Scripture, Reason, Tradition

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On the Use of Scripture, Reason and Tradition in Theology

The question of where to begin in one's theological method has always haunted any systematic arrangement of theology. Should one begin with evidentialist arguments stemming from first principles? Should one begin with natural theology in defending the existence of God from pure reason? Or should one begin solely with the presupposition of God's existence? Or should one begin with the nature of Scripture as the means to knowing God, thus leading to a description of the God who exists?

Erickson uniquely handles the problem by suggesting that we begin the theological task by both assuming God's existence and God's self-revelation. In other words, 'God is' and 'God has spoken'; or as Francis Schaeffer put it, "He is there and He is not silent." Erickson whittles these two assumptions into a single presupposition: the "self-revealing God".[1] When explicated to the full, Erickson's starting presupposition expands to the following statement:

There exists one Triune God, loving, all-powerful, holy, all-knowing, who has revealed himself in nature, history, and human personality, and in those acts and words which are now preserved in the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.[2]

I don't think Erickson gains any epistemological ground in combining the two assumptions into one proposition. Furthermore, his starting point (as stated in the definition above) appears to be thoroughly developed and initially packed with Christian theology before he even begins the theological task.


The Limits of Reason

In my opinion, Erickson doesn't adequately defend his view of the relationship between reason and revelation. As stated in Dr. Sanders' lecture, Erickson's critiques of other's views fail to recognize that his own critique is grounded in a philosophical position. For better or for worse, it does not appear that one can escape rooting a systematic presentation of doctrine in some philosophical foundation. Perhaps this highlights how a systematic theology is always at least two-steps removed from revelation. Or perhaps it merely underscores the fact that any worldview developed in light of Christian revelation will have philosophical underpinnings in order to sustain one's systematic framework -- a framework both foreign to and supported by Scripture.

The Christian life begins with grace and faith, not reason. In seeking to properly relate reason to revelation, the weakness of unaided human reason is exposed.

Reason may play a role and be an instrument in God's call, but one never becomes a Christian simply by reaching the end of a purely human chain of reasoning and concluding, "Well, I guess if I want to be reasonable I have to believe in God and Jesus Christ." No, the genesis of authentic Christianity may include a process of reasoning, but it cannot be reduced to that. Faith is that mysterious element which involves personal conviction, an insight from somewhere else, a transformation of heart that inclines one toward God in a new way.[3]

In spite of the philosopher's best attempts, the relationship of reason to revelation cannot be thoroughly harmonized. They are at odds at certain points. Donald Bloesch addresses this conflict of intentions: "Philosophy is necessarily anthropocentric or homocentric. Even when a place is made for God, God is there to crown the human quest for wisdom and security."[4] Bloesch concludes by stating that

Philosophy is neither a preparation for theology nor a handmaid of theology� Instead, it is a potential rival of theology, for it represents a world view that must invariably conflict with the biblical view of God and the world. Yet it is not necessarily an enemy of theology, for the Spirit of God works in the world as well as in the church. The partial truths that it stumbles upon can be brought into the service of theology.[5]


The Value of Tradition

In regard to tradition, Erickson quickly brushes aside its significance as a true source for theology. According to Erickson, "History is theology's laboratory, in which it can assess the ideas that it espouses or considers espousing."[6] Thus, he gives tradition an experimental and advisory role, but not an authoritative position. Indeed, it appears that tradition is no more than another name for experience.

From an evangelical perspective, I agree with Erickson's Scripture-centeredness in his theological method. I also agree with Erickson's attempts to relate theology to other sources of authority. As far as I can tell, Erickson does not consider reason, tradition, and experience to necessarily be at odds with the theological task.

My main difference with Erickson centers around his use of tradition as a theological source. I would accord tradition much greater significance than Erickson. In the hierarchy of available sources I would assign it second place, with reason and experience tied in third place. Our experience and reason can be very misleading (and faddish, being bound to contemporary standards) if not interpreted through the grid of Holy Scripture as seen in and through the historic traditions of the Christian faith.

I agree with Vincent of Lerins that all authentic and binding Christian teaching must be established in light of what "has been believed everywhere (ecumenity), always (antiquity), and by all people (universality of consensus)." I believe that this is summarized in the first four ecumenical creeds and the historic "rule of faith".[7] Evangelicals are none the stronger for abandoning or forgetting these authoritative sources.

Evangelicals are suspicious at best and forgetful at worst when it comes to tradition. I do not believe that tradition is bad in and of itself. Indeed, a common received tradition is the very tie that binds Christians together. When ancient traditions are abandoned, we are not left tradition-less. Rather, new traditions are developed to replace them. In the process, the new traditions are usually faddish in nature, having no context outside the present moment in which to analyze their relative value. The test of time is the best test of truth and the traditions of the past have either passed this test or revealed their inadequacies. Either way, they are a stable point for engaging in the theological task.

I believe a distinction must be drawn between tradition and traditionalism. Traditionalism views tradition as the highest authority and thus relegates Scripture to equal or lesser authority. On the other hand, to consider tradition as a source of authority in the theological task, is not to succumb to the error of traditionalism. When tradition is properly viewed as a valid, yet a lesser, authority than Scripture, it proves very helpful and illuminating.


The Priority of Biblical Revelation

In short, I view tradition, reason, and experience as valid authorities in the development of Christian theology. But the final authority is Holy Scripture. An analogy could be drawn from our court system. We have lower and higher courts in our land. The ultimate court is the Supreme Court. When contentions arise, people appeal to the proper authorities. Initially, they take their conflict to a lower court. If the lower court cannot reach an authoritative decision, then the appeal must be taken to a higher court. Ultimately, the disagreement may have to be heard in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court will then have the final say, since it is the ultimate authority.

I believe that this is the essence of the historic understanding of Sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura does not teach that Scripture is our only authority, rather it teaches that Scripture is our highest authority. Thus, tradition, reason, and worship are important authorities, but not the final court of appeal. That place is reserved for Scripture alone.

Thus I agree with Millard Erickson in affirming that the primary source of theology is the canon of Scripture. His definition of theology confirms this to be the case: Theology is that discipline which strives to give a coherent statement of the doctrines of the Christian faith, based primarily on the Scriptures, placed in the context of culture in general, worded in a contemporary idiom, and related to issues of life.[8]

This does not negate the great value of tradition or the use of reason in the theological task. Rather, it accords Scripture primacy of authority over these two helpful sources. In the process, Scripture is interpreted in a context that allows all valid sources of authority -- tradition, reason, and even experience -- to form and shape our theological system.


[1]Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998), 34.

[2] Ibid., 34.

[3] Stanley Grenz & Roger Olson, Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 17.

[4] Donald Bloesch, A Theology of Word and Spirit: Authority and Method in Theology (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 40.

[5] Ibid., 49.

[6] Millard Erickson, 28.

[7] " Now, with regard to this rule of faith�that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend�it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son, and, under the name of God, was seen �in diverse manners� by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day; (then) having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises amongst ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics." (Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, Chapter 13)

[8] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 23. Italics added.

© Richard J. Vincent, July 25, 2000

5 Comments

I'm glad to see someone from one of the more conservative faith traditions point this out. Paul Tillich, in "Dynamics of Faith", talks about the state of many modern Protestant Churches as having the Bible itself as an object of worship instead of our primary conduit to the living, transcendant God. In effect, what happens is idolatry. This may seem extreme to some people, but think about it. Taking the Bible so literally that you would cut off a vital piece of the male anatomy (as a man in the Philippines did recently) in obedience to Mark 9:43 (If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off, for it is better to enter the Kingdom of God disfigured than the whole body go to Hell). This is an extreme example of course, but many well meaning Christians do silly and irrational things because they focus on the Bible as an end rather than a means to experiencing God. I personally share the attitude of John Wesley, who said that scripture, reason, tradition, and experience are the primary (though certainly not the only) ways we experience God. The primacy of scripture, though, cannot be understated. Good words, Rich.
There is more here than I should attempt in this space, so I will be succinct and trust you will research the scriptures and pray that God will put us on the same page...... We can know about God from things around us(Rom 1:19), but to know about God and to know Him are two different things. DeCarte said "I think therefore I am", but where did he come from? How did he become "I am"? He did not think himself into existence. Thomas Aquinas clearly proved God's existence five ways(Summa Theologica), but demons know and believe yet shutter(Jas 2:19). So the real question is: How can we know the Living God? Faith is a gift from God.(Eph 2:8), Faith comes by hearing the Word of God.(Rom 10:17)It is the Word that revives us.(Ps 119:25-40) The Word keeps us straight.(Ps 119:67-105) Jesus said:"Santify them through Thy Truth, Thy Word is Truth" Jn 17:17 Notice in Jn 7:16 doctrine(or teaching) is singular, i.e. there is only one teaching, but many applications. Whenever doctrine is plural it is always doctrines of demons(Col2:22. Heb 13:9, I Tim 4:1, etc.(Also see Col 1:11-12). Although God can do all things,He has chosen to use His Word, and His Spirit living in us to communicate with us. It is the only verifiable method that we can be absolutely sure of at all times. Therefore all things must be held up in light of His Word. Experiential reasoning can lead us astray, unless it lines up with God's Word. To say for example we can "sense" His presents is to say it is possible not to "sense" His presence, yet He is omnipresent. Since the Word is alive, it is not idol worship to rely upon a living communication through the Word with the living God. Belivers have the mind of Christ.(I Cor 2:16), therefore we have the living Christ in us, who uses His Word (truth) Jn 15:26 in our lives to accompolish His purposes (witness v26, keep from stumbling 16:1). If you look from the basis of meaning and purpose, Scripture can be the only authority, because experiential is self centered and only for self purposes, not for the Kingdom of God. There is so much more that could be said, however I will conclude with Jn 1:1 "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God". There is no other authority. Dick Young
Rich, Your writings are always very thoughtful and sometimes brilliant. These thoughts regarding the role of tradition in theology and hermeneutics are the former. Quite correctly you point out that evangelicals are wrong in fleeing from the tradition which should be our home. We are to live in the traditions once and for all handed down by the saints. However, while you state that tradition is a secondary authority, under scripture, you also say that experience and reason are to be "interpreted through the grid of holy Scripture as seen in and through the historic traditions of the Christian faith". This gives tradition the authority over Scripture to say what it means, making tradition the supreme authority. This is precicely the point at which the Reformers conflicted with the Roman Church. Who has authority over interpretation? Is it the Church (in the robes of tradition and the Roman See) or is it individual conscience standing in the sight of God? You and I know that they both have this responsibility of interpretation, but where is the authority vested? Rome says in her traditions and her counsels. Do you agree, or do you propose another set of traditions and counsels? Is there another infalible judge that you suggest? I suggest that there is, it is the one pointed to by all of the Reformers. God speaking directly through Scriptures: Scripture interprets Scripture. We have and need no higher authority. You rightly notice that it is not possible for us as humans to get entirely away from traditions. We set up new ones which "are usually faddish in nature". And you correctly imply that our understanding of doctrine and theology will be shaped by these traditions, whatever they are and wherever they come from. But is that recognition reason to abandon ourselves whole heartedly to the dictates of tradition as mediator of Scripture? I think that while you have much that I applaud in this essay, you need to fine tune your understanding (or at least expression) of tradition's role in interpretation. Thanks for the wonderful web pages! Doug P. Baker
Sorry I'm late to the discussion... by a year and a half ... Scripture is not obvious on its face as to its underlying meaning nor its framework of interpretation. If that were true, then there was no need for Christ to explain its meaning on the road to Emmaus, no need for John to explain the context of the events in the Synoptic gospels, no need for Paul to write to the Romans. That framework is inherent in Scripture, and so Scripture is the final authority. But uncovering the framework is a matter of intense effort, and there are often conflicting conclusions as to its shape and size based on the very biases you have all discussed. Irenaeus described Scripture as a pile of glazed tiles. A man walking by finds a picture of a king. He rearranges the tiles into a picture of a fox. They are the same "authentic" tiles, but it is the arrangement that makes all the difference in the revealed image. You have to know what the picture looks like before you begin to assemble the tiles. And that is the purpose and benefit of systematic theology. It is also the bane of church unity. Everybody comes to the pile of tiles with a different idea of what the picture is supposed to be. Take the current upheaval over Arminianism. Look at open theism. Look at the disdain over reformed theology and the rejection of Augustinian interpretive approaches. If we cannot agree on what Christ accomplished on the cross, or even whether it was forensic in nature, then how are we to agree on the content of the gospel? or which apologetic method to employ? or how to evangelize? or how to disciple? There are nearly 200 books on hermeneutics out there now, and no two agree. If we don't agree on the rules of interpretation, we cannot possibly agree on biblical content. It is far more complicated than determining which carries more authority, the bible, or the traditional framework of interpretation. My personal response to the question, "Who do you say I am?" is to repeat what was handed to me. And that is our duty: to pass on what was entrusted to us, neither more nor less; to hold to the doctrine as we were instructed. And that's where the historic or traditional interpreted content of the gospel, and the doctrine (personal application), and the dogma (church rulings) find their strength. Millions have spilled their blood to ensure the truth would not be lost. If every generation reinvents the wheel, and finds its own subjective truth or interpretation, for its own era, the church will be hard to find... As for which tradition to hold to, well, I think Romans pushes hard for the forensic nature of Christ's atoning sacrifice. And for total depravity. That being true, Augustinian or Calvinistic interpretive tools are logically inescapable and tight. And that is the conclusion of Stephen Ashby, a professed Arminian. Are there other approaches? Well, Arminianism is a continuum from Christian to Pelagian beliefs. The JW's and Mormon's have their own interpretations of the tiles. Once you abandon the historic faith, as handed down from generation to generation (reformed doctrine), you're pretty much on a slippery slope from which there is no recovery. But that's me... Thanks gentlemen. Great discussion.
I have recently attended a Presbyterian Church in America where the Westminster Confession is the primary lens for interpreting Scripture. The five-point Calvinism that governed their view of salvation, particularly "limited atonement", troubled me because of a number of passages, notably, John 12:32, Romans 11:32, I Timothy 2:4,6 and 4:10. In doing a lexical study, on the word "all" (Gr. pas, pantas, pantes, panton, etc.), I could not be convinced that the various word constructions allow for the interpretation as "all kinds" or "all sorts", as found, for example in I Tim. 6:10, panton, taken as "all kinds of evil" (NIV) and "all sorts of evil" (NASB). Whenever I brought this lexical dilemma up with reformed thologians, not once was I ever given a satisfactory answer. By "satisfactory" I mean "limited to the text". Invariably, I'd get rather smug replies that were based on the Canons of Dort (e.g., Article 15) or the opinion of a respected theologian such as James White, or Michael Horton. I would appreciate someone "out there" who can address the texts cited above while at the same time endorsing "limited atonement". Please also comment on I Timothy 4:11. Thank you.

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