Musings on Scripture, Tradition and Reading Long Dead Christians

One of the things that has divided Roman Catholics from Protestants for centuries is the question of what has authority.  The Protestant movement from the beginning held to sola scriptura, scripture alone.  This does not mean that scripture is the only authority but rather that scripture is the final authority, or that it “trumps” all others.  Roman Catholics, on the other hand, affirmed there are two streams that flow together – scripture and tradition.  Together these form the authority.

I read a blog post a few days ago arguing for the Protestant position.  The argument was that the early church fathers, Christians writing from the end of the New Testament era (100 AD) through to the end of the Roman Empire (around 400 AD) supported sola scriptura.  The implication then was that the Roman Catholic view only arose in the medieval era as the Roman Church married the secular state and ruled over Christendom.

Now the author of this post is much more educated then I am, he is a professional scholar while I am just a campus minister with a large interest in historical theology.  That said, recently I have read both Basil of Caesarea’s On the Holy Spirit and Gregory of Nazianzus’ Five Theological Orations.  Both of these writings come from the late 300s and were hugely influential in solidifying the doctrine of the Trinity.  And both make statements about the importance of tradition.  First Basil:

Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us “in a mystery”2 by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force.

In answer to the objection that the doxology in the form “with the Spirit” has no written authority, we maintain that if there is no other instance of that which is unwritten, then this must not be received. But if the greater number of our mysteries are admitted into our constitution without written authority, then, in company with the many others, let us receive this one. For I hold it apostolic to abide also by the unwritten traditions. “I praise you,” it is said, “that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances as I delivered them to you;” and “Hold fast the traditions which ye have been taught whether by word, or our Epistle.”2 One of these traditions is the practice which is now before us, which they who ordained from the beginning, rooted firmly in the churches, delivering it to their successors, and its use through long custom advances pace by pace with time.

Time will fail me if I attempt to recount the unwritten mysteries of the Church. Of the rest I say nothing; but of the very confession of our faith in Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, what is the written source? If it be granted that, as we are baptized, so also under the obligation to believe, we make our confession in like terms as our baptism, in accordance with the tradition of our baptism and in conformity with the principles of true religion, let our opponents grant us too the right to be as consistent in our ascription of glory as in our confession of faith. If they deprecate our doxology on the ground that it lacks written authority, let them give us the written evidence for the confession of our faith and the other matters which we have enumerated. While the unwritten traditions are so many, and their bearing on “the mystery of godliness is so important, can they refuse to allow us a single word which has come down to us from the Fathers;—which we found, derived from untutored custom, abiding in unperverted churches;—a word for which the arguments are strong, and which contributes in no small degree to the completeness of the force of the mystery?

Then, Gregory:

For the matter stands thus. The Old Testament proclaimed the Father openly, and the Son more obscurely. The New manifested the Son, and suggested the Deity of the Spirit. Now the Spirit Himself dwells among us, and supplies us with a clearer demonstration of Himself. For it was not safe, when the Godhead of the Father was not yet acknowledged, plainly to proclaim the Son; nor when that of the Son was not yet received to burden us further (if I may use so bold an expression) with the Holy Ghost; lest perhaps people might, like men loaded with food beyond their strength, and presenting eyes as yet too weak to bear it to the sun’s light, risk the loss even of that which was within the reach of their powers; but that by gradual additions, and, as David says, Goings up, and advances and progress from glory to glory, the Light of the Trinity might shine upon the more illuminated.

Basil emphasizes unwritten tradition as a source for truth while Gregory emphasizes the experience of the Holy Spirit.  Of course, non-Catholics agree that there is truth found in tradition and experience.  And, of course, I am writing as a non-Catholic, though as one who wrestles with the interplay of scripture, tradition, reason and experience.

What I draw from this is that this is an issue that cannot be solved by selective proof-texting.  The author of the blog post above has plenty of quotes to demonstrate that early Christians held scripture in high regard, but Catholics have just as many quotes to support their view.  I imagine part of the reason for this is that the early Christians were not fighting our battles, so it is somewhat an anachronism to go back and try to mine support for views that were not well defined as they were a millenia later.

So what I take from this, as a pastor with an amateur interest in historical theology, is to not try to fit Christians of the distant past into the sides of debate we have today.  Rather than reading a series of proof-texts, read the actual works from this long-dead saints.  In those works we will find things we whole-heartedly agree with and things that make us pause, even trouble us.  We will also realize that the Christian church through the ages is a big tent that includes people with all sorts of views.  As we realize that, perhaps we will be more accepting of those Christians who disagree with us today.

One thought on “Musings on Scripture, Tradition and Reading Long Dead Christians

  1. Thought-provoking post, Dave. I think you said it well when you talked about not making ancient writers fight our battles. I find myself wishing Paul had said something or other just a little differently–then I realize that this is my problem, not his!

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