing entanglement, this continuity of narrative, this wrestling, is a living tradition - both essential and particular, the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church (Vladimir Lossky).

9th March

March 9th, 2012 - Posted & Written by Edward Green

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