Posturing Toward a Defense of Christian Church Tradition

It might seem odd that someone who likes Karl Barth as much as I do would write a post entitled the way this one is—of course I also like Thomas Torrance, which would make my title less surprising. Something of concern to me is that I see a wave among many Christians today who are almost completely rejecting the Tradition of the Christian Church—if the Trinity and Chalecdonian Christology weren’t a part of the Trad my guess is that Church popeTradition would completely be ignored or even ridiculed as a Hellenistic imposition of thought upon the truth of Christian Revelation (which is typically understood as Scripture by most Christians). In fact, as I digress for a minute, it seems to me that many in the mode I am describing really only give the doctrine of the Trinity lip service because they feel they must; but again, in the back of their minds there is this still small voice that keeps harassing them that is saying something like: “the Trinity, the homoousion, and even concepts like hell are essentially results of hierarchical, patriarchal, colonial, imperalistic thought required by the Graeco-Romans, but not by Scripture (not really).”

Church Tradition is an imposition on Scripture … it is, and someone knows this for sure? And felt the need to let the rest of us know?

As a Protestant Christian (which still matters, this distinction that is), I affirm the idea that Scripture is the final arbiter of all things related to the once for all Faith delivered to the saints. And yet, I think this way from a theological tradition; that is as a Christian, I accept that Scripture itself, and its canonization, flows from the conviction that God has spoken, and that the Scriptures represent the Apostolic Deposit and most faithful witness to this reality (that God has spoken). And yet, notice, I read Scripture not de nuda, but I do so based upon a Christian and Churchly Tradition. So when I come across Christians today who basically trounce Church Trad in favor of the most contemporary readings of Scripture today—i.e. and not in conversation with the Trad, but instead talking about it in mocking tones—I have to wonder what kind of consistency this represents?

I am all for checking Church Trad by Scripture, and by its voice and reality, Jesus Christ; but I also believe that Scripture is coordinate with this voice, and not disparate from it. And so I don’t see two canons, but one.

Ultimately the test, indeed, is Christ. He is the measure, by His Scripture’s, by which Church Tradition (even the one that says that Scripture is Scripture) must be judged. But if we hold to a high polity that Jesus really has provided teachers for His Church (Eph. 4), then we won’t try to skirt Church Trad, but we will constructively engage with it. The best of Church Trad does not flow from imposing anything on the Scriptures or Jesus Christ, but instead it helps serve the Gospel by providing a grammar for it that allows us to make sense of things that stand right on the border of the ineffable and ultimate nature of our God.

Here is a good order and way to think about Scripture, Tradition, etc.

  1. Scripture is the norma normans, the principium theologiae. It is the final arbiter of matters theological for Christians as the particular place in which God reveals himself to his people. This is the first-order authority in all matters of Christian doctrine.
  2. Catholic creeds, as defined by and ecumenical council of the Church, constitute a first tier of norma normata, which have second-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine. Such norms derive their authority from Scripture to which they bear witness.
  3. Confessional and conciliar statements of particular ecclesial bodies are a second tier of norma normata, which have third-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine. They also derive their authority from Scripture to the extent that they faithfully reflect the teaching of Scripture.
  4. The particular doctrines espoused by theologians including those individuals accorded the title Doctor of the Church which are not reiterations of matters that are de fide, or entailed by something de fide, constitute theologoumena, or theological opinions, which are not binding upon the Church, but which may be offered up for legitimate discussion within the Church. [Oliver Crisp, god incarnate, (New York: T&T Clark International, 2009), 17.]
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