Two Different Definitions of Tradition

One of the main difficulties in the debates between Protestants and Catholics is the differing definitions of tradition on offer. Muller, quoting Heiko Oberman, can help us here.


For Oberman, the question of authority in the later Middle Ages rests not so much on differing views of Scripture as on differing views of tradition. There was, in fact, an “encounter,” according to Oberman, “of two general notions about tradition.” In one view, Scripture is identified as the unique source of revealed truth and, therefore, as the sole norm for the understanding of Christian doctrine, but is viewed as standing in accord with, rather than in contrast to, an interpretive tradition. In the other view, tradition is more than the ongoing churchly interpretation of the biblical revelation-it contains truths handed down orally in the church from the time of Christ and the apostles, but never placed in written form. In particular, this view of tradition assumed that the apostles had written down all of the teachings of Jesus belonging to his earhly ministry between baptism and cricufixion but had not reported fully Jesus’ teachings between the resurrection and ascension. “In the first case,” Oberman writes, “tradition was seen as the instrumental vehicle of Scripture which brings the contents of Holy Scripture to life in constant dialogue between the doctors of Scripture and the Church; in the second case, tradition was seen as the authoritative vehicle of divine truth, embedded in Scripture but overflowing in extrascriptural apostolic tradition handed down through episcopal succession” (Muller, pp. 52-53, quoting Heiko Oberman, “Scripture and Tradition: Introduction,” pp. 54-55).

I want to point out one further qualification that must be kept in mind here. The Protestant position can generally be identified with position 1 (though with the qualification below), and the Catholic position with position 2. The qualification that needs to be made here is that Protestantism sees itself in continuity with tradition, but recognizes that tradition may err. This is usually misinterpreted by the Catholics as saying that Protestants throw off tradition altogether. This is, of course, not true. Just because we reject Roman Catholic traditions that they have invented out of thin air does not mean that we reject all tradition. Tradition has a subordinate, ministerial position to Scripture, not an equal, magisterial position in relation to Scripture. Herein lies the difference between Protestants and Catholics on the issue of tradition. The problem Catholics have had in the past is that they see Protestants subordinating tradition to Scripture, and interpret that move as throwing off all non-individual authority. We can illustrate this very well by speaking about the confessions of the Reformed church. The Scripture is the “norming norm,” whereas the confessions are the “normed norm.” The confessions have more authority than the voice of a single individual, since, obviously, the principles that govern a group of people are not necessarily the same as those that govern individual people. However, the authority of confessions is not equal to the authority of Scripture. So, rather than having three equal sources of authority in Scripture, tradition, and pope, Protestants acknowledge one supreme authority in Scripture, and then subordinate, ministerial authority in confessions (which yet have greater authority than individual voices).

Duns Scotus on the Nature of Scripture

Duns Scotus occupies an important place in the history of the doctrine of Scripture. Muller says:

Duns Scotus must be credited with the development of a clearly defined doctrine of Scripture, the basic divisions and arguments of which provided a structural and doctrinal foundation for the arguments of later theologians, including the Protestant orthodox. Scotus assumed that knowledge of the heavenly goal and of the means necessary to its attainment was beyond the grasp of the viator(pilgrim, literally, “someone on the way” LK) in his natural condition. Natural reason could not attain to saving truth. Revelation is, therefore, necessary. Scotus located these truths of revelation in Scripture and in the tradition grounded upon Scripture and the apostolic faith (p. 47).

The question that Scotus wanted to answer was whether nature was perfect or not, and therefore whether revelation was necessary or not. He came to the conclusion that nature was not perfect (p. 48).

What follows then is a discussion of the material sufficiency of Scripture in the theology of Scotus. His words are: “sacra scriptura sufficienter continet doctrinam necessariam viatori,” from Ordinatio, prol., q. 2, n. 14, quoted by Muller, p. 50. This is translated as follows: “Sacred Scripture sufficiently contains the necessary doctrine for pilgrims.”

Muller does not address whether Scotus held to a formal sufficiency (that Scripture is clear on all essential doctrinal points). The evidence is ambiguous as to the exact place that tradition and church had. On the one hand, he clearly believed that all necessary doctrine for pilgrims is contained in scripture. On the other hand, he did not view “Scripture as sufficiently clear to be interpreted apart from the church’s tradition” (p. 50). Furthermore, he did not believe that Scripture was the sole norm of doctrine. Beside the authority of Scripture stands the authentic Fathers and the Church of Rome. What is not clear here is whether he viewed the authority of the fathers and the church to be equal to that of Scripture, or whether he viewed them as subordinate but nevertheless important. Given that he held that the substance of the faith comes equally from Scripture and church, he would probably lean in the Romanist direction. The Protestant orthodox would later agree with his position on the material sufficiency of Scripture, while disagreeing with his position on tradition and the church.

Trinity, Infinity, and Person

I am continuing to read volume four of Muller’s immensely important work, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. Volume four deals with the Trinity. I came across this incredibly insightful and devastating analysis of Socinian theology (known today as Open Theism). Muller is talking about the definition of Person when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity. The definition of Person has always been a description of one of the three subsistences within the Trinity. The Socinians objected to this, equating Person with Essence, such that if there was one essence, then there had to be only one Person.

As for the Socinian objection that a single essence implies a single person, Owen responds, “that in one essence there can be but one person may be true where the substance is finite and limited, but hath no place in that which is infinite.” This latter point is significant to the Socinian definition, inasmuch as the Socinian doctrine of God assumed a limited God… (Muller, PRRD IV, pg. 179)

Carl Trueman once told us in class that an error with regard to God’s sovereignty such as Open Theism would always lead back to a Trinitarian error. Now, I see why. Owen argued that the problem with the Socinian definition of person was that it assumed a limited substance. A limited substance obviously cannot have absolute authority over humanity. Therefore, a limited God such as the Socinian/Open Theistic God would be something less than a fully Trinitarian God.

Posted by Lane Keister

The Era of High Orthodoxy

On pp. 73ff, Muller discusses the period of high orthodoxy (ca. 1640-1685-1725), and its relationship to earlier periods of Reformed orthodoxy. Again, he is out to quash once and for all the idea of “Calvin versus the Calvinists.” He says that “the architectonic clarity of early orthodoxy is replaced to a certain extent or at least put to the service of a more broadly developed and even discursive system” (73). By this he means the elaborations of Voetius, Cocceius, and Mastricht (plus their followers). What is important to note, however, is that the later authors used the former authors as a sort of skeleton on which to plan and elaborate their own systems (pg. 74). In other words, they did not abandon the works of former periods, but rather built on them, and elaborated those earlier systems. This can be seen, for instance, in the work of Bernhardus De Moor, who, in his seven-volume systematics, took Marckius’s larger work, and simply commented on it.

Philosophy and Protestant Scholasticism

Now there’s an ambitious blog entry title! What Muller is dealing with on pp. 67-73 of Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, is the place of philosophy among the Reformed scholastics.

He says, “The understanding of the relationship of philosophy to theology propounded in the Reformed prolegomena and in various apologetic works of the era of orthodoxy assumes a view of philosophy as ancilla and subordinate both in a purely hierarchical sense among the forms o knowing and in a historical sense, regarding it as a derivative form of knowing” (pg. 70). This is a fairly comprehensive way of looking at the relationship. On the one hand, the Reformed scholastics recognized (in general) the dangers of rationalism, and usually tried to avoid it. On the other hand, philosophy could be useful in theology, though in a derivative manner.

Actually, “the rise of modern science and modern rationalism did not profoundly affect Protestant orthodox theology until the latter half of the seventeenth century” (71). In fact, “Christianized Aristotelianism remain(ed) the dominant philosophical perspective thoughout the era of orthodoxy” (71). This must not be misunderstood, however. Christian Aristotelianism did not substantively affect doctrine until the later half of the 17th century. One suspects that it was the logic of Aristotle, more than any other strand of philosophy, that had the largest impact on Protestant Scholasticism.

The International Character of Protestant Scholasticism

Muller makes a very interesting point on pg. 66: “The interrelationship of the English Reformed with the continental Reformed was such that neither development can be properly understood without the other: specifically, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, British theology was receptive to continental thought, as citations of European thinkers in English works testify.” He goes on to note the many interconnections of British (i.e. Puritan) thinkers with the continental thinkers. The relationship went both ways, by the way, as Voetius’ advice to his students testifies (that they should memorize Ames’ Medulla theologiae).

The importance of this point can be seen in the frequent criticism I have heard of Banner of Truth, that they publish only the Puritans, and badly neglect the Continentals. Now, lest anyone think that I am denigrating BoT, I own nearly every set of Puritan theology that they publish. However, the charge does stick. They need to publish some of these amazing Continental theologians. That would definitely help people over here understand that the Puritans were by no means isolationistic in their theology. Of course, publishing those guys means lots more translating work. So, if anyone is looking for a great way to benefit the church, they should learn Latin and start translating!

Causes of the Rise of Scholastic Orthodoxy

From pp. 61-66, Muller gives us a sketch of the causes of the rise of scholastic orthodoxy. The first point he makes is that the polemic in which the Reformers were continuously engaged formed part of the reason why the orderly scholastic method would become necessary (pg 61).

Another factor besides polemics is the method of Ramus. This factor is one among several pedagogical developments in this time period. Ramus (1515-1572) “produced a method of logical discourse by means of partition or dichotomy which gave to Reformed theology an extreme clarity and conciseness of approach.” Scholars influenced by Ramus include Perkins, Polanus, Ames, Yates, Scharpius, and (to a lesser extent) Walaeus and Maccovius (pg. 62). His method was not accepted by all. In fact, Beza and Olevianus rejected the method utterly.

A third factor in the rise of scholastic orthodoxy is “the development and alteration of method in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries…educational progress of the Renaissance, an educational progress related to the application of new forms of logic and rhetoric to the entire arts curriculum of the university and to the advanced study of such fields as philosophy, theology, and law” (63). It is important to note here that “The rise of a revised scholasticism, tuned by Renaissance logic and rhetoric and alied to the study of the classical and biblical languages occurred in the theological disciplines as a result, not of doctrinal change, but of the participation of theological faculties in the academic culture of the age” (63).

To sum up, the four main forces contributing to the rise of scholastic orthodoxy are fourfold: polemics, pedagogical needs, the working out of systematic issues, and the striving for philosophical breadth and coherence (pg. 65). He rules out a fifth commonly cited reason (concentration on a metaphysical principle or central dogma).                                                                                

The Purposes of the Second-Generation Reformers

Muller says (pg. 60) that “Protestant theology is no longer, in the latter period, reforming a church- it is establishing and protecting the church.” The latter period, of course, refers to the second generation, the codifiers.

What is interesting in this thought is that if the purposes of the first generation differed from the second generation, then we could expect the style of their theology to differ as well. In order to teach theology in a school, one needs a slightly different style than one would need to preach theology to people who have never heard the truth before. Although, even here, the first generation was not opposed to codifying (as we saw before with Melancthon).

He draws one contrast of the Reformation era scholastics versus the Middle Ages scholasticism on the same page when he says, “Yet, when compared either methodologically or stylistically with the scholasticism of the later Middle Ages, this new scholasticism appears profoundly humanistic in its approach to method, languages, and literary style.” We must remember at this point that Muller is not using the term “humanistic” in the same way we usually use it today, which is to refer to secular humanism, the doctrine that man is the measure of all things. Rather, the humanism to which Muller refers is the humanism of the Renaissance, the humanism of “back to the original sources,” the reading of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. The call was “ad fontes,” “back to the fount.”

From Reformation to Codification: Not so Great a Leap

Many people will compare Luther to Pieper, or another great Lutheran systematizer a little closer to the Reformation, and say, “See, the Reformers were only interested in the message. The generation that came after was only interested in systematizing those truths.” Thus, they either accuse the Reformers themselves of being disorganized, or they accuse the succeeding generation of being heartless.

Muller avoids these extremes on pp. 49ff. First, he notes that one could compare Melancthon with successors, and find out that the Reformers could be just as systematic as the next generation. Melancthon’s Loci Communes was published only four years after the Ninety-Five Theses.

Hence, “a simple kerygma to dogma model or existential event to domestication-of-the-event pattern of doctrinal development cannot be applied to the historical development of Protestant orthodoxy” (51). This is important to remember, since the period after the Reformation is so maligned by modern scholars and lay-people.

Continuity and Discontinuity, continued (!)

Muller continues his discussion with this key statement on page 46: “No small part of the task of describing properly the work of Protestant orthodoxy belongs to the discussion of its relationship to the Reformation. In its simplest form, this relationship is one of broad doctrinal continuity together with methodological discontinuity. Of course, the relationship is considerably more complex than this basic statement: methodological changes bring about changes in doctrinal statement if only because careful systematization of an idea tends to remove elements of tension and paradox resident in the initial, unsystematic formulation.”

This statement plainly proves that Muller’s position is firmly against the “Calvin versus the Calvinists” school of thought (he says this explicitly many times elsewhere). As noted in the last post, it was historical changes that were responsible for the changes in wording and method. This does not indicate a change in substance of doctrine.

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