I’ve been reading in Timothy Ward’s excellent little book Words of Life, and he has a very helpful and clear description of the three main view of Scripture and tradition that were circulating at the time of the Reformation. In this description he builds on Heiko Oberman’s very important work in his Harvest of Medieval Theology. What Oberman calls Tradition I (T1) is the view “that tradition is a tool to aid in the faithful interpretation of Scripture, expounding the primary teachings of Scripture, with Scripture remaining the only source of infallible divine revelation” (Ward, 144). Tradition II (T2) is the view “that there are two distinct sources of divine revelation, Scripture and church tradition, with the latter being handed down either orally or through customary church practices.”
Ward argues that T1 was the position of the early church, and that T2 developed only in the twelfth century, appealing (in his view wrongly) to Augustine and Basil in so doing. The Reformers were therefore advocating a return to T1 in their rejection of T2.
The Anabaptists rejected both T1 and T2 in what Ward calls T0 (this comes from Keith Mathison and Alister McGrath). This view elevates individual interpretation above the corporate, which T1 and the Reformers did NOT do, contrary to Roman Catholic accusations. It is a failure to distinguish these various views of tradition that has prompted so much misinterpretation of the Reformed tradition, and this misinterpretation comes from various quarters.
From the perspective of Roman Catholicism, any view that is not T2 (though there have been some rather widely differing interpretations of T2 in modern Catholicism) elevates personal interpretation above corporate. When Reformed folk respond with T1 views, the typical Roman Catholic response harps on the situation where an individual disagrees with the church. What happens then? The ultimate authority for the Christian is the Bible. Furthermore, Reformed folk believe that the Bible actually means something objectively considered. It is not all just a matter of interpretation. Otherwise, God should never have given us the Bible in the first place. The Christian needs to be patient in asking his church what the church’s real position is, and needs to show that interpretation great deference. However, since the church can err, the church cannot bind anyone’s conscience. If the church contradicts the Bible, then the church loses. This is not making the individual higher than the church. It is making the Bible higher than the church. Remember that the Reformed position holds that the Bible objectively means something apart from our interpretation of it. This is, I believe, one of the great sticking points when Roman Catholics and Protestants speak about authority. What is the nature of the Bible? Does it have any objective clarity on any issue? Does it have any inherent authority? The Roman Catholic typically believes that the Bible doesn’t exist except as interpreted by the church. We demur and say that even if there was no soul on earth existing at all, the Bible would still be there, and would still be clear on the matters of salvation, would still have the authority of God behind it (since He wrote it), and would still mean something.
Another attack from another quarter comes from the “no creed but Christ” crowd. They, like their Anabaptist forefathers, reject all tradition, as if the Holy Spirit never instructed anyone else in all church history before they came along, and as if they have nothing to learn from church history. This is the T0 crowd. Among them, the Hebrew Roots Movement has shown itself definitively to be in this category. They despise the church, and they despise all forms of extra-biblical tradition, whether those traditions are elevated to the level of Scripture (T2) or not (T1). And they cannot distinguish between T1 and T2. To them, everything that is extra-biblical is automatically T2 if appealed to in a debate. Usually the only time they quote the early church fathers, for instance, is to find fault with them. The entire church was completely heretical until they came along. There never has been the seven thousand who did not bow their knee to Baal until they came along. To put it mildly, this is sectarianism in its worst form. For them, the gates of Hell prevailed against the church until they came along.
The Reformers were very different in their approach to church history. They believed that the Roman Catholic church, by excommunicating the Reformers (who didn’t leave of their own volition (another myth initiated by Roman Catholics), but were expelled) and anathematizing the gospel at the Council of Trent, thus broke themselves off from the true church.
There are those even in the PCA who have a great deal of sympathy with the “no creed but Christ” crowd. Whenever any confessionalist quotes the Westminster Standards to address any question whatsoever, they will immediately charge us with T2. For them, there is no intermediate, fallible authority present in church creeds at all. Therefore, the creeds should never be used in any church controversy. The problem with this, as Ward demonstrates so clearly and helpfully, is that we need a rule of faith as a summary of what the Bible is saying. Creeds and confessions provide the church’s agreed upon Rule of Faith. It constitutes the analogy of faith as we understand it. And, as Trueman in his book The Creedal Imperative says so well, everyone has a creed! The question is not whether you will have one or not. The question is whether your creed is visible or not, and thus can be used as a means of accountability, and for unity in the church. People who desire to have unity by scrapping the creeds are therefore whoppingly wrong. There can be no unity without truth. And without creeds, we have no way of agreeing on what that truth is. So creeds and confessions are T1, fallible authorities that nevertheless have more authority than an individual, but less authority than the Bible. It is as we are abandoning the Westminster Standards, for instance, that we are having the unity problems in the PCA right now. The abandonment of the Westminster Standards will presage not the salvation and progress of the PCA, but rather its destruction.