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Sola Scriptura & The Authority of Church Tradition

I thought I would add a brief appendix to Andrew’s excellent rejoinder to Feyerabend and Feser on the principle of sola scriptura. Richard Hooker (since we’re being judicious) upheld three authorities for Christians: Scripture, reason, and church tradition. Andrew explains how the first two work together to uphold the principle of sola scriptura. The last one, church tradition, is often left out of the discussion, thus adding to the caricature of Reformed theology as individualistic. It’s not sol-o scriptura but sol-a scriptura, many are now correct to point out. This clarification applies to church tradition as well. As Andrew notes, scripture attests to its own divinity in a way that is commensurable with reason. This does not mean, however, that we do not depend on the church or submit to her authority regarding the nature of the scriptures. As I pointed out a couple of months ago, Reformers such as Martin Bucer acknowledged that the church was established prior to the closing of the canon and that the church, for this reason, was responsible for recognizing, receiving, and interpreting the texts of the canon. So, for Protestants, the church does maintain an authority with regard to the scriptures, but one of protection rather than creation.

The three-fold chord of Scripture, reason, and tradition not only gives authority to our recognition of the canon but it also provides authority to our interpretation of the scriptures. Our theology, in other words, is handed down to us through the church. Where does a Protestant turn in order to interpret a passage of scripture that is unclear? Where do we go when our interpretation of the scriptures is reasonable, yet due to the lack of clarity in the text, does not provide us with absolute certainty? According to the leading Reformed theologians of the past, such as Hooker and Jerome Zanchi, we look to the tradition handed down by the fathers of the church. Of course, we always do so in submission to God’s revelation of His will in scripture (received rationally). Here is what Zanchi says about tradition in his confession of faith:

When I write this Confession of faith, I write everie thing uppon a good conscience, and as I beleeved, so I spake freelie, as the holie scriptures doe teach that wee ought to doe. My faith is grounded simplie and principallie on the word of God and next, somewhat [nonnihil] upon the common consent of the whole auncient catholicke church, if it doe not gainsaye the holie scriptures. For I beleeve that the thinges which were decreed and received of the fathers, by common consent of them all gathered together in the name of the Lord, without anie contradiction of holie scriptures, that they also (though they bee not of equall authoritie with the scriptures) come from the Holie ghost. Hereupon it is that the thinges which are of this sorte, I neither will nore dare disproove with a good conscience […] Who am I that I should disproove that which the whole church hath approoved?1

So, as Protestants we place ourselves in God’s hands. We look to the Holy Scriptures, and as we receive them in faith and test them in our own spirits through the use of reason, we trust the Spirit of God in them, in us, and in the common consent of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. It’s not just me and my Bible. It’s me, Gregory of Nyssa, and my Bible. It’s me, the holy ecumenical councils, and my Bible. It’s me, the mystical body of Christ (corpus mysticum), and my Bible. It’s me, the holy company of martyrs, and my Bible. It is us and our Bibles.

  1. Zanchi, De religione christiana fides, Obs. In caput XXV, Aph. X, et XI., as printed in Luca Baschera and Christian Moser, eds., Girolamo Zanchi, De Religione Christiana Fides – Confession of Christian Religion,  2 Vols., (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 607.

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.

3 replies on “Sola Scriptura & The Authority of Church Tradition”

Amen. It occurs to me that in my tradition (PCUSA), we have a tendency towards being altogether too cavalier in our treatment of the received tradition. Most of our congregation is barely aware of the confessional history of the church and of the legacy of those saints who have come before us. We would do well to learn from the witness of historical Christians, in order that our own faith might be deepened and our intellects pricked with the sort of curiosity that might then lead us to consider our own communal calling to interpret and articulate our faith together.

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