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).



  1. michael said,

    November 22, 2010 at 3:33 pm


    I would quote something similar in form with this thread from Dr. J.V. Fesko’s book, Justification, Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine, P&R Publishing, page 394:

    “… Eastern Orthodox hermeneutics bears some similarities to that of the Roman Catholic Church, in that both hold that the church produced the Scriptures rather than, as in the Protestant understanding, that the Scriptures produced the church.” The footnote refers to Herman N. Ridderbos, his book, Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures, (1963 Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 1988), 25.

    When once repentance occurs and/or one is catechized from birth within the Fellowship of True Believers, that is followed by a life of the forgiveness of sins into maturity, we are “Coram Deo” daily. Getting a group together by the sanctification work of the Holy Spirit there is bound to develop patterns of communion fellowship tradition. One fellowship’s traditions over time that become normal and settled that newcomers are introduced to may not be the same as other fellowships in a locality of fellowships or in a particular region or state or country. No one tradition is more important than another. What is important is the essentials of the Faith and Doctrine, however. Paul writes to Titus about our “common Faith” while Jude writes about our “common salvation”. What was held in common by all recorded as such in the book of Acts, Acts 2:44 and 4:32 doesn’t seem to have much play within many Church organizations these days beyond our common giving of tithes and offerings or special giving. Although, the way the world economy is going these days, we might find it necessary for whole groups of people to live in common in Christian Communion that way, again?

    Having been to numerous fellowships in numerous countries around the world, it becomes apparent to me two things. One, you sense when the Holy Spirit is present during the gathering to Worship the Lord and receive His Word, whether or not this group of people are being led by Him or by some strong personality instead, such as Diotrephes, as recorded in 3 John 9; and two, what the traditions are that the fellowship jointly and eagerly embrace and celebrate together as their unique tradition. Traditions within local churches evolve over time. I have been a part of one group of people for all of my Ministry, over 36 years now. In the 1970s, we did things very differently then, than we do now, even though the Holy Spirit is present and the Word of God is preached; both, Eternal in essence and Nature, which is this common unction and anointing from God over and above our traditions.

  2. Andrew McCallum said,

    November 22, 2010 at 10:32 pm


    There are so many of our Catholic friends who are utterly confused about what we are saying about tradition and I wish they could get their minds around your post, particularly Oberman’s quote which you say is essentially the Protestant position. So much of the critiques coming from the Catholic side concerning our understanding of Scripture and tradition focus on the dynamic quality of their Magisterium which they juxtapose against the static nature of the Bible. The Bible cannot be the final rule they say because the Bible is just a book and cannot render judgment like the living Magisterium. The whole debate belies a misunderstanding of the role we see the Church and the tradition of the Church playing in all of this.

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