It safeguards against liberalism on the one side and Roman Catholicism on the other.

It is time for Protestants to come to grips with an understanding of tradition in terms of their theology. As an evangelical, I am confident the divine truth that culminated in the Christ event was deposited in the Holy Scriptures.

Itself “tradition” in a sense, the Bible posesses a unique authority. It ought to rule the church and its theology as the paradigmatic and foundational source, distinct from such extrabiblical traditions as dogmatic formulations, catechisms, and liturgies. We must do justice in our theology to both the supremacy of Scripture on the one hand, and to the heritage of traditional Christian experience and reflection on the other.

The Bible is the divinely inspired and normative fixation of the truth of the Christian revelation, magisterial in its authority (norma normans). Tradition is human interpretation within the historical process of transmission, ministerial in function (norma normata). Ideally, the Bible and tradition are two complementary sides of Christian truth becoming effective in history.

It would be wonderful if there were perfect unity between the two—if the Bible and its interpretation were always to move along the same lines. But it was not so in the days of our Lord, and it has not been so since. Jesus found it necessary on occasion to contradict the tradition of the elders and appeal to the written Word of God. He made a distinction between Scriptures, which were divine in origin, and tradition, which was not. When the ideal unity of Scripture and tradition breaks down, as it often does, priority must be given to Scripture.

Doing theology places great pressure upon my understanding of tradition. On one hand, there is the four-century-old challenge of Catholicism. It appears to subordinate Scripture to tradition as interpreted by the magisterium, robbing it of the freedom it ought to have. On the other hand, there is the more recent challenge of religious liberalism. It offers a wave of novel conceptions often hostile to tradition but claiming to be in some way original and scriptural.

The first challenge makes it necessary to emphasize the critical function of the Bible over unsatisfactory accretions. The second requires us to warm up to tradition as never before. So we face a double dilemma: How does one remain evangelical without becoming liberal in the face of the Catholic question? And how does one remain evangelical without becoming Catholic in light of the challenge of religious liberalism?

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The Roman Catholic Challenge

The Roman Catholic church has always appeared to absolutize tradition and its own teaching authority as if it were the Word of God, on a par with, and even above, the Bible. This observation by Protestants led to their sola scriptura emphasis, their belief in the supremacy of Scripture. But in their opposition to traditionalism, Protestants have often spoken as if they had no positive appreciation for tradition. In fact, of course, they do.

The Reformers themselves, for example, were close students of the fathers and loyal to the ecumenical creeds. Aware that Scripture is never in fact “alone,” they drew up confessions to guide the Bible reader and help him understand it aright. They esteemed the work of people like Augustine and Jerome even though they did not always find such men in total agreement with themselves. Nor did they consider them infallible. They made a sharp distinction between what Scripture taught and what these men said. What worried them was that novel doctrines and corrupt traditions might be introduced into the teaching of the church that were contrary to the Bible and unsupported by it (see Althaus, Theology of Martin Luther, Fortress, 1966, and Calvin’s polemic in Book IV of the Institutes).

As Article 22 of the Thirty Nine Articles puts it: “The Romish doctrine concerning purgatory, pardons, worshipping and adoration, as well of images as of relics, and also invocation of saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.” A modern example of such a doctrine would be the bodily assumption of Mary, which is not required by Scripture and thus not binding upon Christians.

Let Scripture be heard and never silenced, and let its word receive respect accorded nothing else. Tradition deserves respect but tradition does not speak with a single voice, and all that it says is not of equal worth. Without the life and truth found in the canon of Scripture, tradition can be deadening and distorting. The church always needs to be reinformed. Hans Küng points this out in his book The Church (Doubleday, 1976) when he refers back to the apostolic foundations of the New Testament. Only in this way will the mark of apostolicity in the church be credible. In theology, this means we must strive for the fairest and greatest testimony to the gospel that we can achieve.

At this point, Karl Rahner finds a material difference between Catholic and Protestant theology (Foundations of the Christian Faith, Crossroad, 1978). While he admits the material sufficiency and normative authority of the Bible, he claims that ultimate authority resides in the magisterium, which infallibly interprets both Scripture and the developing tradition. Since the Bible and tradition are difficult to understand, it is left to the Roman teaching office to inform us about the content of faith.

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What divides Protestants from Catholics is not the Roman emphasis of tradition over Scripture. It is rather placing the magisterium over both. The problem boils down to the authority of the Petrine office, and it is small wonder that Rahner called Küng a Protestant as soon as the latter raised his voice against the infallibility of that office.

Creeds and tradition are valid not because the church teaches them but because they agree with Scripture. Luther said: “This confession of faith [the Apostles’ Creed] we did not make or invent, neither did the fathers of the church before us. But as the bee gathers honey from many a beautiful and delectible flower, so this creed has been collected in commendable brevity from the books of the beloved prophets and apostles, that is, from the entire Holy Scriptures” (Trinity Sunday sermon, 1535). What practical meaning does it have to profess the material sufficiency of Scripture while refusing to let it function?

It does not follow from this that a teaching office has no use. Did not Luther himself, who rejected the Roman teaching office, become the authoritative guide to a host of later Lutherans? Who shall decide what is the true gospel? And how shall it be decided? Obviously, this cannot be left to a single expert or persuasive leader any more than it can be left to the Roman magisterium.

We must gather together the insights of all the people of God, but always keeping our teaching subservient to the Scriptures. We must rely upon a teaching charisma in the churches. We must heed the lines of the rich and complex scriptural teaching on the themes of the Bible so as to insure that the resulting interpretations cohere with and complement the full range of data. Such an ecumenical teaching office does not now exist, of course. The Faith and Order section of the World Council of Churches is an attempt to achieve this, and it may even be the seed from which such a ministry could grow.

Here is the sin of the church—our sin—that has caused this tragic and unnatural divorce between Scripture and tradition/church. The seeds of division this split have sown are vaster than any reform it brought to the church. Yet, the blame cannot be laid in only one area. The prophets cannot be blamed for sowing division when they indicted Old Testament Israel for forsaking the Law of God and the terms of the covenant. Jesus himself warned that his true word would divide people from one another. Precious though the unity of the church is, it is not worth much if it is based upon a sub-Christian view of what the gospel is. To answer sola scriptura with a sola ecclesia will not silence the criticism or cover the sin. The freedom of the Word of God must not be bound simply because it brings with it the danger of division. Because the church is not perfect, it needs the check the Bible provides. It cannot serve as a check unto itself.

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But this conflict between Scripture and tradition can cause Protestants to neglect tradition entirely. We forget that the church is the pillar and ground of truth and that Protestant as well as Catholic beliefs are ecclesially shaped. We suppose that we can go directly and immediately back to the Bible, unaware that the message of the Word has been transmitted to us in the context of a Christian community. We have to remind ourselves that tradition is the process of interpreting and transmitting the Word. It is not the history of deformation. More often it is the history of heroic hermeneutical achievement. Therefore, in doctrines such as those concerning the Person and work of Christ, it is fruitful to review the options presented in creed and document, liturgies, and prayer, and let them shape our understanding even as we hear the Bible. As G. K. Chesterton remarked, tradition means “giving my great-grandfather a vote.” The richness of traditional wisdom can only deepen one’s own reflections, and serve as a corrective to the false moves in interpretation that sometimes threaten the truth (see H. Berkhof, ed., Christian Faith, Eerdmans).

Behind this error of neglecting tradition is a lack of appreciation of historicity in a broader sense. Neither the Reformers nor many premoderns were much aware of the development of doctrine or time-conditioned factors in their biblical interpretation. They tended to think, as some evangelicals also do, that their convictions were pure distillations of scriptural teachings. They did not reflect upon the historical factors that entered into the creedal formulations. They thought they were simply reading the Bible when in fact they were reading it to answer various contemporary rivals. All doctrine is to some extent a historically conditioned response to the questions on the agenda of a particular time and place. This compels us to be more self-critical about our truth claims and always to remain open to reevaluations of our convictions in the light of fresh discovery and deeper insight. Historicity does not relativize dogmatics, but it does remind us that the work of theology can never be finished, even as we anticipate a future unity of the faith in the knowledge of the Son of God.

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At the same time, we admit that appealing to the Bible as check and arbiter has become more difficult in recent times. This is because of questions critical scholars have raised about the Bible:

Do we not approach the Bible with a discrimen that determines how we appeal to it as an authority?

Is there not a much greater diversity of teaching in it than conservative Protestants have been willing to admit, and does this not make it impossible to look to Scripture for a clear-cut doctrine of anything?

Has higher criticism not discredited parts of the Bible as being improper material to which we can appeal?

Though these criticisms first arose largely from the ranks of liberal Protestants, they have also become part of the Catholic case against historic Protestant methodology. For example, when Rahner points out that sola scriptura is self-contradictory because the old doctrine of verbal inspiration on which it rested has been shown to be untenable, he is identifying with a liberal view of the Bible that is as opposed to the traditional Catholic understanding as our own. Thus, there seems to be a common cause uniting the best Catholic and liberal Protestant theologians in wishing to undercut classical Protestant theology.

Their critical questions can be answered. But if we are to continue responsibly to follow a scriptural method in theology, it will be necessary to work harder than before. An alliance between more classical Catholics and Protestants appears to be shaping up precisly to meet this new development.

At the outset we posed the question of how one remains evangelical without becoming liberal in the face of the Catholic challenge. The answer is the same one the Reformers nearly always gave: We must maintain the supremacy of Scripture in balance with a healthy respect for the interpretive transmission that is tradition—that is, keep the norma normans in close proximity to the norma normata.

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The Challenge Of Religious Liberalism

At the opposite extreme from Catholicism, religious liberalism is characterized by a revolt against tradition. Far from absolutizing it, liberals tend to minimize and depreciate tradition in order to free themselves from its bonds, preferring instead to follow the best in human light. Religious liberalism thus represents a revision of practically the whole of traditional theology. Its rapprochement with modernity requires it to break with the classical Christian mind and its teachings about God, Christ, and the Bible, and to reconceive theology in nondoctrinal terms, viewing the history of dogma as the history of the changing views of Christians, which are not binding upon us today. Jan Walgrave, in Unfolding Revelation (Westminister, 1971), politely refers to the liberal position as a “transformist” theory of dogma. It could more accurately be called a revolution against it.

The effect upon evangelicals of this liberal challenge is to awaken what the Catholic challenge made dormant: a deep respect for tradition as an interpretive guide and doctrinal safeguard. The distilled wisdom of tradition offers a social check upon one’s own biases, and it helps prevent our twisting of the biblical text into novel and speculative interpretations. If Catholicism makes us aware of tradition as a possible source of doctrinal corruption, religious liberalism makes us appreciate it as a source of wisdom and insight. Thus, in my theology, Scripture stands against the threat of traditionalism, while tradition stands against the threat of neology. This latter threat has always existed, but never to the extent, or with the force, of religious liberalism.

Many factors have led to this revolution against tradition: (1) the view of the Bible as human tradition; (2) the existentialist notion that truth is subjective in nature and not intellectually objectifiable; (3) the cultural relativism that announces a great chasm between ancient convictions and modern possibilities of belief; (4) the superiority of praxis over theory.

Of course, few scholars would agree with Adolph Harnak’s History of Dogma. He argued that early dogma perverted the “original,” simple gospel of Jesus. Yet, there are many who still share his antipathy to traditional doctrinal standards as incredible and outdated. They believe it may be possible to honor Jesus in some functional way, but not in the way the church fathers did at Nicea since such ideas are historically conditioned and require constant modification and updating.

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Again, not many would follow Alfred Loisy’s lead and announce their disbelief in all articles of traditional Christian doctrine except for the one referring to Jesus’ crucifixion under Pontius Pilate. The current fad instead is to affirm the ancient formulas but support them with a quite different theory, calling it a “dynamic equivalent.” By this means one can deny the old formulation itself while claiming to uphold the truth of it.

This liberal challenge has brought the catholic side of conservative Protestant thought into focus. In their appeal to the Bible, Protestants never dreamed of forsaking the great doctrinal traditions about the nature of God, the Person of Christ, the sin of man, or the sacrifice of the Cross. They agreed with Catholics that the creeds were landmarks of sound theology. The Lutherans, Calvinists, and Baptists all drew up their own confessional documents in order to keep both biblical and traditional convictions from being washed away in a flood of private interpretations.

Signs of this “catholicizing” of evangelicalism can be seen in a number of areas: (1) another convocation of Catholics and evangelicals meeting to discuss common concerns; (2) the Chicago Call; (3) the founding of the Evangelical Orthodox Church; (4) new journals like the New Oxford Review; (5) the statement on biblical inerrancy by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy.

These developments indicate that evangelicals are returning to the idea of a rule of faith and to forms of ecclesiastical authority for the same reason the church did so in the early centuries: they are responding to what they perceive as a menace. Authors like Robert Webber and Thomas Oden are calling evangelicals to look to the early church for resources to use in countering apostacy, and urging us to seize the threefold cord of Scripture, rule of faith, and church authority to meet these challenges.

Now the reason for the second part of the dilemma becomes apparent. Can one remain evangelical without becoming Catholic in light of the challenge of religious liberalism? Biblical criticism has uncovered such pluralism in the teaching of the Bible that it is much harder to support the evangelical confession by simply appealing to Scripture. James Dunn, in Unity and Diversity (Westminster, 1977), has predicted that in order to have the Bible teach the “right things,” orthodoxy will have to state those convictions in documents appended to it—a canon beyond the canon. In this regard it would appear that evangelicalism is very catholic.

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Looked at differently, however, this evangelical catholicity is neither surprising nor inconsistent because it has existed all along. Protestants have always seen their confessions of faith as protective barriers to save the flock of God from undue stress and to preserve the church from strange teachings—in this case, the new world of Bible theories. The great creeds, which reiterate the basic intellectual pillars of the classical Christian consensus, serve to insulate the church from the firestorms of theological speculation, giving its teachers time to devise defensive strategies and work out appropriate replies. Tradition cannot ground the evangelical faith, but it can help protect it.

The specific challenges must eventually be answered. For example, is Harnack right or wrong about the importance of doctrine to original Christianity? We must be able to make good our claim that true Christianity is a doctrinal religion based upon revealed truth. Is Dunn right or wrong in saying that the New Testament teaches a variety of contradictory theologies, making orthodox understanding impossible? We must take up the challenge and show that the message is more unified than he allows. Answering these challenges will tend to nourish the catholic side of evangelicalism. It will tend to make us more interested in church history than we are at present, and make us more respectful of traditions that we have not thought much about. It may even result in a few crossing over to Rome, though probably not in large numbers.

To a conservative Protestant, it is essentially the same challenge that comes from both Roman Catholicism and religious liberalism. It is a challenge to the supremacy of scriptural truth and to the apostolicity of the church. Both Catholicism and liberalism replace the teaching of Scripture with human tradition, whether ancient or modern. The truth of Scripture must be protected in the face of Catholicism by opposing the Bible to traditionalism, and in the face of religious liberalism with the aid of tradition. Scripture and tradition are part of a dialectic, mutually serving one another. In this dialectic the Bible is the paradigm and tradition is the distillation of the church’s reflections upon it. The Bible is not a magic talisman to be invoked easily to resolve deep controversies in the church. But the Bible is a source of truth and life in the church, guiding, correcting, and liberating us. It will continue to be that source until Christ returns.

Clark H. Pinnock is professor of systematic theology at McMaster Divinity College, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. His several writings include Reason Enough (IVP, 1980).

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