Some Lutheran reflections on Scripture and Tradition

A while back I was reading through an old (closed) discussion on an online forum, and read some thoughts from one of the participants.[1] He said that we shouldn’t read Scripture through any kind of tradition, since Scripture was ‘self interpreting,’ ‘clear,’ and ‘easily understandable.’ Then he went on to cite his proof of this, and said that Luther held to sola scriptura. There is just one big problem with this, and that is the fact that neither Luther nor any other Lutheran reformer made the claim that sola scriptura implies that tradition (or Tradition) doesn’t matter. This we can see by analysing the word. ‘Tradition’ (Gk. παράδοσις, Lt. trāditiō) just means ‘that which is handed over,’ and the act of handling over is παραδίδωμι in Greek and trādere in Latin. Scripture is itself handed over, and is thus part of Tradition. But, as we see with all text, this handing over is not passive. It is always interpreted, and Scripture is no exception. It is not ‘clear’ and ‘easily understandable,’ and is read within a community, within a Tradition.

The Lutheran reformers, who used the term sola scriptura, meant by this the fact that Scripture stands above (other parts of) Tradition. But Scripture was still to be read within a living ecclesial Tradition, and especially though the writings of the Church Fathers. One can, of course, discuss to which degree they were successful in this, but they did not use the term sola scriptura as a way to exclude Tradition. In fact the first authorities mentioned in Confessio Augustana (CA) aren’t Scripture, but the Nicene Creed (article 1) and, in all ways but in name, the Chalcedon Creed (article 3).[2] To get technical, the Lutheran reformers defined Scripture as ‘the norm which norms (but which is not itself normed)’ (norma normans or norma normans non normata) and Tradition, especially the ecumenical creeds, as ‘the norms which are normed’ (norma normata).[3]

But there is a danger here. Since Scripture judges Tradition, we often end up defining Tradition as a given creed (the Apostles’ Creed, CA, etc.) That is what has happened in many modern Reformed and Lutheran churches. In a discussion I once referred to St. Ignatius of Antioch, who said to obey the bishop, and was told that this wasn’t uttered explicitly in Scripture, so we shouldn’t believe it. But this has never been part of what, at least Lutherans, have understood by sola scriptura.

I have been asked why, on this view, we cannot just say that Scripture is ‘the written rules from a board game,’ and play the game based solely on Scripture. The problem with this is that there are many different interpretations at play. The ‘game’ has changed, and does change constantly. We can say that the ‘game’ has gotten a lot of ‘expansion packs.’

The question often boils down to this: Why must Tradition judge me, and my reading of Scripture? The answer is that one person’s reading of Scripture is not identical with Scripture itself. That person’s interpretation of Scripture is not necessarily correct. Although Scripture cannot be normed by Tradition (norma normans non normata), it can be, and is, interpreted through Tradition. Tradition is still a norm (norma normata). It all boils down to the question of whether or not Scripture is ‘clear’ and ‘easily understandable.’ As a man with a master’s degree in theology, and who loves Greek, I can say that it is far from.

We need people to teach this. People not only with education, but who are called and ordained to teach in Church. According to Lutheran teaching, “no one should publicly teach in the Church or administer the Sacraments unless he be regularly called.” (CA XIV) Who are ‘regularly called’ (Lt. rite vocatus)? William Weedon has some thought on this:

The Augsburg Confession is very bold in its insistence: “As can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church universal, or from the Church of Rome, as known from its writers.” (Conclusion of first half of the AC) “In doctrine and ceremonies we have received nothing contrary to Scriptures or the Church universal.” (Conclusion of the second half of the Augsburg Confession).

I would contend, however, that precisely at the point of AC XIV Melanchthon KNEW that something needed to be introduced that was new in both doctrine and in ceremony. But he was betting the farm that his opponent, Johann Eck, would NOT notice what he had done. And so what Melanchthon did was to scrounge up a term from canon law that might be a tad ambiguous – rite voctaus – and hope that Eck wouldn’t notice that the term was being used in a novel manner.

Fat chance. Eck was a careful student of the Lutheran movement and watched it with growing alarm. He did not let AC XIV slip by without telling commentary:

“When in the fourteenth article, they confess that no one ought to administer in the Church the Word of God and the sacraments unless he be rightly called, it ought to be understood that he is rightly called who is called in accordance with the form of law and the ecclesiastical ordinances and decrees hitherto observed everywhere in the Christian world, and not according to a Jerobitic (cf. 1 Kings 12:20) call, or a tumult or any other irregular intrusion of the people. Aaron was not thus called. Therefore, in this sense the Confession is received; nevertheless, they should be admonished to persevere therein, and to admit in their realms no one either as a pastor or as a preacher unless he be rightly called.” (Reu’s *A Collection of Sources for the Augsburg Confession*, p. 357)

The question is this: What is meant by rite vocatus? Does it mean, following Eck’s opinion, that you need ordination in apostolic succession (as that had been understodd throughout Church history), or something else? The problem is that we have never agreed what it actually means. The way I see it, is that we must read it the way the receivers of the text would read it. CA was not just a confession, it was an apologetical piece of writing, delivered to the Roman Catholic Church and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Imperial Diet of Augsburg, June 25, 1530. It seems to me that if you write a work, you need to use terminology the way its intended audience will use it. And furthermore, the authors of the confession claimed that “there is nothing,” at least in the first half of the confession (articles I-XXI), “that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church Catholic, or from the Church of Rome as known from its writers.” (CA XXI) The ‘writers’ in question is the Church Fathers (Lt. ex scriptoribus; Ger. aus der Väter Schrift).[4] But if this is true, we need to understand rite vocatus as a need to not only call but to ordain men into the apostolic succession. There have been much discussion on this. But if we want to read this artivle through Tradition – the Tradition of the Church Catholic and the Church Fathers – we cannot avoid this idea. We must either read CA XIV as part of Tradition, or as a break with (or a correction of) Tradition. But then we end up, I think, as judges of Tradition. We become the norma normata ourselves. I will stop there, and let Chris Jones, one of the commentators on William Weedon’s blog post get the last word:

If the Apostolic Tradition means anything, and if the Creeds, the Councils, and the Fathers are worthy of any credit at all as faithful witnesses to that Tradition, then it seems to me that we must see our Confessions as part of that tradition, and consistently read them in the context of that tradition. Otherwise how can we possibly claim to be the Catholic Church, rightly reformed? And if that leads us to the conclusion that our Lutheran fathers were mistaken about the necessity of episcopal ordination, then that ought to lead us not to put the “Catholic principle” out of court, but to repent of that error. If we have made a mistake, we ought to admit it – not re-interpret Church history to make the mistake somehow not a mistake. After all, if one should never admit a mistake in doctrine or practice, there never could have been a Reformation.

If the “Catholic principle” is only an a posteriori judgement, not an actual embrace of the Apostolic Tradition, then it was no more than a rhetorical weapon against the Romanists, without substance. And that leaves us not as evangelical Catholics, but mere Protestants. That is not a position that I care to be in.

Notes:

[1] This post is based on different things I have written here on my blog, and on some posts in which I have participated in various online forums.

[2] For thought on this, read this (unfortunately Norwegian) article by Knut Alfsvåg: «Luthersk spiritualitet: Om lære og liv i den éne, kristne kirke» (Dansk Tidsskrift for Teologi og Kirke 40:1, 2013): 42-56.

[3] The Roman Catholic Church also essentially states this, in Dei Verbum. Here is a ‘taste’: “But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.”

[4] For the Latin and German texts of the Lutheran Confessions (the Book of Concord), see Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche (Herausgegeben im Gedenkjahr der Augsburgischen Konfession 1930. 5., durchgesehene Aufage. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 1963). In the Church of Norway, however, we are bound not by the entirety of these confessions but only the three (western) ecumenical creeds (the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed); Confessio Augustana; and Luther’s Small Catechism.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s