Series 1 Episode 4
How to Discern Doctrine - Tradition
We’re talking about how to discern doctrine. In other words – how do we get to the truth regarding Christianity? In our last video we talked about scripture – what do we mean when we say that scriptures are inspired? Where did scripture come from? And how do we use it? We also briefly talked about the issue with using scripture as the only source of truth.
Now that sentence right there will be a trigger for some people. Especially if you have a Sola Scriptura tattoo. Let’s talk about that. I was talking with a good friend who thought that Protestantism and Martin Luther’s reformation was all about putting scripture into the hands of people so they could determine truth for themselves. And actually one of my favorite pastors is often telling people that all they need to do is read the Bible and see what it has to say for themselves.
Here’s the deal though. Martin Luther didn’t want everyone to have the Bible so that they could decide for themselves what the scriptures said and meant. He and others before and after Him wanted everyone to have the Bible so they could be changed by it not so that they could change it.
Sola Scriptura – ‘Scripture alone” doesn’t mean that scripture is the only source of truth or that it’s all we need for truth. It means that scripture is the only infallible instruction of faith and practice.
So when we talked about the Wesleyan Quadrilateral we said there were four parts – scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Even as we talked about scripture we had to talk about church tradition and now as we talk about the tradition of the church, it’s impossible for us to avoid talking about scripture. The two are incredibly intertwined.
First of all we have to ask ourselves: is tradition as a source of authority a biblical concept?
When we read Matthew 28 we see Jesus saying that “All authority on heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go an make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.”
Here’s why this matters:
He’s using his authority to commission the church but He’s also saying that the church goes forward under the authority of Christ. In other word’s when we operate as the Church, we’ve been authorized by Christ to do so.
Jesus expects the church to continue teaching people to obey Him. Jesus didn’t say go and write down all the things I’ve told you and pass those writings around and make sure everyone has an opportunity to come to their own conclusions about what those writings said. No. What’s he say? He says that those who make disciples are to teach their disciples how to obey me.
Check out John 20:21-23
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
What’s Jesus saying here? To be fair, Catholics and probably the early church would say this is true at face value. The Church has the power to excommunicate. It has the power to grant forgiveness because it has the means through which people can receive forgiveness and it also has the means to withhold forgiveness.
Most Protestants (but not all) would be reluctant to go that far. Most Protestants would say that the Church has the power to preach and therefore carry on the ministry of reconciliation. We had the ability to share the gospel or not.
Either way – both interpretations of this passage are recognizing that the Church has been given a huge amount of responsibility, dignity, and power.
John 16:13 is my favorite:
But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.
It’s a plural “you”. The Holy Spirit will guide all of you – meaning the church when it’s working together in cooperation – The Holy Spirit will guide the Church in what is true.
1 Timothy 3:15
if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.
What is the church? It’s the pillar and foundation of the truth. How cool is that? How else are we supposed to understand that verse other than the fact that the Church upholds the truth?
In 2 Thessalonians 2:15 Paul talks about teachings that are to be passed on – whether by word of mouth or by letter. What’s he saying? He’s saying that whether it’s from scripture – “letter” or word of mouth - “tradition” … we should stand firm and hold fast to it.
1 Corinthians 11:2 Paul praises the Corinthians for holding to the traditions that were passed on to them. There’s no doubt that Paul values church tradition and taught the importance of tradition to others.
2 Timothy 2:2; Paul tells Timothy to take his teachings which he heard in person, entrust them to reliable people and have those people teach others. Now we have early church writings that would’ve been written by this third generation of believers that Paul is wanting to be teachers. It was Paul’s expectation that the Church would listen to authoritative teachers. Even when Paul says, “entrust them to reliable teachers who will teach them to others.” He’s very easily referring to the Church Fathers. Some of who were disciples of the disciples. Scripture makes it clear – those are authoritative voices that we are to learn from.
Finally I love Acts 8:30-31. Simply put – the Ethiopian Eunich says “How can I know the scriptures unless someone explains it to me.” Philip doesn’t say, “Oh no… just read your Bible, you don’t need me.” Instead Philip teaches him. I think if we’re honest we can admit that there are scriptures that are hard to read, hard to understand, and we often times seek guidance from the knowledge and expertise of other Christians and there you see the value of Church tradition at work.
Now think about this state for a moment: A lot of scripture is an extension of church tradition.
What do we mean by that? Well look at Acts for example. This was an account of early church activity. Now think about the New Testament letters. What are these? These are communications that were passed on from church leadership to other churches. Scripture itself is at times an extension of Church Tradition. Isn’t sort of silly to value scripture but not church tradition when so much of scripture came as the result of local congregations?
So we asked the question: Is Church tradition as a source of authority a biblical concept? And I think it’s clear that the answer is: Yes.
Finally we need to also recognize that not only is much of scripture a result of church tradition but that canon itself – the books that we hold to as sacred scripture were decided upon by the Holy Spirit guiding the church through the use of ecumenical councils. So not only are some of the letters in scripture the result of church tradition but every book in the Bible was chosen by Church tradition. In other words – the only reason every Christian church can pick one of these up and automatically agree that all of these books are scripture is a result of the work of the tradition of the church. Whether you recognize it or not – it’s The Holy Spirit working through church tradition that gave you this (hold up Bible).
We mentioned this in a previous video but it’s worth mentioning again. The Apostle’s Creed is a biblical summary of Christian faith meaning that it only uses language from scripture. Well, it didn’t take long for Christians to realize that people could be false teachers and still affirm the language of the Apostle’s Creed. We needed church tradition to help guard against heresies. And we see this all the time in some faiths that claim to be Christian but reject church tradition: They end up teaching something contrary to the gospel. When you reject tradition, it leaves you vulnerable to some major fundamental heresies.
So the Church developed the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed is a theological summary of the Christian faith. IT uses language not necessarily found in scripture to help people understand what scripture was saying.
That idea behind the need for the Nicene Creed is a good introduction for understanding the importance of Tradition when it comes to understanding scripture: scripture is hard to understand – so tradition provides some guard rails. In our next episode we’re going to look at 3 criteria for making sense of church tradition and we’ll discuss whether or not doctrine is subject to change. The answer might surprise you.