First Listen Before We Speak: The Role of Tradition in the Evangelical Church

A rather troubling issue for the Protestant can be the relation between tradition and scripture. So many Christians believe that tradition is just something that Roman Catholics have, and that us Protestant Evangelical Reformed types simply have the Bible; and thus us Protestant types have a hard time making a critical distinction between our personal interpretations of the text of scripture, and scripture itself. We should just admit that we have interpretive tradition operative in our lives as much as Roman Catholics do; we just don’t have an ecclesiological construct that imbues our interpretive traditions with the kind of magesterial and principled force that Roman Catholics do—but we might even function like we have this too (i.e. when we elevate our particular denomination’s interpretive tradition to a magesterial and binding level). Karl Barth would be one of the first theologians in line to tell all of us that we, as Protestant Christians, have interpretive tradition shaping the way we interpret and approach the scriptures. Robert McAfee Brown has written a whole chapter on Karl Barth and Tradition; he concludes his chapter thusly:

In the difficult area of the relationship of Scripture and tradition, Barth has broken some fresh ground upon which new approaches can be constructed. He delivers us from what can be a very perverse notion of sola Scriptura that would assert that we go to the Bible and to the Bible alone, as though in the process we could really bypass tradition. He delivers us from a kind of biblicism that is content to rest simply with a parroting of the vindication, “the Bible says …, the Bible says….” He confronts us with the necessity of taking tradition with utmost seriousness, and seeing it as a resource for the articulation of our own faith, so long as we keep it under Scripture and not alongside Scripture. He builds fences against the kind of subjectivism that is the morass of Protestant individualism, by pointing out that just as the church must first listen before it speaks, so must we first listen before we speak, and that when we do speak we many not jauntily set up our own private insights as though they had some kind of definitive worth simply because they are our insights. And he provides the supreme criterion by which all else, whether Scripture, tradition, church fathers, private insight, church structure, or whatever, must be judged — namely the criterion of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Whatever the witnesses to the Lordship of Jesus Christ we must retain. Whatever jeopardizes the Lordship of Jesus Christ we must discard. That the issue between what to retain and what to discard is momentous, constitutes both the glory and the risk of being a Christian. [Robert McAffee Brown, Chapter 1: Scripture and Tradition in the Theology of Karl Barth, edited by George Hunsinger, Thy Word is Truth: Barth on Scripture, 18-9.]

This reality could be distressing for some of us; it could challenge us to think that we don’t come to scripture naked, but that we come to it garbed in whatever swaddling clothes our spiritual mothers and fathers have clothed us with. As we come to scripture, as Brown points out in regard to Barth’s approach, we need to do so with the question: “Does what I believe scripture to be communicating coalesce with the fact that Jesus is Lord?” What does “Jesus is Lord” mean? For Barth I would suggest that it meant that God in Jesus Christ is the free and self determining God who elected in Christ (by electing our humanity for himself) to not be God without us; but to be God for us and with us (Imannuel). If you have an interpretation of scripture that challenges or negates this fact of who God is in Christ; then this should signal to you (and me) that we have a wrong understanding of scripture.

An example of having a wrong interpretation of scripture — in light of the above criterion that Jesus is Lord — could be to test and see whether what you think scripture is communicating about God in Christ makes God contingent upon creation. In other words, might you (might I) be interpreting scripture in a way that sets up creation prior to covenant; prior to God’s life revealed in Jesus Christ? So that we domesticate God in a way that makes him a predicate of our philosophical assumptions about how we think God should be or act; or do we so emphasize an personal experience of God that we forget that he is still sovereign Lord and God, that he isn’t just some sort of emotional experience we associate with him as him, once or twice a week (or more)?



  1. Yeah but the problem that still remains is that this is subjective. It is still up to the individual to decide wether or not one tradition or another is actually scriptural, and so sola scriptura seems to collapse in on itself. I am trying to work through this myself right now, I want to have a foundation for calling out wrong traditions, yet at the same time calling out wrong interpretations of scripture which seems impossible unless there is some sort of continuity handed down from the apostles. How can a view of sola scriptura actually in the end truely seperate heresy from orthodoxy if everyone is ultimately left to determine what is true or not based on scripture?


  2. I think his hurmenutic for interpreting the scripture as Christ is Lord is good, though one might just as well say ‘why does Barth or anyone else get to decide the key for interpreting the text?’ Because under the view that in the end it really does come down to whether or not I think this is what scripture says doesn’t solve the problem for this really subjective problem. I like Torrance’s view of the regula fide being that Christocentric way in which those main early fathers of the church, who are eccumenically fathers of all the churches, interpreted the scriptures. That Irenaeus, Athanasius, Epiphanius, etc should be among those fathers that we turn to in order to make sure we are in continuity with them on the dogmatic aspects of christianity, eg. the Trinity, Christology, etc., and even in doing that and knowing of course these are fallible men, only taking what was affirmed among the majority. I don’t see how otherwise one can differentiate, atleast on a pastoral level if not personal, between true orthodoxy and heresy. Arianism has been condemned, with many other beliefs, and simply prooftexting scripture will not be completely sufficient for distinguishing between true Christians and sects. I’m not Orthodox or RC because I believe that ultimately they fall down to personal interpretation too, Orthodox argue for right interpretation of canons, and Catholics know that the pope can err as well as the magistirium requiring reform, and how does one know it needs reform unless there is something to test it by? So in the end we must test tradition, but we cant just allow any interpretation of the scripture either just because someone thinks they’ve founf some verses to support their opinions, afterall Arius and Nestorius had plenty of proof texts. I think there is a red thread running through the fathers that was an interpretive tradition which is Christocentric and that seems to be agreed upon across the board, so it’s traditional and yet leaves room for some exploration, or atleast articulation. The apostolic deposit wasn’t the Nicene Creed itself, but is found within it. Thats where I am at this moment anyway.


  3. Hi Cody,

    I don’t actually have a problem with the fact that knowing God involves subjectivity; in fact, it seems to me that this is exactly the right emphasis given the fact that God is not just ‘object’ but ‘subject’ of divine knowing in Christ. I also think that we can’t absolutize the ‘Fathers’, we can certainly make distinctions between those who became the ‘Orthodox’ ones and the ‘heretics’, but we can only do that through testing them by the standard of scripture. The question to me is one of grammar; which grammar best SERVES what is disclosed in scripture and presupposed by the theo-logic of Christ’s incarnate life? That has to be the standard, or we somehow no longer remain Protestants (and instead become Greek Orthodox). And so for this to be a meaningful thing (appeal to scripture as the norming norm), then I can only appropriate certain Fathers, creeds, and confessions with the relative force that they demand. So I am simply willing to live with dialectical tension, and don’t feel restrained to exalt certain Fathers as my interpretive magesterium. But this is not also to say that I don’t favor the grammar, provided by some of them over and against what truly must be considered heretical; and this, ultimately based on the Apostolic deposit in Scripture and the revelation of God in Christ.


  4. How would you defend your position on the Lord’s Supper, whether or not you believe in a real presence? That is something not explicitly taught in scripture, but real presence seems to be unanimous among the early Christians. Or baptism? I would agree with you that scripture is the norming norm, but there are things that we hold to that cannot be completely deduced from the text. I mean most baptists I know dont believe in infant baptism because they say it isnt taught in scripture, well it isnt condemned either but this is a matter which Torrance himself appeals to tradition and says the first time we hear of this controversy its tied up with adoptionist Christologies. Or what about ecclesiology? Many denominations believe they are perfectly biblical when it comes to this, though the earliest accounts that I have read seem to indicate the three fold office, and if not beginning thay way, it is unanimously agreed that it was the norm by the end of the first century. There were Christians battling everything that popped up, I think if this were some sort of alien structure there would be some writings againt it, but nope, no big controversy surrounding infant baptism, or real presence, or the threefold office until much much later. So here we have 3 things that are pretty important that the scriptures dont actually give us much of a discussion on ,though we can see these things in them, they are not specifically expounded upon leaving room for various interpretations, all of which cannot be right, so in this case I would say the arguement should go to antiquity, I mean we trust that our new testament was written by who we believe they are because that is the tradition right? When some scholar comes along and tries to say he found some later source from the 6th century that says the Gospel of John was really written by someone else, we would probly trash it since we dont have any source earlier than that one that says such, and in fact our earlier sources say otherwise. I would say this rule is obviously used in this way, so why not others as well? If something is completely contrary to scripture thats one thing, but for those things that are not so clear, which is numerous, I think we would do best to listen to tradition instead of some fancy new idea.


  5. Cody,

    I don’t quite follow what you’re getting at? I don’t see how what I have communicated above contradicts sola scriptura, I am not advocating SOLO scriptura; I am simply saying, by implication, that even the examples you just provided are inferences and theological developments that have taken shape as a result of what is disclosed by the scriptures and not some sort abstraction that has come from some sort of nether tradition somewhere. There is good Tradition and bad Tradition in the Patristics; how do you know which is which?


  6. Bobby,
    I have heard some pretty good arguments for why sola scriptura ultimately collapses into solo scriptura. If scripture is our final authority, and it ultimately comes down to ones own interpretation of the text, then people are free to agree or disagree with any tradition they wish. What’s to stop them, and how can you show them that they have fallen into actual heresy? Even in scripture John is calling out heretics, as well as Paul, but under a view where everything is ultimately subjective with no authority outside of us we will all just call each other heretics believing that each of us are really following Paul or John, with no real good way to tell. Irenaeus used tradition to prove the gnostics were heretics, showing that the Christian churches who could trace their roots back to the apostles all taught the same thing and the gnostics had no such lineage, also Athanasius used tradition when battling the Arians, saying that they were worshiping a creature, since traditionally Christ had been worshipped, and saying they baptized in the name of God and two creatures. So I dont think that all tradition is on the same level, though I want to agree with you that scripture has to be the test, as I think it is with most traditions even RC and EO to a certain extent. My point is that on matters such as say those I said in the above comment or Atonement, I want to see what was the earliest views, Irenaeus who remembers Polycarp talking about his covetrsations with John may be a good one to listen to. I’m not saying we take everything they say full stop, but those things we see accepted by them all. Of course we must continue to go to scripture and see if these things flow with it or not, but I think Torrance is proof that these fathers like Irenaeus Athanasius, etc. can actually help us get out of the ruts we are in, and I believe thats because they have the correct interpretation which had been of course passed down to them. I dont think there has to be some unspoken tradition, like gnostics do, I believe the scriptures have all necessary for salvation, but no one should read them as if they are the first, and that means giving some authority to those traditions that were held by all. Even though I want to say all tradition must line up with scripture, which I believe, I must also I think seriiously question my interpretation if it doesnt line up with a unanimous tradition from the early church. Maybe that is what sola scriptura intended, and still intends, I here so many definitions its hard to tell.


  7. Cody,

    But even your choice to choose one or some tradition over or against other tradition is still highly subjective; your argument is still made on an ad hoc assertion about the normativity of some tradition. The original ‘rule of faith’ or ‘canon of truth’ was simply self self with the apostolic deposit or scripture (see J. N. D. Kelly). The canon of truth I am willing to follow is the the-logic demanded by Christ’s life and the incarnation ( see Torrance’s ‘Theological Science’). Just because there is a patristics pedigree on this does not make that pedigree normative de jure, only de facto and relative to the the theo-logic it is purportedly giving grammar to. The fact that this is subjective seems to be moot; everything is subjective; but not everything is relativistic.


  8. Bobby,
    I dont think my assertion being based on the normativity of a certain tradition is ad hoc, not if it can be proven that it is in fact normative, that would be a good reason to hold to it I would think. Afterall you do hold to a canon which has been passed onto you, compiled from those letters which were ‘normative’ among the churches, so it seems that rule is atleast good in certain respects, though I know that is not all that went into the formation of the canon it did play a part. I think calling it ad hoc is actually ad hoc.

    Also looking at subjective in this since would be ‘moot’, but that’s not the way I had origionally intended. Of course I get to make a decision, the point is that there must be some way to actually pin down which view is heretical ,but with a view that gets to pick and choose from tradition like a buffet based on which ever way a person decides they interperet scripture ,It doesn’t seem will get one there. That sort of view does seem relativistic to me.

    Instead I think there must be authority given to tradition, though it must line up with scripture.


  9. Cody,

    So how do you distinguish between the principles that gave us scripture, and then the principles used to discern good authoritative Tradition?

    But my bottom line point is that Jesus is the one who breaks this “subjective” circle, whether the referent is Scripture or Tradition; and yet it is Scripture that has a self-authenticating reality, insofar as Jesus sanctioned and inspired its authors to speak of Him. What distinguishes Scripture from Tradition for me is Jesus’ recognition of Scripture as God’s Word, and Jesus’ commissioning of His Apostles to leave a deposit of Scripture for us. True, my belief itself is Tradition, but it is tradition that gives way, with distinction (between Scripture and its subsequent interpretive tradition), to the reality behind it; that being Jesus’ couching of Scripture.

    I think you should read John Webster’s “Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch.”


  10. Bobby,
    Ive been meaning to reply back but I have been super busy, so here is one real quick.

    How I distinguish between the way true scripture was determined and good and bad tradition would be one in the same.
    There is an early document, dont remember the name right now but its the earliest document which names our cannon with the exception of not naming a couple, that in it states that there were two documents floating around the churches that were ascribed to Paul but in fact they said were not and didnt make it into our cannon. So there must have been some sort of living tradition whereby they were able to decifer between which ones were real and which ones werent, otherwise maybe we have the wrong ones. St Vincent had a rule which Im sure you are familiar with that helps a little. I think ultimately one should look for who was being inovative and who was passing on things from earlier sources. Torrance wrote a lot about how Augustine and Turtullian for example made inovations. How would he know this unless there were something to judge it by? The problem with using scripture as the final say is that you can never get outside of an interpretive tradition in order to supposedly see what it ‘truely’ says. One can only read it through his own tradition and read it in light of other traditions. So we must test our interpretations according to scripture and tradition. I just dont see a way around giving tradition authority, because if you collapse it all upon scripture alone, then you leave it up to each person and there is no foundation for your interpretation versus a jehovah witness who thinks everything went to the philosophers after the apostles untlil charles taze russel showed up and straightened it out. They will read the same text. Scripture is Tradition, so wouldnt the proper understanding be as well?


  11. Hi Cody, thanks for sharing.

    The Muratorian fragment?

    I don’t see how that supports your point about Tradition? The point though, for me, isn’t whether or not scripture and canon arrive to us through a Christian Tradition; the point for me is that this reality is really of the accidents of salvation history; the reality, though, of salvation history is God in Christ. And so again, I will come back to this point; that Jesus (not Tradition!, per se) is the norming norm of Scripture. To try and pick out some sort of living tradition that was considered normative from the Patristic era, and thus “inspired” by God seems to be question begging. You are asserting that there is some sort of Tradition that grounds Scripture, and thus this there is a normativity to an Ecclesial Tradition that is on par or even more normative than Scripture. The way I read that, is that all you are left with is either a Greek Orthodox or Roman Catholic ontology of scripture; not a Protestant Reformed one. I am Protestant Reformed, so I must reject your current, nascent, as it is, position. But we can still be friends 😉 .


  12. Bobby,
    I think the fact that the canon was obviously recognized via tradition is actually a very valid point to this discussion, and yes that’s the fragment. My reason for saying that is because those who recognized that some letters were by Paul and others weren’t showed that those false letters didnt line up with the truths of the Gospel that had been taught to them, or of the things that they knew Paul had said, therefore the canon itself ends up being a tradition itself and the deposit if you will. Thats all fine and good but what exactly about those texts which those fathers decided would be in there was so clearly Gospel? Determining that would take the ‘proper’ interpative lense wouldn’t you say? Of course it would, thats why the others didnt make it. So which lense was it is the real question, and I think that can be determined by seeing who was being ‘inovative’. Torrance says that early on the Gnostics began to call the Christians Catholics because of their belief that Christ died for all and the Gnostics had a ‘limited’ view. He said that to show that a limited view of atonement was not found within early Christianity but was actually found among heretics. I would say thats one pretty good reason to discount it, escpecially since those calvinists who hold such a view believe that is exactly what Paul taught, but who taught such a thing until much later? The answer is no one but heretics. This is not to say though that the same truth cannot be expressed in many ways, afterall I it was pope John Paul who said at the 2vatican council that the creeds are not the deposit themselves but the deposit is expressed within them. The canon was recognized and therefore that implies the proper understanding of those texts, because if we say they didnt have the proper understanding when determining it then how are we supposed to trust that they picked the right ones since they didnt know the real truth?

    Im a protestant too by the way, but I dont die on hills just because. I try to weigh all the evidence. I think thats actually truely protestant, not just accepting something because someone says we’re protestants and we believe this. Just trying to defend a position because Im protestant and thats my tradition seems like the exact thing you dont like about EO or RC. Thats prob not the way you meant it, but Im just letting you know where Im at. I have grown up in the same kind of Baptist churches you have. I want to give the final say to scripture but I also recognize that we all interpret and all interpretations cannot be on the same level. I like your point about Christ being the ultimate interpreter, Ive said that, but all kinds of people could say that too and not come to the same conclusions because in fact they do that already. I just think a lot of weight must be given to tradition, and is already anyways, but its just taken for granite.

    And I hope we can be friends, I dont mean any of this personal, Im really just thinking out loud in hopes that you can maybe point out something Im not seeing or something, you know, dialogue.
    And I will read that book by Webster, theres another one by Alan Torrance and another guy on scripture that looks interesting.
    Also ive read a couple chapters in your book so far, kinda jumpin around reading several things right now, but I will say that Marcus Johnsons chapter on Union with Christ was ok, but I ultimately think he misses it because he seperates too far our ontic union with Christ or carnal and our Spiritual union, putting so much emphasis on faith that he seems to be doing exactly what Torrance is against by putting the weight for the real union on our faith instead of grounding our faith in the union already accomplished by Christ in our place and on our behalf, but I did think Myk’s chapter on what happens to infants or the mentaly handicapped was excellent.

    Anyway theres my two cents


  13. Also let me say that I dont agree that there is this tradition along side scripture which is ‘inspired’ and thus somehow more normative than scripture. That would be to drive a wedge between them that I agree is unhelpful. I think it would be more accurate to say that the scripture is the tradition, but that inturn means that there is a proper way to understand it because afterall the particular texts were chosen and others rejected. So as it stands yes scripture is the deposit but that doesnt mean that someone can just come to it and understand it. Those who said these are the ones which should be read, such as Athanasius, know why they said such things and should be listened to, otherwise why trust the texts that they are saying to read. It really does seem to go hand in hand. Tradition is not one thing and Scripture another but one in the same.


  14. Glad you’ve gotten to get into the book.

    Johnson is mostly describing Calvin’s perspective as the Calvin scholar that he is. He may or may not have mis-read Calvin, but I don’t think so; I just think Torrance has appropriate Calvin in a different way. I agree that Myk’s chapter on the mentally handicapped is excellent.

    Yes, but I prefer to go to scripture and test Athanasius’ reading by the theo-logic scripture’s material presupposes; so I don’t agree that scripture and tradition must be suffused in the way you seem to think. There is an independence to scripture that tradition does not have, and I would simply argue from how Jesus viewed scripture along with Peter and the Apostles. It really doesn’t make any difference whether or not scripture is couched in a churchly interpretive tradition, or I should say canon; what matters is if the ontology of scripture can be understood as finding its reality in the God revealed in Jesus Christ, which is independent of the Church’s tradition. It is in this way that I see Torrance’s kata physin theological science at work; wherein God is able to contradict our own musings in his final interpretive Word in Jesus Christ. I just don’t see Jesus or the Apostles conflating church tradition with the Tradition of Scripture; church tradition is contingent upon the Word declared and encountered in Scripture. So not to sound to churlish, buy my interpretive Tradition is Jesus Christ. To suggest that because Athanasius refuted the Arians means that he is the only one who had this kind of Word from God glosses to quickly over that history, I think. Gregory of Nyssa did the same thing with Eunomias and there are other examples. But I don’t see how what Athanasius or Gregory of Nyssa did must lead to the conclusion that they had tapped into the mind of God in a way that no one else can, thus absolutizing their interpretation of the Gospel and/or Christ etc. To me, the fact that we can discern in a critical fashion whether or not Athanasius was faithful to the Gospel is itself its own witness to the fact that his own interpretive tradition was contingent upon something independent of his interpretation; his tradition was contingent upon fidelity to God’s own Self-interpreting Word in Jesus Christ (which is publically accessible and not privately determinative.

    To say that I am a Protestant is not my Major Premise, it is my Conclusion.


  15. Bobby,
    The problem is your going to those particular texts which Athanasius said should be read in order to test his reading of them. Why only go to those texts? Why trust that they are the correct ones when in fact in your view Athanasius could be wrong about the whole deal? Maybe what caused him to pick those was a false premise. You calling them scriptures doesnt really help your arguement in my opinion because they werent in fact deemed ‘scripture’ until later and some of them much later. My point is that like the fragment hints at, there must be some knowledge that they had in order to decifer which ones were truely accurate to the Gospel, or the deposit. When I was talking about tradition I was meaning the deposit of faith, not just any old tradition like lighting candles or burning insence or something. I believe that the deposit is one in the same as the scriptures and that is why you can trust the picture of Christ in them. I mean the gospel of thomas or that fragment recently found where Jesus had a wife paints a little different picture than the ones we have. So how do you know that you are looking at the right Jesus? You trust the tradition of the Church, thats how, its a plain fact. You are calling scripture those texts which were handed down as a tradition, therefore scripture is a tradition, and all im saying is that whatever reasoning was used in order to determine those texts ,in which we place so much trust in, must be heeded. Otherwise whats the point in trusting that they gave you the right texts? And what do you mean it doesnt matter whether scripture is in a canon? Then which of those 30 some odd so called gospels will you choose your view of Jesus from? You already appropriate the tradition of the church, and so do I because I trust that the proper ones were preserved. This doesnt mean that there is then no room to test interpretations according to the text, but it means as well to test my interpretation against a whole 2000 yrs of interpretations which enabled me to have these texts put together all neatly into one book.


  16. I don’t really understand what you’re getting at at this point, Cody. We understand that the Gospel of Thomas is a Gnostic Gospel based on historical reconstruction and theological precision (just read Craig Evans “Fabricating Jesus”). You argue from silence though, Cody. I trust Jesus Christ, not the “tradition of the church.” The tradition of the church is preceded by Jesus, just as creation is preceded by the Creator. Sure scripture is part of the tradition of the church, but that does not mean that scripture’s ontology is based upon that tradition; you are putting the cart before the horse–this is my point, which you’re missing! Yeah, the knowledge they had was of Jesus Christ provided by the Apostolic witness IN SCRIPTURE!!! If you want to have a magesterial tradition, Cody, that’s up to you. But it misses the reality and normativity of Scripture as Jesus Christ. To me your view supplants the authority of Christ with the authority of the Church. I want to follow a Christocentric approach not an Ecclesiocentric one, and this is where I probably follow Barth more than Torrance. Torrance is much more of an ecclesiocentric theologian, but nevertheless, I still highly appreciate him! You are equivocating on scripture and tradition, as if they are the same; they aren’t. The fact is is that any kind of Churchly tradition gives way to Scripture (dialectically so), but Scripture gives way to its reality, God’s life in Jesus Christ. You, as far as I can see, Cody, are articulating a very Greek Orthodox like understanding of Scripture and Tradition; how do you see your view different from a Greek Orthodox one and a Protestant one?


  17. Cody,

    I appreciate your feedback. I think, though, that I am going to close our comments down on this thread; it seems for our last couple of exchanges, at least, that we are saying the same things over and again, and thus I don’t see this as fruitful. In fact it seems to be getting more and more hyped up and emotional, for both of us; so prudence says to stop. Blessings my brother.


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