Questions Posed

Assumed audience: Theologically-orthodox Christians, or folks interested in things that theologically-orthodox Christians think.

Over the past few days, I finished reading my friend Brad East’s The Doctrine of Scripture — last discussed a bit over a year ago, before I set it aside in the midst of a particularly challenging year. I wrote then:

…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.

Having gotten to the end of the book, I find that my assessment is much the same as it was then. I think Brad does good work stating the problem itself in Chapter 6: Authority. (His list of questions there are well worth getting a copy of the book and reading in detail!) But in the end, his arguments for the church’s and Tradition’s authority are basically the standard Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodoxy arguments for the position. No (well-read) Protestant is therefore likely to be persuaded by them — any more than any (well-read) Roman Catholic or an Eastern Orthodox believer is apt to be persuaded by the standard Protestant views.

Rather than simply restate the Protestant view, then, I will try again to get at that last note in my previous summary: that, as Brad himself notes in that excellent sixth chapter, the key is the nature of the authorities held by each of Scripture and Church, and how they relate to each other. I have not the foggiest idea where to begin: I think it is only fair and right to admit that the Protestant formulation does struggle to make sense of the actual historical process by which the church (Protestant and catholic alike) inherits her book; I think it is, equally, only fair and right to point out that the catholic traditions have struggled (to say the least!) to hear the word of Scripture as capable of rebuking mistaken turns in the church’s development of theology.

A few years ago I wrote a review of William Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith’s for Mere Orthodoxy; I titled the review Faithful Extension and the Question of Human Origins”, after the key framing paragraphs of the book, which I cite again here because directly relevant:

From the point of view of a tradition like the Christian tradition, reasons” and advances” [in understanding] are understood differently [from the progress” narrative of the academy] because there is a weight granted to the tradition as tradition; there is a requirement that any advance be seen as an extension, not a supersession, of the tradition. There are no prizes for novelty in a tradition.


[Any] modifications, revisions, and reformulations will (a) need to provide an account of how they are faithful extensions of the tradition and (b) have to concede that the discernment of what counts as faithful extension is determined by the community of practice, and not just the realm of expertise. So we will indeed have to determine whether reformulations violate the core” or essential” markers of the tradition; and we will have to concede that the determination of this is entrusted to the people of God, which is wider than the realm of academics, scholars, and scientists (though scholars and scientists who are part of this community of practice also get to participate in this discernment process).

These same points seem to me to be directly at issue in the Protestant reception of the Tradition (n.b. that Cavanaugh and Smith are themselves Protestants!). Tweak the verbiage just a bit to be less specifically about the questions of human origins and these paragraphs could be about the nature of theological development per se and writ general. And yet: the Orthodox and especially the Roman Catholic formulations of the binding authority of Tradition do in the end leave the Tradition un-reform-able — development may be allowed, but error is defined out of existence axiomatically. I am reminded of the late John Webster’s constant refrain that Scripture stands over the church in judgment and rebuke: that the life and health of the church is a function of her submission specifically to Scripture.

So on the one hand, we have the Rule of Faith, in which the Tradition guides us in rightly reading Scripture, the good deposit guarded by the Spirit-filled people of God. And on the other, we have the very Spirit-breathed word of God which we know — by its own testimony of the very Word of God Himself! — does often chasten the traditions of men, does finally norm all norms.

Where then sola Scriptura and the Tradition both? Who can say. My sense is that we must find a way to do right by both of these right claims, for both are right. (You can feel free to insert a joke about my having very quickly become a good Anglican here.)