Protestantism, Scripture and the Judgment of the Church

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.