Scripture, Tradition and Authority

What is the correct relationship between the Scriptures, the tradition of the church and authority? This is not a new question but it is an important one.

The Bible only?

There are many who say ‘the Bible only’ is our authority, but then we face widely competing claims as to what the Bible teaches. We have all heard of extremely individualistic and even bizarre interpretations of Scripture. So the answer of the church has been to appeal to the Bible rightly and rationally interpreted. As Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) put it: ‘For the Holy Scripture was not given to the church by God to be thoughtlessly repeated but to be understood in all its fulness and richness….’1

For example, the use of the term ‘Trinity’ immediately reminds us we are not using a word found in Scripture. Yet Orthodox Protestants accept the doctrinal conclusions in the Nicene Creed even if they reject some of the speculations held by some of Nicene Fathers. It is an uninformed, sectarian or latitudinarian spirit which mouths the cry, ‘The Bible, I say, the Bible only is the religion of Protestants.’2 It was uttered by a rather liberal Anglican scholar, William Chillingworth, in order to modify the doctrines in the creeds. It had already been the principle of the Anapaptists of Reformation times, and it was the claim of the Churches of Christ of 19th century America, in the interests of their own sectarian unwritten creed. More recently many evangelicals use it without proper understanding.

In no case is ‘the Bible only’ a true claim, for every group (Protestant or otherwise) claiming ‘the Bible only’ has its own interpretation. Christians do not wish to quibble over words but they do wish to adhere to the true meaning of Scripture. Hence the necessity and honesty of declaring our understanding of controverted teachings of Scripture in a public Confession of Faith.3

In short, the genuine and original Protestant position is that the church is bound to be a confessing church – that is, to subscribe a statement of what it believes Scripture teaches. The original Protestants understood this very well. Hence Lutheran, Presbyterian/Reformed, Anglican, and early (Calvinistic) Baptist churches expressed their faith by continuing to accept the so-called Apostles’ Creed (even if they reinterpreted the latest part of it – that concerning Christ’s descent into hell dating from c.AD 500), and by compiling quite lengthy Confessions of Faith and Catechisms. A striking unanimity is found in these confessions, the differences being almost entirely confined to some points on the sacraments, on church government and on the application of Scripture to worship. These Confessions are an eloquent rebuttal of the common allegation that the Protestant principle which excludes an infallible Pope inevitably leads to numerous divergent and competing sects and denominations.

One is a Protestant not because he holds ‘the Bible only’ but because he holds certain views about the Bible and its content. A Jehovah’s Witness is not a Protestant no matter how vociferously he claims the support of the Bible. He is a Protestant who accepts a certain interpretation of the Bible, whose confession is not an individualistic one formed without regard to the gathered community of the church, but who stands with brothers and sisters in recognising the historic Protestant creeds as faithfully setting out the true meaning of Scripture.

Is Scripture supreme?

Given the recognition that Scripture is the supreme standard the question arises as to how a confessing church can honour the supreme standard if the condition of office is strict subscription to a Confession of Faith. Subscription is not a severe tension point in cases where one is not required to accept the whole teaching of the confession as one’s own confession, but in these cases one is subject to the dangers adoption of a confession is designed to prevent (idiosyncratic interpretation, doctrinal breadth or heresy under the guise of belief in the Bible), while the church is also seen to be failing to bear witness to all that Christ has commanded. That kind of subscription is full of ambiguities.

But strict subscription churches have every right to remove men who teach against the declared and agreed understanding of Scripture. This does not mean that the Confession has become supreme, for the Confession is not on the same level with Scripture or above it, nor the primary ground of faith. It is derivative – taken from Scripture – and thus subordinate, but yet not opposed to Scripture, to which indeed it would lead us back. A true Confession merely seeks to set forth what Scripture teaches on various subjects so as to be a suitable bond of union for those agreed as to the teaching of Scripture. Scripture is the final court of appeal. This is what the Protestant Reformers meant by sola scriptura.

Doubtless the Pope has every right to remove teachers in his communion who teach against the Roman faith. However, in the Roman understanding, Scripture is not supreme but is held along with oral tradition and the magisterium (teaching authority) of the church. The magisterium is not limited to the written Word of God but includes unwritten tradition. and in the final analysis to reject the magisterium is the same as rejecting Christ and his Apostles. Although on the one hand the Roman church gives high respect to Scripture on the other she takes away from it by her additions and by her claim to be the only sure identifier of Scripture as well as its infallible interpreter. Sola scriptura does not apply as a formal principle as it does in orthodox Protestant churches.

Scripture and the Word of God

In the Old Testament period God revealed himself and his will in many different ways – dreams, visions, angelic visitation etc. In the time of Moses (1400 BC) much was given in written form, and subsequent prophets called the people back to faithfulness to God’s Word through Moses. In doing so they gave oral teaching and later much of this too was reduced to written form. But the existence of the word of God in oral and written forms does not mean two words of God. The essence of both oral and written forms is the will of God made known, the teaching of God which for good reasons God now brings to us only in written form, the former ways of revealing himself and his will having ceased. Thus, the church may be older than the Scripture (the written word) but it is not older than the word of God preached by apostles and prophets who, indeed, are the church’s foundation (Eph 2:20). The word of God is now to be found only in sacred Scripture. We ask the Church of Rome: show us the fragments of oral tradition going back with certainty to the apostles and we will happily observe them. But in fact, this kind of tradition is not what the Roman Catholic church has.

Orthodox Protestants hold that it was God’s intention that his Word be reduced to writing, doubtless because of a written form being more effective in preserving the truth. In regard to the Old Testament we see this intention in several ways but we will limit ourselves to the New Testament witness.
1. Writing to the Church at Rome Paul says: ‘For everything written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope’ (Rom 15:4).
2. To a chiefly Gentile church at Corinth he draws teaching from the Old Testament history affirming: ‘These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come’ (1 Cor 10:11).
So the Old Testament was given by God with us in mind, as the quotations above show. The appeal is to what has been written not to unwritten albeit true traditions, since God intended the written word alone to guide his people. How much more the New Testament!

Indeed, the New Testament era is one characterised by further revelation in which the Word of God is being reduced to writing. Thus Peter classes Paul’s writings with ‘the other Scriptures’ (2 Pet 3:16). If we accept Augustine’s dictum: ‘The New is in the Old concealed, the Old is in the New revealed’ we can see that the New completes the Old and gives us a completed canon of faith. At the same time we must not under-estimate the New Testament warnings of apostasy, and the signs of this already in the first century (cp. Revelation 2 and 3). This underscores the importance of the Word of God in written form and warns against making even early teaching or practices not warranted by Scripture normative for ourselves.

The Word of God is the highest authority and by its very nature judges all other authorities. Accordingly, God’s people are warned about adding to or subtracting from the word of God (Deut 4:2; Rev 22:18-19). The only way we could lawfully add to the Bible was if we had further words from God given for this purpose. We do not have such words. Even Rome’s traditions do not include evident words from God going back to Christ and his apostles. Rather, Rome resorts to claiming a supposedly infallible authority over Scripture, so as to prevent its proper authority over the church.

Traditions good and bad

The early post-apostolic church and the church of the Middle Ages constantly assert the sufficiency for doctrine of Scripture, the written word. The implication is that traditions do not vary Scripture. Mind you, Basil the Great (330-379), writing in AD 375 supposes the sign of the cross, praying to the east, invocation at the Eucharist, anointing with oil, and other baptismal practices are holy mysteries that were guarded from profane curiosity by being passed on by unwritten tradition and which, if they were rejected, would mutilate the Gospel.4 Writing with somewhat greater soberness in about the year AD 379 Jerome states:

Don’t you know that the laying on of hands after baptism and then the invocation of the Holy Spirit is a custom of the Churches? Do you demand Scripture proof? You may find it in the Acts of the Apostles. And even if it did not rest upon the authority of Scripture the consensus of the whole world in this respect would have the force of a command. For many other observances of the Churches, which are due to tradition, have acquired the authority of the written law, as for instance the practice of dipping the head three times in the laver, and then, after leaving the water, of tasting mingled milk and honey in representation of infancy.5

This quotation indicates that it was recognised that certain practices had not originated with the Apostles but had acquired authority over time. Now tradition is not necessarily bad. Scripture speaks of holding fast to apostolic traditions, verbal or written (2 Thess 2:15). But here we have non-apostolic traditions – what we might term ecclesiastical traditions. Not all of them are bad either. But we have to be extremely careful not to bring anything alongside Scripture in matters of faith and worship, still less to bring in anything which contradicts Scripture. As Ursinus(1534-83) put it: ‘The true worship of God now consists in every internal or external work commanded by God, done in faith, which rests fully assured that both the person and the work please God, for the Mediator’s sake, and with the design that we may glorify God thereby.’6

Of course we should agree with the Westminster Confession (1646): ‘We also acknowledge that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God and the government of the church, circumstances common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by natural intelligence and Christian prudence, but always in line with the general rules of God’s word.’7 We do not claim every detail of our system of church government is explicitly set out in Scripture, but we do aim that its basic principles reflect Scripture – Scripture as the supreme standard, creedal statements subordinate to Scripture, a single class of church rulers (elders/presbyters), graded assemblies by which the unity of the church is expressed.

As to such details as ‘the time, the place, the form and order of sermons, prayers, reading in the church, fasts, the manner of proceeding in the election of ministers, in collecting and distributing alms, and things of a similar nature, concerning which God has given no particular command’ the church acts in the interests of edification but does not bind the conscience as if she must be obeyed on her authority. Rather we obey for the sake of good order and to avoid offence since, as Ursinus says: ‘laws are observed properly when they are observed according to the intention and design of the lawgiver.’8

The Protestant Reformers saw that ecclesiastical traditions can come to be regarded as more important than Scripture or even to misinterpret and misapply Scripture, a tendency evident already in the quotations from Basil and Jerome given above. The Protestant Reformers always wanted to call the Church back to the text of Scripture and its proper meaning in order that no wrong tradition obscure the pure word of God. Yet our Reformed fathers did not think that the mind of the church expressed in the creeds should be lightly regarded. Indeed, I think their general attitude to a doubter would be that he or she should assume the correctness of such Confessions pending more thorough examination of Scripture. They were drawn up by the teachers God had given his church and are entitled to credit over and above the claims of an individual. Sure, we do not claim they express Biblical doctrine in the most perfect way, but then it is the teaching conveyed by the words and not the mere words themselves that we insist on.

It is easy for those who have come into the Reformed faith of recent years, to lack full appreciation of its rich inheritance, and to be influenced by the Anabaptist approach to appeal to the Bible only without giving sufficient weight to the lawful and proper authority of the church, and the necessity for the church to be a confessing community. The Reformed church is the heir of the best in pre-Reformation thought as well as of the Reformation heritage itself. Let us not forget it.

Sola scriptura is the correct formal principle of the church and its proper application will have no more radical consequence than returning the faith and practice of the church to an apostolic simplicity, with proper regard for good traditions and the teaching authority of the church. The Creeds and Confessions of the Reformed church are important signposts, excellent means of instruction, valuable devotional manuals. It is exciting to rediscover them.


* Dr Ward is minister of the Melbourne congregation of the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia, a member denomination of the International Conference of Reformed Churches. He has written extensively on Presbyterian history and doctrine.
1 H.Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith (Grand Rapids 1956) 157. Compare Z. Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Phillipsburg 1985) 10: ‘Our knowledge of [Divinity] must necessarily remain confused and imperfect unless every part of this doctrine be taught in some systematic form.’
2 William Chillingworth (1602-44) was the populariser of the phrase in his The Religion of Protestants a Sure Way to Salvation (London 1638) i, ch. vi., 56.
3 Cf. J.Calvin, Institutes, I, xiii, 3-5.
4 See Basil’s On the Holy Spirit, 27 and the citation in the Eastern Orthodox Longer Catechism of 1839, Q 24, in P.Schaff, Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids 1983) 2:449-450.
5 Against the Luciferians, 8; citation from NPNF edition.

6 Commentary, 517.

7 WCF 1:6 cited from R.S.Ward (ed), Westminster Confession and Catechisms in Modern English (Melbourne 1996).

8 Commentary, 521.