Five hundred years ago, the Protestant Reformation led the way out of the supposed theological dark ages and brought us ad fontes, back to the Bible. We recognize five main features to come from the Reformation: 1) Scripture alone is our highest authority (sola Scriptura); 2) We are saved by faith alone (sola fide); 3) We are saved by grace alone (sola gratia); 4) Jesus Christ, alone, is our Lord, Savior and Redeemer (solus Christus); 5) We live for the glory of God alone (soli Deo gloria).
These five aspects represent the best of ideas from that period of Christian history. However, one of the unintended consequences of the Reformation has been an emphasis on the authority of Scripture at the expense of church tradition.
At its best, neglecting church tradition is simply a desire to get back to the teachings of the New Testament church. At its worst it is a doctrine called Restorationism, a belief that the post-Apostolic church quickly lost its way (theologically) and it was only until some later church movement that the truth was rediscovered.
Restorationist movements sometimes fall within the realm of Christian orthodoxy (like the Plymouth Brethren), have questionable positions (like the Seventh-Day Adventists) or even reject the essential doctrines of the Christian faith (Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses). Restorationists and those who only want to get back to the Bible find themselves in an interesting place: They ultimately end up reinventing the theological wheel.
When a new church plan or nondenominational church plant begins and neglects church tradition, they find themselves having to reinvestigate and rehash ancient controversies. By returning to the Scriptures at the expense of church tradition, we ignore the good explanatory development of theological doctrine over the centuries, including essential Christian doctrines such as the Trinitarian God and the fully divine and fully human natures of Jesus Christ.
The post-Apostolic church and even the Reformers themselves recognized that tradition was good so long as the Scriptures supported it. Consider the following examples (emphases mine):
Irenaeus (2nd century, Bishop of Lyon), in his book Against Heresies: “We have learned the plan of our salvation from none other than from those through whom the gospel has come down to us. For they did at one time proclaim the gospel in public. And, at a later period, by the will of God, they handed the gospel down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.”
Gregory (4th century, Bishop of Nyssa), in On the Holy Trinity: “For if custom is to avail for proof of soundness, we too, surely, may advance our prevailing custom; and if they reject this, we are surely not bound to follow theirs. Let the inspired Scripture, then, be our umpire, and the vote of truth will surely be given to those whose dogmas are found to agree with the Divine words.”
John Calvin, in his Sept. 1, 1539, letter to the Roman Catholic Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto, described how the Reformation, in challenging the Roman Catholic church, was the continuation of the good tradition of the church Fathers: “Indeed, in attacking, breaking down and destroying your kingdom, we are armed not only with the energy of the Divine Word, but with the aid of the holy Fathers also. ... For, although we hold that the Word of God alone lies beyond the sphere of our judgment, and that Fathers and Councils are of authority only in so far as they accord with the rule of the Word, we still give to Councils and Fathers such rank and honor as it is meet for them to hold, under Christ.”
For Calvin, church tradition was not the problem. Bad church tradition was the problem. And there were two sources for correcting it: Scripture and good church tradition. Christian tradition is not something we should accept uncritically, but neither is it something we should write off completely or reinvent solely to reinforce our own views. Rather, Christian tradition is something we should study and learn from, recognizing when, where and how theological positions fit with the “sole authority of the Scriptures,” and when they don’t.
For each of the thinkers presented here (Irenaeus, Gregory and Calvin), good tradition was undergirded by Scripture, and Scripture was the final authority. As we enter into the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (an act of recognizing the value of Christian tradition, itself), let us also go 1,000 or 1,500 years back to learn from the Christian thinkers who came before.
T. Kurt Jaros (’10, M.A. ’11) is the executive director of Defenders Media, an alliance of Christian apologetic ministries, and the host of Veracity Hill, a weekly podcast striving for truth on faith, politics and society. He is working on his Ph.D. in historical and systematic theology, studying the doctrine of original sin. He lives in the suburbs of Chicago with his wife and two daughters.