This is a post I wrote for www.everydayliturgy.com some time ago. It was also “tweeted” by Emergent Village and baptimergent, and it was mentioned on multiple blogs. I’ve engaged in this conversation a few times recently, and, thus, I figured I would post it here, as well.
[I in no way hope to draw a conclusion about this topic here, but I hope it opens doors to serious dialogue not only between Protestants but also with our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters.]
I have increasingly become aware (throughout my own worship and interpretation of Scripture) of the difficulty of sola scriptura, that is, Scripture alone is authoritative for the Church. As a Protestant I know that it is one of the foundations of Martin Luther’s theology. In my church-life, every time I’ve come to question sola scriptura, I am quickly reminded that it is what makes Protestantism “great,” and so we can now remove ourselves from dead rituals and traditions that have for so long “plagued the Church” prior to Martin Luther.
However, I’m not so sure what sola scriptura has evolved into is what Luther ever intended.
I think Protestants have forgotten that the Church had no “scriptura” in canonical-form until the early 300s CE. How did they handle issues of the faith for 300 years? You guessed it – tradition. How did they determine how to live as the Church through those times? Modeling the faith through – tradition. For the early church, tradition was part of their story. It’s explained who they were. Tradition is what brought life to the writings they had received from the apostles.
Here’s where I have to turn this topic over to a statement made by Stanley Hauerwas –
When sola scriptura is used to underwrite the distinction between text and interpretation, then it seems clear to me that sola scriptura is a heresy rather than a help in the Church. When this distinction persists, sola scriptura becomes the seedbed of fundamentalism, as well as biblical criticism. It assumes that the text of the Scripture makes sense separate from a Church that gives it sense. Perhaps those among us who maintain such a position forget that for much of the Church’s life most Christians could not read, but that did not in itself make them less faithful…That Christians have learned of Christ and Christ’s relationship to Israel through biblical scenes portrayed on church windows and stone carvings and statues of the saints, alive and dead, should be sufficient for us to realize that the text of the Scripture is not mean to be “preserved intact” separate from the Church [p. 27-28; Hauerwas, S. (1993) Unleashing the scripture: freeing the Bible from captivity to America. Abington Press: Nashville].
Scripture cannot be removed from the Church. The Church does not rely solely on Scripture, but it relies on its story, equally. How does God, then, use Scripture and tradition together? Hauerwas explains further, “God certainly uses Scripture to call the Church to faithfulness, but such a call always comes in the form of some in the Church remind others in the Church how to live as Christians – no “text” can be substituted for the people of God” (p. 28; emphasis added). We constantly see the same thing in the Hebrew Scriptures – the prophets are always pointing the people back to remember their story, their tradition, in order to remind them what it means to be “God’s people” in their land.
Is Scripture neglected? Does tradition take precedent? No, Scripture and tradition always bounce off one another. Try to explain Jesus’ divinity without the Nicene Creed when confronted with Jesus’ rejection of divine status in Mark 10v18. If Scripture alone is our authority, Jesus is not God, for he rejects it, as he does in other places. But the Nicene Creed reminds us – Jesus is “of one Being with the Father.” Thus, the Nicene Creed assists us in our reflections upon Mark 10.
On the other hand, Luther’s reasoning for sola scriptura allows Scripture to hold accountable the Church and (at that time) the selling of indulgences. Scripture and tradition must go hand-in-hand.
If we hold Scripture and tradition hand-in-hand, reminding ourselves what tradition has to say about Scripture, and Scripture about tradition, it influences our worship and how we live as “God’s people.” We remember the importance of the Eucharist, and it is not reduced to a boring “ritual;” instead, it brings life. We remember the importance of baptism, not as “some thing we just do” but as something that brings life. We remember the Church’s stance of non-violence, and we second-guess our tendencies to partake in any of its forms. If we do so, we will live stories of justice, embrace, love, and service. We will remember our heroes and heroines, and we seek to live in the Christ-like ways they did. Scripture walking hand-in-hand with tradition brings life, not death (as many have supposed), to the Church.
If we do not take seriously the relationship between Scripture and tradition, I’m afraid sola scriptura becomes more of a heresy than a help.