The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century reminded the church of the primary authority of scripture in the wake of certain practices of the church of the time for which there can be no biblical or theological warrants. By the theological principle ‘scripture alone’ (sola scriptura), the Reformers wanted to reinstate the Bible to its rightful place in the life of the church. As the medium through which God’s revelation is communicated, scripture alone should be the basis on which the theology and practices of the church must be assessed and judged.
It is, however, extremely important that the intentions behind and the meaning of the Reformers’ dictum sola scriptura are not misunderstood. To do so would result in certain troubling developments that could be quite detrimental to the church. One such development, which is already evident in some sectors of the church, is the rampant individualism when it comes to Bible interpretation. The Bible is seen as the believer’s Bible, not the church’s Bible. It is subjected to the subjective and often idiosyncratic interpretations of individuals or groups of individuals. Slogans like ‘Back to the Bible’ and ‘No creed but the Bible’ that betray a serious misunderstanding of the teachings of the Reformers often fan the flames of such individualism.
Once sola scriptura is understood simplistically and erroneously in this way, the Bible could be subjected to endless manipulation, and different and often conflicting interpretations will proliferate. Thus, passages in the Bible could be used to support the erroneous and dangerous theology of the health and wealth ‘gospel’. The Bible can be said to set the agenda for the liberation theology of Latin America or the liberal theology of Europe. Queer and LGBT exegetes can argue that scripture affirms rather than condemns homosexual practices.
From very early in the history of the church, it was recognised that scripture can be variously interpreted and that these different interpretations could vary in alarming degrees. During the formative years of the church, there were many heresies jostling for power and loyalty. Most if not all these heresies that emerged from within the church employed scripture to support their theology, sometimes in very ingenious ways. Irenaeus, the great second century theologian, uses a powerful analogy to describe this. He says in the hands of a skilful artist, individual items of jewels are arranged into the splendid image of a king. But others have used the same set of jewels to form an image of a dog. In other words, in the hands of heretics scripture can be twisted to support an alien metaphysics and an erroneous dogma.
Thus, from very early in its history the church recognises the fact that an authoritative text alone is not enough. Equally important is an authoritative interpretation. The early church therefore formulated the rule of faith (regula fidei) to help Christians interpret the Bible within the bounds of orthodoxy. In his battle against the Gnostics, Irenaeus pointed out the heretical sect’s theology was erroneous because its interpretation and appropriation of the Bible was antithetical to the way in which the universal church understood these texts. Because the Gnostics have rejected the church’s authoritative interpretation of the Bible, they have misinterpreted and misapplied the authoritative text.
Even the magisterial Reformers understood the important role of tradition in the church’s reading of the Bible. In his commentary on the Apostles’ Creed found in the Large Catechism (1529), Luther writes: ‘Here you find the whole essence of God, his will and his work beautifully portrayed in few but comprehensive words. In them all wisdom consists – a wisdom which transcends all human wisdom’. At the end of that passage, Luther adds: ‘the Creed brings us full mercy, sanctifies us and makes us acceptable to God’. John Calvin concurs when he writes that the ecumenical creeds of the church contain ‘the pure and genuine exposition of Scripture’. Calvin also wrote the famous Institutes of the Christian Religion, a systematic theology to help Christians interpret the Bible correctly.
All this means that the Bible is the book of the church before it is the book of individual Christians. The Protestant Reformation in translating the Bible into the vernacular has placed scripture in the hands of believers. But believers must always read the Bible together with the church. A misunderstanding of the principle of sola scriptura has unfortunately led some Christians to see scripture as an isolated authority that can be read and understood apart from the church. As we have seen, the magisterial Reformers had never intended this dictum to be understood in this way. Sola scriptura is never intended to mean nuda scriptura, ‘naked writings’ dislodged from their proper ecclesial location.
Christian tradition therefore has a fundamental and indispensable role to play in the church’s engagement with scripture. The tradition of the church must not be understood as something novel that is added to the Bible. Rather it must be seen as that which is inspired by the Bible itself. Luther could describe the Apostles’ Creed as containing ‘the whole essence of God’ precisely because the substance of the creed is inextricably bound to the revelation in scripture. Seen in this way, tradition becomes an invaluable aid in the church’s reading, interpretation and application of Scripture. As one theologian has put it, ‘Scripture was the authoritative anchor of tradition’s content, and tradition stood as the primary interpreter of Scripture’.
To underscore the importance of Christian tradition is not to assert that it has equal authority with scripture or that it is a second source of revelation. Rather it is to recognise that reading the Bible is always an ecclesial activity. It is to recognise that the faith of the individual Christian must be shaped by the faith of the church. And it is to acknowledge that it is the faith of the universal church that must serve as the hermeneutical guideline for the reading of scripture. To underscore the importance of tradition is to recognise that the Holy Spirit is at work in the church throughout the ages steadily leading her into all truth. And it is unwise to ignore this crucial work of the Spirit.
As J. I. Packer has poignantly put it:
‘The Spirit has been active in the church from the first, doing his work he was sent to do – guiding God’s people into an understanding of the revealed truth. The history of the church’s labour to understand the Bible forms a commentary on the Bible which we cannot despise or ignore without dishonouring the Spirit’.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in The Bible Speaks Today (September 2012).