You are a new Christian. You want to learn all you can about the Bible, for you know it is the Word of God, and somewhere you heard that you can know God only to the extent that you know his Word. You know a woman down the street who has walked with God for more than 60 years and has studied Scripture all that time. She has read commentaries, enjoyed attending churches within different denominations, and discussed the deep things of God with other mature believers and pastors.
You consider reading Scripture with her, to glean her wisdom. But you choose to read the Bible for yourself by yourself. You don’t visit the woman because you don’t want her beliefs to influence your own reading. And you want to listen to the Holy Spirit yourself, so you can get to the purity of God’s message untainted by outside influence.
Some Christians, and not just new believers among them, take this “me and God” approach to reading Scripture. They have learned from Matthew 15 not to be like the Pharisees, whom Jesus said exalted human tradition over God’s Word. They also try to heed Paul’s warning not to succumb to “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition” (Col. 2:8, ESV used throughout). They have concluded, therefore, that Scripture teaches that church tradition—and all the perspectives and human-derived interpretations that it carries with it—should not color our reading of God’s Word.
Is that what the Bible itself teaches?
Why Tradition Is Good
Paul commended the Corinthians for “maintain[ing] the traditions even as I delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:2). He urged the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). He told Timothy to pass on the tradition the young leader learned from him, and to teach others to do the same (2 Tim. 2:2). And when Paul quoted Jesus’ saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), he was affirming an oral tradition never recorded in the Gospels.
When Jesus criticized the Pharisees, he wasn’t condemning all traditions, not even all the Pharisees’ traditions. Rather, he was denouncing the traditions that made God’s Word void (Mark 7:13). For instance, Jesus’ condemnation in Matthew 15 was directed against Pharisees who were pretending to dedicate their goods to the temple so they wouldn’t have to support their aging parents, thus dodging the commandment to “Honor your father and your mother” (Ex. 20:12).
Yet Jesus also said, in a statement missed by many Christians, that people should learn from the Pharisees’ oral traditions: “practice and observe whatever they tell you” (Matt. 23:3). The early church recognized it needed tradition when it faced the heresy of Gnosticism. Gnostic teachers claimed that both the God of the Old Testament and physical matter are evil, and that salvation comes through knowledge, not through the life and death of Jesus Christ. Their picture of God and salvation radically opposed the apostles’ preaching. The early theologian Irenaeus countered that the apostles passed down not only certain writings but also a way of reading those texts. And only by following that way of interpreting biblical texts could one hold to orthodoxy.
In its later battles to understand the Godhead, the early church finally established a Trinitarian tradition: God is one divine being in three persons. The word Trinity and the now-classic phrase “three persons in one God” are not in the Bible. But nearly all Christians, evangelicals included, believe the Holy Spirit guided the early church through those debates to reach this consensus. Leaders in the debate reminded their hearers that Jesus promised there were some things that the apostles were not able to bear at the time, but that would be revealed later, as the Spirit guided them and their successors “into all the truth” (John 16:12–13). This understanding of the Godhead used nonbiblical words to express biblical concepts, and has guided all Christians ever since.
But what about the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura? Didn’t Martin Luther, who taught this doctrine most famously, say that Scripture alone is our authority, that human traditions should never supplant the Bible?
Actually, Luther taught that Christians needed the right tradition in order to interpret the Bible. He criticized late medieval theological traditions (this we have heard) by appealing to earlier traditions: Augustine, the creeds, and the great church councils (this we have not heard). Augustine helped Luther see the priority of grace in justification—contra the priority of works. And the creeds and great councils, he wrote, were reliable guides to grasping Scripture. In his treatise “On the Councils and the Church,” Luther criticized the church councils that had distorted the teachings of the “universal or principal councils”—Nicaea I, Constantinople I, Ephesus I, and Chalcedon. Luther added that several other councils were “equally good.” He accepted the three ecumenical creeds (the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed) and used them to counter anti-Trinitarians. He praised the Apostles’ Creed as “the finest of all, a brief and true summary of the articles of faith,” and the Athanasian Creed as “a creed that protects” the Apostles’ Creed.
For Luther, then, sola scriptura means Scripture is our principal authority, yet we need the help of the creeds, councils, and theologians to interpret it properly. Otherwise, we will use the Bible to distort the gospel, as the late medieval church had done.
John Calvin, who also taught sola scriptura, drew liberally from early Fathers—such as Irenaeus, Cyprian, Chrysostom, and Augustine—to reinforce his teaching of biblical themes. Many of Calvin’s opponents, like anti-Trinitarian Michael Servetus, also used the Bible to make their case. But Calvin used these Fathers to show his readers that Servetus was misinterpreting Scripture.
For both Luther and Calvin, the Great Tradition played what Alister McGrath calls a “ministerial, not magisterial” role, “serving, not directing, the church.” We might say it offers a check on our biblical interpretations: If we come to conclusions that are at odds with the received consensus, we had better think twice.
Not Whether Tradition, But Which
Still, many evangelicals insist they read the Bible uninfluenced by tradition. They have not noticed what McGrath calls “the evangelical tendency to cite the interpretations of earlier evangelical writers in weighing up how a given biblical passage is to be interpreted.” Nor have they noticed how their views on various issues—women in ministry, gender roles, Communion and baptism, the end times—are shaped by the Christian communities to which they belong. In each case, evangelicals of assorted backgrounds use similar biblical texts but are led to different interpretations.
Not that that is a bad thing. The body of Christ is a community, and each part of the body is a community of interpretation where beliefs are passed down through texts but also through persons with authority. Lutheran and Reformed evangelicals have confessions that help them interpret the Bible. Similarly, Pentecostal, Baptist, and Bible churches have statements of faith that govern their beliefs and practices.
In the past two centuries, mainline Protestants tried to free themselves from past traditions in order to get back to Jesus’ gospel, before it was supposedly corrupted by umpteen layers of church tradition. They waved the flag of sola scriptura, imagining they stood above and outside tradition. They didn’t realize they were interpreting the Gospels through the lens of their own Enlightenment traditions. It was no surprise, then, that their quests for the historical Jesus painted pictures of Jesus that looked like themselves.
The real question is not whether tradition influences our interpretation of the Bible, but which tradition does so. And the best way to judge that tradition is to regularly compare it to the Great Tradition—another name for the great “cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) down through the centuries. It’s what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity,” the consensus on belief and behavior that the historic church has agreed on for the past 2,000 years.
Of course, there is much that the writers in the Tradition disagree on, such as the number and meaning of the sacraments and the location of church authority. Nevertheless, there is unity of vision on much else among the Fathers (such as Irenaeus, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Augustine, Maximus the Confessor), medieval theologians like Anselm and Aquinas, the Reformers, and Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, John Henry Newman, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, to name a few.
No doubt, evangelicals look more frequently to the Reformers, Edwards, and Wesley. But when these thinkers provide little help on certain topics—liturgy or social action, say—we needn’t be so allergic to Rome that we neglect its reflection on these matters, or to Eastern Orthodoxy’s understanding of what it means to be “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4).
The creeds are also part of the Great Tradition. As we have seen, Luther, Calvin, and their successors prized the creeds as valuable summaries of orthodox faith. Theologian Donald MacKinnon observed that the great orthodox creeds protect us against the ingenuity of those who consider themselves intellectually superior and free to change historic orthodoxy. And evangelical scholar Scot McKnight explains that the creeds are found in the New Testament (see 1 Cor. 15:1–8, 22–31) and that the later creeds, such as the Nicene Creed, were instances of “gospeling”—telling the story of Jesus by emphasizing what was most significant.
Yet the Great Tradition is not just a source for understanding biblical doctrine and morality—though we need its reflection now more than ever in understanding topics like sex and marriage. It’s also a great source for learning how to worship God (the historic liturgies are deeply biblical and aesthetic), what it means to be a disciple (classics such as Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul, Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, and Mother Teresa’s Total Surrender), and how to see God’s beauty in the world and the life of the church (Edwards and Orthodox icons are premier sources here). We evangelicals have our own saints—think of Billy Graham, Lottie Moon, and Jim Elliot—but the Great Tradition has countless saints whose feast days and biographies show us in living color what it means to live the faith.
Tradition or Traditionalism
Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan famously distinguished Tradition, “the living faith of the dead,” from traditionalism, “the dead faith of the living.” How are we to prevent Tradition from degenerating into traditionalism? And more important, how can we discern the difference between traditions and Tradition?
There are times, such as the late Medieval Ages, when traditions seem to distort the gospel and therefore require purification. The best way to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1) is to do so in the way Luther and Calvin did, with the help of the Great Tradition. They appealed to the “rule of faith” expressed by the creeds and the first ecumenical councils. They didn’t hold up every statement at each council but the enduring ones that have been accepted by the church throughout history. At Constantinople (A.D. 381), for example, what endured was not its proclamation of the Eastern patriarch’s authority over the church but its declaration of the Holy Spirit’s divinity. And what has passed down from Chalcedon (451) is not its rule that women cannot be ordained as deaconesses until age 40, but that Jesus is both fully God and fully man.
Consulting the Great Tradition doesn’t mean the exact language and formulations of every creed and dogma must stay the same. Protestants have invoked semperreformanda (“always being reformed”), recognizing the church’s need to be open to the Spirit. But there is a difference between teasing out, for further development, the inner logic of the creeds and dogmas of historic orthodoxy, on the one hand, and throwing out what is opposed to today’s culture, on the other. For example, we might object to culture-bound ways of explaining penal substitution on the Cross, recognizing there are multiple atonement motifs in Scripture. But we should never omit what is both central to biblical teaching and offensive to today’s zeitgeist—that through the bloody sacrifice of Christ, God satisfied his holy wrath toward sin.
We need the Great Tradition today more than ever. The biggest questions facing evangelical churches are the same ones mainline Protestants faced in the last few decades: Are all saved? What is marriage? Is Christ really the only way to God? For each of these questions, liberal Protestants generally disregarded the Great Tradition.
The temptation for many evangelicals, on the other hand, is to interpret the Bible as they see fit, without listening to anyone in the Great Tradition. Some think Luther’s concept of the priesthood of all believers means we can interpret the Bible for ourselves by ourselves, that the most important thing is a personal relationship with Jesus, not doctrine or moral codes. Truth be told, most lone ranger evangelicals actually care about doctrine and morality, but they want to decide for themselves what they mean. They reject the notion that the church is a living communion of saints, with authority over each believer. In this “New Age” Protestantism—where it doesn’t matter what you believe or do as long as you have contact with a certain spiritual atmosphere—culture will trump the gospel, and we evangelicals will trace the footsteps of liberal Protestantism. Unless we take seriously the Great Tradition.
Gerald R. McDermott is Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College and research associate at the Jonathan Edwards Centre in the University of the Free State, South Africa. He is coauthor of A Trinitarian Theology of Religions: An Evangelical Proposal (Oxford).
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