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Volume 8, Issue 5: Presbyterion

Tradition and the Word

Douglas Wilson

That is the relationship between the Scriptures and the various traditions of the Christian Church since the time of Jesus Christ? Anyone who has spent any time in church knows the force of inertia in all aspects of decision-making. "We've never done it that way before" has considerable persuasive power for many believers. When this process can even be seen in young churches, how much greater force does it have when older churches contemplate the change of patterns, traditions, confessions, etc. which are centuries old?

The unthinking fundamentalist wants to reduce the whole problem to a very simple equation--"just stick to the Bible." His belief is that fooling around with traditions in the first place is what caused the problem. We may call this the "tradition as demon" position.
"We don't believe in tradition. We have never believed in tradition. The founders of our denomination didn't believe in tradition. We can't start following tradition now. We have always not followed tradition." As the statements above amply demonstrate, the only consistent way to follow the "no tradition" school of thought is to abandon it. We needn't spend any time refuting a church whose tradition is that traditions are bad and evil. As the fellow once said, "We don't believe in tradition. It's contrary to our historic position." Seeya.
On the other side of things, we have the "exalted tradition" contingent. The traditions of men are frankly acclaimed as the requirements of God. This may be held with doctrinal consistency, as the Roman Catholics do, or furtively, as inconsistent "strict subscriptionists" within the Reformed tradition do. This is the "tradition as monarch" school. The theory may mouth a high view of Scripture. But practically, whenever the traditions, creeds, and practices of a church cannot be brought before the bar of Scripture, then that tradition has assumed the place of Scripture. Now the church does have authority to point to the Word of God as the Word of God. But it has no authority to lie and elevate the word of men to the same position.
The biblical stance may be described as "tradition as servant." The Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura does not mean that Scripture is the only religious authority in the lives of Christians. Rather, sola Scriptura means that Scripture exhibits two characteristics which define its unique place in the rule of the church. The Bible, and only the Bible, is the ultimate authority in the teaching and practice of the church, and the Bible, and only the Bible, is the only inerrant authority in the teaching and practice of the church. These two elements--ultimacy and inerrancy--are unique to Scripture.
But notice how this leaves us with room for a necessary doctrine of subordinate spiritual authorities. The elders of a local church, Christian parents bringing up children in the fear of the Lord, and convocations of theologians three centuries ago are all lawful authorities, deputized as such in Scripture. They have the authority to teach and make decisions. They do not do so infallibly, and they are not ultimate. God's deacons, God's ministers, are never God's replacements. They are His servants. Appeal can and should be made beyond them when necessary. But the fact that a case may be appealed beyond them to an ultimate infallible authority does not mean that the initial authority is no authority.
Still less does it mean that these subordinate authorities can get nothing right. A fallible authority is not defined as one that is wrong all the time. This is a good thing, as it turns out, for it is the fallible teaching authority of the historic Church which pointed us to the canon of Scripture. John the Baptist, a sinful man, pointed to Christ, the sinless One. The Church, a fallible authority, has accurately pointed to the infallible and ultimate canon of Scripture.
If there is no room for this tradition, the tradition of the Church pointing away from herself to a final Word, then the modern fundamentalist is not left alone with his Bible. He has no Bible.
One of the reasons why the practical authority of Scripture has declined in the Protestant church is that we have not really understand the nature of that authority. The cry of "Scripture alone," misunderstood as it is, does not eliminate our traditions. It just makes them hard for us to see. A modern church cannot base everything it does on "Scriptures solitaire" without any reference to the testimonies of the historic Church. For one of the central testimonies which the church has given, and which the historic Protestants continue to give, is that the 66 books of the Bible are the only ultimate and inerrant Word of God. Take that testimony away, and you are left with various lone individuals clutching a leather-bound book for some mysterious reason. Better not ask them why--that would be asking for a private tradition, and traditions are bad.
Tradition is what the church necessarily hands down to subsequent generations. An essential part of that tradition must be a definition of the ultimate and inerrant standard which will serve as the only criterion for judging the rest of the traditions. And the only tradition which gives that place of honor to sola Scriptura is that of the historic Protestant faith.

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