Wednesday, October 26, 2005


Thanks for the email.

You have a way of reifying or personifying "tradition." This talismanic use of the term amounts to the deification of a word.

As you surely know, "tradition" is a highly selective historical and theological construct. It isn't just "out there," like Mt. Everest, with a sign on it.

The Orthodox Church favors the Greek Fathers over the Latin Fathers, while the Catholic church favors the Latin Fathers over the Greek Fathers. To some extent it's a matter of emphasis or degree, but the point remains that "Tradition" cannot adjudicate that preference.

Some damnable heresies like docetism and Arianism are just as "traditional," in terms of antiquity and proximity, as the orthodox version of the doctrines in question.

Jesus has a claim on you personally. You owe him your intellectual allegiance. You are answerable to him. As Christians, you and I don't have the right to farm that out to a second party.

To do so is an act of insubordination to our Lord. To do so is to deny his direct authority over our lives by passing the buck to an intermediary.

Our intellectual superiors and predecessors in the faith don't always agree with each other, do they? And not just on the incidentals.

If they're so smart, which some of them are, then what you do is to listen to their arguments. That's what smart men are good at, right? Giving reasons? Articulating the faith. What counts is not opinion, but the argument which undergirds the opinion.

To whom much is given, much is required. To whom less is given, less is required. God doesn't require you to be infallible. He's not going to judge you by the same standard as those you regard as your intellectual superiors.

Why do you believe it stretches back to Jesus and the Apostles? What do you mean by "the faith."

Like "tradition," "the faith" is another highly selective historical and theological construct. What is your specific historical evidence that specific elements of the faith stretch back to the NT church?

BTW, who cares? Why do you think we have to be able to trace this back by some historical chain-of-custody? That's a very ambitious claim. Why start at the end and try to work your way back to the beginning? Why not start at the beginning?

Why do you have to document that a present-day belief reaches back to the NT church? If you want to know if something is dominical or apostolic, why not go straight to the Bible?

There's a difference between saying: "I don't understand if certain parts of the faith are revealed in Scripture" and saying: "I don't understand certain parts of the faith revealed in Scripture."

It is sufficient to understand that something is a revealed truth, whether or not you fully understand the revealed truth in question. It is insufficient not to understand if something is even revealed in Scripture, but believe it anyway.

How do you know that the saints understood it better than you unless you have a standard of comparison other than the saints? Unless you can understand the Bible for yourself, by what yardstick do you know that they understand the Bible better than you?

How is it that can you understand the saints, but you can't understand the Scriptures? Aren't you dependent on your interpretation of the saints?

No one is "assuming" that those who went before us are wrong. Rather, we give them a respectful hearing. But unless they give reasons for what they believe, we have no reason to believe them. And if they do give reasons for what they believe, then their reasons are subject to rational scrutiny.

In addition, there is an advantage to living at a later phase of church history. We have the benefit of biblical archeology. We have the benefit of hindsight.

It's a little vague to say that my way of thinking derives from the Reformation.

Depending on our historical position, we have different intellectual options. One reason I opt for the Protestant rule of faith and the grammatico-historical method is because that option is out there. Now, if I hadn't been born at a certain period in history, I might not be smart enough to think of that for myself.

But this, of itself, doesn't mean that because the immediate derivation for my belief is historically conditioned, that I cannot then derive the same belief from a more principial source.

Suppose I'm an atheist. As an atheist I believe in naturalistic evolution. Then I become a Bible-believing Christian. I now disbelieve in evolution because I think that evolution is unscriptural.

Because I believe it's unscriptural, I start boning up on the antievolutionary literature. I didn't read this when I was an atheist. Instead, I read Dawkins, Gould, and so on.

Now I have an incentive to read Behe, Dembski, and so on.

As a result, I now have a scientific reason for disbelieving in evolution, in addition to my theological reason.

How do you know it's always been taught? Newman went down this path before. He found that he couldn't document a historical chain-of-custody.

Calvinism didn't just pop into the space-time continuum from a subspatial vacuum. It has historical antecedents as well. It's on its own historical trajectory.

But even if it did, so what?

Suppose a commuter plane crashes on a desert island. An atheist is the only survivor. He has zero religious background. He discovers a Bible on the plane. In his boredom, he begins to read it.

Is it not possible for him to come to a saving knowledge of the faith?

Put another way, what is the source of tradition? If you say it's Scripture, then it's possible to go back to the source, is it not? After all, you have to start sometime, somewhere. If the church fathers could make the first move, so can you.

Unless we can compare tradition to Scripture, how do we know that tradition is scriptural?

What's so great about a corrupt visible unity?

Inconsistency is not necessarily a bad thing. Inconsistency is inevitable when someone is in a transitional phase, where he regards his current situation as unsatisfactory. Some strands of what were once his central beliefs are still central. Other stands are moving out to the periphery, while still other strands which used to be peripheral are moving towards the center. But he's not clear, as yet, on how the web of belief will look after all the readjustments are in place. A capacity for self-criticism is a spiritual and intellectual virtue.

Don't be so apprehensive. We're Christians, not deists. God isn't like a snake who abandons her young as soon as they're born. God didn't slap a parachute on our back and toss us out the airlock to fend for ourselves on a desert island. This isn't one of those survivor-type "reality" shows.

Trust in the providence of God. There is no safer place to be than to take refuge in the Bible. It is scary to jump out of a burning skyscraper. It feels safer to be on firm footing. Yet if you stay there you'll burn to death. But if you know there's a big fat airbag waiting for you down below, the only safe thing to do is to let go of your illusory security and taking a flying leap. What normally feels like the safest course of action is the most hazardous, while what normally seems like the most hazardous course of action is the safest.

It would be disastrous to be equally uncertain about every belief, but we don't need to be equally certain about every belief. We don't have to make up our mind about everything. And our certainties or uncertainties may rearrange themselves over a lifetime of faith. It's a threshing process, winnowing the wheat from the chaff.


  1. Steve, you make a lot of good points. I don't know the details of what this person you're corresponding with has argued, but you may want to ask him if he rejects what Catholicism and Orthodoxy teach when it can't be traced back to the apostles. When the earliest fathers oppose the veneration of images or oppose praying to the dead, for example, does he conclude that those doctrines must therefore be rejected? In my experience, some of the people who use the sort of argumentation you're responding to aren't consistent in applying it. When you give them examples of the group to which they want to convert not meeting their standard, they stop applying the standard. They have other reasons for wanting to convert, and the appeal to an alleged historical succession of doctrine is just a facade.

    Jason Engwer
    New Testament Research Ministries

  2. I would like to see the "evidence" that Peter (the first "pope") was regarded as infallible by the Church Fathers.

    Which Church Fathers insisted that it was necessary to believe in Peter's infallible pronouncements as a condition of salvation?

    Where is the belief of the Church Fathers in Mary's Assumption?

    Some of the Church Fathers doubted the salvation of anyone believing that people resided on the other side of the world. Why don't we uphold that "tradition"?

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  4. Relevant links to this discussion should include Steve Hays' By Scripture Alone (a critique of Philip Blosser's critique of sola scriptura) and Blosser's rebuttal, Sola Scriptura revisited: a reply to Steve Hays (in 95 antitheses).

  5. Relevant to this discussion are Steve Hays' critique of Philip Blosser's critique of sola scriptura, "By Scripture Alone," and Blosser's rebuttal, "Sola Scriptura revisited: a reply to Steve Hays (in 95 antitheses)."