“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” (2 Timothy 3:16; all Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated).
Our recent study about special revelation (here, here, here, and here) addressed the nature of how God reveals Himself to us and what that tells us about the nature of Scripture. Since the Bible is the record of God’s self-revelation to mankind, it is the authority to which all mankind, and especially all Christians and the Church, must yield.
The Bible is not a man-made record of God’s self-revelation. It is a God-breathed record. The Greek word used here, “theopneustos,” is translated in different English Bibles as “inspired,” “God breathed,” or “breathed out by God.” The Word of God was breathed out by the Spirit of God into the hearts and minds of those who recorded it for future generations. The Holy Spirit inspired the writers of Scripture and directed them as they wrote. He guided the apostles to understand truths they were not ready to receive during Jesus’ earthly ministry (John 16:12–13), and these now appear in the pages of Scripture. This is not an ordinary book. Sadly, many Christians treat the Bible like an intellectual Lego set, trying to piece it together to suit their desires:
“And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:19–21).
This divine inspiration is the source of the Bible’s authority. Since the Bible bears God’s authority, we have an obligation to yield to it: the Bible does not yield to us. This should be self-evident to Christians, but a growing number of believers prefers to exercise their own authority over God’s Word. We have no right to force God’s Word to line up with our convictions. We need to know what it says and means, not what we wish it said and meant. Unfortunately, non-Christians are not alone in their rejections of Scriptural authority. At times, even those who claim to be “Bible-believing Christians” can try to place themselves outside its authority, even while seeking to reject “tradition.” To avoid the errors (or perceived errors) in Roman Catholicism, many choose to read the Bible for themselves and make up their own minds about what it means. While we should seek to know the truth (and avoid falling into the errors others have made), we must not use this as an opportunity to redefine biblical truth.
While Jesus was critical of “the traditions of men,” the concept of tradition is not always rejected in the New Testament:
“So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
“Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6).
Note that Paul told the Thessalonians to hold onto the traditions that they learned either via spoken word or letter. The “letter” here could refer to 1 Thessalonians, which shares a place in the Bible with this letter. What about the spoken words, though? It seems that these traditions could be traced directly back through the apostles to Jesus Himself. Until the New Testament was canonized about 300 years later, the Church’s official source of authority was “apostolic teaching.” If a tradition did not come from the apostles, it was not considered authoritative Christian doctrine. That apostolic tradition found its crystallized final form in the New Testament books we read today.
I am not advocating adherence to every tradition that was ever passed down. Some traditions contradict each other, and others that have emerged in church history clearly contradict the Bible. Roman Catholics believe Mary was bodily assumed into heaven, while Eastern Orthodoxy maintains that she was buried in Ephesus (where St. John, the beloved disciple, is also believed to be buried). One of these traditions is not true. However, many other historic traditional teachings remain trustworthy.
I realize I have entered some controversial territory here, but I do not think my stance is unique. Martin Luther (famed for the slogan, “sola scriptura”) did not stray too far from historic Church teaching on many subjects (e.g., the sacraments), and John Wesley balanced his devotion to Scripture with a desire to interpret it in light of tradition, reason, and experience. In a following post, I will add some more thoughts to show why it is important to connect our understanding of Scripture with some level of tradition.
A few final disclaimers: (1) My beliefs about the relationship and role of Scripture and tradition have evolved in recent years. I am still learning and studying, and my thoughts on this subject could change in recent years. (2) I do not guarantee that my thoughts on this subject, in this and the following post, exactly match the teachings of my church or any other denomination. (3) While I welcome comments and discussion, I may not respond to all comments directed to specific doctrines affected by this discussion.
Copyright © 2019 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.