Sola Scriptura Redux: Matthew Barrett, Tradition, and AuthorityNov 7th, 2013 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
I recently happened to read a post at the Gospel Coalition site titled “‘Sola Scriptura’ Radicalized and Abandoned” written by Matthew Barrett. Matthew received a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and is presently an assistant professor of Christian studies at California Baptist University, (and apparently a Lakers fan). In his post Matthew seeks to distinguish sola scriptura from “solo scriptura,” by recovering the authority of tradition, and thereby pulling evangelicals back from what he refers to as the “radicalization” of sola scriptura. The Protestant affirmation that Scripture alone is infallible, he claims, does not mean or entail that Scripture alone is authoritative. Tradition, he claims, ought to be recognized as a subordinate authority under Scripture. This role of tradition is what he refers to as a ‘healthy’ use of tradition between “solo scriptura” on the one hand, and the Catholic conception of tradition on the other hand.
What I’ve done below is merely interject some thoughts and observations regarding Matthew’s remarks, with the hope of stimulating some mutual ecumenical reflection and better mutual understanding on the topic.
The reformers may have rejected Rome’s understanding of tradition and upheld the supremacy and final authority of Scripture over tradition. But we would be mistaken to think the reformers did not value tradition or see it as a subordinate authority in some sense.
The problem with that position, as I pointed out just over two years ago when Peter Leithart made a very similar claim, is that without a Magisterium to provide an authoritative judgment concerning what is and is not authoritative tradition, what gets to count as “tradition” is only what agrees with one’s own interpretation of Scripture. And when what gets to count as “tradition” is only what agrees with one’s own interpretation of Scripture, then tradition has no authority at all, because of the more general principle that “when I submit only when I agree, the one to whom I submit is me,” as Neal and I have explained in “Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority.”1
Therefore, the reformers became frustrated when certain radicals sought to discard tradition altogether. These radicals did not defend and practice sola scriptura, but instead turned to nuda scriptura or solo scriptura.
That’s because there is no principled difference between sola scriptura on the one hand, and “solo scriptura” on the other, for the reason explained in the link just cited. The ‘radicals’ were simply taking the reformers’ position to its logical end.
Consequently, some evangelicals, intentionally or unintentionally, have followed in the footsteps of Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) who said, “I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me, and I am as much on my guard against reading them today, through the medium of my own views yesterday, or a week ago, as I am against being influenced by any foreign name, authority, or system whatever.”
Ironically, such a view cannot preserve sola scriptura. Sure, tradition is not being elevated to the level of Scripture. But the individual is! As Keith Mathison laments, in this view everything is “evaluated according to the final standard of the individual’s opinion of what is and is not scriptural.” To be sure, such a view lends itself more in the direction of individual autonomy than scriptural accountability.
Matthew thinks that if the individual attempts to approach Scripture without the guidance of tradition, the individual elevates himself to the level of Scripture. However, as I have just explained above, that is exactly what Matthew does when he decides what counts as authoritative tradition on the basis of its agreement (or disagreement) with his own interpretation of Scripture. This is why for Matthew, Nicea is in, and Trent is out. By using one’s own interpretation of Scripture as the standard by which to determine what does and does not belong to ‘authoritative’ tradition, one is not avoiding the problem Matthew describes with “solo scriptura;” one is merely covering it up with the illusion of authority, by putting the ‘authority’ label on things chosen on the basis of their agreement with one’s own interpretation, and subsequently removing that label whenever they no longer conform to one’s own interpretation of Scripture. The problem Matthew’s position faces with regard to tradition is the very same problem Neal and I laid out in our “Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority” article with regard to ecclesial authority.
So how do we correct such a mistake? First, we must guard ourselves from an individualistic mindset that prides itself on what “I think” rather than listening to the past. In order to do so, we must acknowledge, as Mathison points out, that “Scripture alone” doesn’t mean “me alone.”
Of course I agree that Scripture should not be interpreted in a vacuum. But if who counts as the “others” with whom I am supposed to agree when I interpret Scripture is based on their agreement (or disagreement) with my own interpretation of Scripture, then the attempt to distinguish oneself from those ‘nuda scripturists‘ is ultimately an exercise in self-deception.
Second, tradition is not a second infallible source of divine revelation alongside Scripture; nevertheless, where it is consistent with Scripture it can and does act as a ministerial authority.
This claim amounts to the notion that whatever agrees with one’s own interpretation of Scripture is authoritative ‘tradition,’ and whatever does not agree with one’s own interpretation of Scripture is not ‘tradition.’ So again, we put the ‘authoritative’ label on that which agrees with our interpretation, and then claim to be under the “subordinate” authority of those labeled things. Anything that does not conform to our interpretation of Scripture is not included in ‘tradition,’ so we never have to submit to anything that does not already conform to our interpretation of Scripture. In other words, we never have to submit at all.
Therefore, it should trouble us, to say the least, should we find ourselves disagreeing with orthodox creeds that have stood the test of time.
No more than it doesn’t trouble Matthew not to be in conformity with Trent, or Florence, or Nicea II. All you do is declare them “unorthodox,” by saying that they are unbiblical. There is no principled difference between doing what Piper and Grudem do to the Apostles Creed (see here), or what Robert Reymond, Gerry Breshears, and Mark Driscoll do in rejecting the Nicene Creed’s teaching that Christ is “eternally begotten” (and Cornelius Plantinga Jr.’s embrace of the social trinitarianism that follows from that denial), R.C Sproul’s denial of the claim that “It was the second person of the Trinity Who died,” or Wes White’s rejection of “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins,” and Matthew denying Trent, Florence, or Nicea II. These men each claim that what they are denying is unbiblical. If Matthew can do this with Trent, Florence or Nicea II, then he has no basis for claiming that Piper, Grudem, Reymond, Breshears, and Driscoll can’t do it for the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. Just as Matthew rejects Trent but claims to be under the subordinate authority of Nicea, so Driscoll can reject “eternally begotten” and claim to be under the subordinate authority of the rest of the Nicene Creed.
Furthermore, what counts as having “stood the test of time” depends entirely on the judgment one makes concerning the identity of the community. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not think the Nicene Creed has “stood the test of time,” because they do not consider its Christology ever to have been properly orthodox. So the “stood the test of time” criterion presupposes a judgment concerning which community has preserved orthodoxy. And without a sacramental magisterial authority identified in relation to a principium unitatis, this judgment is based on agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture. So here too, the “stood the test of time” criterion, along with the orthodox community criterion, both collapse into the “solo scriptura” criterion, because they reduce ultimately to agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture, as I showed in the case of Christianity Today’s Mark Galli here, and in the case of Carl Trueman’s response to Brad Gregory, which I discussed in comment #89 in “Brantly Millegan reviews Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.”
Remember, innovation is often the first indication of heresy. Hence, as Timothy George explains, the reformers sought to tie their “Reformation exegesis to patristic tradition” in order to provide a “counterweight to the charge that the reformers were purveyors of novelty in religion,” though at the end of the day the fathers’ “writings should always be judged by the touchstone of Scripture, a standard the fathers themselves heartily approved.”
And there goes the whole proposal, right back to “solo scriptura.” If everything must be tested against my own interpretation of Scripture, then there is no other authority to which my interpretation must be subject or subordinate. For that reason, the claim that tradition is ‘authoritative’ turns out to be merely semantic. That’s because under this paradigm tradition does not function as authoritative, because one never need submit to it. And that in turn is because what counts as tradition is identified as ‘authoritative’ and retains its ‘authority’ precisely on the basis of its agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture.
Abandoning solo scriptura does not require us to go to the other extreme, namely, elevating tradition to the level of Scripture. But it does require the humility to realize that we are always standing on the shoulders of those who came before us.
If there is no principled difference between “solo scriptura” and sola scriptura, then it is impossible to abandon “solo scriptura” while clinging to sola scriptura. I agree that it requires humility to subordinate one’s own interpretation of Scripture to that of other persons, all other things being equal. But if I pick out the persons to whom I must “subordinate” my interpretation, on the basis of their agreement with my own interpretation, then it requires no humility at all, because it requires no submission at all. Rather, what requires humility, in such a case, is to acknowledge that picking out ‘authorities’ on the basis of their agreement with one’s own interpretation is constructing an illusion of authority that hides from oneself the absence of actual interpretive authority or authoritative tradition to which one must submit or conform one’s interpretation.
For the reformers, the early church fathers were valuable (though not infallible) guides in biblical interpretation. In that light, we would be wise to listen to Luther this Reformation Day: “Now if anyone of the saintly fathers can show that his interpretation is based on Scripture, and if Scripture proves that this is the way it should be interpreted, then the interpretation is right. If this is not the case, I must not believe him”.
That takes us right back to “solo scriptura.” It makes the Church Fathers non-authoritative and superfluous, because if one must test each patristic claim on the basis of its agreement with one’s own interpretation of Scripture, this entails that one has already reached that ‘authoritative’ interpretation of Scripture without the aid or ‘authority’ of the Church Fathers. And if one’s own interpretation is the standard by which to judge whether any patristic claim is ‘authoritative,’ the interpretive authority is oneself, not the Church Fathers.
- This principle is parallel to St. Augustine’s “If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.” [↩]