Streams: Beliefs about the Bible and Tradition

Tradition.

Such an interesting word for Christians. It seems innocent enough, but as it turns out there are very many ways it can be used, few of which are entirely free of controversy. Take, for example, the following statements:

“You’re just follow human tradition instead of the Bible!”

“Tradition tells us that John died on the isle of Patmos under house arrest.”

“Our youth Christmas carolling is an important tradition in our church.”

“The traditional view of marriage is increasingly under fire in the popular media.”

These four statements all use “tradition” very differently, and each of these could be controversial, though not all to the same extent. But this just goes to show how not straightforward understanding the proper role of tradition in the Church can be.

What Do We Mean by “Tradition?”

First off, let’s break down a few basic kinds of tradition. These aren’t technical names, just convenient labels to explain my points. Here are the broad categories:

  • There are local traditions, which are basically unique things that a congregation does and has done for some time. These may or may not come from the Bible in any meaningful sense. But someone started doing it in the past, and now people continue. This kind of tradition can be useful and pleasant, but since it is uniquely local and not tied to fundamental beliefs, they can be removed when necessary or desirable. They should not be debated to the point of remotely serious division.
  • Next are confessional traditions. These are a step above local traditions that come from common denominational ties. They consist of a group of shared beliefs and practices more sharply refined, and are usually outlined in confessional documents (e.g. the Westminster Confession of Faith) or other large written statements (e.g. The Baptist Faith and Message). These traditions determine the differences between denominations, so if you want to change or challenge these traditions, you may find yourself seeking a new church.
  • Historic traditions make up the next group. These are beliefs and practices that have always been common or dominant in the Church, but aren’t spelled out in most creeds or confessions, and were never very controversial in the past. The “traditional view of marriage” falls into this category, as does the belief in the future, physical new earth. When these are challenged, the waters are always a little more murky. Some are more important than others, and it takes serious debate to sort out how to handle what.
  • Finally, there are orthodox traditions or creedal traditions. These are essential beliefs shared by all Christianity, and are mostly written down in some of the early creeds like the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athansian Creed, among some other documents. The Trinity, the relationship between Jesus’ two natures, and similar matters are examples. This kind of a tradition tends to define the boundaries of the Christian faith. Within these boundaries, we assume people to be true followers of Jesus. Outside these boundaries are heresy and false religion.

Now, we as Christians all agree that Scripture is in some way an authority over what we believe. But how does that relate to things in these kinds of traditions, especially the last group? There are three major approaches within Christianity. I want to lay these out simply with the analogy of streams of water.

Sola Scriptura: A Protestant View

One of the most divisive points in the Protestant Reformation, as well as the major wall separating Catholics and Protestants on many issues, is the doctrine of sola Scriptura, or “Scripture alone.” This doctrine states that God speaks His final authoritative word in Scripture and nowhere else. (Technically, this word appears first in God’s words and deeds in history, climaxing in Jesus, and from that point fills Scripture, but I digress.)

This does not mean that it’s impossible to find God’s truth outside of the Bible’s pages. If I read the Bible and then tell you what I read, you would still be getting God’s truth, only through my words. Of course, that’s only the case if I tell you accurately what I read. If I forgot, misinterpreted, or otherwise corrupted something I passed on to you you’d need to go back to Scripture yourself to fix it.

So for my first stream analogy, imagine there is a single stream running down a mountain. This stream is Scripture, and the water source in the mountain is God’s revelation of Himself. The water itself is truth. If you need some water, you can go to the stream and find it.

But suppose that I fill a bucket up with water from this stream and bring it back to my village. Now we all have access to the water from my bucket. This represents the role of tradition. Truth from Scripture is collected into small “buckets” of tradition so that we can get it it more easily.

This bucket, though, has limitations. It’s not at all impossible that it could get polluted or corrupted after some time. We might get some water out of it one day and realize that it’s contaminated. Or after a while it might simply not be as fresh and cool, making it less satisfying for the thirsty man. In either of these cases we’d need to go back to the stream to get fresh, pure water to replace the contaminated water in our bucket. Likewise, sometimes we might find that our traditions of different kinds have gone astray, or at least lost some of their original power due to familiarity and changing cultures or languages. In this case we need to dig back into Scripture to refresh our knowledge of God.

Dei Verbum: A Catholic View

The Catholic view of Scripture and tradition was laid out most clearly in a document entitled Dei Verbum (Latin for “Word of God”) during the Second Vatican Council. While it has existed for much, much longer than that, this is the most up-to-date and definitive explanation. According to Catholic theology, both Scripture and “sacred Tradition” come from God’s same self-revelation to the prophets and apostles. God gave His word to them as a large body of inspired truth, some of which came down to us in the Bible and some of which came down to us by teaching and preaching ministries of the Church.

To adapt the stream analogy for the Catholic view, imagine two streams, for Scripture and sacred Tradition, going down a mountain. Both of them have their head in the same water source, God’s revelation. But the streams take different paths and are different sizes. By the time they reach the bottom of the mountain, they flow into the same lake, the full teaching of the Church.

If anyone wants a drink of water, where should he go? He can go to either of the streams, or the lake they both flow into. Either way he will be getting the same water of God’s truth. But the stream of Tradition is larger, and the combined lake larger still. This is where it is simplest and preferred to get your water.

It’s important to note that in this view, Scripture and sacred Tradition aren’t two totally different things. They both flow from the same word from God and flow into the same body of Church teaching. Therefore to Catholics, if something isn’t in one stream, such as Scripture, but it is in the other, you are still completely justified in believing it and indeed should. This is very much the case with certain doctrines such as the Assumption of Mary (that Mary was taken body and soul to heaven either just before or just after death) or the practice of praying to the saints, both of which come out of the Tradition and not (despite people occasionally saying otherwise) from Scripture itself. 

Regula Fidei: An Orthodox View

Technically, regula fidei, “rule of faith,” is not a phrase unique to the Eastern Orthodox Church. But it seems the easiest way to sum them up. For the Orthodox, Scripture is part of a larger Holy Tradition. This Holy Tradition includes Scripture along with the early creeds and ecumenical councils, the received liturgy, and to some degree the writings of the early church fathers.

In Orthodoxy, this makes Scripture and the other parts of Tradition in an interdependent relationship. They all work together and complement other to make of the whole teaching of the Apostles passed down within the Church. Whereas Protestants put Scripture above tradition, and Catholics tend to put Scripture beneath Tradition, Orthodoxy places Scripture within Tradition. Of course, there is a spectrum like with everything else. Some versions of sola Scriptura, those which are also called prima Scriptura, are basically the same as some looser versions of the Orthodox view.

For the streams analogy, imagine again God’s revelation as the water source on top of the mountain. In this case there is a large stream flowing out from it, which is the Holy Tradition. This stream has many smaller branches coming in and out, including Scripture as a major branch, but also branches for Eucharist liturgies, creeds, etc. Yet these all come together again and again as one stream full of the water of truth.

Streams: Beliefs about the Bible and Tradition

How To Be a True Biblicist (Or, Unexpected Truth about Taking the Bible Seriously)

“I just believe the Bible.” People say this a lot, and in a previous post of mine I examined why that’s not really true for anyone. That said, there is a worthy ideal behind that statement. Pardon my Protestantism showing, but I believe we are called as Christians to subject all of our thoughts and beliefs to the teachings of the Bible. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the final authority for us. This means we have to accept what the Bible says in faith, at some points even just giving up on the use of our own reason.

This brings me to the term “Biblicist.” This word is usually only used by people who either don’t know, don’t care, or don’t understand major doctrinal systems, and wish to indicate that they simply believe what the Bible teaches. As an example, many people in the debate over Calvinism/Arminianism claim to be neither and call themselves “Biblicists” instead. Regardless of how true that is—most of the people I hear say this just agree with Arminianism without the name—there is an implied concept of what it means to just believe the Bible, and that concept is regarded as a worthy goal.

I, too, believe that we should be content to believe the Bible, and just take it for what it really says. But I do not agree with the popular idea that you can do this just by reading the Bible, thinking about it by yourself, and sticking with your first impressions. While many people do this, and many people would even say this is what you should do, I do not believe this is at all faithful to Scripture. The irony then becomes that in trying to respect the Bible, they end up abusing it.

So what does it really mean to take the Bible seriously? How can we “just believe the Bible” in a way that is neither naïve and ignorant nor critical and arrogant? Here are several points about what I think it means to be a true Biblicist:

  • A true Biblicist reads the Bible. As obvious as it sounds, actually reading the Bible is a must to really treat it faithfully. Brilliant theologians, angry KJV-onlyists, and the everyman believer alike all struggle with this. Reading the Bible is key, but way too often we don’t really do it. That makes a difference in both how we live and what we believe, since the more we read the Bible the more stuff we realize is in there that we didn’t even know about.

  • A true Biblicist reads about the Bible. What many people don’t realize is that you can’t read the Bible for all it is worth without also reading about the Bible. Why is this? See, the Bible was written for us, but not to us. Every book of Scripture was written to people of a totally different culture, in totally different cities, with totally different worldviews. So there are phrases, nuances of words, and even entire lines of thought which would make immediate sense to the original authors and audiences of the books of the Bible, but not to us (or, worse, they could give us a completely different impression than they did the original audience). This is why we have to read about the Bible in order to learn what they knew that we don’t know. Otherwise we’re likely to make the Bible say things it isn’t really saying.

  • A true Biblicist reads the Bible with trust. As opposed to the skeptic who suspects errors, biases, or political agendas behind the text of every page, the true Biblicist assumes the authors to be reliable, straightforward, and honest without good reason to think otherwise. When he runs into something that throws him off, he does research, uses real reading comprehension, and approaches it all with charity before shouting, “Error!” or “Contradiction!”

  • A true Biblicist reads the Bible honestly. As opposed to the fiery young apologist who uses his own creativity or fantasy to figure everything out, and accepts or promotes far-fetched answers to the perplexing problems of the Bible, the true Biblicist is willing to accept when the Bible doesn’t make sense. He won’t deny the difficulties, and he won’t go to absurd lengths to reconcile everything that doesn’t obviously connect (e.g. he won’t propose that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice). He’ll say, “I don’t know,” when he can’t figure out a passage.

  • A true Biblicist reads judges tradition by the Bible. I am fairly squarely within the broader Reformed tradition, theologically speaking. Most of my family and friends are in the Baptist tradition, or a closely related part of the evangelical Protestant tradition like Pentecostalism. All of these traditions must be judged by Scripture. The true Biblicist is willing to move from one tradition to another based on what he finds in the Bible. He will not force fit everything the Bible says into his tradition’s party lines.

  • A true Biblicist reads the Bible within a tradition. Reading the Bible without tradition is a quick way to fall into all kinds of heresy. The broader Christian tradition tells us about the Trinity and Jesus’ dual natures, and without this tradition you’d need to be a genius to sort this all out by yourself in a single lifetime. More specific doctrines like election, end times, baptism, and spiritual gifts are all interpreted differently in different traditions, and the true Biblicist recognizes this. He does not seek to understand the Bible all by himself, but instead joins forces with like-minded believers so that he can share in the wisdom and insight God has given them, both the fellow members of his tradition in the present and the formers of that tradition from the past.

  • A true Biblicist forms his own opinions on what the Bible says. Unlike the “my daddy taught me this” traditionalist, the true Biblicist reads and wrestles with the Bible personally. He doesn’t just inherit his ideas and beliefs from his parents, pastors, and teachers, because they are all fallible, normal /people. Instead, he checks the Bible himself to make sure that what he is hearing is true.

  • A true Biblicist never forms opinions on the Bible all by himself. Even though the Biblicist seeks to understand the Bible for himself and not just take the word of others as Gospel, he also listens closely to the words of others for help. The Holy Spirit works in all believers of all places and times, so the true Biblicist recognizes this valuable resource. He knows that he is not the smartest, most educated, most enlightened, or more spiritual reader of the Bible, so he is ready and willing to seek advice, insight, and answers from other Christians, even those from totally different traditions.

  • A true Biblicist respects the Bible as the word of God. The Bible claims for itself in various ways a special status as God speaking to people through human authors. It is filled with divine authority, and when we read the Bible we (through the power of the Holy Spirit) hear the voice of God. It comes from the Father through the Spirit working in human beings to testify about the Son. Therefore the Biblicist listens to God when He reads the Bible.

  • A true Biblicist recognizes that Jesus is the Word of God. There is a reason that I capitalize Word when referring to Jesus but not the Bible. The Bible does not seek to be the focus of our attention, the utter fulfillment of God’s revelation, but to make us see Jesus Christ—the Word who was in the beginning—in its pages. It is Jesus who is the exact expression of God’s nature and the radiance of His glory, God’s final revelation of Himself in word and deed. The Bible serves not to usurp Jesus’ role as final revelation and make us focus on itself, but to complement His role by unpacking and explaining Him with inspired authority. After all, the Scriptures themselves do not save and sanctify us. They lead us to the Son of God, the eternal Word, who accomplished it all!

And while all of this is necessary to be a true Biblicist (even if some of these points are rather counter-intuitive), there is a final and perhaps most important part of being a true Biblicist. The Bible is meant to be understood with the illuminating work of God’s Holy Spirit, and there is only one way to receive the power of the Spirit. This way is prayer. The true Biblicist prays that God the Father will give Him the help of the Spirit so that He can see the glory of the Son in the Holy Scriptures. Without this, all of the other efforts will fall short. The Bible, after all, is just words without the Spirit of the Living God bringing them to life in our hearts. So let us pray that He will do it! Amen.

How To Be a True Biblicist (Or, Unexpected Truth about Taking the Bible Seriously)

I Don’t Just “Believe the Bible,” And Neither Do You

It is normal and usually well-regarded in evangelical circles for people to say that they simply “believe the Bible.” They’re not this or that, and they don’t follow such or the other philosophy. They just believe God’s Word, and all the people said Amen! Hallelujah! 

Well, as nice as this might sound, it’s not real. No one really just believes the Bible, nor would it be possible to do so. When we come to Scripture, we all bring preexisting logical structures, presuppositions, and other ideas to the text which are not necessarily present within it. This doesn’t necessarily rule out the correctness of our doctrines or interpretations, but it does mean that I am not a neutral, object party taking Scripture for what it says. Instead, my own mental life shapes Scripture.

Need you specific example? Take Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Already, we are affected by our existing ideas. Who is this “God” character? Most of us have a concept of God before we approach Scripture, though we usually allow Scripture to modify this.

But more than that, I want to point out that none of us are really just starting with the Bible on its own because of traditions. I don’t mean this as a necessarily bad thing, but we all understand the Bible through tradition.

“No, Caleb!” you may object. “I do not hold to any traditions, only God’s Word!”

But I do not think that is true. The truth is that, whether you know it or not, you agree with and learn from a particular stream of Christian tradition. Yours might be evangelical Baptist or Pentecostal. Yours might be Lutheran or Catholic. Or perhaps you’re non-denominational. But even in that case you almost certainly follow evangelical tradition and Protestantism. We all inherit our ideas about the Bible from somewhere. No man simply approaches the Bible and figures it all out from there.

The question is not who repudiates the most tradition in favor of Scripture, but which tradition is most faithful to Scripture. To address that issue at all, we must recognize the traditions which have shaped us and in which we get our ideas of Christianity. I know I’m an evangelical, Reformed-ish Protestant. What about you?

P.S. I should specify that I do believe it to be imperative that we make the Bible our ultimate norm and authority as believers. But we don’t approach it just one-on-one, me-to-text. Instead, we come to it as a community of faith with a history of shared spiritual wisdom. That way we find its truth.

I Don’t Just “Believe the Bible,” And Neither Do You

Bible Interpretation: Don’t Wander Alone

“That’s just your interpretation.”

How many times have you heard those infamous words? Any time you disagree with certain people over what the Bible teaches, you will hear this. And while your initial reaction may be frustration or condescension, it does raise a legitimate question. When different people disagree on the meaning of Scripture, at least some of them are wrong. These even applies when people interpret the Bible in the same general way. So for some beliefs, that really is just “your” interpretation.

Of course, this isn’t the meaning behind most people saying those dreaded words. Usually it’s more like, “You and I disagree, but it doesn’t matter what you say, because your argument isn’t actually any better than anyone else’s.” This is a little ridiculous, but many people think that way. Still, the question remains what makes that wrong. I mean, with so many conflicting interpretations of so many passages, how are we to know what is true?

There is one way to know what not to do. This is the #1 rule: whatever you do, when uncertain, never try to interpret Scripture alone. Even though this is the agreed unspoken method of many Christians, it is a horrible idea. Here’s why: the individual is foolish, but the species is wise.

What do I mean by this? We are each quite limited by ourselves. I’m a 19-year-old kid from 21st century America who speaks modern English. I am far from qualified to properly understand everything written by brilliant, divinely inspired adults from first century Israel who wrote in Koine Greek. Even a top-notch scholar isn’t quite up to that task by himself. So how do we understand Scripture, then?

The answer, of course, is together with those who were the first to understand. We have tradition as a guard-rail, to make sure we don’t wander off from the real meaning of Scripture. From day one, the Apostles taught, the next generations continued their teaching, and the Church historically has preserved a great deal of truth about Scripture interpretation. As an example, consider the Trinity. Today, if I just opened a Bible and started reading, I might never figure the Trinity out by myself. But we have been passed down the truths worked out by Christians past so that we can now interpret texts on Christ’s deity and the role of the Holy Spirit properly.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try to understand Scripture by yourself at all. Indeed, many verses and passages are easy enough to understand when translated to English. But when you find a controversy, a question, or a difficulty, look to people who have studied Scripture more, those who know the traditional answers of the Church, and other resources to link you to historical understanding and wiser minds. Because you and I, my friend, however smart we may be, are mostly likely going to be wrong if we try to figure out the tough stuff ourselves, but with the help of many believers and those who came before us, we can learn a great deal.

Bible Interpretation: Don’t Wander Alone