On a number of occasions, I have crossed paths with instructors of the Bible, whether they be a Sunday School teacher or professor in a Bible college, who disapprove of historic creeds and confessions and their use within the church. This suspicion (sometimes repudiation) of historic creeds, confessions, and even theological material in general is far too common within evangelicalism. The view maintains that the best reading of Scripture is one that is divorced from all tradition. Typically, this view is based on a misunderstanding of the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura. Here I offer some suggestions for why this negative view of tradition is one we as a church should be aware of and abandon altogether.
First, it must be pointed out that while the historic doctrine of sola Scriptura has always maintained that the Bible is the final authority in all matters of the faith, it has never entailed an outright rejection of church tradition. In fact, the men who firmly held to this doctrine, not the least of whom were Martin Luther and John Calvin, regularly and favorably quoted theologians from the church’s history. Tradition itself was never viewed as a negative thing by the Reformers, only destructive when it was used to supplant or share authority with the Word of God. What proponents of this position maintain is not sola Scriptura, but what has been called nuda Scriptura (“naked/bare Scripture”; NS hereafter), an understanding of Scripture with no ecclesial context.
Secondly, proponents of NS are themselves confessional Christians of a sort; they just don’t realize it. If you were to ask one to summarize in a sentence or two who Jesus is and why he came to earth, they would, by necessity, need to produce a condensed statement of the relevant points of doctrine in order to answer the question, i.e., produce a confession. The difference between this confession and a standard historic confession is that one was deliberated on, debated, and prayerfully considered by many intelligent, God-fearing men, and the other was not. One such confession has stood the test of time and the scrutiny of generations of believers from all walks of life, the other has not. The fact of the matter is, proponents of NS already have a confession. The question then becomes, is their confession the product of an individual or a very narrow sect, or is it the product of hundreds of years of diligent study, discussion, prayer, and reflection?
Here’s another example of the self-refuting character of this position: every believer listens to a sermon each week at church, attends Sunday School, has discussions with other believers on matters of doctrine and practice, and sings songs that contain concise statements on doctrine. Are we to conclude that fallible man is permitted to wield some degree of influence over the believer so long as this influence comes in the form of sermons, Sunday School lessons, conversation and song, but that he is not to be influenced by the thoughts and reflections of godly men and women through the ages if those thoughts and reflections are codified in creeds and confessions? This is strange to say the least. Suppose a preacher quotes from the Westminster Confession of Faith. He may likely be criticized for pandering to tradition, and not the Word of God, from the pulpit. But supposing the preacher says the very same thing from the pulpit and presents it as his own idea derived from his study of Scripture, no objection will be mounted.
Finally, the position assumes some sort of neutrality on the interpreter’s part. Such a notion is terribly naïve. Our sinful condition affects all of who we are, down to the way we think and process information (the noetic effects of sin). We are all affected and influenced by the language we speak, the society we grew up in, our social standing, our upbringing, and so forth. To assume we can come to the text without bias or presupposition is terribly naïve, and the supposition that I cannot learn from the thoughts and reflections of so many godly men and women throughout the ages is simply arrogant. How could one read Calvin’s Institutes or the Belgic Confession or Augustine’s City of God and come away unmoved, thinking that such writings do little more than offer the fallacious speculations of fallen men? In studying church history, believers have the opportunity to see what others have learned about God in their own walk, through their various trials and condition in life. The study of church history brings humility and a deeper appreciation for God and his mercy. One can only wonder why NS proponents have such a low view of the Church against which Jesus Christ said the gates of hell would not prevail (Matt 16:18).
I’ll close with this quote from John Owen on sectarianism: “Why, they know already all of the bounds of wisdom, and can map out all the territory of Divine truth; it is confined within the bounds of their sect!” We must be mindful to walk in humility, being open to learning what God has taught others, knowing that we are not the only saints who have traversed the path we are on. It is a foolish thing for any one person or group to suppose they have mined all that can be known in God’s revealed Word with no need of help from godly brothers and sisters down through the centuries. Every professing Christian belongs to one branch or another of church history, even those who naïvely believe themselves to be without tradition or prejudice, indeed, even those who believe themselves to be the tree itself.