Christology as a Case Study: The Relationship Between Church Tradition and the Bible as Fonts of Authority and Divine Knowledge

The tension present between the role of church tradition and the bible, and how the two mutually implicate one or the other (or don’t) is not going away any time soon. There are those who want to believe that they can be strict, even slavish wooden bible literalists; then there are others who believe that the tradition of the church functions magisterially in the biblical interpretive process; and yet others who want to attempt a kind of dialectic between the two (I’d say the best of the Reformed sola Scriptura approach resides here). As a Reformed Christian, and evangelical, I hold to the ‘scripture principle’ that scripture itself is authoritative and the norming norm over and against all else; even tradition. Of course I’m not naïve enough to think that the scripture principle itself is not its own ‘tradition,’ but it is so heuristically. Here is how Oliver Crisp breaks down the various tiers of principles relative to how scripture, church tradition, regional creeds, and theological opinion all ought to relate one with the other (from a Reformed perspective):

  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.[1]

I think this is a helpful overview (I’ve shared it before, in fact, in years past). But I also wanted to share, at some length, a quote from Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink that fleshes this out even further. They are in the midst of discussing Christology and how the tradition of the church played the role that it did in providing the grammar that the church has held as the orthodox grammar towards speaking about the relationship of God and humanity/humanity and God in the singular person of Jesus Christ. Necessarily, in the midst of their discussion they are broaching the very issue I am highlighting in this post—i.e. how we ought to think about the relationship between church tradition and biblical teaching. They write (in extenso):

In a sense, and depending on where we currently find ourselves, the christological decisions of the fourth and fifth century are stations that we might have passed. We accept them gratefully while appropriating them critically. We need to pay attention to the underlying issues in the christological debate, to see where positions had to be guarded and why certain concepts that were introduced were needed. The conclusion of the Council of Nicaea that Jesus is of one essence (homo-ousios) with the Father, for instance, is much easier to understand when we realize that it was prompted by the desire to safeguard the thoroughly biblical idea that we cannot ensure our own salvation. God himself must become involved in the world—if we as human beings—are to be rescued from ruin, and for that reason Jesus must share the same “being,” or essence, with God. We simply are not like the fictional Baron Munchausen who, according to a well-known story, was able to pull himself out of the mud by his own hair. In brief, we do not accept the formulas because they happen to be part of the tradition, but because we discover genuine biblical motives behind these statements and in what they want to signal. One could say that the christological decisions (Niceno-Constantinopolitan and Chalcedon) are the directives of a former generation for how to handle the gospel story, the message of the God of Israel, and the Father of Jesus Christ.

There also is an important theological reason to exercise this “hermeneutic of trust” with respect to the tradition’s unifying message of the person of Jesus. Christ himself promised his disciples that the Spirit would lead them into all truth (John 16:13). It would be incredibly callous to suggest that the tradition is completely in the dark. At the same time, this promise gives no guarantee against the possibility of some obscuring or ideological manipulation of the gospel, whether presented in very high church or in popular forms. Therefore, we must always be critical in our dealings with the tradition; we must be selective on the basis of what the apostles and prophets have given us in the Bible.

When faced with the question of whether the tradition is a legitimate source for our Christology, we therefore give this dual answer. On the one hand, we gratefully accept the christological decisions of the church that came from the ecumenical councils. We thus abide by the course and the outcome of the christological debate. We move on, even though we realize that some alternatives might have been condemned at these councils owing to church politics and that the conclusions might well have turned out differently or have ended in the (often rather broad) margins of the church. But we trust that this is a case of hominum confusione Dei providentia (God’s providence [may be executed in the midst of] human confusion). On the other hand, our task is always to return to the biblical texts and, within their range of possibilities, take a critical look at the decisions and the terminology the councils used. Going back to the Bible this way is needed for several reasons. Something clearly present in the texts may have been lost in the process of debate; going back to the texts thus may represent an enrichment. But we also face a problem of comprehension when ancient languages become a stumbling block in a changed context, and we may need to reinterpret and reword the context of the dogma because of those changes. The struggles recent generations of believers and theologians have had with certain concepts of classic Christology represent a real problem we may not simply brush away.[2]

I find these to be wise words, and represent a good way for attempting to negotiate this kind of tenuous situation between tradition and the Bible. It touches, of course, on issues of authority in the church and how that relates to the biblical and theological interpretive processes itself.

Someone I have found fruitful towards engaging in this kind of negotiation between taking the trad seriously, and at the same time allowing the reality of Holy Scripture to be determinative, is Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Bruce McCormack offers these good words on Barth in this regard:

I say all of this to indicate that even the ecumenical creeds are only provisional statements. They are only relatively binding as definitions of what constitutes “orthodoxy.” Ultimately, orthodox teaching is that which conforms perfectly to the Word of God as attested in Holy Scripture. But given that such perfection is not attainable in this world, it is understandable that Karl Barth should have regarded “Dogma” as an eschatological concept. The “dogmas” (i.e., the teachings formally adopted and promulgated by individual churches) are witnesses to the Dogma and stand in a relation of greater or lesser approximation to it. But they do not attain to it perfectly—hence, the inherent reformability of all “dogmas.” Orthodoxy is not therefore a static, fixed reality; it is a body of teachings which have arisen out of, and belong to, a history which is as yet incomplete and constantly in need of reevaluation.[3]

This offers a different slant on all that we have been discussing thusly. Barth’s thinking (as distilled by McCormack) on the eschatological character of church ‘dogma’ is an important caveat in all of this. It points up the provisional and proximate nature that church dogma, as that is related to the biblical teaching, entails.

Much more could be said, but let me simply close by saying: as Christians our ultimate authority is the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. Insofar as Holy Scripture is “attached” to the living Word as the ordained Holy ground upon which God has chosen to most definitively bear witness to himself in Jesus Christ, then we as Christians do well to live under this reality; the reality that Jesus is Lord, and his written Word, for our current purposes as Christians, serves as the space wherein Christians might come to a fuller knowledge of God and their relationship to him as he first has related to us. Within this matrix of fellowship, though, we ought to remember the role that tradition plays in this as the inevitable interpretive reality that is always already tied into what it means to be humans before God; and in this thrust, then, we ought to be appreciative and attentive to what God has been working into his church for the millennia; and we ought to appreciate that he continues to speak into his church.

 

[1] Oliver Crisp, god incarnate, (New York: T&T Clark International, 2009), 17.

[2] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 397-98.

[3] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 16.

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This entry was posted in Barth, Bibliology, Bruce McCormack, Christology, Cornelius van der Kooi, Doctrine of Scripture, Gijsbert van den Brink, Hermeneutics, Oliver Crisp, Ontology Of Scripture, Tradition. Bookmark the permalink.

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