Scripture, Tradition, and Traditions

The relationship between Tradition and Scripture is an important subject I have addressed in quite a few of my published works and which I will certainly discuss in some detail in my doctoral research. My opinion on the matter is this. I grant the priority of Tradition to Scripture and the necessity of Tradition for the interpretation of Scripture. But this is merely a formal matter; the real difficulty lies in putting material meat on these formal bones and identifying this or that tradition as the one true Tradition.

It is typical to distinguish between Tradition, with a big T, which is that shared body of practices and beliefs that are essential to Christianity as such, and traditions, which are unique to particular places and which do not enjoy catholicity. But what if, instead of one Tradition, there were Traditions? To my mind, it is also possible that Scripture is actually the product of a number of (presumably) mutually compatible and enriching Traditions, the collection of which in a single volume (i.e., the Bible) demands a kind of synthesis through theological reflection that can only be undertaken in time, as the Church thinks about the things she has received. These syntheses can obviously differ from place to place, and for this reason there may not exist any single Tradition which detains the complete synthesis, although presumably such a synthesis is at least possible, whereas Scripture would retain its status as a uniquely privileged deposit of holy traditions.

The question of magisterium is also relevant here. It would seem that a magisterium can guarantee the reliable, faithful propagation of a tradition from generation to generation, as well as make judgments about what is consistent with the tradition and what is not. But this is, again, a merely formal matter; it is another matter to identify a particular presumed magisterium and to grant it this kind of authority. Furthermore, the question regarding the number of Traditions is important here. It is one thing for a magisterium to belong a particular tradition, and it is another for a magisterium to have a kind of trans-traditional authority, and yet another for a particular magisterium to claim that it is authoritative over the one and only Tradition.

Lately I have been thinking about the essence of Protestantism, if there is such a thing. One possible proposal, in light of the above reflections, is this. Protestantism maintains Scripture is comprised of many Traditions, the plurality of which is recognized in the theological diversity by which the Church has been characterized throughout its history, but there is no universally authoritative magisterium, as a result of which the theological task is necessarily synthetic and incomplete in every generation. This would seem to be something like what Kevin Vanhoozer proposes in his various books, especially Biblical Authority After Babel (2016).

Protestantism goes further than this, however, because of the doctrines of sola scriptura and claritas scripturae. These ideas — that Scripture alone is the ultimate theological authority, above all traditions, and that the main ideas of Scripture are clear to the faithful reader — are presuppositions of the theological task as Protestantism conceives it. The theologian’s task is to interpret Scripture, which is clear to her, at least in what is most important and basic, as a result of its inspiration and the theologian’s true faith.

Whereas I am inclined at times to agree with the Protestant understanding of the relationship between Tradition, Scripture, and Magisterium as I described it above, I am not so inclined to grant these interpretive principles. I think that the formal priority of Tradition to Scripture implies that Tradition is the ultimate theological authority, not Scripture; and phenomenological reflection reveals that it is impossible to read Scripture except within the context of some tradition or other. As for the clarity of Scripture, I do not admit this principle, once more because of the necessity of tradition for interpretation. I think these principles perhaps are motivated by a kind of foundationalist search for certainty, something which cannot be come across.

What does theology look like, if Scripture is a collection of Traditions which demand a synthesis over the course of the Church’s history? I can offer only a few thoughts here, since I am still pondering these things. In the first place, theology that is conscious of the plurality of Traditions comprising Scripture must be done in historical awareness — i.e., it must be done with the awareness that it is being done in a distinctly Augustinian vein, or Palamite, or whatever. Moreover, theology always has to be principally preoccupied with Scripture, since the plurality of Traditions implies that Scripture alone is a complete repository of theological knowledge. Furthermore, it must be done in dialogue with other Traditions, taking them seriously as depositories of genuine theological knowledge. Finally, there is probably need of some kind of inspired theological “intuition” — the theologian must be able to “see” the essence of a matter and to understand how to reason in accordance with it, separating the wheat from the chaff in every Tradition which it takes as a source.

Published by Steven

I study theology and philosophy without ceasing. I have a B.A. in Philosophy from Arizona State University (2013), and an M.Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary (2016). I am currently an adjunct professor of philosophy at Grand Canyon University and a Ph.D. student at Fuller Theological Seminary.

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