It's Scripture and, not
vs. tradition

The following began as a letter to an electronic mail forum to which I subscribe. I was so impressed with it as a cogent and succinct expression of the tension many feel between Scripture and Tradition that I asked the author's permission to publish it here to give it longer and broader exposure. The author, Stephen Hubert Bays, a longtime Southern Baptist who converted to Orthodoxy, is now a lay member of St. John the Forerunner Orthodox Mission of the Antiochian Archdiocese. A teacher in the Austin, Texas, public school system, he is married and the father of five children. He is also pursuing a doctorate at the University of Texas.


In an email discussion, someone asked recently why I referred to the opinion of Orthodox Church leaders concerning a doctrinal issue instead of just quoting Scripture. The reason I referred to church leaders was that someone made a false assertion about the teaching of the Orthodox Church. This person said that the Orthodox Church taught that Christ's suffering in Gethsemane was the true act of redemption because in the shedding of blood in Gethsemane, Christ showed that he experienced true suffering of soul which accomplished our redemption. I cited numerous Orthodox leaders to make it crystal clear that this was not the teaching of the Church but only the opinion of one hierarch.

But of course the whole Scripture and tradition question came up. Let me begin this discussion by saying that I am a former evangelical Protestant. In fact I was a very conservative evangelical Protestant (I don't think that I would have ever really fit the label Fundamentalist). I believed as firmly as anyone in the sola scriptura doctrine. This doctrine was what I had been taught all of my Christian life, and it seemed to be the only sure safeguard against the innovations of the Roman Church. I think that it was in part my conservatism (desire to preserve what the Church had always believed from the times of the Apostles) that led me toward Orthodoxy.

Another factor that led me toward Orthodoxy was my graduate work in biblical studies at a Protestant university. The more deeply I delved into biblical studies on an academic level, the more apparent it became that sola scriptura just didn't work, and it never has worked. In both popular understanding and in academic study of the Bible, the sola scriptura doctrine has led to almost total anarchy in biblical interpretation. Everyone says, "I am simply believing what the Bible says." But no one can escape the act of interpretation. Every time someone reads the Bible in order to inform himself about Christian doctrine, he is interpreting the Bible. But no one can agree.

The result is almost complete disunity in the Protestant world. Two people in the same Protestant denomination both say they believe the Bible, but they come to completely opposite conclusions about what it teaches. Sola scriptura also leads to theological dishonesty. Someone will say, "I don't follow any man-made tradition, I just read the Scriptures in their plain literal sense. When the literal sense is not clear, I use Scriptures which are clear to help understand Scriptures which are obscure." Every time someone says that, their interpretation can ususally be traced almost directly to one of the leaders of the Reformation or a major post-reformation Protestant figure (Luther, Calvin, Zwinlgli, Simmons, Wesley, Finney, Edwards, Darby, Campbell and the list goes on). They are using tradition, but it is not Apostolic Tradition from the early centuries of the Church. Their interpretive tradition is Protestant tradition which originated somewhere between the 16th and 20th centuries.

The traditions that inform most conservative evangelicals in our times in the United States come from Protestant revivalists from the 18th to 20th centuries. If their interpretation is not rooted in one of these traditions, it is usually an interpretation of the more bizarre variety. By not acknowledging the influence of these Protestant traditions and by insisting that they just believe what the Bible says without the influence of human tradition, they are being dishonest with themselves and others.

I came to the conclusion that we don't have a choice between "sola scriptura" and the "Scripture and tradition" point of view. Our choice is which tradition we are going to use. Are we going to understand Scripture in the context of the multitude of contradictory Protestant traditions, or are we going to understand Scripture in the context of Apostolic Tradition as it has been transmitted through the Orthodox Church from the Lord and the Apostles? Those who continue to insist that they are not following any tradition are either deluded or deeply rooted in a radical individualism that is alien to the first century Church of the Apostles.

Now a well intentioned and sincere defender of sola scriptura will reply to me,"The fault is not with the Scriptures, but with the interpreters. The Bible is clear in what it means. It is only that people interpret it incorrectly or they read their own ideas into it." First, I never said that there is a problem with the Scripture. The problem is with the sola scriptura doctrine. Second, if the chaos and disunity within Protestantism is simply caused by people who misinterpret Scripture, what is the correct methodology for interpreting Scripture? What method for interpreting Scripture do all Protestants agree about?

Sadly, there is as much disagreement and disunity within Protestantism about this question as there is about the meaning of various important passages of Scripture. Protestants have been saying for almost 500 years, "If we just interpret the Scriptures correctly without relying on tradtion, we will find the clear and obvious meaning of the Scriptures." Sadly, history has proven this assertion to be dead wrong. Interpretations have proliferated exponentially and so have the divisions within Protestantism.

When I was a Protestant, I was in denial about the chaos that existed within Protestantism. When I read about entire Protestant denominations that took a pro-choice position on the abortion issue or about those who wanted to ordain homosexuals or about leaders who denied the Virgin Birth or questioned the miracles of Christ, I would say to myself, "Well, they don't really believe the Bible," or, "They can't really be Christians and believe that." Sadly, they do believe the Bible, or at least they think they do. They do believe in sola scriptura. Many of them were Christian at least in the sense that they recited and sincerely believed the Nicene Creed (in its Western form). And they were fellow Protestants. Most evangelical Protestants cannot face up to the enormous diversity and disagreement within Protestant ranks on almost every single theological and moral issue of any significance. These different Protestant groups or individuals just have a different way of interpreting the Bible, and nothing in the sola scriptura doctrine provides any means of control for how Scripture is to be interpreted.

It was easy for me to deny the disunity of Protestantism when I was a Protestant. I would look at the church which I attended and see unity, and to be fair, there was substantial unity in the individual congregations of which I was a part. I rarely considered the disunity within my denomination (for many years I was a Southern Baptist), and the disunity that existed among all Protestants of all denominations did not really cross my mind. When I ocasionally grappled with the problem, I would rationalized it by saying to myself, "Well, we have different denominations, but we are one in the Holy Spirit."

But can one honestly say that individuals and denominations who differ on such basic issues are really one, even if it is spiritualized as a unity in the Holy Spirit? Is this the unity in the Spirit which Christ intended us to have? If these people and denominations are one in the Holy Spirit, then it almost seems to imply (blasphemously) that the Holy Spirit is not doing a very good job. If St. Peter or St. Paul were to come to one of our cities full of different denominations which are full of different opinions on baptism, communion, justification, sanctification, eschatology, and ecclesiology, would they say that we had unity? I think not.

Why is it so important that we agree anyway? Christ came to establish one Church. John 17 makes the unity that Christ intended very clear. We have to be able to agree enough to be able to coexist in one church as Christ intended. That level of agreement is obviously lacking in Protestantism. Does it mean that we will never disagree? No, but there must be some underlying basis for maintaining unity.

I believe that basis for maintaining unity is Apostolic Tradition, which has its origin in Christ and the Apostles. When Christ departed from the earth, He sent the Holy Spirit to the Church so that the Apostolic Tradition would be preserved in the Church through the centuries. Our unity is in the Holy Spirit who preserves the Apostolic Teaching in the Church.

Please don't get me wrong here. I am not saying it is either Scripture or Tradition. I am not even saying it is Scripture and Tradition. Scripture is the foundation stone of Apostolic Tradition. Scripture is the richest source of Apostolic Tradition. However, to understand what the Apostles meant in the Scriptures, Scripture must be read in light of the other expressions of Apostolic Tradition which include (but are not limited to) the liturgies and hymns of the Church, the theological and spiritual writings of the Church Fathers, the decisions of both Ecumenical and some local Councils, the Nicene Creed (result of the first two Ecumenical Councils), the lives of the Saints, the icons of the Church, the architecture of the Church buildings, and the living bearers of the Apostolic Tradition, the Church itself, that is, the living faithful.

The Holy Spirit works through all of these means within the Church to preserve the faithful in unity with one another and with the teaching of the Apostles. Some would single out the Bishops of the Church as the bearers of Apostolic Tradition because they are the successors to the Apostles. It is certainly true that the bishops are the successors of the Apostles; the Bishops are charged with teaching the faithful and protecting the Church against heresies. However, it is the whole Church which bears Apostolic Tradition because the Holy Spirit is given to all. The Bishop has a special gift and a special calling to teach and to correct, but the Holy Spirit indwells the whole church and, ultimately, Holy Tradition in all of its manifestations has its origin in the Spirit of God.

In Orthodox history, bishops have gone astray at times, and in those times it has frequently been simple laymen or monks who continued to carry on the Apostolic Tradition and correct the errors of wayward bishops. As I said before, it is the Spirit that is the source of Apostolic Tradition. Scripture is the foundational expression of that Tradition. But if Scripture is cut away from the other ways in which the Spirit has taught the Church through the centuries, the Scripture is misunderstood and misinterpreted. The chaos within Protestantism is the result of individuals trying to understand Scripture apart from the Apostolic Tradition that has been preserved in the Orthodox Church through the work of the Holy Spirit.

The Scriptures do not teach the doctrine of sola scriptura. I would respectfully request that any person demonstrate from the Scriptures that Scripture alone is to be the only source of authority for the faith and morals of the Church. If Protestants take the position that all doctrine must be established by Scripture alone, then this doctrine also must be established by Scripture alone. Otherwise, the whole doctrine is destroyed in a terrible contradiction.

Someone will quote 1 Timothy 3:16-17, "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." I agree one hundred percent that these verses teach the inspiration of the Scriptures. But please note; the verse says, "All Scripture..." It does not say, "only Scripture...." This verse does not exclude other means of God's teaching, reproof, correction or training.

In another passage from St. Paul's writings, the Scripture does teach that if we want to find the Truth we will find it in the Church. St. Paul writes to Timothy, "I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that, if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:14-15). This is such a beautiful Scripture because it illustrates how the Scripture and the Church function together (not in opposition) to lead us to the Truth. Paul writes instructions to Timothy (the Scripture even though at that time it was probably not understood to be Scripture), but immediately he refers to the Church as the "pillar and bulwark of the Truth." The Scriptures instruct us correctly, but in order to understand them correctly, we have to understand them in the context of the Church.

There is no fault to be found in the Scriptures. But to understand them correctly we need the guidance of the Holy Spirit which is expressed in its fullest in the Church. (I acknowledge that God in His mercy works by His Spirit in the lives of individuals who are outside the Church). It is in the Church that we find the Spirit in His fullest manifestation; it is in the Church where we will find the Truth. When we are cut off or cut ourselves off from the many ways in which God has spoken to us through the Church (mentioned above), we at least partially cut ourselves off from the Holy Spirit and from the Truth. We wind up rejecting one of God's richest blessings.

In another article I hope to discuss how Scripture supports the idea of Tradition as a norm for us.

Please understand that in anything I write, I do not intend any offense to anyone. If I have made any errors whether factual or doctrinal, they are strictly my own and due to my own carelessness or ignorance.

God bless everyone.

1997, Hubert Bays; used with permission.

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1997 Jon Kennedy