Evangelicals, the Bible and Tradition

Evangelicals hold a “high” view of Holy Scripture. We believe it is the Word of God. We believe it is unique in its locale of God’s revelation to His people.  We believe it to be inspired, and in a way that is different than John Calvin or C.S. Lewis are “inspired.” Our desire is to put ourselves under the Bible’s authority because we believe that, in doing so, we are putting ourselves under God’s authority. God has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ, the living Word of God; and he has also revealed himself to us in and through Holy Scripture. But it’s not enough simply to hold a “high” view of Scripture’s authority, for Holy Scripture needs to be understood and interpreted. What place should Tradition play in the way we understand and interpret the Bible? It seems to me we should avoid two errors here.

First, we would be naive, ahistorical and too individualistic to think that we can interpret the Bible all by ourselves. It’s a bit arrogant to think that just me, my Bible, and the Holy Spirit are all that’s necessary in hermeneutics. Surely we must see ourselves as part of the church, a Body of believers that stretches out over 2,000 years. The Holy Spirit leads his whole church, not just individual Christians, in understanding God’s Word. If we understand “Tradition” in some sense to mean the voice of Christ’s church over time, then it behooves us to want to know how the church over time has understood Scripture.

Several years ago, a Jehovah’s Witness came to my door and I invited him in for a chat. I directed our conversation towards the Person of Christ, and for a solid hour we looked up Scriptures together that addressed who Jesus Christ is. I pointed him to passages like John 1, Colossians 1 and Hebrews 1, and he pointed me to passages where Jesus said things like, “the Father is greater than I,” and “No one knows when the Son will return, except for the Father.” I insisted that the Bible teaches that Christ is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, and he insisted that the Bible teaches that Jesus was the greatest man that ever lived, but only a great man, not divine.

After an hour, I found myself frustrated and said, almost without thinking, “But doesn’t it matter to you that the Church for 1700 years, since the fourth century, has understood the Bible to teach the deity of Christ?  Your position is that of the Arians, who were, and continue to be, considered heretics.” His answer was simple and straightforward: “That doesn’t matter, for what really matters is what the Bible itself teaches. And the Bible teaches that Jesus was not God but a very good man.” While I was using the Bible as the primary revelatory document that this man and I were trying to understand, I found myself also appealing to Tradition as an arbiter of sorts in our disagreement. Though the Bible was my primary authority, I was using Tradition as a secondary authority as well.

Any time that an individual, a small group, or a local church finds that their interpretation of Scripture goes against the majority view of Tradition, they should be extremely suspect of their interpretation.  It’s a bit arrogant to think that God has revealed something uniquely to me that everyone else all throughout the history of the Church has missed.  The minority view is not always wrong, but it is usually wrong.

But secondly, we must also avoid a view of Tradition that puts it on an even par with Scripture. There are not two loci of God’s revelation, Scripture and Tradition, but only one:  Scripture. Tradition helps us interpret Scripture but Tradition remains “under” Scripture. Scripture never errs, Tradition sometimes does err. Scripture is the Word of God; Tradition is not the Word of God. Jesus always treated Scripture with reverence and sought to live his life under its authority; Jesus didn’t assign blanket authority to Tradition.

When I’ve talked with Christians who hold to certain understandings of Mary, the mother of Jesus, I’ve asked them where in Scripture they find that Mary was without sin, never died, or is the “Mediatrix.” Usually they will admit that Scripture itself doesn’t teach this (at least not in any clear and obvious way) but that they believe it because of “Tradition.” My rejoinder then is, “If God has not made something clear in his Word, we should humbly accept this and not say something more than God has said, and most certainly not attempt to bind people’s consciences with a teaching that is not found in his Word.”

It is no easy task for evangelicals to avoid the two extremes regarding the relationship between Scripture and Tradition. We must challenge our me-and-my-personal-Bible friends to hold a higher view of Tradition, and we must challenge our Scripture-and-Tradition-hold-equal-authority friends to hold a lower view of Tradition. Our goal always is to honor God.  When we take seriously and authoritatively what God has revealed to us in Scripture, we honor him. When we take seriously how he has worked through his Church over time, we honor him. And when we are dogmatic about things God has not revealed to us in Scripture, we dishonor him.

We are foolish if we think we can interpret the Bible without Tradition, and we are foolish to think that knowing Tradition automatically gives us the correct understanding of Scripture. Sometimes Christians will disagree with each other over what the Bible “truly” teaches on this or that subject—even Christians who hold a “high” view of Scripture’s authority, who are humble, and who pray for the Spirit’s guidance. There is simply no fail-safe way to understand the “correct” interpretation of every single verse of Scripture!

This doesn’t at all mean that Christians therefore should stop preaching Scripture with authority, or stop using and making catechisms and creeds, or even drawing lines where real fellowship simply can’t continue (I can still love, yet not have fellowship with, the person who understands Scripture to teach that Jesus Christ was not God). But it does mean we should hold all of our interpretations of Scripture with humility, and not make 100% agreement of what Scripture teaches as the standard for Christian unity.

About the Author
Senior Campus Staff Member, GFM Mid-Atlantic

Kevin Offner has been on staff with InterVarsity for 31 years, serving students in New England and now the metro Washington DC area.  He currently oversees faculty and graduate student ministry on five campuses in Washington, DC.  Kevin is married to Amy, and they have an eleven year old son, David.  Kevin is very interested in ecumenical theology:  how to not water down one's tradition's theological commitments while at the same time looking for genuine areas of agreement between the traditions.