The Dongola Times

(Anachronistic) Dispatches from the Kingdom of Makuria.
12th of October, 2014

Tradition Passes, But the Scriptures are Forever

I like to think of myself as an orthodox Reformed (“Protestant”) having moved past the Reformation. Some few years ago, we noted 500 years since Luther ostensibly nailed the 95 Theses to the church door. We cannot still be debating the matters of the Reformation today. We already know what is true; we already know whath the truth is. We now identify those who are orthodox with regard to it, the set of traditions that we call “Protestants”, and we also recognise those who are much-mistaken (such as the Roman Catholics).

Prior to the Reformation, many Christian communions placed their traditions above Scripture. Whatever merit traditions may have, however, they are not forever. The Nicene Creed, for instance, appeals to the Scriptures in the articles about the Son, while it says nothing about the traditions. When Jesus rose from the dead, He instructed His disciples about Himself. “Starting with Moses and all the Prophets …” and the Psalms.

Since the resurrected Christ leans on the Scriptures from the very first teaching, it is evident that the Scriptures—and the recognition of them—is fundamental and axiomatic. Those who will believe in Christ also believe in the Scriptures, because it is they that bear witness of Him, even by His own teaching from the very beginning of the Church. If He reposes His teaching on their witness, it is because they are entirely true. If the creeds refer us to them, it is because the Scriptures are both pre-creedal and entirely orthodox; the creeds expect faith in them to imply (or be preceded by) faith in the Scriptures.

For this reason, you can expect that one who doesn’t recognise the Scriptures doesn’t have a hope of recognising Jesus as the Christ, because the testimony of God regarding His Christ is in the Scriptures. Yet the position we take regarding the Scriptures can only be taken by faith, since we cannot judge the Scriptures by any other standard, and indeed we are to judge and prove all things by them—even the claims of the Risen Christ Himself. The same Spirit who witnesses to us regarding the Scriptures is the same one who witnesses to us regarding the Christ. For this reason the validity of the Scriptures is never going pass away.

But traditions are not like that. Traditions are local implementations of the broad requirements of the faith. Traditions are good—even inevitable—such that even the anti-tradition strain/stance associated with the Protestants is itself a (useful) tradition. However, traditions are the result of men implementing the faith in their local situation (language, taboos, strengths, weaknesses, history, et cetera), and as such they are passing—even if simply due to the passing of time, or of the heavens and the earth.

For this reason Jesus distinguishes between the Scriptures whose precepts may not ever be set aside, versus teachings which He says are to be regarded with contempt if they don’t uphold what is written. Jesus teaches careful checking of what is taught, but absolute respect for, deferrence to, reliance on, the integrity of, and trust in the Scriptures (as He was aware of them).

Now our confessions teach that we recognise the Scriptures not because of the witness of men, but because of the witness of God the Holy Spirit. Even if some were to maintain that this council or that council (say “the Synod of Hippo”) is the one that defined the canon, by what token would anybody accept that council itself, and its results? If we accept the results of any council, we do so by faith—by the testimony of the Spirit, Who says that the council is orthodox. Either way, we cannot get rid of the personal responsibility to believe; yet if we say that we accept the canon because of the council, now we are putting our faith in men. If we say that we accept the council because of our like faith, then why is the council privileged in the identification of orthodoxy, when ultimately we ourselves subject the councils to tests whereby we may identify their orthodoxy? Are we now putting our faith in man, rather than in the Holy Spirit?

The tradition that has the wrong scriptures is wrong, while a tradition cannot be scriptural and also be wrong. Scripture is recognised as a rule for orthodoxy, both by orthodox individuals and orthodox traditions.
For this reason it is impossible that Scripture be the result of human traditions; the Scriptures provide testimony that the traditions are built on top of. Even the Nicene Creed—even the Risen Christ!—defers to the Scriptures. It is a righteous and sacred tradition that upholds and defers to the Scriptures.

The Scriptures show themselves to be of very axiomatic nature here. We can prove things by them—as the Risen Christ does—but only after we presume correctly that those who are destined for life can recognise Scripture as Scripture. Those who are meant to be rejected, of course, cannot believe in the Scriptures, lest they believe the threats and promises of God, and be saved from the coming wrath by this faith, and God have no vessels by which to prove His justice as He proves His over-supplied grace by us who believe in the Scriptures that bear witness to this good news we believe. The Scriptures are the words of God, which man in his fallen nature despises and considers stupid. Faith in the Scriptures never happens by fleshly effort—neither by reason, nor by effort, nor by desire—but by the working of the Holy Spirit.

More-importantly, the same way that Scripture is recognised is the same way that sacred tradition is recognised: by the witness of the Spirit, that it upholds and defers to the Scriptures. This sacred tradition may be as simple as one setting out a récipe for the altar bread and wine (prehaps to accentuate parts of doctrine[1]), or as fundamental as one declaring the canon—essentially giving a list of what we have always recognised when we said “Scripture”—which are things we accept not because the council or tradition said, but because we accept the council on the testimony of the Spirit and the Scriptures.

Therefore if the results of a council are to be deemed orthodox, they are included together with the rest of the Scriptures, because they would not be orthodox if they were in opposition to the Scriptures or not subject to them. Nevertheless, we do not confound the Bible—which is the 66 books of the New and Old Testaments—with the Scriptures in general, which in the times before Christ were only the Old Testament, and which are now issued here as the Bible together with the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Three Forms of Unity. In this way, tradition does contribute to Scripture, but we do not accept these traditions on Scripture simply because they exist, but because they are orthodox—as is witnessed by the Spirit.

Further elements of sacred tradition—and included with the Scriptures we publish—are canonical hours and lectionaries; and these we publish together with the Bible because its study is their subject. When some important attributes of the daily routine change, then the lectionary would have to change, too. In no wise does anything in the Bible ever change. But the tempo and order of the reading—even the liturgy, and all that—can change from place to place, and from time to time. The traditions will all have the Scripture as their common denominator, and the testimony of the Spirit as the witness in favour of them.

[1] Unleavened bread could be used to emphasise the fulfilment of the Law of Moses1 in Christ’s body; or leavened bread to emphasise the liberty we have from the Mosaic yoke under the fulfilled covenant of the New Testament. What is being emphasised (and therefore the acceptable recipe) may vary by communion, or even by season within the same communion, or based on the prevailing topic of the canonical lectionary, or whatever other reason, as long as the reason is deferrent to Scripture.