Sola Scriptura: Tradition vs. tradition

In their defense of Scripture Alone, Luther and the Reformers did not reject tradition outright; rather, they rejected the place that tradition presently had in the life of the church. Nor did he Reformers believe their position was novel; it was always the position of the church, they argued, and the view of the early church fathers. Matthew Barrett explains,

Luther and the Reformers believed that for the early church fathers, Scripture alone (as opposed to Scripture and Tradition) was inspired by God, perfect and flawless as a source of divine revelation, and therefore the final and ultimate authority in all matters of faith and practice. Tradition was a tool meant to assist the believer in understanding Scripture’s meaning. While Scripture possesses magisterial authority tradition’s authority was always ministerial, a handmaiden to the biblical witness, rather than an authoritative voice governing Scripture (God’s Word Alone, 45)

Luther and the other Reformers argued that this view of Scripture and tradition—where the former is superior to the latter but the latter is often helpful to understand the former—was the view of the early church fathers. Some have referred to this view as T1 (Tradition 1). Beginning in the medieval church, however, we start to see a growing trend toward viewing tradition as on the same level of authority as Scripture. We can call this view T2 (Tradition 2).

Tradition 2 is the view that divine revelation has not one but two sources: Scripture and ecclesiastical Tradition, the latter of which includes the pope and the magisterium. This view holds that Scripture is not sufficient in and of itself, or the sole infallible authority and source of divine revelation. Scripture must now share that stage with church Tradition, its equal in many respects. This means that ecclesiastical Tradition is not a subordinate authority to Scripture, but an equally infallible and inerrant authority. Tradition 2 gained prominence between the years of 1100-1400, and by the time of the Reformation, it was the position taught by the Roman church, as Luther and Calvin attest to in their early years of education (God’s Word Alone, 46).

Interestingly, it so happened that sometime between 1414-1418 the Council of Constance met in order to settle a situation where three different men claimed right to the papal throne. They rejected these three men and chose a fourth and issued a decree (Sacrosacta) saying that church councils had the final authority in doctrine. In a turn of irony, the pope they selected (Martin V) rejected this decree and reaffirmed papal authority. Over the next century, papal authority would be reaffirmed and strengthened.

How did this relate to the Reformers? Barrett continues,

For the Reformers, this entire debate between the pope and the councils simple demonstrated the inconsistency and self-destructive nature of the T2 view. Rome was claiming that Tradition was on an equal level with Scripture, but which Tradition, that of papel superiority or the Tradition affirmed by the councils? How could Rome claim to have a unified, infallible Tradition when those within the Tradition disagreed with one another, even anathematizing other popes? (God’s Word Alone, 49)

But the reformers didn’t rely upon the self-refuting nature of the T2 position; they also sought to ground their belief in Scripture Alone in the very Scripture they were defending. Given space constraints, we will look at just one text.

Scripture Alone and 2 Timothy 3:14-17
While it is true that Scripture Alone is a whole-Bible teaching that is supported by a host of texts and interrelated doctrines, Paul’s statement about Scripture in the latter half of his second letter to Timothy is a comprehensive statement about the nature of Scripture and provides a sharp argument against the T2 position. Let’s read it in its fullness.

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

I want to note three things in this text. First, Paul reminds Timothy of his spiritual upbringing and how he learned the Scriptures—what Paul calls here “the sacred writings”—from childhood. These are the texts that are able to make Timothy “wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.” In other words, Scripture was sufficient to bring one to faith in Christ. A man need not look elsewhere for the solution for his greatest problem; he had everything he needed in the Scriptures.

Second, Paul describes these writings as texts that had been “breathed out by God.” The reason the Scriptures are sufficient for salvation is because they are God’s very words. The direct implication of this truth is that the Scriptures are without error, for they are the very breath of God. The inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture were twin doctrines that provided the theological foundation for Scripture Alone for only in Scripture had God spoken infallibly. As Luther and the Reformers regularly reminded their interlocutors, however, past popes and councils had erred and are, due to their sin and fallenness, prone to error.

Third, these Scriptures were not only sufficient for salvation; they provided Timothy what he needed for “every good work.” To say that the Scripture was sufficient to equip Timothy for every good work is to say that Timothy was in need of no other set of authoritative documents in order to live out his calling as a Christian. There was no spiritual work that Timothy would encounter that required additional authoritative instruction. Scripture, therefore, is sufficient for salvation and sanctification. While a sound theological tradition is useful for helping us understand the Bible, it is only the Bible that can provide us with everything we need for salvation and spiritual growth.

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