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Roman Catholic theology is noted for the emphasis it puts on tradition, which is placed alongside Scripture as an equally authoritative stream of revelation. The Reformers rightly rejected this view and emphasized sola Scriptura as the church’s only infallible authority. But is there a place for tradition in the Reformed faith? John Murray, the former professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, once spoke to this question:
There is a Reformed tradition. It is enshrined in the Reformed creeds, theology, worship, and practice. We believe it is the purest representation and expression of Apostolic Christianity. It is in this tradition that we move; it is the stream along which we are borne; it is the viewpoint we cherish, foster, and promote. We cannot abstract ourselves from it; it gives direction to our thought and practice.
“Reformed Protestants,” Murray said, “do not deny that there is such a thing as tradition to which all due deference must be paid.” It is not identical with Scripture but arises out of Scripture. This tradition and the community shaped by it “breathes in a certain atmosphere, is animated by a certain viewpoint, [and] is characterized by a certain type of life and practice.
“Further, Murray argued, “the fact of tradition, and of its all-permeating influence on thought and life is undeniable.
“A seminary classmate of mine once boasted, “I never read commentaries. I don’t trust human opinions. I let God alone speak to me.” To which a skeptical Calvinist fellow student responded, “What about you? Why do you trust your opinions?
“Our inability to escape our own limitations forces upon the self-aware the need to recognize their dependence upon others. Mutual dependence or interdependence should not surprise us. We are members of a body—the Apostle Paul’s favorite metaphor for the church. We need each other (Rom. 12:4–8; 1 Cor. 12:12–31). “Are all teachers?” the Apostle asks (1 Cor. 12:29, 29). Of course not. Consequently, non-teachers depend on teachers in the same way that non-administrators depend on administrators, and non-leaders depend on leaders (Rom. 12:6–8). Throughout the whole body and the whole range of gifts, the non-gifted depend on the gifted. God has given “some as apostles…evangelists…pastors…and teachers,” but not all (Eph. 4:11, NASB). They are gifted to equip the saints. Others are not.
Read the Bible. Study the Bible. Read broadly, several chapters at a time. Study intensively, word by word, clause by clause. However, don’t neglect to consult the gifted teachers that God has given to the church of today and yesterday. Don’t despise the gifts of God. There is a reason why Calvin cites Augustine on every other page of his Institutes. He felt obligated to show that what he taught was also what the creeds, the early ecumenical councils, the patristic theologians, and the best of the medieval theologians also taught.
Biblical interpretation should never be merely a matter of “just me and my Bible.” Why? Because we can’t trust our solitary selves. We’re not meant to be self-sufficient. We’re meant to be taught by those teachers God has gifted for the church.
This brings us back to Murray and tradition. Scripture is our only infallible authority on all matters of faith and practice. Yet listen to the Apostle Paul’s arguments in 1 Cor. 1:2; 4:17; 11:16; and 14:33 What are we to make of his appeals to what is taught “everywhere in every church” or to the practice of “all the churches”? Or this: “But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God” (11:16 NASB).
Note at this point that the Apostle is not arguing solely on the basis of Apostolic authority, biblical precedent, or theological principle. Rather, he appeals to catholicity, to consensus. Apparently, conformity to the standard established among the churches is a principle worth appealing to as the Apostle Paul seeks to convince the wayward Corinthians of what constitutes right belief and good order (14:40). As we determine what we believe and practice or what our congregation or denomination does, we must factor in what the church historically has believed and practiced.
Bible study is meant to take place in an ecclesiastical context, one that stretches back to the Apostles. We read Scripture in light of what properly ordained pastor teach, but also in light of what the creeds and councils, the confessions and theologians—of the catholic (universal) and Reformed tradition—have taught. Too many contemporary Christians barely hide their contempt for “traditional ways of doing things.” By way of contrast, Paul urges the Corinthians to “maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:2; see 2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6). He urges them to maintain not merely the “message,” the “good news,” the “teaching,” the “instruction,” or the “commandment,” but the “tradition.” In the immediate context, Paul is talking about the infallible Apostolic tradition that we know today as the New Testament. Still, there is a secondary application—those who have gone before us could err and have erred, but it is wise for us to give the benefit of the doubt to the great men and women of God who interpreted the Bible before us.
This tradition is the interpretive or exegetical heritage of those who hold to the Reformed faith. I am to read my Bible not in isolation, but in consultation with that heritage, its teachers (both alive and deceased), and its implications for theology, ecclesiology, ethics, worship, and family life. What did our ecclesiastical ancestors say about a given passage of Scripture? What was their consensus on a given doctrinal theme? A given church practice? Humility demands that we go beyond “just me and my Bible” as we seek to be faithful in our generation.