Scripture, Tradition and Reason; Thoughts following the Papal Visit (September 2010)

“Why I am not a Roman Catholic,” was a question James Nuechterlein, a Lutheran writer and academic, was addressing sometime ago in the journal First Things (January 1997). As he knew that the 16th century Reformers were not wanting to depart from the Catholic faith but only to reform what was corrupted, he called Lutherans “Evangelical Catholics”. Surely that is right. The Reformers, particularly the English ones, said they wanted to go back to the New Testament Church, and also to early Church teachers where they agreed with the Bible. They were concerned to follow the faith of those biblical “Catholic Creeds” that are still used (the word Catholic was, and is, especially applied to the first four ecumenical councils that produced the creeds in opposition to some heretical groups). So Nuecheterlein wrote as follows:

“We remain Evangelical Catholics because we have what we consider good reasons not to be Roman Catholics … We have no desire to re-ignite the passions of the sixteenth century, but we think that in the quarrels of the Reformation era the reformers were more right than Rome. Many of those quarrels have been resolved in recent years, but on certain critical issues – such as the relation between justification and sanctification or between Scripture and tradition – differences remain that, however subtle, are not insignificant [italics mine].”

There are as well, he went on to say, “a number of post-Reformation issues that separate many Evangelical Catholics from Rome.” These include such important matters as papal infallibility and the Marian dogmas. I, too, share these doctrinal worries and concerns. I would add worries over sacramental theology and practice. Let me highlight one particular issue which shows both agreement and disagreement.

An excellent statement summarizing the Old Testament in its relation to the New Testament comes from the Roman Catholic Dogmatic Constitution On Divine Revelation “Dei Verbum” of 1965 from the Second Vatican Council and Chapter IV. What follows are sections 14-16.

The Old Testament

“14. In carefully planning and preparing the salvation of the whole human race the God of infinite love, by a special dispensation, chose for Himself a people to whom He would entrust His promises. First He entered into a covenant with Abraham (see Gen. 15:18) and, through Moses, with the people of Israel (see Ex. 24:8). To this people which He had acquired for Himself, He so manifested Himself through words and deeds as the one true and living God that Israel came to know by experience the ways of God with men. Then too, when God Himself spoke to them through the mouth of the prophets, Israel daily gained a deeper and clearer understanding of His ways and made them more widely known among the nations (see Ps. 21:29; 95:1-3; Is. 2:1-5; Jer. 3:17). The plan of salvation foretold by the sacred authors, recounted and explained by them, is found as the true word of God in the books of the Old Testament: these books, therefore, written under divine inspiration, remain permanently valuable. "For all that was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope" (Rom. 15:4).

15. The principal purpose to which the plan of the old covenant was directed was to prepare for the coming of Christ, the redeemer of all and of the messianic kingdom, to announce this coming by prophecy (see Luke 24:44; John 5:39; 1 Peter 1:10), and to indicate its meaning through various types (see 1 Cor. 10:12). Now the books of the Old Testament, in accordance with the state of mankind before the time of salvation established by Christ, reveal to all men the knowledge of God and of man and the ways in which God, just and merciful, deals with men. These books, though they also contain some things which are incomplete and temporary, nevertheless show us true divine pedagogy. These same books, then, give expression to a lively sense of God, contain a store of sublime teachings about God, sound wisdom about human life, and a wonderful treasury of prayers, and in them the mystery of our salvation is present in a hidden way. Christians should receive them with reverence.

16. God, the inspirer and author of both Testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New. For, though Christ established the new covenant in His blood (see Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25), still the books of the Old Testament with all their parts, caught up into the proclamation of the Gospel, acquire and show forth their full meaning in the New Testament (see Matt. 5:17; Luke 24:27; Rom. 16:25-26; 2 Cor. 14:16) and in turn shed light on it and explain it.”

“Together with sacred tradition”

That is a most helpful statement in Chapter IV. However, in VI, 21 is this:

“[The Church] has always maintained them [the Scriptures], and continues to do so, together with sacred tradition, as the supreme rule of faith, since, as inspired by God and committed once and for all to writing, they impart the word of God Himself without change, and make the voice of the Holy Spirit resound in the words of the prophets and Apostles. Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture. For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life. Consequently these words are perfectly applicable to Sacred Scripture: ‘For the word of God is living and active’ (Heb. 4:12) and ‘it has power to build you up and give you your heritage among all those who are sanctified’ (Acts 20:32; see 1 Thess. 2:13) [italics mine].”

So much wisdom is there. But to add tradition to the Bible as “the supreme rule of faith” confuses. What happens when the Bible and tradition are in conflict? Which trumps which? That, of course, is a fundamental issue. In simple terms there is a distinction between Scripture (the Bible), tradition (the teaching of the Church in addition to the Bible) and reason (what seems reasonable in a given age – recognizing that that differs from age to age, depending on the assumptions of any given age). Some say it is like a three-legged stool, with the Bible, Tradition and Reason being the legs. But not all are equal. That is not a good analogy. Let me explain. It is obvious that we need all three, the Bible, the Church’s teaching and human intelligence. We need the teaching of Jesus and his apostles (the Bible); we need the wisdom of other Christians to help us (including - and especially in a “post-modern age” - the wisdom of Christians of previous generations); and we must use our minds (even in writing and reading this). The very simple question is, “which trumps which?”

Of course, you use your mind and make allowances for where the Bible itself teaches there is progressive revelation. Of course, you learn from what other Christians say and have said. You then discover the Bible is quite clear over some issue. But then a given group of Christians teach something that is contradicting this clear teaching of the Bible. Or your world’s “plausibility structure” has so conditioned the culture that people have “absorbed” axioms or assumptions that make them argue against some clear teaching of the Bible (currently at the moment a big issue is homosexual sex). Which trumps which - the Bible, one group of Christians (even a whole Church), or what seems reasonable to one age (which varies from age to age)? To be a Christian means, for a range of good reasons, you are going to follow Jesus Christ and his apostles (the Bible). The Bible is going to be trumps. Or put less colloquially, the Bible will be your supreme authority (full stop). To add “together with sacred tradition” makes it no longer supreme.

Cardinal Newman

Newman, “beatified” recently, was brilliant in writing about liberalistic intellectual fashions that make reason supreme. He said this:

“Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy … Since, then, religion is so personal a peculiarity and so private a possession, we must of necessity ignore it in the intercourse of man with man. If a man puts on a new religion every morning, what is that to you? It is as impertinent to think about a man's religion as about his sources of income or his management of his family. Religion is in no sense the bond of society.”

But my argument with Newman is that he rightly opposed a liberalism that denied much of the Bible and subtracted from the Bible. However, he supported non-Biblical additions which, surely, err in the other direction. He had to support Papal infallibility (which he was not happy with). He was, of course, dead when Pope Pius XII “infallibly defined” on 1 November 1950 the dogma that Mary “having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory”. What would Newman have said then?

Let’s all pray for continuing reform in both Roman and Protestant churches.


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