Christians are people of the Holy Scriptures. We order our lives and beliefs according to the teachings of Scripture. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism rightly asks and answers, “What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?” “The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.” The Scriptures are the only rule. This truth lies at the center of the Protestant faith. Without this principle, the entire house of the Reformation crumbles.
It is important to note that the Reformers held to sola Scriptura, not solo Scriptura. Solo Scriptura advocates a radical individualism that rejects the church, creeds, confessions, and tradition as having any authority while embracing private judgment above all else. This view radicalizes the Protestant ethic and undermines it. Such an approach finds no credence in the teaching of the Reformers or the early church. Conversely, the Reformers taught the Apostles’ Creed and stood upon the truths articulated at Chalcedon and Nicaea. Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, Henry Bullinger, and Martin Bucer all wrote catechisms and confessions for their people. They viewed an anti-creedal and anti-confessional theology as anti-Christian. None of the prominent Protestant Reformers advocated solo Scriptura.
On the other hand, they were all fierce advocates of sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura acknowledges the authority of the church and its tradition, including creeds and confessions, but always as subordinate to, and only as they agree with, the Scriptures. R.C. Sproul is helpful in explaining the place of sound church tradition within the sola Scriptura position when he states: “Although tradition does not rule our interpretation, it does guide it. If upon reading a particular passage you have come up with an interpretation that has escaped the notice of every other Christian for two thousand years, or has been championed by universally recognized heretics, chances are pretty good that you had better abandon your interpretation” (The Agony of Deceit, 34–35). Orthodox confessions and creeds articulate the faith in comprehensive ways and provide important boundaries for identifying what the Scriptures teach.
In this way, tradition, including our creeds and confessions, plays an important role in the Christian faith. For example, the Apostles’ Creed has long been recognized by the church as a summary of the essentials of the Christian faith. It articulates the foundational truths of orthodoxy. More robust creeds and confessions seek to articulate what the entire Bible says on a given subject or a range of subjects. This is necessary because it is impossible to turn to one passage or book of the Bible to define baptism, prayer, atonement, or any other doctrine. But a creed or confession can detail what the entire Bible says collectively about a specific locus of theology.
But even as we employ the use of tradition, we must maintain that traditions are only as good as they are biblical. This key truth governs our use of them. The Bible alone serves as our compass. It possesses sole infallible authority over our lives, as it alone is the Word of God. And it alone is inerrant. Therefore, where our traditions, creeds, and confessions disagree with the Scriptures, they are to be rejected; where they agree, we embrace them and count them as useful for our Christian lives. Understanding this distinction is of paramount importance.
The church of every generation needs a renewal in the doctrine of sola Scriptura. History teaches that when the church forgets that the Scriptures alone are necessary and sufficient, it loses its foundation and begins to crumble. In many ways, the tradition of the church reminds us of this truth. In fact, elements of tradition such as creeds and confessions seek to promote biblical truth. So, let us confess and employ them, but recognize that they will only benefit insofar as they promote the teachings of Scripture. Scripture sits in judgment over our traditions—never the other way around.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on October 23, 2017.