I Still Must Protest (3)

“My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, for going against my conscience is neither safe nor salutary. I can do no other, here I stand, God help me.” With those words, Martin Luther sealed his fate as a heretic condemned by no less than Pope Leo himself. If not for the protection of his prince, Frederick the Wise, and the immense popularity he enjoyed among the people, Luther would surely have been arrested, quickly tried, and burned to a crisp.

The doctrine of the supreme authority of the Scriptures came to be known as Sola Scripture or “Scripture Alone.” It is often referred to as “the formal principle” of the Reformation. It is a reminder that the Protestant Reformation was essentially a movement based upon the careful study of God’s Word.

The Roman Catholic Church has long held that the Bible is the product of the church. That is, the church gives birth, as it were, to the Scriptures. There is an implicit subordination implied in this formula. This is why, when discussing doctrine with a Roman Catholic it does no good to say something like, “But purgatory is found nowhere in the Bible,” or “But the Bible says none of those things about Mary,” or even, “But the Bible tells us that there is only one mediator between God and man.” The reason this line of argument is so fruitless with a Roman Catholic is because the Bible is not their ultimate source of authority because they believe the Bible is the product of the church and not the other way around.

In contrast, the Protestant Reformation rightly understood that the church is the creatura verbi: the creation of the word. God creates with the power of His word. This is seen in creation and the new creation. His word is powerful to bring substance out of nothing and life from death. His creative word brought worlds to be and His redemptive word brought to be a people for his own possession. The church is no more the creator of the Bible as is man the creator of his own salvation. This was a revolutionary assertion in the 16th century. If the church was a product of the Word then the Bible must hold sway over church councils, over popes, and over tradition. Such a formula would put at risk the power of the Roman magesterium, the teaching office of the church.

By the time Luther came along, Church tradition had come to include a number of different doctrines and practices handed down to the church over the centuries by Popes and councils. Thus, “Holy writ” and “Holy tradition” were both looked to as authoritative sources of revelation. In command of both was the church’s magisterium which claimed ultimate authority in the interpretation of Scripture and tradition.

The Roman Catholic Church has long made a caricature of Sola Scriptura saying that it would lead to chaos and an “every man for himself” approach to interpreting the Bible. Sadly, while this was never the doctrine of Sola Scriptura as articulated by the Reformers it has become the practice of many Protestant Christians. I have been told, “No one is going to tell me how to interpret the Bible.” This is a dangerous perspective. While holding that God’s Word is infallible, Sola Scriptura rejects the idea that the Bible can be read and properly interpreted without any accountability. It is the wise Christian who looks to those godly scholars who have labored long in the languages and doctrines of the Bible for help to rightly interpret God’s Word. But this is a hard thing to convince a contemporary church given more to the reading of Sports Illustrated and Good Housekeeping than sound biblical commentaries.

The fact is, tradition can and should play an important part in the life of God’s people. It matters what the long line of faithful witnesses that have gone before us have believed and practiced. They were certainly not infallible. However, it is destructive arrogance to ignore or otherwise reject the wise counsel of our predecessors in the faith. The crucial difference is that Protestants reject the idea that tradition can be considered authoritative in the way that Scripture is authoritative. Authority is perhaps the central issue of Sola Scriptura. Certainly, there are implications with inspiration, infallibility, and sufficiency. But authority is at the heart of Sola Scriptura.

Heiko Oberman, a scholar and author of my favorite biography on Martin Luther, offers some very helpful categories for understanding the differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics on the relation between Scripture and tradition:

Tradition I
Tradition I is referred to by Oberman as the “one-source” theory of revelation. This theory sees Scripture as the only source of infallible divine revelation and is to be interpreted in the watchful care of the church. In other words, while Scripture is affirmed as the only infallible source of revelation it must still be interpreted within the context of Christian community in order to guard against error. This is the view historically held by Protestants.

Tradition II
Tradition II is the “two-source” theory of revelation. Tradition II holds that Scripture and tradition are separate and equal in authority. It holds that the Bible and church tradition are both sources of divine revelation.

Tradition III
Tradition III holds that the magisterium of the church is the ultimate source of revelation for the church.

While certain aspects of Tradition II can be seen in some of the writings of the early church fathers it is not until the 12th century that a full fledged two source tradition is developed and accepted in the Roman Church. This development of Tradition II came about in order to support the many doctrines and practices that had appeared in the church in previous centuries. It was the Council of Trent that made the two-source view of revelation official Catholic doctrine. For the next three hundred years this woulud be the teaching of the Roman Church. But over the last century and a half a new tradition has emerged within Catholicism. Oberman writes:
“A Tradition III concept is in the process of being developed by those who tend to find in the teaching office of the Church the one and only source for revelation. Scripture and tradition are then not much more than historical monuments of the past.”

Doctrines such as the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary (1854), papal infallibility (1870), and the bodily ascension of Mary to heaven have all come as a result of the power of the magisterium. Keith Mathison writes, “Rome is gradually moving toward a one-source concept of revelation, but the one source of revelation is the Roman magesterium. In practice, what this means is that whatever Rome now teaches, is, by definition, the tradition of the church. This is, of course, the logical implication of the doctrine of papal infallibility.”

In a way, there is nothing new here. It was not unusual for Jesus to rebuke the religious leaders of Israel for preferring their own traditions to the clear revelation of Scripture: “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men (Matt 15:2).” “You nicely set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition” (Mark 7:8-9). Terry Johnson rightly observes, “The ‘commandment’ of God must always sit in judgment on our traditions. Scripture must reign supreme over all ecclesiastical traditions.”

Sola Scriptura is under attack. It always has been. Rome seeks to supplant Scripture through the teaching office of the Church. But many so-called evangelicals have supplanted Scripture with the autonomous individual. “What does this verse mean to you?” The idea that Scripture as a single meaning and that man must bow his knee to what God means offends modern individualism. We cannot control the Roman Catholic Church. But we can and must seek reformation and renewal within the Protestant church.

Sola Scriptura!