Protestant Problems – Part 2

Monday, April 20, 2009

In my first post, Protestant Problems – Part 1, I explored the unintended, negative consequences of the Protestant Reformation, especially the doctrine of sola scriptura.  In this post, I would like to follow up with a few more words about Scripture and Tradition, the two usual sources of authority in the Western Church.

I recently finished reading Light from the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition by James R. Payton, Jr. (IVP Academic), which is an excellent primer written for (evangelical) Protestants.  In his chapter on Scripture and Tradition, Payton first compares Protestant and Roman Catholic views of authority and then proceeds to contrast them with the Eastern Orthodox take.  His summary of Western Christian thinking is worth quoting at length:

During the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation brought the issue [of religious authority] to the fore.  As a way of sorting out what the Protestant Reformers came to view as faithful teaching and practice from the rest of what had come o be accepted and practiced, they asserted sola scriptura.  By this they meant that Scripture alone was unquestioned as religious authority.  While they did not repudiate all other claimants to religious authority, they urged that Scripture stood above them all, as the one by which all the rest must be evaluated and qualified.  With this measuring rod, the Protestant Reformers ended up rejecting certain teachings and many practices that had come to be accepted within medieval Western Christendom.  In response, Roman Catholic theologians urged that tradition also must be embraced; this was a main argument in their defense of many of those teachings and practices rejected by the Protestants.  In due course, this Roman Catholic argument was endorsed by the Council of Trent, which affirmed that the faith is received through two sources, Scripture and tradition.  The contrast in approach was thus starkly set forth: Protestants urged Scripture alone, to the detriment of tradition; Roman Catholicism urged Scripture plus tradition. (p. 197)

This, I believe, is a simple way of understanding the divide that still exists within the Western Church.  As Payton admits, however, that distinction is somewhat oversimplified.  In recent times, Payton continues:

That contrast has been criticized as overdrawn.  On the one hand, it has been urged that, rather than viewing Scripture and tradition as two parallel sources, the Roman Catholic perspective sees religious authority as inhering in Scripture as practiced and handed down through the history of the church.  On the other hand, it has been argued that the Protestant Reformers’ actual perspective on religious authority did not repudiate all other ostensible religious authorities in favor of the judgments of individuals based on their reading of Scripture.  Rather, the Protestant Reformers accepted other religious authorities (as, for example, the creeds or a consensus of faithful teaching from the church fathers down through the centuries) as genuine religious authorities superior to the judgments of private individuals but nevertheless subordinate to Scripture.  In other words, Scripture was “alone” in the sense of being the only unquestioned religious norm, and not that it was the only religious authority. (pp. 197-198)

This fits nicely with my contention that we Protestants need to acknowledge the role of the ecumenical creeds and faithful confessions as authoritative guides and fences to what Scripture says.  It also feeds my conviction that we Protestant denominations and individuals are not Lone Rangers; what we do must be in conversation with the larger Church (East and West), and certain things are not up for debate.

What do you think?  Where does our ecclesial authority come from?  Who, if anyone, speaks definitively for the church?

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One thought on “Protestant Problems – Part 2

  1. Pingback: Protestant Problems – Part 4 « Sinaiticus

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