One of the most important contributions of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation is its clear reminder to the Church concerning the primary authority of Scripture. Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone – was the battle cry of the great Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin in the wake of a Church that is so laden with human traditions that the essence of the Gospel was so severely obfuscated that it was no longer in view.
Modern evangelism has in the main sought to be true to the emphasis of the Reformers by stressing the authority of Scripture as the infallible Word of God. However, in doing so some evangelical Christians and churches have consequently adopted a pejorative and dismissive view of tradition, a view which the Reformers neither held nor encouraged.
In his book, The Fabric of Theology Richard Lints argues that in adopting this approach – enunciated in slogans such as ‘No creed but the Bible’ – evangelical Christians have deprived themselves of the rich theological and spiritual heritage and wisdom of the Church. As a result, their understanding of Christian existence is impoverished and, without the tutelage of the Church the Bible is often read, interpreted and applied in subjective and idiosyncratic ways.
This in turn has led to the proliferation of interpretations of the faith, some of which are in conflict with others. When tradition is not taken seriously, writes D.N. Williams, ‘the “centre” that the Reformers were hoping to restore splintered into a multitude of conflicting versions of the faith’.
Evangelical Christians therefore need to rediscover the wisdom of the Reformers.
In stressing the primary authority of the Holy Scriptures, the Reformers were not urging the Church to ignore – much less dismiss – the secondary authority of tradition. If Scripture is the authoritative text for the Church, tradition must serve as its authoritative interpreter.
In his Large Catechism, Martin Luther writes thus about the Apostles Creed: ‘Here you find the whole essence of God, his will and his work beautifully portrayed in a few but comprehensive words’. In the same work, Luther asserts that ‘… the Creed brings us full mercy, sanctified us and make us acceptable to God’.
In similar vein, while John Calvin was highly critical of the teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church of his day he acknowledged the authority and value of tradition as the interpreter of Scripture. Thus, he could say that the ancient traditions of the Church seek to expound ‘the real meaning of Scripture’ and he acknowledged that the ecumenical creeds contain ‘the pure and genuine exposition of Scripture’.
The Roman Catholic theologian of the last century, Yves Congar, maintains that the nature of the Christian faith itself makes tradition important. The Christian faith, Congar argues, ‘is an inheritance that is both transmitted and received’. As authoritative interpretation, tradition enables the Christian properly understand the authoritative text, the Bible.
To say that the universal Church, whose life and ministry are shaped by Scripture as its authoritative interpreter is to acknowledge that she alone is able to discern the counsel of God it contains, by the help of the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps one of the reasons why some evangelicals have difficulties with recognising the role of tradition in Christian theology is because the relationship between the Holy Spirit, the Church and Scripture is not explored in sufficient depth.
The theological significance of the fact that the Spirit who inspires the authors and the texts of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16) is the same Spirit who will guide the Church into all truth (John 16:13) must be carefully teased out if we are to have a robust understanding of the nature and role of tradition.
It was J. I. Packer, one of evangelicalism most important theologians, who made this point in his book, Fundamentalism and the Word of God. ‘The Spirit’, writes Packer, ‘has been active in the Church from the first, doing the work he was sent to do –guiding God’s people into an understanding of revealed truth’. ‘The history of the Church’s labour to understand the Bible’, he continues, ‘forms a commentary on the Bible which we cannot despise or ignore without dishonouring the Holy Spirit’.
The Church of today ministers in a world where great cultural upheavals are evident. Described by some enigmatically as the postmodern condition, our society witnesses an ever-deepening suspicion of received social conventions and traditions.
As the Belgian theologian Lieven Boeve observes, in the culture we call postmodern ‘emancipation from bonds that were once taken for granted and left unquestioned has resulted in a situation in which every human being is given the structurally-subjective task of constructing his or her own personal identity’.
In this postmodern world, the church that takes no interest in being shaped by her rich theological and spiritual traditions will be vulnerable to the seductive lure of the new and the novel. And in preferring discontinuities instead of continuities, such a Church runs the great risk of losing her identity, her uniqueness as God’s people and become indistinguishable from the rest of society.