Four Experiments in the Relationship Between Scripture and Tradition

‘This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true. Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.’
John 21:24-25

‘So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.’
2 Thessalonians 2:15

I had a long and mostly enjoyable conversation with a friend a few nights ago about the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, and what it might look like to read Scripture in the company of the Church throughout history. As I tried to explain the way that I held the two together in a prima scriptura kind of way, and what sort of authority I would give what sorts of tradition, I thought it might be helpful to jot some notes down for my own thinking. Many things on this blog are mostly written for the sake of clarifying and cataloguing my own thoughts, but they may be of broader interest. So here it goes.

Some preliminary words on what Tradition means: it is clear from the Scriptures themselves that there were things that Jesus and the apostles taught that were not written down in the Scriptures. In the texts above, we see that John closes his gospel with such an admission, and Paul draws a distinction between written and oral tradition in 2 Thessalonians. Theoretically, those words would be binding on us. In the case of Christ, this is obvious: everything that he said was the word of God, which is a staggering thought. Anything he commanded was the command of God, anything he taught must be taken as gospel. Of course, the teachings that we don’t have access to, we can’t be held to. The principle holds in some measure with the apostles also. The apostles were given authority and sent out to teach, and were able to exercise that authority as they chose, to bind and loose (Matt. 16:19, John 20:23; cf. Philemon 8-9). So we know that the apostles taught with authority, and one can demonstrate that they prioritised oral traditions and the establishment of churches over writing by the fact that over half of the apostles didn’t bother writing anything. Capital T Tradition can be thought of as those things that the apostles taught but didn’t commit to writing, but rather entrusted to the community of faith. Small T traditions are some of the other practices, be they theological, cultural, legal, or liturgical, that have built up over time, but that aren’t claimed to be apostolic in origin. To take the granddaddy of big T Tradition, the Roman Catholic Church (sorry big O Orthodox), we also see them assert some doctrines dogmatically that they claim are not ancient in full formulation, but are there in seminal form in the apostolic era. In short: doctrines develop and grow, but they are developing from something authentically apostolic.

This means that when we are searching for or trying to appeal to ‘Tradition’, we aren’t just trying to pit one theologian against another — ‘Augustine said x but Gregory said y’ — we are trying to work out what was taught by the apostles, and how that was understood and believed by the earliest Christians. So not all ‘traditions’ are equal. Here, I want to demonstrate with four worked examples the way in which Scripture and Tradition (or historical theology) may be read together in an effort to put the pieces together to discern what the apostles taught.

The principles I’m working with are basically as follows. Firstly, there are some doctrinal disagreements that exist between theologians who both appeal to Scripture alone (e.g. baptism), and so someone has to be wrong. Sometimes the apostolic cannot be definitively agreed upon based on Scripture alone. Secondly, the writings of early Christians will shed light on how the apostolic teaching that we have in the Scriptures were understood by the first hearers. Thirdly, some traditions may be only hinted at in Scriptures, but not incongruent with it. In these cases, one would be hard pressed to argue the doctrine only from Scripture, but the Tradition may shed light on Scriptures that one might otherwise pass over without second thought. Fourthly, authentic apostolic oral tradition will not contradict the written apostolic tradition, and the written has priority. Our first example here will deal with the first and second points above, our second and third examples with the third. The fourth example will not deal with a big-T tradition, but will explore an example of the fourth principle. It will be obvious that all of these are very Catholic doctrines (though some shared with the Orthodox). This is not so much because I am trying to defend them (at least, not all of them), but rather because they are the ones who believe in dogmas that depend on extra-Scriptural traditions. I do hope, however, to foster some understanding and appreciation amongst my fellow evangelicals of how Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians approach the interpretation of Scripture.

I hope the following is helpful and of some interest, feel free to comment or send me an email through the contact page.

Example #1: The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist
In the case of this first doctrine, we have a spectrum of positions that are all defended from Scripture. We could broadly categorise them in three categories: 1) a view that the Christ is really and substantially present in the eucharist in an objective fashion (Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, some Anglicans); 2) a view that Christ is spiritually present in the sacrament as the believer feeds on Christ in their heart by faith (some Anglicans, Presbyterians, some Baptists); 3) a view that the meal is purely one of remembrance (the rest of the Anglicans, the rest of the Baptists).

Group 1 will point to ‘this is my body’, while group 3 will stake their claim on ‘do this in remembrance of me’. Neither is really conclusive, because the phrase ‘this is my body’ does not rule out metaphorical meaning, and ‘do this in remembrance of me’ does not rule out Christ being present during that remembrance. Group 1 will point also to 1 Corinthians 11:27, ‘Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.’ Is that conclusive? It may be a hint, but the physics and metaphysics of it all don’t seem to have been conclusively settled on the basis of the exegesis, and so questions remain.

Should we suppose that the Corinthians were equally perplexed? I think not. If we consider the texts of Scripture alongside the writings of the earliest Christians, we may state with a reasonable degree of confidence that the earliest Christians believed something fairly close to position 1) above, that Christ was really and substantially present in the bread and wine. Consider the following words from Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of John the Apostle, in his letter to the Smyrnaeans: ‘They even absent themselves from the Eucharist and the public prayers, because they will not admit that the Eucharist is the self-same body of our Saviour Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins, and which the Father in His goodness afterwards raised up again.’

What does this mean for how we read the Scriptures? It means that it is entirely possible to read the Scriptures in such a way that we reach very different conclusions to the original readers, who were taught by the apostles themselves. And when we are faced with a variety of interpretative possibilities, how can we be sure what the apostles themselves taught? In this example, we have a relatively easy job of discerning whether this tradition is authentically apostolic. We have very early (that is, (second-century) writings from those who were both disciples of the apostles and recognised bishops of the early church. Furthermore, the writings are not in any way contrary to the Scriptures, but rather shed light on texts that might otherwise be ambiguous. To reject the writings of, for example, Ignatius of Antioch on the grounds of a strict adherence to the principle of sola scriptura falls afoul of taking our reason (that is, our own independent powers of reading and interpretation) operating on Scripture as the real authority, rather than the words of the apostles.

We can leave, for now, the more contentious issues of whether and in what ways the eucharist may have considered a sacrifice, and the manner in which Christ is present. Let’s leave those worms in the can.

Example #2: The Intercession of the the Saints
The second doctrine takes us into more controversial territory. How should Christians think about those Saints who have fallen asleep — that is, died — in the Lord? Protestants happily affirm that there is such a thing as the ‘communion of the saints’, and that the church militant and the church triumphant are more united by Christ than they are divided by time or the grave, but don’t (generally) venerate the saints, or ask for their prayers and intercessions. On the other hand, our brothers and sisters on the Catholic and Orthodox branches of the Christian family tree do. Why?

It’s worth saying before embarking on this experiment that all of us are working from clues and inferences. There is no verse in the New Testament that says ‘You may pray to the saints’, but there is also no verse that says ‘You may not pray to the saints.’ So neither team has a proof text. Both sides are trying to take some soundings from the New Testament to see whether asking the saints to pray for us is plausible and permissible, or whether it would be out of place.

To try the experiment, we might decide to imagine that asking the saints to pray for us is plausible. How might that change the way in which we read certain New Testament texts? The story (or parable? who knows?) of the rich man and Lazarus might take on another complexion. Is the rich man ‘praying’ to Abraham? Praying to the saints only makes sense if the boundaries between the living and dead in Christ are a little more porous than we might have thought, which might mean that being baptised on behalf of the dead (1 Cor. 15:29) makes a little more sense. Furthermore, the sense of being ‘surrounded by a cloud of witnesses’ (Heb. 12:1), and in the context of chapter 11, the witnesses surrounding us are clearly the faithful departed, might be understood in a more immediate way. If (and it is a big if) the early church thought they could request the intercessions of the faithful departed, those words in Hebrews would be heard quite differently. The scenes of Heaven revealed to John might sound different as well, as he sees the martyrs praying to God about the affairs of the earth in Revelation 6:10.

To be sure, accepting the hypothesis that one can request the prayers of the saints does not explain any contentious texts. It might not even shed much light on texts that cannot be understood otherwise, since 1 Corinthians 15 is so tricky that this one theory doesn’t solve all your problems, and the rest are fairly straightforward without the theory.

The case for the opposition would rest primarily on the fact that there is nothing in the New Testament that really suggests that people ever did ask the saints to pray for them (at least not the dead ones: any Christian who shares a prayer request believes in the intercession of the saints, the only point of difference is whether you think the saints stop interceding once they kick the bucket). There’s no unambiguous text of the New Testament that suggests that requests may be made to the faithful departed.

So let’s consider the tradition. Here, we find very little from the earliest days of the Church, that is, from those believers who had direct contact with the apostles. There are some interesting statements in chapters 17 and 18 of The Martyrdom of Polycarp that shows that the early Christians were accused of worshipping the saints (which the author strenuously denies: ‘For [Christ] indeed, as being the Son of God, we adore; but the martyrs, as disciples and followers of the Lord, we worthily love on account of their extraordinary affection towards their own King and Master’), and that they commemorated the anniversary of the martyrdom.

The earliest example (to my limited knowledge) of a defence of requesting the intercessions of the saints comes in St Jerome’s tirade (indeed, more tirade than reasoned argument) against Vigilantius, who denied the legitimacy of asking the dead saints to pray for us. The work dates to 406 AD, and hints that the majority view of the Church at that point was that one could ask the saints to pray for them, though some bishops did side with Vigilantius in his own day as well.

This is clearly more ambiguous than the case above. The Scriptures give far less to work with. Were we left with only Scripture and no Tradition, I consider it unlikely that people would have developed a doctrine of prayers to the saints, which puts it in a very different category to various positions on the eucharist. When discussing the eucharist, we may get to a few positions based purely on the text, and then may give the witness of the early Church (and indeed, it is very early in this case), the casting vote. Here, to my mind, we have a Tradition with cannot be developed from Scripture alone, and yet is—again, to my mind—not totally repugnant to Scripture. It isn’t sturdily supported from Scripture, it is merely alluded to, if that, but isn’t totally opposed by Scripture either. The jury’s out. I’m not trying to persuade you one way of the other here, just to offer thoughts on how Scripture and Tradition may interact.

The can of worms to remain (mostly) unopened here is the issue of how the ideas of canonisation and patronage worked their way in, and this is where I would suggest later traditions have crept in without apostolic origin. I can understand, say, a missionary praying to St Paul or St Francis Xavier, with whom they might feel some affinity. I get why amateur radio operators may ask for the intercessions of St Maximilian Kolbe, since he was one of them as well, even though it seems odd that they would need a patron saint. Yet I must ask how St Drogo ended up bearing the burdens of unattractive people, coffee house keepers, and hernias. And how did we get from Paul saying that all who are in Christ are saints to having a committee set up by the Vatican to work out who has made the elite team? These additions start to cut against the grain of the New Testament texts.

Example #3: The Perpetual Virginity of Mary
This is one of my favourite talking points to wind up Reformed folks (in a loving way). The doctrine, on the surface, smacks of Popery and extra-Biblical superstitious Marian dogma, but here we have one doctrine that many of the Reformers (Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, no less) were on board with. The Tradition is certainly early as well, our old friend St Jerome wrote a treatise on the matter, but the ultimate origin seems to be the Protoevangelium of James, the source of pretty much all later Marian doctrine. This is by no means a reliable source, and was condemned by Pope Innocent I in 405.

But what do the Scriptures say about Mary’s life after giving birth to Christ? We can understand the sexually-repressed, cloistered lunatics of medieval scholasticism believing such outlandish theories (please, dear reader, do not miss my sarcasm), but surely Reformers just read their Bibles and saw that the Gospels talk about Jesus’ brothers and sisters in numerous places. We shouldn’t need to much help understanding these texts (but just in case: St John Calvin, pray for us!). How can one argue against these being the later children of Mary and Joseph? The traditional reading is that the siblings of Jesus are children of Joseph from an earlier marriage. Speculative? Perhaps, but let’s try it on for size and see if any Biblical texts start to make more sense. In an Ancient Near Eastern culture, there is a stricter hierarchy of respect with the family, and the firstborn son is most definitely top of that pecking order, and so it would be strange in such a context for the younger siblings of Jesus to suggest their eldest brother is out of his mind (Mark 3:21). Furthermore, if Mary had other children, it would be strange for Jesus would commit his mother to John while he is on the cross (John 19:26-27), as she would have other children to care for her. One could make a typological point as well: many major figures of the Old Testament were younger children, not eldest: Abel, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, David, Solomon, etc. It would be entirely in keeping with this pattern for Christ to be the final son in his family, rather than the first, given how much God enjoys privileging the younger over the older. The idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity may not gain you a huge amount dogmatically, but it is a theory that helps to get in some data that sits a little awkwardly otherwise. Even Matthew 1:25, ‘he knew her not until she had given birth to a son’ is not quite a knock-down argument against the idea either, since Matthew’s point is more that there is no way the son could be Joseph’s.

So is it an apostolic tradition? Harder to say. If the Protoevangelium of James is the original source of the doctrine, it is dubious indeed, but it is entirely possible that some elements of that book stem from authentic tradition (or historical fact, as more normal people put it). I would be surprised if the continued virginity of Mary after Christ’s birth formed a key part of the apostolic preaching (how often would the topic have come up?), but it may easily have been common knowledge, and the Scriptures are not inconsistent with it. The great mystery for me is this: why would it matter? Would it make virginity, even within marriage, a higher estate? Certainly many within the history of the Church have thought so, and this idea has not always been helpful. But to assess the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, we may say that this is not unlike the matter of praying to the Saints (though it is a little Scripturally stronger, in my view, though not totally without issues): if one credited Scripture alone, they may not develop the doctrine, but the Tradition does not necessarily contradict the Scriptures, and does shed light on passages that might otherwise be perplexing.

I’ve got myself into a habit of mentioning the worms to remain canned at the end of each section, so let’s keep up that tradition, though it be neither ancient nor venerable. So here I’ll say that a huge number of other traditions surround Mary are much later, and find less Scriptural support. For example, the Immaculate Conception, or the idea of Mary having the title of ‘Queen of Heaven’ is far weaker. The woman in Revelation 12 may be Mary, and may describe her Assumption, but makes more sense to me to be a personification of Israel as a whole, in the light of the whole book of Revelation. The Church seems a more natural fit as the Queen of Heaven (if anyone takes that title), by virtue of being the Bride of the King. But, hey, what do I know?

Example #4: Clerical Celibacy
Continuing on the theme of chastity, we arrive at a final example, that of clerical celibacy, and here I intend to show the ways in which Church practices (in the case of the Roman Catholic Church) can go against the witness of Scripture (in my view), and the earliest tradition of the church (as I read it). I put those parenthetical qualifiers in place because I’m not quite so bold to pit myself against all of Rome’s exegetes, theologians, and historians with no recognition of my ability to be totally wrong.

As stated above, the Church of Rome asserts that some beliefs it asserts dogmatically, or puts in canon law (as in this case), are not fully present in the apostolic era, or in the early church, but are there in a seminal form. This is crucial: all of us ought to agree that a doctrine may develop from a Scriptural starting point, though not be explicit there. For example, the Trinity was present in the New Testament, and was taught by the apostles, but was worked out dogmatically over centuries in the contexts of various theological controversies. In this instance, the thing is clarified, but not changed. At no point did the dogmatic statements have to move away from or contradict Scripture. By contrast, some doctrines may develop and have developed in such a way that earlier Traditions (both written and oral) have to be contradicted. This, I believe, is the case with clerical celibacy. Hopefully we can all agree that clerical celibacy ought to be held in high esteem, but I find the efforts to make clerical celibacy (or continence for married clergy) compulsory on Scriptural grounds unpersuasive, and likewise the efforts to argue that this is an authentic apostolic Tradition.

As far as the tradition of clerical celibacy goes, it can obviously be traced to Christ, who said that there are those who ‘have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt. 19:12), and Paul, who wished that all might be as he was—that is, single and chaste (1 Corinthians 7:7). Outside of the Scriptures, there is certainly a lot of evidence of clerical celibacy or continence being encouraged — that is to say, that men were not permitted to be married after they had been ordained, and were to abstain from marital relations with their wife if they had been married before their ordination. Tertullian concedes that Peter was married, but states that the rest were single. In the third century, there were both writings saying bishops must remain single or continent within marriage, and record of married bishops in good standing, including ones with children. Our old friend Jerome, in the same treatise against Vigilantius mentioned above praises clerical celibacy and continence. Yet many bishops and priests of the early centuries married and had children.

The division between the Latin West and Greek East became more pronounced between the fifth and seventh centuries, where the East permitted married men to be ordained and to raise families, and the West unsuccessfully attempted to stop their priests living with their wives and raising families (what a scandal!). In the middle ages, in the first two Lateran Councils, they finally cracked down on those unruly family men. At this point, clerical marriages were not just considered illicit, yet valid, but invalid altogether.

So much for a very quick history, what are the New Testament texts that may be seen to contradict the requirement of clerical celibacy? A key text, not undisputed, is 1 Corinthians 9:5, in the middle of a discussion in which Paul lists the rights he has given up for the sake of his ministry: ‘Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?’ The dispute surrounds the fact that the Greek word here translated ‘wife’ could be translated just as faithfully as ‘woman’, the idea being that Peter and the other apostles may have had a woman (sister, mother, aunt) who travelled with them and assisted them. As far as the language and grammar goes, this is plausible, but I’m persuaded that situating the comment in the broader context of the Corinthian letter and Paul’s general practice makes it unlikely. After all, Paul did travel with others who assisted him in his work, and ministered to his needs — and they were men. Why would any apostle specifically need a woman? When chapter 9 is read with chapter 7 as well, we see that Paul has no qualms about the goodness of marriage, and even of sex within marriage. It would seem strange if the apostle who insisted that marriage is good for the avoidance of sexual immorality, and that husbands and wives should not deny each other their conjugal rights (1 Corinthians 7:1-5) would suggest that apostles should deny their wives their conjugal rights. It seems more natural and plausible to say that in chapter 7, Paul suggests that one might waive their right to marriage (and not a continent one) for the sake of the Kingdom, and in chapter 9, he picks that thread up again as an example of a right that he has given up, though Peter and other apostles have not. The second key text is 1 Timothy 3, and the requirement that the overseer/bishop be the husband of one wife. There is dispute as to how precisely this works out: for example, the Orthodox do not allow an ordained man to marry after his ordination, if his wife dies, then he must continue as a widower in order to remain the husband of one wife. On the other hand, most Protestants would read this as forbidding polygamy or adultery, rather than remarriage after bereavement. What there is no hint of, however, if the idea that the bishop would send his wife away after consecration (which does happen in some Orthodox circles), or that their marriage would be continent after his ordination. Even if Mary lived in perpetual virginity, the general pattern and expectations of marriage in Scripture is laid out in 1 Corinthians 7.

In this example, not a theological dogma, but a law in the Roman Catholic Church, I hope to show how tradition may be read against Scripture. Here, unlike in the other examples, we have an idea that is not found in Scripture, and that cuts against the grain of key Scriptural texts. Furthermore, it is a very late development in coming to full fruition, and even then, it only reached full fruition in the Latin West, and not among any of the Eastern Catholic or Orthodox Churches. With these considerations taken into account, it seems unlikely that this is an authentic apostolic tradition. It is a later development, and sheds no light on texts that are otherwise hard to understand — indeed, it creates more problems in reading the texts of Scripture than it solves.

This post has not been able to deal at great length with the arguments here. No doubt an ardent Catholic might find my treatment of the fourth example somewhat sophomoric, and ardent protestants might still be unpersuaded that any case can be made for examples two or three having some sort of apostolic origin, even if it has been obscured by later doctrinal admissions. So be it — if you try to stand in the middle of the road, you risk getting hit by traffic from both directions. Still, to all readers who made it this far, thank you.

Whenever one says that apostolic teachings received orally, wherever we find them, are authoritative, a common response may be, ‘All well and good, but how do we know which ones are authentic?’ Many may think that as soon as tradition is accepted as authoritative, we must accept the whole Roman Magisterium. Not wishing to go down that path, many go no further than the original question. But no path is so straightforward: if we decide not to weigh up the claims of various traditions, we will still be left with contentious texts of Scripture to interpret, and we will be working with fewer saints to light the way for us. Either way, we must do the hard work of discerning what the content of the apostolic proclamation was. I hope that these few worked examples are a helpful starting point for evangelicals considering the way in which Scripture and Tradition can be read with a historian’s eyes as two complementary parts of our one faith, delivered once for all to all the saints.

Further reading: I wrote another post a while back giving a quick overview of how various doctrines were understood by the Apostolic Fathers. It can be read here.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: