Results tagged “tradition” from Reformation21 Blog

The Greek Orthodox Answer Man?

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The news of Hank Hanegraaff's conversion to the Greek Orthodox faith has--not surprisingly--elicited a variety of responses from individuals online. On Twitter, one controversial progressive pastor welcomed Hanegraaff (quite ironically, I would add) to "a greater tradition than biblicism." Christianity Today featured an article in which the author drew the conclusion that "Hanegraaff's conversion gives evangelicals one more bridge to Orthodoxy." A Protestant blogger has sarcastically suggested that "Hanegraaff...should try doing his radio program for a month while relying strictly on Orthodox resources." The spectrum of opinions has been exceedingly wide ranging; yet, very few have dealt, in any substantive way, with what the Greek Orthodox Church actually believes. It seems to me that before any of us draw conclusions about Hanegraaff's "conversion," we should want to understand that to which he has "converted." 

Frank Gavin--the Anglican Priest and noted Orthodox scholar--has written a thorough and trustworthy Systematic Theology of Greek Orthodox dogma that goes under the title Some Aspects of Contemporary Greek Orthodox Thought. The breadth of this work serves as a helpful resource to which one may turn when seeking to answer the question, "What does the Greek Orthodox Church believe?" While all pastors and seminarians should do themselves the enormous favor of working through the totality of this work, I want to limit this post to a brief consideration of what the Greek Orthodox Church believes about authority, justification and the nature of the Church. 

Under the heading "Sources of Dogma," Gavin noted that in the Orthodox Church, Scripture and tradition "are of equal weight." In the Orthodox Catechism, we read, "Tradition, as an historical event, begins with the Apostolic preaching and is found in Scriptures, but it is kept, treasured, interpreted, and explained to the Church by the Holy Fathers, the successors of the Apostles." As the Greek Orthodox theologian, Chrestos Androutsos, has put it in his Dogmatics, "Holy Tradition is not only the continuation of the Word of God contained in Holy Writ, but also the trustworthy guide and interpreter of it." Just as the Roman Catholic Church places additional sources of authority on par with Scripture, so too does the Orthodox Church. This, of course, lays the foundation for the Greek Orthodox Church's deviation from biblical Christianity. 

Since human tradition is placed side by side with Scripture, it should not surprise us to discover that similarities exist between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church on the doctrine of justification. In contradiction to the Protestant belief that Justification is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, the Orthodox Church teaches that "Justification as an actual change in man is both the doing away with sin and guilt, and the implanting of a new life...negatively, the remission of sins, and positively, sanctification." The implication of such teaching is found in the Orthodox belief that one may lose his or her justification before God. Androutsos noted, "no one may be sure of his own salvation nor may he predict with certainty that he will be able to keep himself from grievous sins in the future and remain in (the state of) justification." Such semi-Pelagian views of soteriology are consistent with the Orthodox Church's views of authority. 

The Greek Orthodox Church, like the Roman Catholic Church, also embraces the idea that it is the "one true Church"--as over against all other visible organizations that bear the title "Church." Gavin explained:

"The notion of an invisible and ideal church, of which the various bodies of Christians formed into distinct organizations and calling themselves 'Churches', are partial and incomplete embodiments, is utterly foreign to Orthodox teaching and to historical and biblical authority."

In Orthodox belief, there is only one visible Church made up of the invisible Church of the faithful. "To be outside of the Orthodox Church," wrote Gavin "is to be outside of the sphere in which the Holy Spirit works through the sacraments. Orthodoxy acknowledges no sacraments as valid save those of the one true Church, that is, herself. To do so would be to acknowledge the parity and equality of heretics and schismatics with the Catholic Church, which, as will be seen, she may not do. But in cases where the Orthodox Church has deemed it for the good and need of souls, she may as 'the sovereign over the sacraments...according to circumstances change invalid rites into valid sacraments.' This she does by 'economy' when she deviates from her normal and strict manner of administration. It is impossible to discover the principle governing the use of 'economy' in this matter, nor is there a rationale to determine the exercise of 'economy' in any given case. Yet the Church exercises this right as mistress of the Grace of God, and has allowed as valid the baptism of heretics, which normally and regularly she pronounces entirely invalid. It is not a question of the due matter and form, or of the proper intention: a body even with formally valid orders outside the Church has lost the fellowship of the Holy Spirit by whose agency only the Sacraments become realities."

While there are striking similarities in their beliefs about the nature of the church, the Orthodox Church sees itself in strident opposition to Rome. Herman Bavinck has helpfully summarized the dissimilarities that exist between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox conception of the church, when he wrote: 

"The Greek Orthodox conception of the Church is closely related to that of the Roman Catholics, and yet differs from it in some important points. That Church does not recognize the Roman Catholic Church as the true Church, but claims that honor for itself. There is but one true Church, and that Church is the Greek Orthodox. While it acknowledges with greater frankness than the Roman Catholics the two different aspects of the Church, the visible and the invisible, it nevertheless places the emphasis on the Church as an external organization. It does not find the essence of the Church in her as the community of the saints, but in the Episcopal hierarchy, which it has retained, while rejecting the Papacy. The infallibility of the Church is maintained, but this infallibility resides in the bishops, and therefore in the ecclesiastical councils and synods."

The Orthodox Church asserts unique ownership of doctrinal infallibility--as Gavin explained: 

"All Orthodox formularies and pronouncements claim clearly and distinctly that the Orthodox Church has kept the Faith immaculate and intact, without addition or subtraction, without alteration or omission, as taught by Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Inasmuch as the holding to the Faith 'as once delivered to the Saints' constitutes one of the fundamental and essential notes of the Church, deviation from true teaching involves loss of continuity with the life of the Church.

Androutsos set out the rationale for the Orthodox Church's belief in its own infallibility when he wrote: "It is an obvious truth that this Church (the Orthodox Church) is now the only Church which remains faithful to the ancient Ecumenical Councils, and in consequence she alone represents the true Catholic Church of Christ, which is infallible." 

It is my hope that the citations above will serve to introduce our readers to a few, very basic elements of the dogma of the Orthodox Church. In regard to its beliefs about authority, justification and the nature of the Church, the Greek Orthodox Church differs very little from Roman Catholicism--though it has a longstanding commitment to the denunciation of the Roman Catholic Church. Now that it has an "Answer Man" who can serve as its media apologist, it is possible (though highly unlikely) that we will get a careful treatment of Greek Orthodox dogma. After all, laying bare its beliefs will not likely win many who are interesting in getting answers about what God has said in His word. 

A few weeks ago, I participated in a conference which explored the promise that careful attention to Protestantism's past holds for Protestantism's future. It was exciting to see scholars, students, and interested laypersons gathered around a common concern for the future of our various Reformation-based communions, and a common conviction that our past holds significant resources for navigating the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Too many of this years Reformation-themed events, I fear, will prove to be little more than Protestant pep rallies, championing slogans rather than critical engagement with the past. Such pep rallies will likely do more long-term damage than good to Protestantism, leaving folk enthused but neither informed about Protestantism's core convictions nor equipped to maintain those convictions moving forward. The pep rallies will draw large crowds and turn large profits for those hosting them. But the enthusiasm they generate will fade away (like the proverbial "camp high," or the applause at the end of a celebrity Christian's conference talk), and will leave the formerly enthused exposed to stock criticisms of Protestantism and susceptible to the siren call of communions with purportedly deeper roots, greater stability, more serious or beautiful worship of God, etc. The smaller events characterized by genuinely thoughtful conversation about where we've come from and where we're going will draw smaller crowds, but will serve the church far better in the long run. "C'est la vie," as Calvin never said at a conference he never spoke at.

In any case, one of the issues that generated much conversation among those who attended this conference last weekend was that of how Protestants should understand and properly relate to Protestant tradition as well as the broader (catholic) Christian tradition from whence Protestantism originated. How, in other words, can we respect and afford due weight to the theological ruminations and the practices of our forefathers in every age without turning those ruminations and practices into a doctrinal and/or liturgical straightjacket in our age? How can we steer a safe path between the Scylla of those who elevate Tradition to the status of an infallible voice in the life of the church and the Charybdis of the chronological snobs who would, without a second thought, gag the saints who have gone before us?

In chewing over these questions the past several days, it seems to me that a healthy understanding and appropriation of both our Protestant and our larger, catholic past corresponds with a right understanding of Scripture's authority and the respective roles that individual interpreters and ecclesiastical bodies play in the interpretation of Scripture's teaching. We need, in other words, to be clear on what the Protestant principle sola Scriptura means (and, perhaps more significantly, doesn't mean) before we can think clearly about how to approach tradition.

Fortunately, good resources exist for helping us understand precisely what sola Scriptura meant to the reformers who established that principle and the orthodox divines of subsequent centuries who upheld it, as well as what it should (but doesn't always) mean to us as present-day Protestants. Keith Mathison's The Shape of Sola Scriptura (2001) and Michael Allen and Scott Swain's Reformed Catholicity (2015) should, I think, be required reading for every person signing on the dotted line of Protestantism in our time. Both works do an excellent job of defining sola Scriptura, and of pointing us, in that process, towards a right way of understanding and appropriating "tradition" in its various manifestations.

But we would be remiss (particularly so, given the topic at hand) not to note older resources that might help us think carefully about what Protestantism's claim regarding Scripture's ultimate authority has and hasn't meant in Protestant history (and thus, should and shouldn't mean today!). One such resource, easily accessible online both in its original Latin and in English translation, is John Calvin's 1547 work Acta synodi Tridentinae cum antidoto ("Acts of the Synod of Trent with the Antidote").

Calvin wrote his "antidote" to Trent in 1547, one year after the Council of Trent had clarified Rome's understanding of the respective authority of Scripture, Tradition, and the Church's Magisterium. Needless to say, perhaps, Calvin was keen to discredit Rome's insistence upon granting Tradition an equal role with Scripture in speaking infallibly into the life of the Church, and her insistence upon naming the Magisterium as the infallible interpreter of both Tradition and Scripture. But he was equally keen to make it clear that he and his fellow reformers had no intent of disregarding insights into Scripture's meaning advanced by the church in the previous 1500 years. Indeed, they had every intention, he argues, of submitting entirely to the authority of those insights.

"In order to cast obloquy upon us," Calvin writes, "they are wont to charge us with arrogating the interpretation of Scripture to ourselves, in order that there may be no check on our licentiousness. [...] [But] there is none of us who does not willingly submit his lucubrations to the judgment of the Church. Therefore we neither contemn the authority of the Church; nor do we give loose reins to men to dare what they please."

The force of Calvin's rather remarkable statement here is considerably lessened by the rather unfortunate, 19th century choice to translate the latin lucubrationes with "lucubrations," an obvious English derivative of its Latin counterpart, but a word that no normal person knows. Strictly speaking, "lucubrations" name the results of study by lamplight. In context, it's clear that Calvin is referring to insights into Scripture's meaning obtained by evangelicals, insights obtained not by facile appeals to Spirit-induced aha! moments but by Spirit-led labor late into the night. In other words, lucubrationes refer to careful and informed judgments regarding Scripture's meaning. And, remarkably, Calvin insists upon the willingness of all within the evangelical party to submit those judgments to the church's judgment regarding Scripture's meaning.

Of course, Calvin's comment raises the question "who or what is meant by 'church'?" Although he doesn't unpack the point in much detail here, it's clear that Calvin has a more expansive understanding of "church" than his Roman opponents. His opponents, he notes, include in their definition of "church" only those who acknowledge "Cephas as [the church's] head," and ultimately encourage all, in aiming to understand Scripture, to submit themselves to "whatever dreaming monks" determine Scripture to say. When Calvin speaks of the "church," he has in mind rather the "Church [that] Scripture itself portrays," a body that, for instance, includes the vast number of Christians through the centuries who would not have been able to give unequivocal support to the claims made regarding Rome by Trent.

In any case, I wonder how many Protestants today would be willing to admit Calvin's point regardless of how "church" is properly defined? How many Protestants today, that is, could (or would) insist upon their own readiness to submit their determinations about Scripture's meaning to "the judgment of the Church." Calvin's argument does not disallow individuals to obtain new insights into Scripture's meaning, nor to share them with others. It does, however, force the individual to bow before the authority of a collective majority in assessing such insights, a pill few individuals in our time will swallow easily. Self-idolatry in our day very often takes the form of every individual thinking that he or she knows best, even (or perhaps especially) in the matter of reading and understanding God's Word.

Perhaps, as Protestants, its time we got our lucubrations in line. Doing so might give us a more credible position against the extravagant claims of Rome regarding her right and ability to translate the Bible. It might, for instance, give us a more credible response to the charge that Protestantism creates 900 million popes over against Rome's one. The sooner we tame our lucubrations the better. The health and future of Protestantism may depend on it.

An Authoritative Appeal to Tradition?

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Reformed evangelicals sometimes speak and write as if they believe that we have little or no use for tradition. On the other hand, there are Reformed evangelicals who--while debating a subject--appeal to a renown theologian from bygone days and write in such a way as to insist that mere citations from such an author settles the matter. God neither needs our ignorance nor our intellectual arrogance. We should respect tradition but remember that all tradition is to be brought to the judgment bar of Scripture. We must also recognize that our tradition colors or flavors our reading of Scripture and that this is not always a bad thing. To deny that we read Scripture from a particular tradition or vantage point is na├»ve. To deny Scripture its right to evaluate a tradition is dangerous. It would be a good thing for us to remember that Scripture itself is a form of tradition - divinely authoritative tradition (1 Cor. 15:3-4; 2 Thess. 3:6; 1 Tim. 6:3). 

Nevertheless, the question remains, "What do we do with theological tradition?" Perhaps it would be more helpful if we asked what is happening when someone cites a tradition (or, more specifically the teaching) of a bygone theologian as an appeal to authority? Having been a student of Jonathan Edwards for many years now, I find Edwards to be a helpful case study in the use of tradition. If I cite Edwards authoritatively, what I am actually doing is using shorthand for the longer expression, "Edwards says such and such and I have been persuaded that what he says on this point is absolutely biblical." At the end of the day, it is something like this or close to it that we intend when we cite a favorite theologian or tradition. 

If we remember that our Lord gave us the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth (John 14:17, 26; 15:26; 16:13; 1st John 4:6; 5:6) we will recall that Jesus did not give the Spirit to us as the first generation to lead. The Spirit has been working with his church for over two thousand years (not to mention his involvement in the old covenant era) and it may be that previous generations have learned a thing or two from their Spirit-directed study of God's Word. 

The Sacred Scriptures are infallible and inerrant. Historical theology isn't. But that does not make historical theology or more broadly church history useless. We must avoid the Scylla of utter rejection of tradition and the Charybdis of confusing post-biblical or extra-biblical tradition with Scripture. Another way to put this is to note that sola Scriptura is not nuda Scriptura. Scripture is the alone divinely authoritative source of doctrine and practice but it is not the only source of such. Scripture is the norming norm that is not normed by any other norm and all other traditions are norms that are normed by Scripture. 

Our favorite theologians, whether past or present, and our traditions, are not infallible nor inerrant. However, insofar as these are consistent with Scripture they share a derivative authority. Traditions are more or less consistent with the Bible. Take Jonathan Edwards as an example again. I am persuaded that Edwards was a fairly thoroughly biblical theologian. However, even I take exception to certain views that Edwards held. While I think his understanding of the relationship of divine sovereignty and human responsibility is stellar, as is his formulation of the concept of the affections, he is not infallible. Quite a number of Edwards scholars have suggested that he held to continuous creation, occasionalism and idealism.

It is arguable whether Edwards actually held to continuous creation and occasionalism. These ideas are often confounded but they are in fact distinct though conjoined concepts. Continuous creation is the idea that God creates anew at each and every moment. This appears to run roughshod over the standard distinction between creation and providence. Edwards himself pointed out that creation was the first instance and providence the second and following acts of the same divine act. This undermines the integrity of created matter in order to uphold the reality that God's powerful word undergirds all reality. 

Occasionalism is the idea that God is the only causal agent in the Universe. If this is the case, then those creatures who have been designed by God to be secondary causes would be an illusion. Rather than creatures being secondary causes upheld by God as the primary cause and bringing about effects, these apparent cause and effect relations would simply be occasions for God to act. Various Christian theologians and philosophers have embraced and advocated these ideas but it is doubtful that there is a biblical basis for either idea considered separately or conjointly. 

That Jonathan Edwards was an idealist is less controversial. To be more precise, Edwards is classified as a Trinitarian theistic idealist. Idealism is understood as a philosophical position that stands over against realism. Realism teaches that we humans know what we know because we come into contact with extra-mental objects that actually do exist in reality. I see a brown tree with green leaves because is just such a tree in the foreground which I perceive. Idealism suggests that in order for something to exist it must be perceived. There are different kinds of idealism in the world of philosophy but Edwards' form was that extra-mental objects are known truly by a human when the ideas in the mind correspond with the ideas in the mind of God. If I see a brown tree with green leaves it because God has the idea of the brown tree with green leaves and my idea is true if it corresponds or coheres with God's idea of the tree. I do not believe this theistic idealism is biblically necessary. 

I happen to believe that the Bible does teach a specific kind of epistemology, namely covenantal realism. God is original and everything else in creation is derivative. What I know truly I know because God has created me and my environment so that I might know things truly when my faculties function properly. The fall and the entrance of sin interferes with the proper function of my faculties (what we call total depravity) but God does and can communicate with his creation in nature and in Scripture. In other words, I believe this is a better description of biblical ontology and epistemology than what Edwards held to. The point of this example is not that I waste my time when I read Jonathan Edwards. Rather, it is that we need to find a healthy way to appreciate the good of our favorite theologians while at the same time being even handed in our willingness to disagree with them over and against the teachings of Scripture. 

Tradition can be a good thing. As I noted above, Scripture is divinely authoritative tradition. However, all other tradition must be held up to the standard of God's Word. We have seen how one example (i.e. of Jonathan Edwards) rightly held in high regard, was not infallible. God's Word is infallible. Don't trash tradition - but don't put it in the place of the only infallible rule of faith and practice (WCF 1.2, 1.9) either.

Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Waddington (PhD., Westminster Theological Seminary) is the stated supply of Knox OPC in Lansdowne, PA. He is the co-editor, with Dr. Lane Tipton, of Resurrection and Eschatology. Jeff is also a regular panelist on Christ the Center and East of Eden, podcasts of the Reformed Forum.

Follow the links to read the introduction and part one of this series.

"In forming a catalogue of Scripture," Calvin writes, "they [the Roman Catholic Council of Trent] mark all the books with the same chalk, and insist on placing the Apocrypha in the same rank with the others." Thus Calvin summarizes the second of the four points he discerns in Trent's teaching on Scripture. There is little need to repeat Trent's words in their entirety. The decree in question provides "a list of the Sacred Books" comprising those books that Protestants are accustomed to finding in their Bibles and some books, commonly called Apocryphal (or Deuterocanonical), that they are not -- namely, 1 and 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, and 1 and 2 Maccabees. The decree concludes by anathematizing any and all who "shall not receive these entire Books, with all their parts ... as sacred and canonical," thereby despising "the foresaid traditions" -- a reference back to those "unwritten traditions" which, alongside of Scripture, has already been identified by Trent as a unique source of Christian doctrine.

Calvin offers a two-pronged response to Trent's "admitting" of "all [these] Books promiscuously into the Canon." The first prong advances his preceding argument from Christian tradition itself against recognition of tradition as an infallible source of unique Christian doctrine. Calvin now observes how un-traditional the inclusion of these Apocryphal books in the Canon is: "I say nothing more than it is done against the consent of the primitive Church."

In support of this claim, Calvin references the writings of two late-fourth/early-fifth century Church Fathers: Jerome and Tyrannius Rufinus. Oddly enough, Calvin doesn't seem all that interested in the opinions of Jerome and Rufinus per se regarding the Apocryphal books. He's interested, rather, in the testimony these Fathers provide in their writings to even earlier Christian judgments about the canonicity of the books in question. Thus he cites Rufinus's assertion in about 408 that "our fathers" -- that is, Rufinus's "fathers" -- judged the books in question to be "not Canonical," named the same "Apocrypha," and "would not have [them] read in the Churches" (The Creed of Aquileia, para. 38). With regard to Jerome: "It is well known," Calvin observers, "what [he] states as the common opinion of earlier times." Presumably Calvin has in mind something like Jerome's observation that "the Church reads Judith, Tobit, and the books of Maccabees, but does not admit them among the canonical Scriptures." Jerome made numerous, similar statements about the Church's historic stance towards the other Apocryphal books.

Calvin could, of course, have made further appeal to Jerome's own opinion. Jerome, after all, cited "the common opinion of earlier times" in defense of his own very clear denial of canonical status to the Apocryphal books (as seen, for instance, in the prefaces he drafted for his Latin translation of the Bible). Jerome did, however, include -- with a clear disclaimer regarding their non-canonical status -- the Apocryphal books in his Vulgate, presumably in deference both to the merits of said books as ancient and useful (albeit uninspired) writings and to the opinion of those who disagreed with him about the canonicity of the books in question.

And there were, as Calvin himself readily acknowledges, some who defended -- contra Jerome and Rufinus -- the canonicity of the Apocryphal books, among them the famous contemporary of Jerome and Rufinus, Augustine of Hippo. Calvin seems to think the opinion represented by Jerome and Rufinus has an older pedigree than that represented by Augustine, but he doesn't press the point. He concludes rather modestly with "let us assume that the point was then undecided."

The ambiguity in early judgments about the Apocryphal books ran substantially deeper than Calvin seems to realize. In fact, it pre-dated Christianity as such. The books in question were denied canonical status in the Hebrew Bible by Palestinian Jews, but afforded canonical status by Hellenistic Jews (Greek speaking Jews living outside Palestine) and so included in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures completed in Alexandria (the Septuagint). In the second century following Christ's birth, the Jews finally reached consensus among themselves in favor of the narrower canon (that which excluded the Apocrypha).

Their disagreement lingered on, however, in Christianity, with Eastern Christians typically following the Palestinian Jews in denying canonical status to the Apocrypha, and Western Christians typically following the Hellenistic Jews in affording canonical status to the Apocrypha (Jerome and Rufinus constituting two notable exceptions). Those who defended the canonicity of the books in question, for example Augustine, typically bought the now largely discredited story about seventy 3rd-century B.C. Jews translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek independently of one another and -- miraculously -- arriving at the very same (inspired) translation. In other words, their preference for the Septuagint's canon was informed by rather misguided assumptions about the Septuagint's nature and origins.

Calvin, had he only known, could have included such Eastern luminaries as Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Gregory of Nazianzus among the ranks of Fathers who denied that the Apocryphal books belong to the Bible. In truth, however, ambiguity in early Christian judgments about the Apocryphal books is all that Calvin needed to discredit Trent's teaching on the issue. Trent, after all, in claiming that the "sacred and canonical" status of the Apocryphal books has the (infallible) authority of "unwritten tradition," presumes that some largely univocal tradition concerning the Apocryphal books actually exists. Either the Roman Catholic Fathers at Trent purposed to deceive in this regard, or they made a rather unfortunate historical blunder on the basis of their own ignorance. The implicit claim of a univocal "tradition" on the Apocrypha is a historical blunder not, perhaps, on par with the Book of Mormon's populating the Americas with horses hundreds of years before their (re)introduction there by European explorers, but it's not too far from the same. And, critically, it's a historical blunder in a place where no such blunder should exist -- the canons and decrees of an (infallible) ecumenical council.

Trent's apparent ignorance regarding those early Christians who -- in keeping with the more orthodox of Jewish traditions -- rejected the canonical status of the Apocryphal books, along with its subsequent anathematizing of all who reject said books as "sacred and canonical," has the further (and rather unfortunate) effect of damning such Fathers as Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Jerome, among others. That seems a rather un-catholic (not to mention uncharitable) gesture on the part of the "Catholic" Church.

The ambiguity in early Christian opinions about the Apocrypha also highlights the ultimate need to evaluate claims of the Apocrypha's canonicity by some higher standard than tradition. Thus Calvin introduces the second prong of his response to Rome, showing how the Apocryphal books, unlike Sacred Scripture, fail to testify to their own inspired and infallible status. Calvin points, for instance, to the concluding remark of the author of 2 Maccabees: "I ... will here make an end of my narration," the author writes, "which if I have done... not so perfectly, it must be pardoned me." The Holy Spirit, Calvin observes, begs no forgiveness for errors or faults in His words.

The author of Maccabees' words, it must be said, do seem a far cry from the confidence informing the Apostle John's rather dire warning against making additions or subtractions to his inspired text, and by implication at least, making additions or subtractions to the entire canon as such (Rev. 22:18-19).

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

For an explanation of what follows, see the previously posted introduction to this series.

Calvin discerned four basic claims in Rome's teaching on Scripture as discovered in the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent. The first claim was comprised in the opening sentence of the first decree of that Council's fourth session (the 'decree concerning the canonical scriptures'). That sentence reads:

The sacred and holy, ecumenical, and general Synod of Trent -- lawfully assembled in the Holy Ghost, the same three legates of the Apostolic See presiding therein -- keeping this always in view, that, errors being removed, the purity itself of the Gospel be preserved in the Church; which (Gospel), before promised through the prophets in the holy Scriptures, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, first promulgated with His own mouth, and then commanded to be preached by His Apostles to every creature, as the fountain of all, both saving truth, and moral discipline; and seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand; (the Synod) following the examples of the orthodox Fathers, receives and venerates with an equal affection of piety, and reverence, all the books both of the Old and of the New Testament--seeing that one God is the author of both--as also the said traditions, as well those appertaining to faith as to morals, as having been dictated, either by Christ's own word of mouth, or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic Church by a continuous succession.

That sentence is a bear by anyone's reckoning. Calvin helpfully and accurately summarizes it thus: "First, they ordain that in doctrine we are not to stand on Scripture alone, but also on things handed down by tradition."

In responding to Rome's teaching, Calvin -- interestingly -- doesn't bother defending the authority of Scripture from Scripture. Presumably that's because he realizes that Protestants and Roman Catholics actually agree that Scripture constitutes the "Word of God" rather than the "word of man" (1 Thess. 2.13), and is therefore inspired and authoritative (cf. 2 Tim. 3.16). The Roman decree cited above, after all, acknowledges that "saving truth" is contained in the "written books" of Scripture, which books are thus deserving of our affection and reverence. Protestantism, of course, stops there. Rome carries on, and makes a positive claim about another source of "saving truth" -- namely, "unwritten traditions ... which have come down even to us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand."

The burden of proof that something other than Scripture constitutes a source of "saving truth" -- whether that something be "unwritten traditions" or Chinese fortune cookies -- rests entirely with those making such claims. This is often overlooked by would-be Roman apologists who require Protestants to defend from Scripture their principle that Scripture alone is authoritative, and fail to realize that sola Scriptura is not a positive claim per se, but a denial of the positive claim that "unwritten traditions" or anything else deserve the moniker "Word of God."

Calvin could, then, have simply highlighted the failure of Rome to prove that "unwritten traditions" constitute a source of "saving truth" and called it a day. But he does one better. Drawing upon his extensive knowledge of the Church Fathers, he points out that the earliest Christian thinkers themselves recognized no infallible authority but Scripture. In other words, he argues from tradition against the view that tradition constitutes an authoritative word on par with Scripture: "In regard to Traditions," he writes, "I am aware that [frequent] mention of them is made by ancient writers, though not with the intention of carrying our faith beyond the Scriptures, to which they always confine it." Calvin supports this claim with a quote from the prince of Church Fathers himself: "We must ever adhere to Augustine's rule, 'Faith is conceived from the Scriptures.'"

For what it's worth (which is quite a lot, actually), Calvin's reading of the Church Fathers is supported by the best of recent Patristic scholars. So, for instance, J.N.D. Kelly notes that up until the fourth century, the Fathers were univocal in affirming Scripture as the exclusive source of Christian doctrine. The words of Cyril of Jerusalem in the fourth century might be taken as representative: "With regard to the divine and saving mysteries of faith, no doctrine, however trivial, may be taught without the backing of the divine Scriptures." Athanasius put it this way: "The holy and inspired Scriptures are fully sufficient for the proclamation of the truth."

When the Fathers did speak of tradition (as Calvin acknowledges they did), they typically understood it not as a source of unique Christian doctrine, but as the Church's universal interpretation of Scripture's most fundamental teachings, handed down from one generation of believers to the next. To put it another way, traditional teachings were considered necessary to be believed not because they were traditional, but because they were Scripture's teachings. It wasn't until the late fourth century, in fact, that Christian thinkers began to toy with the possibility that certain truths or (more commonly, at least early on) customs could be traced back to the Apostles even if they weren't reflected in Scripture. In the medieval period the notion of extra-scriptural apostolic truths became more common (though many medieval thinkers retained the earlier, Patristic perspective of Scripture as the solitary source of saving truth, and tradition as the means by which Scripture's truth is transmitted through the centuries).

When Trent, then, affirmed that "saving truth" is contained in both Scripture and "unwritten traditions," it canonized a view on the source(s) of Christian doctrine which was an aberration from the understanding of the earliest Christians.

Calvin's argument from tradition against tradition (understood as a source of unique Christian doctrine) constitutes a case of rather clever argument. He takes Rome to task on its own turf (tradition) and shows how un-traditional Rome's teaching is. But in the process Calvin also demonstrates his own profound appreciation for tradition properly understood; indeed, Calvin honors tradition much more than his Roman counterparts by actually following the Fathers in their own insistence upon the ultimate authority of Scripture alone to define Christian beliefs. The champion of sola Scriptura proves, ironically, to be the traditionalist, to be more catholic than his Roman Catholic counterparts.

As Reformed Protestants today, we would do well to take a page from Calvin's apologetic in defending Scripture as the sole infallible norm of Christian beliefs. We would likewise do well to follow his lead in listening carefully to the Church Fathers and letting their engagement with Scripture and theological reflection inform our own convictions -- not least on the matter of how much, or rather what kind of, authority ought ultimately to be imputed to the Fathers themselves and other saints who have gone before us. 

Aaron Clay Denlinger is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

A positive approach to tradition

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I have been benefitting this week from reading Scott Clark's Recovering the Reformed Confession. The opening chapter is very thoughtful and thought-provoking, particularly in Scott's discussion of tradition. He quotes John Murray to the effect that 'there is a catholic, protestant and a reformed tradition'. None of us can approach Scripture without the effect and impact of our tradition, and the principle of sola scriptura is not compromised thereby. I think Scott's book is one of the most timely calls for critical appreciation and engagement with our tradition, and should be read by every Reformed pastor and theologian.