Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Protestant "Sacred" Tradition?

Jay at the Catholic Apologetics site DeosOmnisGloria has posted on Protestant Tradition. He begins with this statement:

Protestants are quick to suggest that all traditions fall under the condemned “traditions of man” in the Bible. However, what protestants don’t realize is they also trust in tradition. There are some key beliefs they hold to that are actually not Biblically-based (which suggests they are based on tradition). We’ve discussed this multiple times within the comments section of this blog, but I thought I would point out a few of them and see if any of our protestant readers can explain how and why these are believed.

Before we look at Jay’s examples, it is important to point out just what tradition means to a Protestant. Jay is correct if he is saying that many evangelicals have a hairline trigger when it comes to the topic of tradition, instantly denouncing it in a misguided guilt-by-association with Catholic sacred tradition.

Protestants should and in many cases do regard tradition with high esteem. In short:
  • Protestants do not (or should not) deny tradition.

  • Protestants find traditions to be valuable.

  • Protestants have many traditions.

The difference between Protestants and Catholics is that we do not believe that a church has the authority to bind your conscience to a tradition. The last church I attended was a Reformed Baptist church that had the tradition of teaching the amillennial position. It even put "amillennial" on its church sign. But you were not considered to be committing a sin if you did not affirm that end-times view.

Jay continues, giving a list of examples:

Here's a quick list of the "traditions" or unBiblical beliefs protestants hold to (feel free to add more as comments):

  • ”God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit make up the Trinity”. No where does the Bible explain the Trinity.

  • ”We attend church on Sunday”. In the Old Testament we are told the Sabbath is Saturday and the Bible never changes this policy. Why then do protestants attend Sunday services?

  • ”The Bible was ‘compiled’ by God”. Often protestants don’t realize (a) the Catholic Church compiled the Bible and (b) Martin Luther is the only person to add and/or subtract from it (he did both).
  • ”Sola Scriptura is Biblical”. This is the big one: protestants hold that the Bible is our sole source of truth. Of course, this is not Biblical. For example: if Sola Scriptura is valid, where does the Bible list the books that should be included?

  • ”The Jews accepted Sola Scriptura”. You can’t even recreate a sin offering using the Old Testament, so it would be impossible. Secondarily, there were three versions of the Old Testament during Jesus’ day; different groups trusted in different books.

  • ”Pastors should be elected by church members”. Again, no Biblical basis for this. In Acts, the remaining 11 apostles fill the “seat” of Judas by drawing straws.

As for the Trinity, I am amazed when a Catholic claims (not all Catholics do) that the Triune God is not clearly revealed in scripture. While I have blogged about a scriptural proof of the trinity (a relatively minor exercise) I won't belabor the obvious. A simple search should reveal any number of straightforward exegeses.

Sola Scriptura that has been argued so many times, including on this blog, that I have little stomach for doing it yet again. We can save some time. Here is how the argument would go:

  • You'll say that Sola Scriptura is not in the bible and therefore refutes itself.

  • I'll point out the verses from which one can plainly deduce the doctrine. You'll disagree, or perhaps argue that deduction should be outlawed under the ground rules of Sola Scriptura. It isn't.

  • You'll probably argue that it was unheard of until the Reformation. I'll point out where it appears in the writings of early church fathers. You'll point out how some of those fathers also wrote about tradition. I'll counter as to how I wasn't trying to show how they were consistently following Sola Scriptura, only that the doctrine was not invented in the sixteenth century.

  • At some point, if not by then, Sola Scriptura will be completely misrepresented, and I'll have to provide a list of what it is not. For the record, Sola Scriptura, does not say

    • That every thing that Jesus or the Apostles taught was recorded.

    • That anything that wasn't recorded was not edifying or valuable. I have heard many edifying and valuable sermons that are not in the Bible.

    • That the Bible contains everything.

    • That you can't believe something that isn't in the bible.

So the bottom line is that we would get nowhere, because the Catholic will claim that Sola Scriptura is a tradition because it is not taught in scripture, and Protestants will say that it is demonstrably biblical.

As for electing pastors, that is indeed a tradition. No argument. Like I said, we have lots of traditions. Nobody should deny otherwise. Many if not most issues of church order and government are also traditions.

The most interesting of Jay's points concerns the canon of scripture. And in this case I agree with him.

Catholics view their canon as an infallible collection of infallible books as designated by an infallible church.

Many Protestants view the sixty six books of a Protestant bible also as an infallible collection of infallible books. This is not correct. If you hold this view as indisputable, then you are elevating a tradition to a revealed truth, and the source of that revelation is not biblical and is, in fact, councils of post-apostolic men. You then have a Protestant sacred tradition.

No, the correct view of the canon is that it is a fallible collection of infallible books. This is the only position consistent with our denial of sacred tradition. Now just because the potential exists for having say, omitted a book that should have been included, it doesn’t mean that an error was made. But, however unlikely, it is possible. And of course you can believe in your heart, as I do, that the Holy Spirit guided the process, but that belief is a tradition.

(Having said that, Jay does not give historic service to the reasons for excluding the books known as the Apocrypha. That debate centers around whether they were viewed as canonical or secondary by Judaism. The Catholic Church says the former; the Reformers and many other who preceded them, such as the Jewish historian Josephus, hold to the latter. Jay unfortunately makes it sound like a willy-nilly edict from Luther.)

Now many of my fellow Protestants might want to argue against me, but unfortunately unless you can find somewhere in the bible where it says that the book of Jude should be in the canon, you are forced to acknowledge that a decision was made to include Jude.

At one point Luther attacked the book of James. He was not denying that scripture was infallible; he was arguing that James was not scripture (he later recanted his objection.) However it points out that Luther did not regard the canon as infallible, but he did regard scripture as infallible.

If that makes you nervous, it shouldn't.

First of all, there always was a bible, even in the New Testament. The Christian church was never without a bible. The New Testament refers to itself in places and it was clear that scriptures were already used by the apostles (2 Pet 3:16, 1 Tim 5:18).

Secondly, you should study the process. It was not a chaotic Iowa caucus of people arguing which books should be included. Criteria were established, the three important requirements being:

  1. Apostolic authority. This meant that either it was written by or authorized by a living apostle.

  2. It was accepted by the early church.

  3. It did not conflict with "indisputable" books such as the gospels.

With these criteria, there was only serious debate about a handful of books, including Hebrews and James (because of uncertain authorship), Revelation, and a few others.

The bottom line is that concerning the canon, Jay is correct. Many Protestants do have a "sacred tradition" regarding the table of contents of the bible. It shouldn't and needn't be so. It is actually just a church tradition, but one in which we can be confident.

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