A question of authority

On Brad East’s approach to Scripture and Tradition.

In chapter 3 of The Doctrine of Scripture, my friend Brad turns to the attributes of Scripture, and in parts 3 and 4 specifically to sufficiency and clarity. Here, Brad’s catholic1 inclinations are on full display, and while I’m sympathetic to why he ends up where he does, I ultimately must differ with him — and deeply so, if with considerable nuance.

To begin, Brad (rightly, in my view) points out the underdeterminate nature of all texts qua texts. We do not, for example, want to be relitigating the findings of the ecumenical councils on the Trinity, or Christ’s natures. That many modern biblicist” interpreters end up doing just this gives his point some punch. More, as Brad notes: many a heretic is well-intentioned. Something must help us stay in the Way in our reading of Scripture — and that something is the work of the saints who have gone before us. They held firm to the faith they were entrusted with.

But from this, Brad ends up concluding that the church’s tradition not only binds our interpretation of Scripture, but even more that the church must affirm views for which there is literally no Scriptural foundation whatsoever. To take an example from Brad himself: the perpetual virginity of Mary is a tradition which has wide acceptance in the church starting in the fourth century (and which has an earlier history, but one much contested), and yet there is not only no warrant for it in Scripture but strong contrary evidence against it in Scripture. Protestants have largely rejected this claim, seeing it as both unwarranted and actively mistaken, especially about the nature of sex and marriage — pointing, in part, to Scripture’s teaching on the goodness of marriage and Paul’s explicit condemnation of people who forbid marriage.

Brad also does not (at least: in this presentation, in this chapter) acknowledge the difference between what the ecumenical councils affirmed and other organic” tradition. He should, though! Nor does he grant the reasons the latter councils are also disputed by Protestants, and I think Brad would do well to address why this might be. Reading them is telling! Trullum forbids eating with Jews or having them as physicians — certainly not a thing we should any of us affirm, and which indeed I know Brad rejects. But how can we make such judgments if Tradition is binding and cannot be judged wanting in light of Scripture?

In the end I do not see how Brad leaves — indeed, even can leave — room for the church’s tradition ever to have erred. This is the standard Protestant critique of catholic views for a reason. With tradition so situated in authority over the interpretation of Scripture, it is impossible for the church ever to have been truly mistaken in any consensus which has emerged! On this telling, reformation of the church’s traditions is not only inadmissible but inconceivable — no matter the apparent Scriptural warrant for such reformation.

And yet we do need the work of the church to help us hold fast to the faith handed down from the apostles, most especially, but not only, in the councils up through Chalcedon.

This is suggestive of what I take to be the central challenge for both protestant and catholic interpreters of Scripture: to grasp the nettle of authority.2 God help us: We must find a frame which does two things which seem impossible to reconcile. We must grant that the work of the church historical in interpreting Scripture has been in a real and critical sense the work of the Spirit of God, and so constrains us to faithful extension of the tradition.3 We must also grant that the tradition itself must be subject to perpetual reformation, specifically by recourse to the Scripture which is God-breathed and which is the pillar and foundation of the church.


  1. Note the lower-case c” here: his account is broadly friendly to Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodoxy, and some catholic Anglican views of Scripture. ↩︎

  2. I don’t think Brad gets there (and I’m not sure why he isn’t Anglican or Eastern Orthodox!), but I also can’t fault him for not having solved, less than a decade into his career, the great hermeneutical-theological question of Scriptural authority and one of the great ecumenical challenges of the last half millennium. ↩︎

  3. A phrase I borrow from James K. A. Smith and William Cavanaugh’s Evolution and the Fall, which I reviewed in Mere Orthodoxy a few years ago. ↩︎