This post is part of a series.
In Part I, we were introduced to the Wesleyan Quadrangle, a tool with which to understand the elements that go into developing sound theology. One element, Scripture, is to be held in supremacy over the rest, but each of the other three, tradition, reason, and experience, should be examined in their relationship to Scripture. In this post, I examine the diad of Scripture and tradition.
Scripture v. Tradition
Traditionally, this is where the Protestant reformation differed with Catholicism – the latter emphasized the importance of Church/Papal authority over scripture, or at least, their interpretation of scripture. But like all heresy, they held these concepts in a poor balance, and ended up abusing believers in many ways.
First, and most egregious, they misrepresented and obscured he gospel by teaching a gospel of good works, or grace plus works, rather than by grace through faith. Often, those works consisted of saying prayers, giving alms, or even being baptized (which is in part why they still baptize children to this day, teaching that is has some salvific effect). This error caused reformers to respond with two of the five solas, sola gratia and sola fide (grace alone, faith alone).
Second, not only did they elevate this false gospel over the true, they elevated their extra-biblical traditions and interpretation of the scriptures over the scriptures themselves. So if a believer tried to reason from scripture in opposition to their authoritative interpretation, they persecuted and killed such. The reformer’s response to this error of elevating church tradition and authority over scriptures was sola scriptura (scripture alone).
Third, Catholicism made no room for personal liberty of conscience, and freedom in non-essential doctrines. In fact, by elevating tradition and church teachings over scripture, they practically negated any freedom of interpretation of scripture in non-essential matters. Though oft attributed to St. Augustine, the Lutheran (i.e. Protestant reformer) Rupertus Meldinius penned a more generous approach to orthodoxy:
In the essentials, UNITY; in the non-essentials, LIBERTY; in all things, CHARITY
But the 17th century Catholic doctrinal errors are only one example of tradition, specifically, church authority, superceding scripture and causing bad theology to prosper. These examples illustrate how we can elevate Catholic authority and tradition over scripture, but Protestants do the same thing. Church traditions, be they the “order of worship,” the type of music played or not played, our traditions around the holy days, or even our Christian jargon (“how are you brother”) can be a stumbling block to deeper spirituality, esp. if they interfere with us actually living out the gospel.
While traditions often capture valuable concepts and values, they can also be set up by self-righteous and doctrinally errant religious authorities, as the Pharisees did. Here’s what Jesus said about their traditions:
Mark 7:6-9 Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me,teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men. And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!
People who value tradition over scripture are often really not serving God, but serving religion, and often, their own sense of being righteous through observing such rituals. In fact, this is the great danger of tradition, and why we should be willing to buck tradition in order to maintain a vibrant faith. When we react strongly to people violating our traditions, we should become aware that perhaps we are no longer serving God, but religion. Paul the apostle also warned that often, traditions don’t even reflect godliness, but worldly principles masquerading as faith:
Colossians 2:8 Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.
Traditions may contain valuable things from our past, but they also contain peril to those who want to pursue God, and placing them above Scripture is unwise. Traditional rituals and accepted teachings can interfere with our obedience to God, fool us into thinking we are actually living out the commands of Jesus, and lead us to unnecessarily exclude others who don’t follow our traditions. The sacred cows of tradition must be occasionally tipped so that the scriptures, and the God of the scriptures, may be heard, experienced, enjoyed and obeyed.
Now, on to Part III – Scripture and Reason.