Years ago, when studying various interpretations related to St. John’s Revelation, I came across the following quote on the website of the Orthodox Church in America:
“The Orthodox Church does not accept the notion that everyone can properly interpret the Bible as he or she wants. Some Protestant bodies believe in this, but Orthodoxy does not. We say that the Church has the ability to properly interpret Scripture, and this means that we should study and adopt the interpretations that have been handed down over the 2000 years of the Church’s living history. Given the fact that that which is contained in Scripture is the inspired word of God, revealed to mankind and not to a single individual, no individual has the right or ability to offer ‘the’ definitive interpretation of Scripture.“1
As a non-denominational Christian pastor at the time, this quote really gave me pause. Just two months earlier, I had written in my journal, “There is a lot of talk about ‘correct’ doctrine or ‘right’ theology (M. for instance believes that it is essential to teach right doctrine). On the one hand I understand and agree completely. On the other hand…. how in the world can we presume to know the truth or the rightness of a particular theology as opposed to another when we are admittedly trying to explain the very nature of God?”
And then to encounter this quote, “No single individual has the right or ability to offer ‘the’ definitive interpretation of Scripture.” – And instantly I knew it to be true.
For years I had personally wrestled with the doctrine of sola Scriptura. Not only could I not find a Scriptural basis for it, but the practical effects of the doctrine had played out for me countless times in the endless disagreements over “correct doctrine” and “right theology.”
And so for the first time I began to consider whether or not my own personal understanding of Scripture ought to conform to tradition. I began to ask, “Who has the authoritative claim? Christian orthodoxy or personal opinion?” [Tweet This]
Reading Within Tradition
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church there is an ancient saying of the Church Fathers which instructs us to read the Scripture within, “the living Tradition of the whole Church.”2 Some Christians might object to this idea of reading Scripture “within” the living tradition of the Church, but it is a practice which actually finds surprising resonance with a significant number of Protestants communities as well.
The Wesleyan Quadrilateral3 , for instance, is a methodology which bases its teaching on four corresponding sources as the basis of theological and doctrinal development. These four sources are scripture, tradition, reason, and Christian experience. While John Wesley was an unwavering proponent of sola Scriptura4 , he nonetheless recognized that Christian doctrine ought to be in keeping with orthodox Christian tradition, writing, “Do not undervalue traditional evidence. Let it have its place and its due honour. It is highly serviceable in its kind, and in its degree.”5
Wesley saw these four sources of “authority” as not merely prescriptive of how theology should be formed, but also as descriptive of how almost everyone actually forms theology. In other words, Wesley observed that the vast majority of Christian theologians employed these tools as a matter of routine.6
And to be honest, this was my experience as well. My theology did not merely rest on my studies of the Scriptures alone. My Ryrie study bible with its pervasive dispensationalist commentary had certainly helped form my theological views, while the NIV translation which I often relied on had undoubtedly shaped my understanding of various passages. I brought my own intellect and reasoning faculties to bear when weighing the individual strengths and weaknesses of various theological arguments presented within Erickson’s Christian Theology, and I observed the pragmatic effects of those various doctrines as they played out in the lives and personal experiences of myself and those I knew. In other words, Wesley’s description was right.
Even if Scripture is the primary means of authority, no one exegetes Scripture in a vacuum. [Tweet This]
But this only led to further questions. If it was true that I still depended on tradition to help shape my understanding of Scripture – then what tradition(s) did I look to? For me, the influence of tradition had been a largely unrecognized, but nevertheless very real, aspect of my theological development. I used the Ryrie Study bible because it was recommended by other Christians who I respected. Lewis was also recommended to me and I resonated with his description of “mere Christianity” while summarily rejecting his beliefs on purgatory.
Basically I approached my Christian formation as one would approach a buffet table, picking and choosing what enticed me, discarding anything that didn’t. Perhaps unsurprisingly, all of my selections were from authors who had written within the last century or so. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A.W. Tozer, Richard Foster – don’t get me wrong, there is no doubt in my mind that many of these men have penned modern day classics, but they were also Christians who had been shaped by a particular tradition themselves.
“[Removed] from its context within Holy Tradition, the solid rock of Scripture becomes a mere ball of clay, to be molded into whatever shape its handlers wish. It is no honor to the Scriptures to misuse and twist them, even if this is done in the name of exalting their authority.” Fr. John Whiteford7
On Reading Old Books…
And then I encountered the following in a paper titled, On Reading Old Books, by Anglican author and theologian C.S. Lewis, “There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books… This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are [not] studying St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas… but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself… A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light.”8
Yep, Lewis himself recognized that his own works must be, “tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages.” He goes on to recommend to his readers, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”9 This is, in part, to allow us make the necessary course corrections which will steer us away from the errors of our own age. “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”10
To provide an example from my own life; I had literally no idea that the pre-millienial dispensationalist doctrines of the “rapture” and corresponding (literal) thousand year earthly reign of Christ (confidently proffered as truth by my Ryrie study bible) had been proposed by John Darby of the Plymouth Brethren in the 1830’s! As it turns out, I had spent most of my life erroneously believing that this was a Christian doctrine handed on by men of good faith from the earliest days of the Church. Imagine my surprise to find that it was a theological doctrine which didn’t exist prior to the 19th century!
Making Room For Tradition
While there is obvious diversity in how various Christian communities will utilize the voice of tradition in their interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, its presence is undeniable – even for those who simultaneously deny it’s effect while being shaped by it’s forces. We are all subject to the voices of those who have gone before us; whether we give our attention to the shouts of those who immediately proceed us or cup our ears to hear the whispers of those from ages past, is up to us. But in either case tradition will speak to us, shaping our beliefs – with our consent or without.
More could be said about the differing views of tradition within Christianity. Within Catholicism a distinction is made between “little t” traditions and “Big T” traditions with the catechism noting, “Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical, or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s magisterium.”11
In contrast, when speaking of the living transmission of the Gospel through the ages, the Catechism notes, “This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through Tradition, ‘the Church, in her doctrine, life, and worship perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.’12 ‘The sayings of the holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer.’1314
Regardless of how your own individual “tradition” dictates that tradition should be used when interpreting the Scriptures, I would encourage you to make room for it’s wisdom and it’s guidance. As the Church Fathers exhort us, read the Scriptures, “within the living tradition of the Church.” As Lewis encourages us, go directly to the Apostles and the Doctors of the Church; read for yourself Saints Augustine and Aquinas.
Ignore for a moment the shouts of this present age, and incline your ear to the whispers of the past. [Tweet This]
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The Orthodox Church in America Website: oca.org/questions/scripture/book-of-revelation ↩
CCC paragraph 113 ↩
Employed by the Methodist Church, and many of the denominations descending from that heritage, such as the Nazarene Churches ↩
He referred to himself as, “a man of one book” The Sermons of John Wesley, 1872 Edition ↩
Works, X, 75 ↩
It should be noted that Wesley himself never used the term “quadrilateral” to describe his methodology, and was always careful to advocate for the centrality, and ultimate authority, of the Scriptures as compared to the other three sources. In truth, Wesley himself was merely building upon the older Anglican theological tradition while adding a fourth emphasis – personal experience. ↩
Sola Scriptura, p. 46 ↩
underlining for emphasis added ↩
C.S. Lewis, On Reading Old Books ↩
CCC paragraph 83b ↩
Dei Verbum 8 § 1 ↩
Dei Verbum 8 § 3 ↩
CCC paragraph 78 ↩