The Poverty of Sola Scriptura
I deeply appreciate the great benefits which the Sola Scriptura mindset in Protestantism has produced. The attempt to trust Scripture alone has resulted in a widespread love for the Bible, a love which appears to me to far outshine that of the elder branches. The most devoted of Protestants spend much time every day in personal study of Scripture. They flock to group Bible studies, and it is Protestants who do the majority of translation work for previously unevangelized people groups.
I realize that an article questioning Sola Scriptura can elicit defensiveness, but I pray the reader will actually consider the ideas presented here. This is not offered in a spirit of superiority or condemnation. I am neither Roman Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox, so I do not write out of an obligation to either of those branches of the faith. Yet I am convinced that those who cry out, “Sola Scriptura,” miss out on much by resisting the authority of Tradition. This article will not question whether Sola Scriptura is correct (as has been discussed in articles and replies to those articles here, here, and here), but it will ask what wealth we may miss by not embracing the authority of Tradition.
It is a dangerous form of arrogance to assume that we today understand Scripture better than those who learned at the feet of the apostles themselves. Many (perhaps most) Protestants are simply unaware that we still today have several writings from the pens of those who learned directly from the apostles. People who don’t know about those writings cannot be accused of arrogance against them. Yet for those who know about Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and Polycarp, it is chronological hubris to claim superior comprehension of Scripture than those men who learned under the actual authors of those Scriptures.
Not only should we defer to the direct disciples of the original apostles, but also to those who came after them. The original disciples of our Lord did not provide a list of books that we should trust as divinely inspired Scriptures, and neither did the first generation of their own disciples. It took centuries for the church to settle on 27 books. Since we have trusted the first several centuries of Christian leaders to reliably decide the canon of the New Testament, we should likewise trust them to reliably explain the contents of that canon. The modern interpreter shows egotism when elevating his understanding Scripture over that of the very same fathers of the church whom the Holy Spirit used collectively to determine which books were Scripture in the first place. Sola Scriptura deprives us of the humility which defers to those who came before us.
POWER TO REFUTE
When we immerse ourselves in the writings of Tradition, we have far more ammunition against false teaching. Neither in Roman Catholicism nor in Eastern Orthodoxy nor in Oriental Orthodoxy nor in the Assyrian Church of the East, is there any debate about whether homosexual relations are sinful. In Protestantism, we debate the topic on the merits of one side’s interpretation of Scripture against the other. In the elder branches of Christianity, Tradition guards against inventive doctrines.
To reject what global Christian Tradition has consistently taught is to accuse Christianity of having failed. Like Joseph Smith and his followers, one places himself above (or even outside of) the Christian faith if he personally interprets the apostles and then values his own interpretation over the consistent understanding of Tradition. When one humbly embraces Tradition, he has no need to debate the validity of novel doctrines which contradict the historic and global faith. Contrary doctrines would simply be recognized as non-Christian inventions.
In the final verse of his gospel, the John wrote that the world itself could not hold as many books as it would take to record everything Jesus did. Likewise as many books would be required to explain all that Jesus and His apostles taught. Scripture does not explain the Trinity. Scripture does not say which books are Scripture. Scripture does not explain what it means to be “born again.” Scripture actually says that Jesus was killed on a “stake” (stauros in Greek), not on a cross. Yet we know for certain that His stake was a cross, why? Because of Tradition. We comprehend the Trinity because of Tradition, and we recognize certain books as divinely inspired Scripture because of Tradition.
What did Peter mean in his second letter, when he said that one can become a sharer in the divine nature? We can guess, surmise, and philosophize. Or better yet, we can turn to Tradition, learning from the second generation after the apostles in the writings of Irenaeus. Are we better off independently theorizing about unexplained passages, or humbling ourselves under Tradition’s tutelage?
After I repented of factionalism, I learned just how vast a storehouse of treasures Tradition offers on almost any topic. As one example, when I adhered to Protestantism, I found very little instruction on the topic of praying without ceasing. The Scriptures command it, but Sola Scriptura does not teach us how to actually do it. I found that Protestant teachers had very little of substance to say about it, despite the fact that Scripture demands it. Tradition however, offers a mountain of instruction in it, from Maximus the Confessor in the East to the Divine Office in the West and much more.
THE TRUMP CARD
At the heart of the matter, there are two trump cards: subjectivism and community. The Protestant fears that under the authority of Tradition, heavy handed leaders will impose false doctrines upon them, as appears to some to have happened in Western Europe before the Reformation. The facts of the Reformation are far more nuanced than many realize, but this is not the occasion to dissect those events. If we yield to Tradition as equal in authority to Scripture, we humble ourselves and cast subjective understandings aside, trusting the Christian community (past and present) to understand matters better than the individual believer.
In a dispute of doctrine, one either claims the trump card of superior personal insight, or one trusts in the global and historic leading of the Holy Spirit throughout the ecumenical church. Tradition with a capital T is global, historic, and Biblical. Without Tradition, every believer is subject to the reliability of his or her own mind and/or perceived mysticism (personal interactions with God). The Reformers were well aware that the global church did not agree with the Roman errors against which they protested, as can be seen in Luther’s many references to the “Greek Church.” Sadly however, the protesters chose subjectivism over community.
The inevitable question in this discussion is to which of the traditions a Christian should submit. One must differentiate between Tradition and traditions. Tradition (singular) is ecumenical. Traditions (plural) are factional. Of course, three of the apostolic traditions regard themselves as the one true Church and all others as factional, but I cannot address that here.
Tradition consists of those doctrines and practices which span all four apostolic branches of Christianity. Tradition affirms the doctrine of the Trinity. Tradition affirms 27 New Testament books and 46 in the Old as divinely inspired Scripture. A tradition teaches transubstantiation of the Eucharist (Communion) into the actual body and blood of Jesus, but Tradition does not. A tradition teaches about purgatory, but Tradition does not. Three of the four traditions teach praying to the saints, but Tradition does not. Most of the doctrines which frighten Protestants are only found in traditions, rather than in Tradition.
When we claim Sola Scriptura, I submit that we deprive ourselves of the wealth and stability of Tradition. Can we really reject Jehovah’s Witnesses simply on the basis that our understanding of Scripture whips theirs? Do we comprehend the Apostles better than those whom the Apostles themselves personally taught, and better than the students of their students after them? Should one judge new teachings strictly by one’s own ability to exegete Scripture? The answer to each of these questions of course, is “No.” Tradition protects us in each case.
I have come to depend on Tradition for the illumination of Scripture and spiritual practices. To have either Scripture or Tradition without the other is to miss out on immeasurable riches. I have a beloved friend who defends his use of illegal drugs on the basis of his interpretation of Scripture and his mysticism: “I have prayed about it, and God said…” He has been taught Sola Scriptura, therefore in his mind, Tradition holds no authority over him. Neither therefore does the collective authority of his local congregation, since he finds their teaching on illegal drugs to be legalistic and invalid. If Sola Scriptura is correct, then every man is the potential victim of his interpretation and his mysticism. I beg you to get rich. That is, embrace Tradition as equally authoritative and harmonious with Scripture. The apostle Paul himself did so when discussing whether men should have long hair. Immediately after his own pen wrote the authoritative Scripture on the topic, he referred to ecumenical Tradition as if it were the ultimate authority on the topic:
“But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.”
1Corinthians 11:16 KJV