Is church tradition authoritative?

(RiderOnTheClouds) #1

Is Church tradition a legitimate authority, or only scripture? I’m going to reject a sola scriptura interpretation here (as a Catholic who leans towards Orthodoxy), as I believe the Bible states very clearly that 1) not everything Jesus did was recorded in scripture (how much clearer could John 21:25 be?), 2) that we should entrust interpretation of the scriptures to faithful people (See 2nd Timothy 2:2, and 3) that the church has the authority to determine build Christianity up and determine it’s doctrines (1 Corinthians 10:8).

How might this intersect with faith and science? Well, it could go both ways. On one hand, Christian tradition until very recently has “largely” taken Genesis as literal. But on the other hand Church giants like Augustine and Origen did ‘not’ believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis, and increasingly we are seeing Christian theologians ‘reject’ Young Earth Creationism as well.



How do you determine which church tradition is authoritative?

(A.M. Wolfe) #3

Well, according to Protestant Church tradition, Church tradition is not authoritative.



Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox value their Sacred Tradition and consider it as authoritative as scripture. But their Sacred Traditions don’t exactly match, which is interesting.

Most Protestants have their traditions also, but consider scripture to be the ultimate authority.

(A.M. Wolfe) #5

Indeed. My previous post was a poor attempt at humor. :slight_smile:


No worries, I wasn’t responding to your post.

(Jay Johnson) #7

Not even all Protestants hold to sola scriptura. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, preached four sources as the basis of theology and doctrine: Scripture, tradition, reason, and Christian experience. The Anglican tradition (Episcopal in the U.S.) is similar, leaving out “experience” to form a three-legged stool instead of Wesley’s “quadrilateral”.

We also know this rather obvious fact because in Acts 20:35 Paul mentions a saying of Jesus not recorded in the gospels: “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others. 2 Tim. 2:2

I view this verse as Paul seeking to ensure that his teaching (and by extension, that of the Lord’s other apostles) would be faithfully passed to the next generation by Timothy appointing qualified teachers. Paul is not entrusting them with interpreting his words; he is entrusting them with preserving his words by teaching them to others. Thus, the passage has more to do with establishing the apostles’ teaching as the authoritative tradition than with authorizing who may interpret the scriptures. This goes back to your question about sola scriptura, since teaching and tradition are covered by the same word group in NT Greek. For example:

So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings (or, traditions) we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. 2 Thess 2:15

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching (or, tradition) you received from us. 2 Thess 3:6

I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Rom. 16:7

I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. 1 Cor. 11:2

Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. 2 John 9

I think you meant 2 Cor. 10:8 – So even if I boast somewhat freely about the authority the Lord gave us for building you up rather than tearing you down, I will not be ashamed of it.

If so, I would simply point out that “us” in this verse refers to the apostles, not the church. (Paul is writing to the church at Corinth.) Jesus essentially makes the same point in the passage about handing the keys to the kingdom to Peter, which can be interpreted in various ways, as church history shows.

(Jay Johnson) #8

It was a dad joke. Doh!

(A.M. Wolfe) #9

Hahaha That’s exactly what it was!
Glad you appreciated it, Jay! :slight_smile:

(Mervin Bitikofer) #10

I think N.T. Wright’s recent Biologos article on authority is helpful on this.

If we believe scriptures, then it would seem all authority is invested in God and in his son (and by extension then, the Spirit as well.) While neither scriptures, nor the church make that short list (and nor should they be put on par with the trinity), it isn’t that the scriptures have nothing to say about further extensions of authority. Jesus does concede a lot of authority to the church when he is quoted as teaching that “what we bind on earth will be bound in heaven” and so forth. Trying to build a case for scriptural authority becomes a lot more dicey, though, as it relies on self-referential proof texts that preceded our present Bible’s existence. But even more seriously for the inerrantists, one rarely hears scriptural authority defended in any context that hasn’t fallen into a defense of a certain modern interpretation of scriptures. And that modern understanding is always trying to sneak itself in underneath the umbrella of infallibility. Until would-be defenders of so-called inerrancy or infallibility are able to display the requisite humility of distinguishing their own ideas from what God is ostensibly affirming, it isn’t clear why their efforts on that front should be taken seriously.

The community of believers, though, has a lot more clear sanction it would seem, though one can always dicker about “who” all is included or how far a group can stray before their authority can has been compromised. We have the Act 15 story of how the church at the time used both scriptures and its own discernment to arrive at new understandings for their day. While there may have been some law-mongers back then (the equivalent of so many of today’s inerrantists) who would very much like to have insisted that the known scriptures of the time must prevail in every jot and tittle, and that new converts must be forced to adopt the Jewish laws so clearly prescribed by Moses. Yet that isn’t what the early church council did. Instead they drew on Scriptures AND the Spirit, applying them in new and creative ways to what God was doing in their time.

I think that is the good lesson and approach to exercising authority modeled so well for us by the early church and ironically not acknowledged as such by the very people so eager to lionize their version of scriptural authority.


“The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.” —Westminster Confession of Faith

Sola Scriptura means that all truth necessary for our salvation and spiritual life is taught in scripture either explicitly or implicitly. It is not a claim that every kind of truth is found in Scripture. Nor does it dismiss church tradition or historical interpretations as unimportant. It simply makes them subordinate to the supreme authority of scripture.


The problem of elevating tradition to the same authority as Scripture is that you don’t know where to draw the line. Papal infallibility? The immaculate conception? You can’t just baptize it as authoritative by slapping “The church has always taught…” in front of what you want.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #13


The recent article posted on inerrancy perfectly addresses all my concerns about how the concept gets used now. If all inerrancy promoters were aligned with that, I think I would consider all my objections answered.

I think you are right that “the chuch has always taught that …” does have limits, just as “the church now teaches …” has limits too. None of those things should claim total authority without recourse to the others, and most of all to the Spirit revealed by Christ.

(RiderOnTheClouds) #14

Why not? I’m talking about the overwhelming preponderance of Church fathers and Christian Theologians.

(Phil) #15

Must be one of those churches whose creed is “no creed but the Bible.”

(A.M. Wolfe) #16

It’s true… Protestant churches do have less-authoritative traditions and creeds that they see as important distillations of Scriptural truth, like (for some) the Westminster Confesson. Forgive me: I was just having a little fun with reductio ad absurdum. :slight_smile:

(Mitchell W McKain) #17

Yes very amusing… I laughed and gave your post a thumbs up… but on the serious side…

Just because something is tradition doesn’t make it authoritative. So what difference does that make? Well it would make a difference in how you view other churches. A church which views tradition as authoritative are less likely to acknowledge the validity of churches with a different tradition. Most Catholic churches are not going to think it is ok for members to switch to a protestant church, but many protestant churches would not see a switch to a Catholic church as a problem.

Edit: changed “some” to “many” because as I wrote it first, the claim was a bit empty to the point of silliness and I am surprised nobody pointed this out.

(RiderOnTheClouds) #18

Who will preserve the teachings for the following generation? I still think this verse speaks of the importance of Church authority.

(Jay Johnson) #19

It speaks to the formation of tradition alongside the formation of the canon. I would call it the co-evolution of tradition and scripture, but that might blow a few minds.

There are two errors to avoid, in my opinion. One is using this verse to take the Bible out of the hands of laymen, which is the error of the medieval Catholic church refusing to allow the scriptures to be translated from Latin into common vernacular. The other is the fallacy that each of us is an interpretive island unto ourselves, with no need for anyone but the Holy Spirit to reveal the true meaning of the scriptures.


I’m underwhelmed. When Is the immaculate conception first taught? And when is Purgatory first taught? Neither one is believed by the Eastern Orthodox or Protestants.