The Limits of Tradition as a Hermeneutical Aid

Interpreting Scripture is sometimes a challenging endeavor. I previously considered whether the Rule of Faith or regula fidei provides a guide to believers. Here, I consider the role of tradition as an aid to interpretation.

Members of hierarchical church communities have sometimes chided evangelicals for their disregard of tradition, saying that tradition should not raise an objection for anyone because we find the principle in Scripture itself. Paul tells 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). The word for tradition is paradosis, or handing on.

The idea of passing truth from hand to hand finds no objection with evangelicals. This is further strengthened by Paul’s counsel to Timothy, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Tim. 2:2). Some have focused on this “handing on” as a practice, something that was done very early in the life of the church, and thus the act itself is prescriptive. But this misses the point. The importance is not in the act of passing on from one generation to another, but in the content of what is passed on. The content of tradition becomes problematic when it is no longer the faith that was “once for all delivered to the saints” as Jude urges us to contend for, but includes an ever-increasing catalogue of practices and dogmas. Everett Ferguson notes this change.

“In the fourth century, therefore, the usage of tradition was narrowed to what is transmitted in the church, and the distinction between written scripture and unwritten tradition became a standard formulation, but tradition was still primarily applied to church practices. Tradition came to prominence in a polemical context, first in response to Gnostic claims, and then in internal church conflicts. Like other successful arguments, the argument from tradition became a part of the doctrines it was designed to defend. But on many controverted issues it was a two-edged sword, with both sides claiming tradition in their favor.”[1]

The irony is that tradition, presumed to represent a body of doctrine unchanged and unaltered, has itself become the object of repeated additions and amendments. Jaroslav Pelikan puts it this way:

“Such an exhortation as ‘let us reverently hold fast to the confession of the fathers’ seemed to assume, by its use of ‘confession’ in the singular and of ‘fathers’ in the plural, that there was readily available a patristic consensus on the doctrines with which the fathers had dealt in previous controversy and on the doctrines over which debate had not yet arisen – but was about to arise. When it did arise, the existence of such a patristic consensus became problematic. When an orthodox church father such as Gregory of Nyssa appeared to be in agreement with a heretic such as Origen on the eventual salvation of all men, it was necessary to explain away this agreement. When it appeared that there was a contradiction between two passages in Gregory of Nazianzus, closer study would show ‘their true harmony.’”[2]

In other words, if we’re looking for a definitive “tie-breaker” for parts of Scripture that are difficult for us now, chances are they were difficult for previous ages, too. You can likely find people on many sides of an issue.

This is why a claim that tradition will solve our problems can be too facile. Christopher A. Hall presents a picture of evangelical exegesis that is not quite accurate. “Why bother about church traditions? Why do we need any authorities or authority outside of the Bible? Can we not simply affirm sola Scriptura and be done with it? Many Christians, including a vast number of evangelicals, would affirm yes. We have our Bible and the inner illumination of the Holy Spirit, and we attend an excellent church where our pastor interprets the Bible thoroughly, faithfully, and insightfully. What need for more?”[3] This is not a fair picture of the evangelical treatment of Scripture. Many evangelicals interpret within the context of the church and a hermeneutical tradition. The difference is they do not hold that a college of bishops has ultimate say, nor church councils.

Scot McKnight and Hauna Ondrey address just such a misconception as Hall presents. “Even if one can deconstruct Protestantism this way, this radical democratization of interpretation is a principle only. It does not actually work out this way because most learn to read the Bible within an interpretive tradition that exercises considerable heft.”[4] Hall surely knows that the Reformers made their appeal to the fathers. Their plea was that the church had strayed from the apostolic witness and the body of biblical truth, as understood by the fathers. Halls spends the next several pages of his essay arguing for an interpretive model that locates itself within tradition, noting, among other things, that the fathers’ use of the regula fidei was a safeguard against exegetical excess. (I demonstrated in a previous post that it is not accurate to cast the regula fidei as an exegetical rule, but as a tool against heretics.) Yet he admits that tradition is not entirely reliable. How may we distinguish between authentic developments and invalid mutations? “The crucial criterion for evaluating the authenticity of a development, it seems to me, is whether the development faithfully, wisely, and coherently expresses the truth found in Scripture.”[5] In other words, when there is a determination to be made of what is true, Hall reverts to the same sola scriptura principle that he is so suspicious of. When he takes his own logic to its end, Hall must admit that despite his consternation over the diversity of interpretation he finds within evangelicalism, tradition does not provide anything in the way of a definitive guide. We must return to the biblical record itself.

[1] Everett Ferguson, “Paradosis and Traditio: A Word Study”, in Tradition and the Rule of Faith in the Early Church, Ronnie J. Rombs and Alexander Y. Hwang, eds. (Washington, The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), p. 28.

[2] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700) (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 21.

[3] Christopher A. Hall, “Tradition, Authority, Magesterium,” in Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future, Mark Husbands and Jeffrey P. Greenman, eds. (Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 2007), p. 28.

[4] Scot McKnight and Hauna Ondrey, Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy (Waco, Baylor Univ. Press, 2008), p. 219.

[5] Hall, p. 41

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