A Balancing Act: Scripture and Tradition

Originally Posted: August 30, 2016 at http://bit.ly/2bBrifU

I was raised in an American Baptist church and it was in that same denomination that I served my first pastorate. Three years ago I started ministering in an Independent Christian church and I noticed something similar about both of these groups. Many pastors and teachers within both of these traditions have a mixture of Calvinist and Arminian views and they coexist peacefully, for the most part. The most common combination of perspectives that I encounter, however, is an Arminian view of salvation and a broadly Protestant view of scripture. In light of these tensions I have spent the past few years trying to understand how these views developed.

During this time I came across some of the correspondence between the Lutheran theologians in Tubingen and the Eastern Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople. In one of his letter the patriarch tells a story highlighting some of the issues he had with the method he saw the reformers adopting in their attempts to interpret scripture. The story is about a good and wise man with many children who is preparing his will. The patriarch asks the rhetorical question, “If the man is good will he not write his will in such a way that his children will not argue about their inheritance and if the man is wise would he not have the ability to write the will in such a way that they will not have to argue?” The patriarch goes on to explain that if a good and wise man could do something so simple, then how much more able would the author of life be, if that was his intention. This story focuses on some of the same flaws that I have come to witness in the exaltation of scripture, instead of the Holy Spirit, to the place of final authority over church doctrine and practice.

The first issue that seems to take shape when we lift scripture over tradition is that it diminishes the mutual dependence that each piece shared in the formation of the other. It took faithful witnesses in the church being led by the Holy Spirit in their study of many inspired writings to determine what would be included in the canon of scripture. It also took the Holy Spirit’s work through those same scriptures to guide and inspire the faithful witnesses in their decisions. Once the balance is lost between scripture and tradition it can also make less clear the understanding that when we read scripture today we are equally dependent upon scripture and tradition for a correct interpretation. Throughout history the church has always looked to men and women whose lives seemed to be most guided by the Spirit for their interpretations of scripture. The reformers did not take this approach and wrote to the patriarch that because they had learned Greek and Hebrew so well, they were no longer dependent upon the faithful witnesses of the past for a proper interpretation.

The second issue, and a much more dangerous one in my opinion, is that none of these things were happening in a vacuum. When scripture is placed in a position that the Holy Spirit was always meant to fill it can have strange theological consequences. I cannot count how many vacation bible schools and camps I have attended where the adults taught the children that the sword, in the armor of God, is their bible. Some may say this is an anecdotal piece of evidence describing a deficiency within the laity of a specific tradition, but I have witnessed this type of teaching in many traditions. Additionally, I was recently invited to an ordination ceremony where the candidate’s faith statement had a section dedicated to his beliefs about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Bible with no mention of the Holy Spirit. The Independent Church turned back to an extreme from of Sola Scriptura hoping that it would lead to denominational reconciliation but instead the decision led to even more division.

One of the most common criticisms I hear from people about modern society is our inability to have civil conversations. Many feel that people have simply lost the ability to disagree respectfully. As pastors we should be setting the example in our communities by coming together and peacefully discussing issues that we passionately disagree about. Unfortunately the only way these conversations are possible is if the Holy Spirit sits in its proper place as the final authority.  I have often wondered if the raising of scripture to a higher level than tradition was a reaction to the corruption they saw in Rome of raising tradition over scripture, and unfortunately fell into the “opposite ditch.” The first commandment instructs us not to worship any person other than the one true living God. Elevating the patriarch of Rome to a position of infallibility created an environment where corruption was inevitable. The second commandment instructs us not to worship any man made thing. Elevating scripture to the point that it negates the human aspect of its creation also leads to a similar amount of damage being done to the church but in the opposite extreme. Instead of creating one ultimate authority it has created ten thousand.

This topic has also led me to the question of why the reformers did not work harder to establish communion with the east. My fear is that those who come from a background that elevates scripture over tradition will read this article and feel like I am attacking them, the scriptures, and there tribe, and that is exactly what seemed to happen in the correspondence between the reformers and the partriarch. Each side felt attacked and believed that the other side simply couldn’t accept the truth, so it led to a broken relationship. I know that I do not fully understand the context of the decisions that they were making, but I want to understand it better. I have struggled to find scholarly work that has focused on the relationship between the reformers and the east. I would love to know your thoughts on this issue and time period and any resources that might be available. 

*All references to the correspondence between the reformers and the patriarch are from the book “Augsburg and Constantinople” by George Mastrantonis


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