Bible and Authority Revisited 2 (RJS)

[We’ve added the captcha text because we were bombarded by a spammer Monday. We hope the captcha text will disappear with the spammer soon.]

Last week I posted a question by a reader asking about categories of biblical literature and their “wooden historicity”. There was another aspect to the comment though, and another question well worth consideration.

The original comment continued…

Speaking of that RJS, this reminds me of something that you’ve said before in response to my question on why you believe a certain thing to be the case. Your response, on occasion, has been to say that this is what has been handed down in Christian tradition, from the early church on. But, following our discussion here, surely the early church and much of Christian tradition thought the weather was directly, and in real-time, controlled by God. So if we so easily question that assumption now, why not others? The tradition argument alone seems rather weak in that regard.

This leads to the question for today.

What role does tradition play in our interpretation of scripture and understanding of the faith?

(The picture above is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the traditional site of the crucifixion and burial. We visited fall 2001 – when the lines were rather short.)

The commenter is quite right – there are some doctrines that I hold primarily on the strength of church tradition. The virgin birth is a good example. This is the teaching of the church from the beginning and I hold this doctrine primarily on the strength of that tradition.

But it is also true that a historical view of Genesis 1-11 is the traditional view of the church. The early church fathers, who often added allegorical or typological meaning on top of the literal meaning, generally took the historical meaning at face value. Even the apostle Paul appears to take the historical meaning at face value. Yet here I distrust the wisdom of church tradition. The evidence for old earth and evolution, the absence of evidence for a global flood,  the evidence against a “Tower of Babel” dispersion of language, is so overwhelming that I simply cannot take a face value approach.

There are other examples we could consider as well – and Matthew 16:18-19 is a good case, where Jesus says to Simon Peter:

I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.

Traditionally this has been interpreted to establish the authority of the church in all matters  including those of salvation and remission of sins. The Epistles of Cyprian, written ca. 250 AD are a particularly clear example of the antiquity of this tradition.  Protestants blatantly disregard the traditional interpretation and have, from our perspective of a few centuries,  established a new tradition.

In light of these considerations we are back to the question for today, which I’ll phrase just a little differently.

When is tradition authoritative – and when is tradition merely a guide to be considered and respected, but at times overruled in the face of additional insight and information?

How do we know?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

"I agree Michael,N. T. Wright and Balthassar both do this."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption”
"Ynree--You asked in one of your posts about my take on Isaac the Syrian. In ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption”
"You did not address St Isaac the Syrian who in my opinion is one of ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption”
"If you hold onto the Bible, then you have to give up a God who ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption”

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Rick

    Good questions.
    Would not the Rule of Faith (regula fidei), since it was the “tradition” empahsized by the early church, be a starting point? It is for me.
    Quoting Michael Bird:
    “According to Irenaeus (Haer. 3.4.1-2), the rule of faith is: “one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendour, shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent.” Strictly speaking, Irenaeus calls this the “ancient tradition” which he says even the illiterate Barbarians have accepted.”
    So the virgin birth is contained in that, yet the Genesis questions are not.

  • Rick

    Sorry, #1 should read “emphasized”.
    Let me also say that assumed in that Rule of Faith (and within other writings of the early church) is an assumed high view of Scripture. So the traditions we hold onto, that we take as authoritative, must first be tested against Scripture.
    Or, as Gregory of Nyssa wrote,
    “Let the inspired Scripture, then, be our umpire, and the vote of truth will surely be given to those whose dogmas are found to agree with the Divine words.”

  • Joey

    To add to this question I pose another:
    How can we have faith in a canon and not recognize the authority of those who went through the long and arduous process of creating it?
    If we really want to ask a question about the authority of scripture and its historical precedent then we must deal with question of where the authority came from to canonize it? A Catholic friend of mine posed this question and it is something I have been processing for nearly a year now. I trust in the canon and have faith that it is good and useful – even God breathed. But how can I trust in its authority without recognizing the authority of the apostolic Catholic bishops who canonized it?

  • Scot McKnight

    RJS, great question and I believe it is the question that the NeoReformed have to face (since they call themselves at times “confessing” evangelicals) and it is one that those who are in the emerging conversation who want to be genuinely ecumenical and deep church have to face.
    As I see it, the Tradition is that which gave rise to the New Testament. In this sentence, I’m equating “Tradition” with “Rule of Faith,” and that Rule of Faith is both the biblical and logical development of the gospel statement in 1 Cor 15:1ff. I believe the NT books gathered around that Rule of Faith the way barnacles attach themselves to the boat. As the Rule of Faith coursed through the first 4 centuries and as it guided the Church as it also created the Church, since Rule of Faith and gospel have to be seen together as one, that same Rule of Faith collected documents that expressed the gospel in the Rule of Faith.
    In Blue Parakeet I proposed that we read the Bible in spite of tradition, with tradition or through tradition. I rejected the first and third options and propose that we learn to read the Bible “with” tradition. As I read Matthew, I do so as one who is committed to the Rule of Faith and Matthew is read alongside that Rule of Faith. The Tradition is challenged by the Gospel of Matthew, but I’d be a fool to read something into Matthew that denies the Rule of Faith.

  • TaylorG

    I’m grateful for this post because I never realized the 2nd option was available.

    Joey brings up a great point. Acceptance of the Bible as our authority is in itself giving authority to a tradition, as well to Scripture. Not to muddy the waters too much, but where do we draw the line between Scripture and tradition? In my Reformed upbringing I was always taught that Scripture was this pure thing which later tradition (usually read Catholics) messed up by adding things onto it. However, in biblical studies we learn that Scripture is itself a collection of traditions. Both the Hebrew Bible and NT place differing traditions side by side. So I’m not so sure we can always make a neat distinction between the two. Given my background, there is a certain degree of irony in admitting this since it is a more ROman Catholic view.

  • T

    Not that I’m overly familiar with the approach, but it sounds like you favor the Anglican “scripture, tradition, reason” approach to theology, or are you distinct from that in some significant way?

  • Travis Greene

    I think we read Scripture (collectively) with tradition, but that tradition is dynamic whereas Scripture is fixed. So the new things we discover (the age of the earth, etc) become part of the tradition with which we read Scripture. We cannot but bring our own experiences to the text, and that is not a bad but a good thing, so obviously our understanding of the text changes over time.
    And yes, as others have pointed out, you can’t really claim the authority of the text without the community that wrote and assembled the text. Church and canon are forever in a chicken-and-egg relationship. The stupidest thing to do would be continue to argue about which came first, instead of enjoying some nice scrambled eggs.

  • RJS, Scot, Joey and others,
    I usually feel we are on thin ice as Protestants when it comes to canonicity. It’s almost like we’ve created an historical myth to assure ourselves that the canon of Scripture arrived “purely” (to use Don Heatley’s idea). We are in a vortex where church creates canon and canon creates church and this is the thinnest ice of all for we Protestants. But for me the good news is that this throws us humbly and completely upon the Spirit to “authorize” the sacred documents.

  • Travis (#8), there is no chicken and egg problem with Church and canon. Historically, the earliest text in the NT canon dates from (probably) the early fifties, well after the establishment of the Church. The texts that came to be the NT canon came to be recognized as Scripture by the Church over the course of the first few centuries. Basically, there’s no historical argument at all. The canon was produced by the Church and has long been recognized as the … highest (not really the word I’m searching for, but the best I can come up with) part of what has been traditioned to us. The facts aren’t really in question. The issue is what do you then do with those facts?
    Some of this discussion seems to confuse what it means to “hand down” or “tradition” something within an essentially oral culture. The fact that authors, even scriptural authors might assume something about cosmology or anything else does not make that something which was then “handed down” or “handed over”. “Traditioning” was (and still is) a very intentional process in an oral culture.

  • Rodney

    This discussion reminds me of my first encounter with Jimmy Dunn’s “Unity and Diversity in the NT.” For an SBC evangelical, it was a mind-blowing experience.

  • RJS

    Scott M,
    I think that this statement “early 50’s, well after the establishment of the Church” obscures the issue. It is true that scripture was written by humans (including Paul) who could be considered “the church” as letters to the church. But the idea that this is what we mean in contrasting “Tradition” or “Church” with scripture seems rather shallow. Frankly it makes no sense. There is a chicken and egg problem – because the Church and the nature of church as authority was evolving and developing alongside the development of the canon.

  • RJS

    John Frye,
    You hit it for me. To found authority in scripture or in tradition is to deny the power of the Spirit. Authority is in God and is bestowed by God … Father, Son, and Spirit.

  • Patrick Oden

    Coming from the Fundamentalist side of things (well, my family background at least) certainly has pushed me to consider Scripture a lot in my own ecclesial… wanderings.
    With tradition is a perfect description. We should learn and respect those who came before, not because they have some inherent authority based on their location in history, but because so many of those who shaped tradition really knew the Bible, and knew it better than so many today. They lived it out, and many died in testifying to the message of Scripture. I learn from them, and I honor them for their devotion to Christ.
    And yet, I’m not really swayed by the argument that we have to be devoted to the traditions that were passed down by those historic churches who earlier efforts gave us the canon. Seems like this is dismissing the whole goal of providing the canon. We have the canon as the measuring stick. The apostles were dead, and authority was loosely coming together during times of intense theological debate over all kinds of issues. How do we know which way to go or what to think or how to judge? We need a way of determining what Jesus and those nearest to him thought so that we can gauge the worth of those who came later. And that’s Scripture. The very tradition that gave us Scripture gave the call to its own continual criticism. We can and should criticize various traditions of practice and interpretation precisely because of the canon they passed down. Just as we can and should criticize the US government precisely on the basis of what the US government gave us before in the Constitution.
    More than this, it seems to me that in this debate we leave out an aspect of what should be key in Christian theology. Jesus said it was the Spirit who was to teach us all things. We are people of the Spirit, and it is with the Spirit we participate in the life of Scripture and tradition, participating in this community of time as we do in the community of space, neither allowed to dismiss it nor to be slaves to some artificially mandated hierarchy. The Spirit did not work more in 330 than today, nor more in 1250 than today, nor more in 1906 than today. And so we can and should learn, but we also can and should teach the community of time and space–adding to it insights gained precisely through the Spirit’s work in considering Scripture and history. For instance, in our era we push for significantly greater awareness of the Jewish context of Scripture. And in our era we are making enormous strides in making sure we are trinitarian in thought and practice rather than binarian in all but occasional rhetoric.
    Each of these areas of progress arises because men and women take seriously the canon that was, thankfully, passed down by a church which is called to be critiqued just as Peter was critiqued (by both Jesus and Paul), just as we should be critiqued by others, on the basis of what we say is our guide and model. Indeed, it is only in critiquing tradition, alongside understanding it is a wise mentor, that we take seriously what the church did in giving us a canon.

  • Brian

    This question makes my head hurt :D. On the one hand I want to agree with Joey and his comments regarding the authoritative nature of the original community, and on the other I want to agree with John and “cry mystery.” The danger in the first is that the nature of the text becomes boiled down to a few men and their take on history and the danger in the second is that the nature of the text gets lost in ambiguity and “spiritual jargon.” Personally, I would suggest a healthy solution somewhere in the middle (of course :). As we all know there are aspects of tradition that play a concrete role in how we think about history, the Bible and how we approach them both (i.e. Scot’s illustration of virgin birth). Then there are aspects of tradition have led to practices that we know could not have been further away from biblical principles (i.e. indulgences and the like).
    When is tradition authoritative? When it is confirmed by the text. Maybe that is a bit oversimplified, but if the text is inspired, then it must also be the judge. So, when tradition conflicts with Scripture, then the latter must win out.

  • dopderbeck

    Great post, which gets at the heart of my questions on the various threads regarding the “Deep Church” book. Lots I’ve been thinking about here, so forgive me for breaking it up into two posts.
    My initial group of thoughts:
    First — it is not at all clear that the “tradition” uniformly supports a “woodenly historical” reading of Genesis. Yes, they read it as “historical.” Yes, if pressed, they were what we would today call “YEC.” But really, that kind of pressing is a sort of category mistake. Patristic hermeneutics were much, much more nuanced.
    Second — it may be significant that YEC-ism is not enshrined in the proto-creedal and creedal statements that encapsulate the Apostolic and Patristic traditions. “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and Earth…” is the summation in the Apostle’s Creed.
    Third — I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that the Apostolic Fathers would have thought of God as “directly” controlling the weather. The Eastern view of divine action is particularly fascinating and subtle: God’s “divine essence” is entirely transcendent of creation, but God is immanent in creation through the “divine energies.” The divine energies permeate and sustain all of creation. But this is not a matter of God, who in His essence is entirely transcendent, “reading into” nature and “directly” controlling it. It is, in fact, a very sophisticated way of dealing with the “hiddenness” of God — the fact that we cannot “empirically” observe God “directing the weather” and such. In the Western tradition, the same problem is addressed through “primary” and “secondary” causation. I think the problem with regard to divine action and the contemporary faith-science conversation therefore is not so much the “tradition” as the Enlightenment’s modification of the tradition in light of empiricism.

  • When is tradition authoritative? When it is confirmed by the text. Maybe that is a bit oversimplified, but if the text is inspired, then it must also be the judge. So, when tradition conflicts with Scripture, then the latter must win out.
    The problem here is this ends up being unworkable. You take something like gay marriage. People who want to accept it can just declare tradition against it fails to “confirmed by the text” test. People who want to reject it can say that tradition passes the same test. It ends up meaning we can throw out any tradition we don’t like. But the point of tradition is that it can help us get God’s word right when our sin or our culture or our prejudice or our pain or whatever would lead us to get it wrong on our own. Your test gives us an easy way of nullifying tradition when we need it most and empowering it only when we could easily do without it.

  • Travis Greene

    RJS & Scott Morizot,
    My point about the chicken and egg thing is that it’s not a problem. We only make it a problem. Yes, the church wrote, assembled, and canonized the NT (as Israel did the OT). It is the book of the people of God, and yet it is also the book for the people of God.
    Also thanks to John Frye for pointing out the very important work of the Spirit. A fundamentalist view of the text is untrusting of God’s work in us. We don’t need to “stand alone on the word of God, the B-I-B-L-E.”

  • Russ

    There are so many odd, cultural, traditional things in the Bible. I have a hard time stating that I would take it ‘literally’. I would have to say I take it ‘seriously’. I have to constantly try to take off my ‘westernized 21 century glasses’ when studying and try to get to the core of what is being spoken-considering author, area, time written, etc. We don’t force women to wear head covering, don’t really understand the whole ‘troubling the water can heal someone’ and the entire book of Jude is just weird. I think you have to believe that His Spirit will help you work out for you what is meat and what is bones…

  • RJS, the “chicken and egg” metaphor describes an ancient philosophical causality dilemma. It only applies where there is some sort of causality dilemma. When it comes to Church and Canon there is none. The Church operated for centuries before the Canon was finalized and existed before even the first text was written. Clearly the NT canon was produced or caused within the context of the already existing Church.
    Whatever dilemma you (and possibly Travis) may have in mind, it’s not a causality dilemma. Historically there is none and I’m not even sure why there’s even any question on that point.

  • dopderbeck

    Now, on to the question of the Tradition and the authority of the universal Church, Scot’s comment #4, and RJS’ comment #13:
    I agree, as I’ve said a bunch of times on the Deep Church threads, it seems impossible to me to elide “Church” from the tradition of “Canon and Creed.” I don’t really know how to massage this question. Neither Jim Belcher nor anyone else has really tried to answer it, other than by suggesting that the Reformation “solas” also are authoritative in some sense in addition to the ecumenical creeds. Scot (#4) alludes to the “Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals,” and this is exactly what scares me about Jim Belcher’s “Deep Church.” Isn’t it just ACE with a smiley face?
    I admit that it remains a bit of an existential question for me, given that I worship in a “non-denominational” setting that eschews claims of apostolic succession.
    Scot mentions in #4 the “rule of faith.” I don’t think I like the idea of the “rule of faith” as “giving rise to” the NT. Obviously, as a historical matter, conformity to the rule of faith was a primary measure of canonicity, and the analogy of barnacles and a boat is a good one. But I think I’d rather suggest that the “rule of faith,” as well as the proto-creedal statements in many of the texts that became the NT, themselves arose out of the Apostolic experience with the risen Christ.
    Therefore, the true measuring line isn’t the rule, it’s the experience of fellowship with the Father through the risen Christ as mediated, after the Ascension, by the Spirit. It seems to me that the NT itself, e.g. Acts and 1 John, witnesses to the fact that transformative experience with the risen Christ is fundamental “in or out” dividing line for the community.
    However, I’m not comfortable with RJS’s #13 — and I’m not entirely comfortable with the “wiki stories” analogy for the Bible. What I said in the preceding paragraph sounds too much, I admit, like liberal existential theology. I want to appropriate the insights of the existential and mystical streams of the faith without losing any sense of objectivity. In short, I seek a “Theology of Word and Spirit,” as Donald Bloesch puts it.
    If all scripture is theopneustos, then God speaks through scripture, and therefore scripture has derivative authority from God. We can’t contrast the authority of God and the authority of scripture. This doesn’t, I think, logically entail “total inerrancy” as rationalist evangelicals define it. It does, however, I think, entail that scripture does not “err” as it functions with the Spirit for the instruction and edification of the Church. Again, I think Bloesch expresses this fairly well.

  • Russ

    So maybe I’m in over my head here, but why is it just the King James Bible that is the correct ‘canon’?

  • T mentioned the scripture, tradition and reason model of Anglicanism. In my tradition (there’s that word again) we have the Wesleyan Quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason and personal experience. It’s a great model, yet it has its limitations. As I commented earlier, I’m not so sure we can make a hard “corner” between scripture and tradition, or any of the four sides. Also, we can never be sure to which side we are giving authority. We may say we are emphasizing scripture, but are always reading it through the lens of tradition, reason and experience. I think of it as more of a slinky.
    I agree with those who have emphasized the role of the Spirit in all this. On the other hand, that emphasis often leads to people dismissing the interpretations of those with whom they disagree by claiming, “The Spirit would never tell you that.” Sometimes it can very difficult to discern between the Spirit and our own preferences and agendas. We can balance that by going back scripture, but now it sounds like we are chasing our own tails.

  • Bob

    How can a human, sinful church produce authoritative, inspired texts? How can a result be greater than the cause? Ultimately we are answerable to the degree that we are true to our conscience, Inner Light, Holy Spirit, or heart regardless of pope, creeds or scriptures

  • RJS

    Scott Morizot,
    It is clear that the Church operated for centuries before the canon was finalized, it is also clear that many of the books that became canonical shaped the form of the Church that finalized the canon.
    In other words finalization only affirmed scripture that formed church.

  • Brian

    Hi Randy,
    Well put. Maybe I under-communicated. I am not suggesting that tradition does not have any authority, only that the authority that it does have must be judged in light of the text. For example, gay marriage is clearly something that the text is silent on. The text is not silent on homosexuality. But regarding the specific institution of marriage and homosexuality it is indeed silent. Obviously if it speaks on the first (gay relationships) it has clear implications for the second (gay marriage.) The role of tradition here is moot, because there is a clear Scriptural principle that speaks against the very nature of what gay marriage is.
    As far as how all of this plays out with which traditions stay and which ones go, I would also suggest that the text must be the judge. Any tradition that we have exists because of someone’s interpretation of the text. The question is, is it the best interpretation? That is, given all available resources (including tradition) is it the best interpretation of the text.
    While tradition certainly can help to “get God’s word right when our sin or our culture or our prejudice or our pain or whatever would lead us to get it wrong on our own,” we also know that it can lead us to poorly interpret the text as well (i.e. indulgences). At the core of it, what I am suggesting is a hermeneutic that properly places tradition where it should be…subordinate to the text.

  • Travis Greene

    I agree. The relationship is reciprocal. The church chose the canon based on fidelity to the apostles’ teaching, which is based on Jesus’ teaching, which is older than the church.
    Eve came from Adam, but every man comes from a woman.
    Arguing about which has priority is pointless.

  • Russ

    So at what point did the ‘tradition’ become good enough to seal. That is my question with the final ‘canon’ of N.T. books. 1500 years after the fact, and suddenly we are good to seal? I am not sure how Adam and Eve fit into to that, but I disagree that the priority is pointless. The ‘priority’ has always been traditions and stories passed on which someone finally gets ‘inspired’ to sit down and write out. Right???

  • RJS

    Russ (#22)
    Why do you point to the KJV in this comment?

  • Joey

    If I might ask another question:
    If we have faith that scripture was canonized correctly because of the work of the Holy Spirit, what evidence to we have to support that?
    That seems like a convenient explanation to a probable dilemma but how do we know? It seems inevitable that we have faith in the authority of community in order to have faith in the authority of scripture – I believe the Holy Spirit was involved but that’s because I believe that the community had the Holy Breath within them. To simply say that the canon is correct because of the Holy Spirit lacks evidence and is kind of circular, right?
    I ask these questions out of genuine wonder not out of some preconceived idea about their answers.

  • When we enshrine the books of the Bible as totally reliable in all forms of truthfulness, we run into problems. We seem to then address those problems, one by one, as they arise. But, as I’ve said before, this seems too convenient, and too intellectually implausible an approach. Surely, when such cases arise, when we’re pretty much FORCED to challenge a perspective that seems to be explicitly (or at least, implicitly) stated in the Bible, this should lead us to re-examine our entire approach to scripture. Should it not?
    Someone mentioned earlier on in this thread that perhaps the key is to rely only on the points that are passed down in the creeds and such. Part of the problem with this approach is that, again, I’m not so sure that’s so easy to do. Worldviews beget creedal statements. Not to mention the fact that, for evangelicals anyway, the entirety of scripture is largely treated like one giant creedal statement.
    David Operback suggested we could take an approach more like the Eastern Orthodox. Now, I have great respect for the EO Church. But they have problems too. They lean, on occasion, on a traditional EO interpretation of history, even when that view seems to fly in the face of both our best historical analysis, and what seems to be the clear teaching of scripture. That just seems to create the same problems evangelicals have, twice over.
    Lastly, as others have stated, yes it IS absolutely inconsistent for evangelicals to trust completely in the inspiration and authority of scripture – to the point of inerrancy – while simultaneously feeling it appropriate to completely question, whenever convenient, the authoritative church context in which the canon was first forged. Sure, we can make up some sort of quasi-common-sensical reason why we separate these two out. But not in any way that seems to really do justice to history and intellectual consistency.

  • Russ

    I guess I could have said textus rec., but I use the KJV as an easy reference point. Why only these books,letters etc. for most, if not all ,evangelicals. My last point was that most, if not all, of the bible as we know it was tradition and stories eventually written down. Now, we try to incorporate the basics into our 21st century lives. Does that make sense?

  • Rodney

    As others have implied, and what I found so helpful in Dunn, the canon is the clue to the interplay of authority and tradition. In his book “Unity and Diversity” he builds on the work of others (C. H. Dodd and Vincent Taylor) tracing how kerygma (singular) became kerygmata (plural)–much like, I think, RJS and Scot McKnight are arguing.
    In other words, the canon is both result and process.

  • Russ

    So, I am basically asking why in that era 1400-1500 years after the fact, in the midst of the church splitting into major factions and groups, it boils down to these books are the only ones to trust? Because many of the ‘traditions’ are so very cultural, that we -the Western Judeo-evangelical Christian- seem to put little or no stock in many traditions.Besides baptism, what traditions do we all follow? I can’t just check my brain in at the door or pretend that any contrary evidence to tradition and biblical understanding has to be correct.

  • It seems like one of the things that should be “on the table” is the issue of *interpretation* of experience.
    I believe the gospel descriptions of the risen Christ to be very reliable. I have no doubt that those earliest followers really did experience something unique and profound in communing with a risen Jesus. And, as NT Wright says, its not like they didn’t get the fact that this *wasn’t supposed to happen*. They knew dead bodies weren’t supposed to pick up and start walking around.
    So I look to Christian history and Christian scripture in this instance as very reliable.
    Now, on the issue of what one does *with* this event, that’s another issue. This is where worldview comes more into play. How Paul, or Peter, or anyone else then interpreted these events is a different matter. And its on this second level of interpretation that I think the traditional model of absolute, unthinking scriptural reliance runs into problems.
    Thought I’d just throw that out there to provoke some more conversation. Thoughts?

  • RJS

    The NT canon was finalized much earlier wasn’t it?
    Or are you asking about the RCC vs protestant OT?
    I still don’t understand what you are getting at.

  • Russ, I’m still a little confused by your point. Protestants affirmed the same NT canon that the Church had always used (even if they didn’t like it as Luther didn’t like James). So the NT canon has been settled from the 4th century (and really mostly settled over the course of the 3rd and even earlier for some pieces like the canonical gospels) not the 16th.
    The Reformers did swap out the OT canon of the church for a different one, so the OT canon used by Protestants is only affirmed within their tradition and arguably dates (as a Christian canon) only from the 16th century. Is that what you had in mind?

  • Your Name

    Brian #26,
    “At the core of it, what I am suggesting is a hermeneutic that properly places tradition where it should be…subordinate to the text.”
    It sounds like you are saying that our interpretation of scripture always is paramount to tradition’s interpretation?
    Doesn’t this mean we are interpreting scripture in spite of tradition? I agree that scripture should be paramount but we have to interpret it correctly to get at the truth message. How do we determine what the text says to compare with tradition? Isn’t tradition involved in determining our interpretation? It is tough to decouple them and make our interpretation superior.
    Are you comparing tradition to a “plain reading” or literal reading? Is that possible?

  • Mich

    I thought all authority in Heaven and Earth is in Christ, which would lead one read the Bible mediated through Christ–or perhaps a la Rich the Rule of Faith. I think Scott’s second way as outlined in the Blue Paraqueet is another way through this because it allows to read scripture with Tradition. Not to open can of worms–or Diet?–but the whole NPP and Justification versus more Traditional readings is exactly the dispute or alternate readings outlined here.

  • Your Name

    In the interest of furthering the discussion, but at the risk of muddying the waters more, to say that the NT canon was settled by the 4th or even the 3rd century is not quite accurate. The first evidence of the 27 books we have and only those 27 is Athanasius’ Festal Letter of 367,, but I would hardly call that settled. Looking at the texual evidence of manuscripts like Codex Sinaiticus, which dates from the 4th century and includes such books in its “NT” as the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas at least leaves the issue open. Not to mention the Syrian church that only recognizes the “catholic” epistes of James, 1 Peter and 1 John as canonical (not accepting 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John and Jude).
    I only point that out to speak of the interplay between tradition and canon. Looking back into church history and seeing the manuscript evidence, it is not likely that many churches had a “whole Bible” like Codex Vaticanus or Sinaiticus. They more likely had a collection or two like Papyrus 46, with only Paul’s letters or perhaps a gospels collection that had one, two or all four like Codex Bezae, or a collection that included Acts and the “catholic” epistles. Functionally, at least before the time of Constantine and likely long afterward, there was probably a big difference between what functioned as canon for a church in a major metropolitan area likely Alexandria versus a small village out in the middle of the desert.
    I bring up that final point to say that we also functionally use even a NT canon smaller than the 27 books in it. Functionally, we are similar to Luther who didn’t like James because it didn’t fit his theology very well. I include myself when I say that we have books that we do not read often or do not engage very deeply with our theology because our “center” if you will is located in a different part of the NT, often Romans or at least Pauline theology as a whole.
    I have a hard time fitting this into the current discussion that is moving more toward the hermeneutical question, but hope it fits into RJSs initial question of the role of tradition in interpreting Scripture. I think tradition has led us to elevate certain parts of Scripture over others and then read the other parts through the lens of our “canon within a canon.”

  • Duane

    Sorry, it was me who posted the last comment, but when I had to refresh the text, I didn’t notice that it still said “your name.”

  • Dan

    Origen: “We, however, in conformity with our belief in that doctrine, which we assuredly hold to be divinely inspired, believe that it is possible in no other way to explain and bring within the reach of human knowledge this higher and diviner reason as the Son of God, than by means of those Scriptures alone which were inspired by the Holy Spirit, i.e., the Gospels and Epistles, and the law and the prophets, according to the declaration of Christ Himself ”
    Cyril: “For concerning the divine and sacred Mysteries of the Faith, we ought not to deliver even the most casual remark without the Holy Scriptures: nor be drawn aside by mere probabilities and the artifices of argument. Do not then believe me because I tell thee these things, unless thou receive from the Holy Scriptures the proof of what is set forth: for this salvation, which is of our faith, is not by ingenious reasonings, but by proof from the Holy Scriptures.” and “For the Articles of the Faith were not composed at the good pleasure of men: but the most important points chosen from all Scriptures, make up the one teaching of the Faith.”
    Gregory of Nyssa: “we make the Holy Scriptures the rule and the measure of every tenet (dogma); we necessarily fix our eyes upon that, and approve that alone which may be made to harmonize with the intention of those writings. ”
    Athanasius: “We, however, who extend the accuracy of the Spirit to the merest stroke and tittle, will never admit the impious assertion that even the smallest matters were dealt with haphazard by those who have recorded them, and have thus been borne in mind to the present day”
    Augustine: “… there is a distinct boundary line separating all productions subsequent to apostolic times from the authoritative canonical books of the Old and New Testaments. The authority of these books has come down to us from the apostles through the successions of bishops and the extension of the Church, and, from a position of lofty supremacy, claims the submission of every faithful and pious mind.”
    Tradition has its place, but it is a derivative authority. The final authority is the teaching of the apostles, and the written word which alone is described as “God-breathed” is the “canon” the measuring rod of all other teaching. This is the testimony of the early church and this it the view the Reformers rediscovered as a result of the excesses of medieval “tradition”.
    I say this as a one-time Catholic who spent most of his life as an evangelical and briefly flirted with the Anglican way. We need a written canon. Unwritten traditions and the “authority of the Spirit” too easily become pliable, bendable wax that can be shaped in almost any direction.

  • Brian,
    Well put. Maybe I under-communicated. I am not suggesting that tradition does not have any authority, only that the authority that it does have must be judged in light of the text. For example, gay marriage is clearly something that the text is silent on. The text is not silent on homosexuality. But regarding the specific institution of marriage and homosexuality it is indeed silent. Obviously if it speaks on the first (gay relationships) it has clear implications for the second (gay marriage.) The role of tradition here is moot, because there is a clear Scriptural principle that speaks against the very nature of what gay marriage is.
    But not everyone will agree with you. Some will say that the text does no prohibit gay marriage at all. Now those are the folks that need tradition. They need somebody from a different culture who did not have the smoke screen the gay movement has created. They need the tradition such Christians have established to help them get this question right. How can we tell them that this is a good time to trust tradition?
    As far as how all of this plays out with which traditions stay and which ones go, I would also suggest that the text must be the judge. Any tradition that we have exists because of someone’s interpretation of the text. The question is, is it the best interpretation? That is, given all available resources (including tradition) is it the best interpretation of the text.
    What makes this harder is that often the interpreter has a strong bias. In the gay marriage example just about everyone has an opinion one way or the other. If someone is same-sex attracted that might influence their thinking. How are they going to assess all the available data? It seems clear to me they have to go outside of themselves.
    While tradition certainly can help to “get God’s word right when our sin or our culture or our prejudice or our pain or whatever would lead us to get it wrong on our own,” we also know that it can lead us to poorly interpret the text as well (i.e. indulgences). At the core of it, what I am suggesting is a hermeneutic that properly places tradition where it should be…subordinate to the text.
    But when you say subordinate to the text it seems to work out as subordinate to this particular individuals reading of the text. But that is precisely what tradition has to save us from. Sure some traditions can be wrong. But there also needs to be a concept of a strong tradition. One we can’t just throw out. Indulgences is a good example. Most of what Luther was objecting to was contrary to catholic teaching as well. That is to say the deeper and more widely held tradition was on Luther’s side. The Council of Trent admitted as much by banning the giving of indulgences in connection with alms.
    We need some rule that does not allow us to throw out things that Christians have believed strongly for a long, long time. If we can throw those things out based on some new reading of the text then anything can go. Why not ditch the trinity? Why no change the cannon of scripture? We need to have some coherent way of defining which traditions are solid and which we are not sure about.

  • RJS

    Dan (#42)
    I agree that written scripture serves an indispensable role to provide a measuring rod for all other teaching. But it doesn’t remove all problems and all questions, because interpretation often involves an element of uncertainty. Scripture is a much better test than tradition alone – but it is always interpreted in the context of tradition.
    This is actually why I included the Matthew 16 passage at the end of the post. How do we know how to interpret such passages? Does tradition play a role and how big a role does it play?

  • Dan

    RJS: Yes interpretation involves an amount of uncertainty, but over and over I’ve seen that acknowledgment lead to a form of license to take “interpretation” of the text in a way that violates the text. We could say that a passage has a range of possible meanings, but that range would include no meanings that would do violence to the text. If we don’t say the text has objective meaning that can be substantially understood, then the statements I quoted from Cyril, Athanasius and Augustine become meaningless. The canon cannot be the “measuring rod” unless it is sufficiently clear to truly be a standard.
    As for the passage regarding Peter as the rock on which the church should be built, even if Peter is the “rock” from the passage, it is rather difficult to build from that particular passage a concept of an infallible papacy, and there is no universal consensus for that. Not only do Protestants reject that, the Orthodox do as well. The inference of an unbroken papal succession, passing the keys of the Kingdom from one man to another is, in that case, not an interpretation of the text, but a whole artifice built way beyond what the words of the text allow. At that point, there is no “canon” – tradition usurps its authority.
    Worse is the statement of Episcopal Bishop (I think it was Charles Bennison) who said that the church wrote the Bible and can rewrite it. At some point, the emphasis on interpretation begins to obliterate the text and the idea of canon becomes meaningless.
    Tradition that is a fairly broad consensus of what the text actually says is something Luther, Calvin and Cranmer would seem to have had no problem with. Tradition that goes beyond the text, adds to it, subtracts from it or twists it beyond what the grammar, syntax and context allow was not in their eyes legitimate – the Canon of scripture limits tradition to what is reasonably derived from the text.
    That general attitude is, to me, fairly obvious from the multitude uses in the Gospels and Epistles of the phrase “it is written”. Clearly written scripture was held in the highest regard by Jesus and the Apostles and the “tradition of men” the Pharisees held to was often the object of Jesus’ scorn and Paul’s wrath. Which is not to say all tradition is bad, rather that there is a limit – “do not go beyond what is written”.
    So I recognize the value of tradition as a derivative authority, a long consensus of exegesis regarding the nature of God, the nature of Christ, the statements of the three great creeds. I personally can’t accept traditions not rooted in the text.
    And I think there is a lot of consensus in “tradition” as a history of exegesis for a historical Adam, hard as that would be for you to accept.

  • Dan,
    You write: “And I think there is a lot of consensus in “tradition” as a history of exegesis for a historical Adam, hard as that would be for you (RJS) to accept.”
    But what amount of evidence would be necessary for you to conclude that, while this may have been the view of early Tradition (and, as a bi-product, Scripture), it is simply wrong?
    Are you saying that no amount of evidence, no matter how conclusive, that someone could show you now or in the future, would change your position?

  • RJS

    On the Peter passage – I wasn’t taking it to refer to RCC and the Pope with one person in succession from Peter. But while the passage was not taken to invest authority in one person, it was taken to invest authority in The Church and its “genuine” local leaders (bishops).
    This is seen in the letters of Cyprian, ca. 250 AD. Cyprian was struggling with people who could not stand the persecution and recanted in front of the judges – but then repented and wanted back into the Church. In his letters he reflects that a certain mercy should be shown to such a person on his death bed because if the church refuses to receive the person, that person will be forever damned. (Interestingly he also reasons that if the Church errs and receives one who has not truly repented God will correct the error.) His reasoning was based on this and parallel statements.
    Without talking about Adam in particular, we can also look at Genesis One. The interpretation that John Walton proposes for Genesis One is at odds with the traditional interpretations of the church, but it is absolutely true to the text and takes up the text with utmost care. Should tradition be a deciding factor in such a case?
    So I am not expecting you to agree with my conclusions on a number of things. But in this post I am simply trying to get a discussion going to look at the role tradition plays and should play in our understanding of scripture and of the faith.

  • Your Name

    RJS. My reference to the Papacy was meant to illustrate that Tradition sometimes goes beyond what is written. It was meant to be understood in light of the quotations from various church fathers I posted first, which separated the writings of the apostles from all subsequent authority. It was a way of saying that I don’t think it necessarily true that the early church saw authority in tradition, per se, but saw authority in tradition so long as it was in accordance with scripture.
    The Peter passage was a case in point. The text may support Cyprian to a point, but a lot of stuff has been built on that since that time. The question is what authority does tradition have, and my answer remains, it has authority that is derived from the teaching of the apostles in scripture.
    Professor Walton’s interpretation is at odds with Augustine on a number of points, I’m sure. It would seem to me that the following is what your view suggests:
    1. Genesis 1-3 conflicts with science when interpreted as an account of historical events.
    2. The early church generally agreed that the best interpretation of Genesis was that it represented real events in history.
    3. The evidence from science irrefutably denies both points 1 and 2.
    4. Thus Tradition is completely wrong on this point and we must adopt a new tradition of interpretation of Genesis 1-3 and Romans 5 by extension.
    So it seems you’ve answered the question you are asking. Tradition is in error and should not be accepted blindly. Modern science is authoritative. End of discussion.
    My point, oddly enough, is that Tradition is not infallible. It is however a valuable help in interpretation of Scripture, but not an authority in and of itself.
    BTW, I am wondering if this blog will ever cover Steven Meyer’s new book. Somehow I don’t think so.

  • RJS

    Professor Walton is at odds with Augustine on a number of points. On the other hand Augustine did not think Genesis One was literal historical. He thought that creation was instantaneous, that the purpose of Genesis One was other than to convey the truth that creation took six days.
    I probably shouldn’t have pulled all of Gen 1-11 in the post because I really want to concentrate on these nuances of how we interpret.
    But on this point… Modern science isn’t inerrant – and I’ve never thought that it is or was. The process is messy and there are many twists and turns. But there is also a general thread and trajectory that is empirically very powerful.
    What I do argue against is an approach to knowledge that starts with a foundation of scriptural inerrancy in the modern conservative evangelical sense. I don’t think that this approach does justice to the nature of the scripture that God has given us, to God’s story, or to the Spirit and the power and purpose of the Spirit.

  • RJS

    I would be willing to blog through something like Meyer’s book (possibly even this book – I have not seen it). I have a question though – would it be possible to have an open conversation about the ideas, including criticism? Or would I hit a brick wall?

  • Your Name

    Oops. Post 48 was from me.
    “Are you saying that no amount of evidence, no matter how conclusive, that someone could show you now or in the future, would change your position?”
    I simply don’t have unshakable faith in the infallibility of science. I’m not convinced that even the best observation of present processes can lead to infallible conclusions about what happened millions or billions of years ago.
    And I’m also very skeptical of human nature. Entire nations have been led astray by fairly fanciful notions, sometimes with horrific consequences. Human beings are often self-decieved en masse. The current orthodoxy of naturalism in the scientific community may be the majority view, but the majority has often been wrong. There may be motives and forces at work that go beyond an honest rational view of the “evidence”.
    That is RJS’ point with regard to scripture, that “interpretation” plays a great role in our understanding, that the whole church may have simply been wrong. Oddly, interpretation of scientific data is always assumed here to be fairly unbiased and unassailable and the evidence assumed to be irrefutable and final. I think that is problematic and inconsistent.
    What I have said before is that if the evidence convinced me of common ancestry, I would not seek to reinterpret scripture from the viewpoint of Darwinism and force that understanding on the text. I would instead see historic Christianity as essentially upended and would become an agnostic. That seems the only honest conclusion, if I accepted the scientific orthodoxy.

  • Your Name

    RJS #50. Brick wall, that’s often what I feel I see here on the topic of origins. I don’t see honest discussion of any view that opposes the current scientific consensus, only dismissals.

  • RJS

    If I blogged the book and gave my reasons for disagreeing with it, would that be dismissive or would it forward discussion? It seems to me that when I do lay out my arguments I am accused of being dismissive and when I don’t lay them out I am accused of being dismissive.
    I won’t take things I find deeply flawed seriously in my thinking, but I will try to explain why I find them deeply flawed.
    Lets turn it around. Scot has interacted with a few books by NT scholars on this blog – people with extreme views he doesn’t find plausible. Would you expect him to present and affirm their findings or to explain why he disagrees?
    And you know — on the point about common ancestry and agnosticism. What you are getting from me here is the result – and ongoing process – of having wrestled with this for decades. If you had told me in grad school that I would be active in a church and writing in a forum like this I would have laughed. For a time I thought that agnosticism (or materialism) was the only way forward no matter how much it pained. At this point I am convinced (1) of the truth of the Christian faith/story and (2) that casting it at odds with observation of the world God made is wrong. So I am trying to work forward, imperfectly and no doubt along a path that will meander on toward the truth, not with the conviction of having reached the truth in all things. So we need to continue the conversation (or at least I need to). I learn a great deal from many of the commenters on these various posts.

  • dopderbeck

    RJS (#49) makes a helpful point about the meaning of “tradition.” I’d highly recommend here Alasdair McIntyre’s notion of “tradition” (e.g., in “After Virtue”). According to McIntyre, no “tradition” is static. Traditions are always “extended” through time. I think this idea of a “tradition” as something that has an identifiable center of gravity but that “extends” or changes through time helpfully describes both the tradition of “science” and the Christian tradition. And I think it’s saying essentially the same thing as the paleo-orthodoxy folks, but in a way that’s perhaps more resonant with our postmodern sensibilities.

  • Dan

    I would appreciate engagement with the substance of Meyer’s book, “Signature in the Cell”. It would be quite refreshing. Maybe he’d be willing to interact. It would certainly be lively discussion.

  • I confess that I am not following all the arguments, but would like to make a few comments.
    The church did not produce the Bible. It is God’s dealings with people through history that were recorded for us “carried along by the Holy Spirit” over a span of 1500 odd years.
    When you see a sign with the letters S-T-O-P on it, what do you do? Ignore it to your own detriment? Do you try to understand the meaning of it before you react to it? Or do you read it at face value. I know when reading the Bible you have to take into account the genre etc. but when you read the Bible as objectively as you can in this way, you will be surprised how much you agree with the church tradition.
    I find that people are speaking indiscriminately of science. The worldview of scientists play the determining role in the outcome of their scientific practice. There are Bible believing scientists that do not support the evolutionistic worldview, which denies the existence of God and have alternative explanations for the data. A good example is the evidence for the world wide flood recorded in the Bible and denied by the scientists of evolutionistic worldview. The data that support the Bible they interpret away. They propagate their theories as fact and mislead the people in general. But unfortunately the theologians and Christians have also fallen for their lies and compromised Biblical interpretation.

  • Butros,
    I was going to write a longer response to your comment, but honestly, it doesn’t warrant it. All I’ll say is that its not responsible to come into this forum and post a comment like yours, without intelligently and honestly dealing with the issues as they are being presented. I’m afraid that your post does nothing to forward the conversation. What we’re discussing here is nuance. The question of *how* exactly human beings and church councils were involved in the canonization of scripture. Saying simply “the Holy Spirit did it”, without exploring the other factor in the equation, is simply to miss the ENTIRE point of this discussion.