Sola Scriptura: Explanation of Tradition 1 (Part 3)

Sola scriptura rejects any idea that Scripture is incomplete and needs the augmentation of tradition. It does so with another attribute of Scripture—the doctrine of sufficiency. Sufficiency means Scripture contains the articles of faith and matters necessary for salvation, but not everything needed for church organization.[1] There are many different things needed for the Christian life and tradition plays a role.[2] The Reformation was not a revolt from tradition rather it was a reform. The Reformers, when developing these doctrines, did not believe they were starting over with the Bible alone. They were getting back to the analogy of faith that began with the apostolic church.

Scripture is the sole authority, but there are also subordinate authorities drawn from Scripture.  Scripture is the only inspired infallible norm making it the final authority. Tradition, however, arises from the Bible as a subordinate authority. This subordinate authority measures against the standard that is “the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth,” (1Tim 3:15) interprets, teaches, and proclaims God’s word. The Word she uses is her supreme authority.  Without the Word, she is silent. The church, as a subordinate, is authoritative as long as it reproduces the truth of the final authority (God’s Word).  The idea of tradition as a subordinate authority is not a doctrine of man but Scripture. To reject the authority of the church is to reject the one who gave her authority (Luke 10:16).[3]

The rule of faith is contained in the doctrine of sola scriptura. The Westminster Confession of Faith 1.9:

The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture, it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.[4]

The rule of faith is the traditional interpretation of Scripture, which the final attribute of scripture, the doctrine of perspicuity, assumes. Perspicuity means that Scripture is clear. There are, however, texts that are not so clear, nevertheless, the rule of faith means that there will always be other Scripture available that will clear-up any problem text.  And who clears up the problem text by comparing Scripture with Scripture?  The early church father Irenaeus spoke of the rule of faith this way:

Take refuge in the Church and be brought up in its bosom, and be nourished with the Scripture of the Lord. For the Church is planted as a Paradise in this world. You will therefore eat food from every tree of Paradise, says the Spirit of God, that is, eat from every Scripture of the Lord.[5]

Interpretation belongs to the church and to understand Scripture rightly is to understand it as the church has understood it. If anyone comes up with an interpretation or doctrine contra the rule of faith, it is subject to inquiry. Flesseman-van Leer states that this understanding of the rule of faith, held by Tertullian, Clement, and Origen, is equivalent with the Reformers.[6] The Reformers did not revolt from Church history; they came back to the ancient church that Rome corrupted. The Bible provides many examples of the rule of faith. Robert L. Reymond:

In the days of the apostles the theologizing process of reflecting upon and comparing Scripture with Scripture, collating, deducing, and framing doctrinal statements into creedal formulae approaching the character of church confessions had begun (examples of these creedal formulae may be seen in Rom 1.3-4; 10.9; 1 Cor 12.3; 15.3-4; 1 Tim 3.16 as well as in the ‘faithful sayings’ of the Pastorals).[7]

The Bible urges the church to produce doctrine to follow. The Rule of Faith contains this doctrine and helps the church to rightly interpret Scripture.

The rule of faith does not mean that no one needs to read and interpret the Bible for himself or herself. It only means there are nonnegotiables foundational to a right understanding of Scripture. If someone reads into Scripture an idea about the Trinity that is contrary to the Nicene Creed, they can deduce that it is heretical. Scripture must be read with Nicene eyes. These eyes were and are produced by the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is the true authority behind the analogy of faith, for He is the One who guides and leads the church into truth.

In conclusion, William Abraham’s analogy of a grand symphony clarifies sola scriptura:

The music results in the music of salvation, which naturally transposes itself into hymns of praise. Some of the canonical traditions, like the water, oil, bread, and wine of the sacraments, represent various instruments in the orchestra of the Church. Some, like Fathers and bishops, represent various players. Some, like liturgical material, represent the scores, which are best followed according to the program notes, which accompany them. Everyone involved in the orchestra must approach his or her role in a spirit of humility and dependence, of joy and praise. Most important of all, everyone must heed and be open to the leading of the great conductor, the Holy Spirit, who, through the use of the canonical traditions of the Church, creates within the participants the melody of Christ the Savior, a music which leads ineluctably into the unfathomable, unspeakable mystery of the living God.[8]

Scripture is a canonical tradition and it is the final authority. This is Tradition 1 held by the apostles, the early church fathers, and the Magisterial Reformers. The Holy Spirit used these men and others as a means to an end—doctrinal truth, the church, and Scripture as the supreme authority. Tradition 0 ends in autonomy, which is a slippery slope to relativism and skepticism. The church needs to avoid this extreme and embrace the heritage “once and for all delivered.”

[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 488.

[2] The Westminster Confession makes a distinction between elements and circumstances. Elements are those spirit inspired means to glorify God and come only from Scripture. Circumstances are those natural things that surround glorifying God and come from tradition. Preaching the gospel would be an element, whereas the use of a microphone to amplify the voice would be a circumstance. Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 1.6, 21.1.

[3] Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura, 269.

[4] Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 608.

[5] R. P. C. Hanson, Tradition in the Early Church (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press,

1962), 105.

[6] Ibid., 109.

[7] Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of The Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998), 878.

[8] Christopher A. Hall, “What Evangelicals and Liberals Can Learn From the Church

Fathers,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 49 (Mar 2006): 85.


One thought on “Sola Scriptura: Explanation of Tradition 1 (Part 3)

  1. Pingback: You cannot be A Protestant if you don’t Love the Church Fathers | Unsettled Christianity

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