The Necessity of Tradition for Theological Interpretation – Part 2

We need a positive view of tradition for the simple reason that the New Testament is both the product of a tradition and Bible generated a tradition.

First, the New Testament is part of the generated tradition of the early church, an account of its story-telling, teaching, and ministry. We find evidence in the New Testament for units of instruction being orally transmitted to the nascent churches by the apostles. In the Pauline churches, this included the story of the gospel (1 Cor 15:3–5), Jesus’s last supper with his disciples (1 Cor 11:23–26), and a general body of Christian teachings (Rom 6:17). Indeed, Paul tells the Thessalonians that they should “stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess 2:15). Similarly, the risen Jesus tells the church in Sardis to remember “what you have received and heard” (Rev 3:3). What Jude calls the “faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” refers to the faith taught in the Old Testament Scriptures, the teachings of Jesus, the story of Jesus, and the apostolic instruction in the way of Jesus (Jude 3). The spiritually gifted teachers of the church had as their remit to pass on these teachings—stories and instructions about Jesus (see Acts 13:1; Rom 12:7; 1 Cor 12:28–29; Eph 4:11; Heb 5:12; Jas 3:1).

We might say that early Christian instruction was the exposition of a “tradition,” that is, a collection of teachings that were taught by Jesus to his apostles, combined with a distinctive way of interpreting the Old Testament that made Jesus the centerpiece of God’s promises, a tradition interpreted and augmented in light of their experience of God, particular habits and ethical instructions, and modes of worship, which were then transmitted and taught among the churches. This “tradition” is what largely generated the New Testament. The Gospels are the traditions from and about Jesus that were passed on by eyewitnesses, received by early leaders, and written down by the evangelists (see Luke 1:1–4). The New Testament letters use a lot of traditional materials—hymns, creeds, sayings, stories, vice lists, virtue lists, etc.—to instruct congregations in light of the situations they were facing (see e.g. early creedal formulas in Rom 1:2-4; 4:25; Phil 2:5-11; 1 Tim 3:16).[1] Thus: “Scripture is Tradition, in the sense that the New Testament writings are part of Tradition and constitute its normative element.”[2]

Second, the body of Christian writings that circulated widely in the church created a tradition of interpretation that became the basis for the formation of the canon and the composition of the creeds of the early church. This tradition first emerged as the regula fidei, “the rule of faith,” and refers to the general outline of Christian beliefs that circulated in the second-century church.[3] It was not a wooden doctrinal statement, more of a flexible précis of the narrative of Scripture. Vanhoozer calls it is “a summary of the main theodramatic plot [and] the prototype of catholic theology.”[4]

Irenaeus (130-202 AD) describes the rule of faith that was venerated in the apostolic churches across a wide geographical expanse.

The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father to gather all things in one, and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess to him, and that he should execute just judgment towards all; that he may send spiritual wickednesses, and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of his grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept his commandments, and have persevered in his love, some from the beginning [of their faith], and others from [the moment of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.[5]

Here the regula fidei is a short exposition of the biblical story line. What is more, Irenaus says elsewhere that even those “Barbarians” who do not yet have copies of the Scriptures in their language, yet who have had the gospel preached to them, hold resolutely to the regula fidei because they faithfully keep to the tradition of apostolic teaching about Jesus. It was the regula fidei that preserved the often simple and unlearned tribes from heretical beliefs by keeping them fastened to the apostolic gospel.

Similar to Irenaeus is Tertullian (ca. 160–225 AD) who has his own summaries of the regula fidei:

Now, with regard to this rule of faith—that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend—it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that he is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through his own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called his Son, and, under the name of God, was seen in diverse manners by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth he preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, he rose again the third day; (then) having ascended into the heavens, he sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Spirit to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises amongst ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics.[6]

Tertullian regarded the regula fidei as the narrative summary of the faith that goes all the way back to Jesus. That sounds like an outrageous claim, but if Jesus was the first person to describe how the story of Israel’s Scriptures was fulfilled in his own messianic mission, then Jesus is the originator of the regula fidei. A direct line between Jesus to the apostolic churches is established and this authorizes the narrative structure and christological focus on the church’s faith.[7]

The regula fidei was not an oral tradition that existed parallel to Scripture. The regula fidei was what emerged out of the preaching and teaching of Scripture in the early church. The regula fidei was both derived from Scripture and was the interpretive lens through which Scripture was to be understood. In this perspective, Scripture and tradition mutually reinforce each other. The regula fidei was the attempt to safeguard Scriptural teaching by adopting an interpretive framework sanctioned by Scripture. That took the form, not of a creed, but a general narration of the Christian story as it had been handed on in the early church.

Later the rule was expanded to include reading the Scriptures in light of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan and Chalcedonian clarifications of Christian doctrine. In effect, the apostolic teaching gave us the Christian Scriptures, the Scriptures in their reception gave us the regula fidei, the regula fidei defined the theological hermeneutics for the biblical canon, and the canon provided the grounds for the subsequent creeds of the church. Scripture still remained primary in this chain of tradition. Cyril of Jerusalem taught new believers the Jerusalem Creed precisely because it represented an epitome of the Scriptures:

Learn the faith and profess it; receive it and keep it—but only the creed which the church will now deliver to you, that creed is firmly based on Scripture … For the articles of the creed were not put together according to human choice; the most important doctrines were collected from the whole of Scripture to make up a single exposition of the faith.[8]

Let me ask you a question. If the regula fidei was the narrative unity of Scripture as readers perceived it, and if the Scripture should be read in light of regula fidei, is this catholic way of reading Scripture really any different from biblical theology or from the Protestant principle of interpreting Scripture with Scripture? I submit that they are materially the same.

So, at this juncture, it is impossible for us to deny two things: (1) The New Testament is the product of a tradition; and (2) The Christian Bible and its reception in the early church generated the regula fidei, the traditional way of interpreting Scripture in line with apostolic instruction. So tradition is not a bad thing belonging to Pharisees, Jewish proselytizers, and pagan philosophers, it is a good thing intrinsic to the Christian faith.

[1] Adapted from Michael F. Bird, What Christians Ought To Believe (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 21-22.

[2] Vasile Mihoc, “Greek Church Fathers and Orthodox Biblical Hermeneutics,” in Greek Patristic and Eastern Orthodox Interpretations of Romans, eds. Daniel Patte and Vasile Mihoc (RTHCS 9. London: T&T Clark/Bloomsbury, 2013), 15 (italics original).

[3] See Tomas Bokedal, “The Rule of Faith: Tracing Its Origins,” JTI 7 (2013): 238-51; Everett Ferguson, The Ruel of Faith: A Guide (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2015).

[4] Kevin Vanhoozer, “‘One Rule to Rule Them All?’ Theological Method in an Era of World Christianity,” in Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice (eds. C. Ott and H.A. Netland; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006), 118.

[5] Irenaeus, Haer. 1.10.1; cf. 3.4.2; 4.337; Demonstration, 6.

[6] Tertullian, Praescrip. 13; cf. Veiling of Virgins 1.3-4; Against Praxeas 2.

[7] Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 195.

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