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
It seems axiomatic that the terms “tradition” and “infallible” must necessarily be anathema to a good Protestant. We often reply to claims of faith in a Tradition or infallible Church with something along the lines of: “We believe in the Bible alone, not man-made traditions! Only the Bible is infallible, not the Church!”
However, there is an entirely proper, biblical, and even Protestant sense, in which we can and should affirm our faith in “Tradition” and the infallibility of the Church. In fact, the failure of Protestant theology to articulate a proper sense in which we should affirm a true tradition as well as infallible Church has rendered us an easy target for the rhetorical and seductive tricks of high church denominations painting a rosy picture of a firm Church grounded in a constant tradition as well as a faith which is part of some great “consensus” of the ages.
The Apostolic Tradition
The term “tradition” as it is used in the Bible has actually quite an innocuous meaning. It simply means the teaching which has been “handed over” or passed down. (Thus when the Gospel speaks of Christ being “handed over” to the authorities, it is the same Greek word as “tradition”.) Therefore according to St Paul’s words as we can see in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, Protestants do, rightly and properly, adhere to and receive a true and proper tradition: the Apostolic Tradition, the tradition or teachings of the Apostles which has been committed to the Scriptures and transmitted down through the ages.
The Christian faith is not like that of Islam or the Mormons who put their faith in sacred texts which fell directly out of heaven. The Christian faith has as its ultimate object not the written Word but the Living Eternal Word made flesh. The faith and doctrines which we have received did not fall out of heaven but has been “traditioned” or handed over to us by the Scriptures, transmitted through the ages, containing the Apostolic Tradition or teachings which the Apostles themselves have received from Christ, who in turn had learned and received them from his Father’s infinite wisdom.
Thus the question is not whether we believe in Tradition, we all, Protestant or Roman or Eastern, do believe and receive the Traditions or Teachings of the Apostles. The question is where is this Apostolic Tradition or set of teachings to be found and how is it transmitted.
We need look no further than Irenaeus in his work “Against Heresies” to learn both the source of our tradition and the manner in which it has been handed down to us.
We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.
(bold and italics mine)
How is the “plan of our salvation”, our Apostolic Tradition, “handed down to us”? Through the Scriptures. This is the manner in which the Apostolic Tradition has been transmitted to us, through the Scriptures and not through any ecclesiastical office pretending to be the Apostles on earth.
Therefore we once more reiterate that we do not reject Tradition at all but most willingly embrace it, however, we object to the conflation of the traditions and teachings of man with that of the Apostles. While obviously the transmission of the original Apostolic Tradition was not limited to Scripture (insofar as there was a living oral preaching and didache that preceded Scripture), it is only through this Scripture whereby this deposit has been infallibly transmitted and retained — unless, of course, one is going to posit an “unwritten” tradition that has been passed down infallibly for 2,000 years.
The problem is that no one, not even Roman Catholics today, believe in this “unwritten” tradition. Thus, while we can grant that apostolic truths can be transmitted via the writing of the Fathers, councils and other theologians, which today the word “tradition” normally refers to, nobody believes every single thing which every single Father or every single council has said, not even the Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox. People recognise that they are fallible means whereby the deposit of faith is transmitted and everyone is selective in which parts they want to accept. (See for example the Russian Orthodox Archbpriest Georges Florovksy’s masterly critique of the St Vincent canon to believe what has been held everyone everywhere always in his Catholicity of the Church. See also my brief discussion on how the term “tradition” as used by high church believers has changed from that which was handed down from the apostles to merely something which is “very old”)
The Apostolic Tradition, that is, the teachings from the very lips of the Apostles themselves, has been, by the will of God, infallibly committed to the Scriptures and therefore it alone is the infallible judge and measure of what is Apostolic Doctrine. Along with Irenaeus, we reject any other tradition which pretends to “clarify” the true Apostolic Tradition as can be found in the Scriptures on the pretext of ambiguity or which pretends to some unwritten “oral tradition” parallel to that of the written Scriptures whereby the traditions and teachings of Christ are passed down:
But when they [the heretics] are refuted from the Scriptures they turn around and attack the Scriptures themselves, saying that they are not correct, or authoritative, and assert that they are ambiguous and that the truth cannot be found from them by those who are not acquainted with the tradition. For this [they say] was not handed down in writing, but orally, which is why Paul said, “We speak wisdom among the perfect, but not the wisdom of this world.” Each of them utters a wisdom which he has made up, or rather a fiction, so that according to them the truth was once to be found in Valentinus, then at another time in Marcion, at another time in Cerinthus, then later in Basilides, or was also in that opponent, who has no saving message to utter. Each one of them is wholly perverse, and is not ashamed to preach himself, corrupting the rule of faith.
Thus, the Protestant does not hesitate to affirm that before the Apostolic teachings were committed to Scripture, the Church was assembled and gathered around the Apostles themselves and was sustained by their live teaching and preaching. However, the office of apostleship is non-transferrable. No matter what high church denominations believe about “apostolic succession”, even they do not claim that their bishops or presbyters are apostles. Thus, the teachings of the Apostles have not been passed on to some special apostolic office, which no longer exists, but to the Holy Scriptures from which the ministry of the Church continues to draw its life and by which the Apostolic tradition continues to be passed on infallibly through the ages unto the present. Around the true proclamation and teaching of this Apostolic Tradition as found in Scripture does the Church today continue to be assembled and gathered.
To repeat ourselves once more, we do not reject our Apostolic Traditions but most eagerly embrace it, however, we maintain a strict distinction between the Traditions which has been taught directly by the actual Apostles themselves, infallibly committed to the Scriptures, against every other traditions and teaching of non-inspired man, no matter how reverent or ancient.
In fact, the Protestant has a greater reverence for the integrity of the Apostolic Tradition than do certain high church apologists who claim loudly that the Church wrote or authorised the Scriptures. Contrary to the presumptuous claims of these apologists who pretend that the Church gave us the Scriptures, Protestants maintain firmly that the Apostolic Traditions is truly “traditioned”, that is passed down, of which we can only passively receive that which is passed down. The Church does not give what it has itself received. We do not claim an authority over what is given but with lowly submission receive that which is passed down by Apostolic Authority. This is also the language of the councils who said concerning the canon which “we have received from our fathers that those books must be read in the Church.” (Council of Carthage 397 A.D.) This point has already been pressed long ago by Calvin in his controversies with Rome but has been forgotten in our own time.
It is the Apostles who are the foundation of the Church, not the Church over the Apostles, and it is we who humbly receive the Apostolic Traditions as committed to the Scriptures who maintain this firm apostolic foundation of the Church, not those who presume to subvert this apostolic foundation by usurping the authority of the Apostles.
The Infallible Church
Again, the Protestant should not fear to claim that the Church is infallible. The term “infallible” has a rather uncontroversial meaning and sense, that is the Church cannot fail. However, it is therefore vital that we define what is the “Church” here and in what does it not “fail”.
As the Augsburg Confessions puts it, the “one holy Church is to continue forever”. Thus, in the most basic sense, the Church cannot fail to exist. Contrary to the claims of certain restorationist Protestants, the Church cannot die or cease to exist. We need here to distinguish between what belongs to the Church proper, which cannot fail, and what are external fallible accretions to the Church.
The Church is not constituted by canon laws, bureaucratic structures, set liturgies, etc, etc. The Church’s presence in this world is wholly and immediately constituted by the presence of the externally preached Word and Sacraments alone. Wherever on earth the Word is purely preached and the sacraments rightly administered according to God’s Word, there is the Holy Ghost which creates faith and there is the one holy Church a reality in this world. Thus, whatever the raging of ecclesiastical officials or high church politics, whatever is written in some musty tome hidden in some bureaucratic office, the Word continues to be read and preached undisturbed in parishes and congregations everywhere, and when this is handled rightly and truly, there is the Holy Ghost, and there is faith, and there is the Church.
Therefore, no matter what errors or controversies there may exist at the higher echelons of the church’s external bureaucracy, the Church, in its true and proper sense, can never fail to exist as long as there still exist true preaching and sacraments on the ground.
It is here that I wish to affirm an even stronger point about the infallibility of the Church. If the Church cannot die or fail to exist, and if the Church’s life and existence is contingent upon the true preaching of the Word, then we can, and should, reasonably affirm that the Church cannot fail to communicate God’s Word rightly, that is, the preaching ministry cannot fail or cease to exist. There would always exist on earth somewhere true preaching and sound proclamation of the Gospel.
We must understand this point rightly, to reiterate, we must not confuse the preaching ministry of the Church with bureaucratic structures or institutional organisations or ecclesiastical officials. Councils, bishops and even the vaunted Church Fathers have erred and failed, no high church apologist accepts every council, every writing of every father or every decree of every ecclesiastical official as infallible or true. However, regardless of the foibles or confusions of these organisations, the preaching ministry continues to be carried out by the humble and unknown priest or presbyter in his local parish, who reads from the Bible and expounds on its, thereby communicating God’s life saving Word, regardless of what goes on in Rome or Constantinople.
Thus, the infallibility of the preaching ministry is not tied to councils, ecclesiastical officials or decrees, the infallibility is guaranteed to the whole Church, the entire Body of Christ as the people of God, not merely to some clerics or college of clerics. As an 1848 encyclical by Eastern Patriarchs puts it, “neither Patriarchs nor Councils could then have introduced novelties amongst us, because the guardians of religion is the very body of the Church, even the people themselves”. The people themselves, the very Body of Christ, are the guardians of the Christian faith, and if the Body of Christ cannot fail, the faithful people themselves cannot fail even when clerics do.
This infallibility is not tied to this or that particular organisation or assembly but exists anywhere where the Word is preached rightly. The Church as a whole cannot fail to communicate Christ’s Gospel and God’s truth. In fact, the Protestant has a higher view and reverence for the Church’s infallibility then the high church apologist. While they would restrict the infallibility of the Church to rare moments of “ecumenical council pronouncements” or papal decrees, the Protestant affirms that wherever on earth the Scriptures are rightly taught and proclaimed, whether he be bishop, priest or laity, God’s Word, Christ’s Gospel and his promises, cannot fail to be communicated and administered to the ears of the faithful, and we maybe assured and comforted by such promises, grounded immediately upon the Scriptures without the need to wait for some cumbersome and complex bureaucratic process understood only by clerical elites, and sometimes not even by them!
Thus, by restricting the infallibility of the communication of God’s truth to these rare moments, far from giving a sure ground for the Church and her faithful, they instead open an abyss of skepticism where every other preaching or writing is suspect except for these rare moments of organisational infallibility. (This incidentally explains a curious phenomenon in Romanism where Romans spend a lot of time debating which documents and which decrees are “infallible” or not. Whereas theologians in the past would ask whether or not a statement was true or false, and then bring in Scripture, tradition and even reason to bear on the question, Scripture of course being the supreme rule and measure, the Romans instead simply ask, not whether the statement is true or false, but whether it is infallible, as if outside of these moments of bureaucratic infallibility, there is no guarantee or certainty of God’s truth. The certainty of faith therefore becomes cut down and reduced to these set of infallible documents, instead of being as wide as the whole counsel of God as enunciated in the Scriptures. See my post reproducing parts of a journal article on the alliance between the Jesuit apologists and the Pyrrhonian skeptics in 17th century France.)
There is therefore a true and proper sense in which the Protestant can, and should, affirm our faith in Apostolic Tradition and the Church’s Infallibility. Fundamentally our faith in both is grounded upon the infallibility of Christ as exercised through the infallible Word, a faith which firmly believes that God’s Word and Truth can never fail in this world, and that his promises for his Church can never be annulled, regardless of the confusion of her theologians or the sin of her memberships.
And this confidence in God’s Word and truth, is an entirely Protestant confidence.
Addendum: The Necessity of an Interpretative Community
I wish to add also a vital point for Protestant ecclesiology of the necessity of an “interpretative community”. Although it does sound like I am basically conceding the Roman Catholic’s claim for the need of an “infallible interpreter of Scripture”, I would in fact contend that this charge is hollow when we investigate the specific claims of Roman Magisterial infallibility.
While as a short hand in discussions on Roman Catholic apologetics it is useful to say that the Magisterium has the power to “infallibly interpret the Bible”, the fact of the matter is that Magisterium almost never actually interpret the Bible.
The Magisterium simply does not produce, or even claim to be able to produce, infallible commentaries or exegesis of the Bible. The reason is pretty obvious, the Magisterium only claims to be able to teach infallibly what pertains to faith and morals. They do not possess infallible insights into the history of Second Temple Judaism, neither do they possess infallible knowledge of Hebrew linguistics or Greek semiotics. These are what they call “human facts” which pertains to the realm of reason of which the Magisterium possess no special competence. Thus, a more careful examination of the doctrine or dogma of infallibility reveals that in fact the Magisterium has very little ability to interpret or exegete anything since those abilities are bound to the “human” or empirical realm beyond their competence. All they claim to be able to do is to communicate certain theological truths or propositions, that is all. What they can’t do is to tell us what a certain Greek phrase or word means in the epistles of St Paul or clarify uncertain Hebrew words in the Old Testament.
This implies that the validity of a certain Magisterial teaching pretty much floats free of the world of history and “human facts” and even the very writings of the Church Fathers and Doctors. So for example if popes appeal to the Donation of Constantine as grounds for Papal Supremacy, the fact that the Donation of Constantine was later revealed to be a forgery is irrelevant, the Pope does not possess any special competence in historical facts, all that is relevant and important is the theological propositions communicated. The Magisterium can consult the writings of the Fathers, tradition and the Sacred Doctors, but the effect is purely subjective, it will influence the way they teach, but the teachings themselves are technically logically independent of the content of those writings. The Magisterium after all does not possess special competence in Latin, they can read Athanasius or Aquinas or Scotus wrongly. However if they do read the great Fathers and Doctors wrongly and from such false readings infer their theological propositions, the theological propositions themselves would still remain valid because it is true by virtue of who is saying it in what capacity, not by virtue of the internal logic or arguments by which it was derived.
Once however the gulf between matters of “faith and morals” and human facts becomes evident, it leads to several major problems at once. One was exploited by the Jansenists, a “heretical” Roman Catholic sect, who were being suppressed by the official Roman Catholic Church. Pope Innocent X issued the bull Cum Occasione where he extracted five theological propositions from their key textbook, the “Augustinus”, and condemned them. One would have thought that was the end of the matter however the wily Jansenists immediately gave this cunning reply. They argued that the five propositions condemned by the Pope cannot in fact be found in the work “Augustinus” and was fact an erroneous interpretation of that work! Thus, while they accepted the condemnation of the five propositions, as a matter of church doctrinal teaching, they refused to give up or renounce the book which they claim does not teach those five propositions. They justified this move by arguing that the Church was indeed authoritative when it taught on matters of doctrine and when the church pronounces its judgement on such matters, the Roman faithful has no choice but to accept it. But, whether or not a doctrine can in fact be found in a certain work or book is a matter of human fact, not a matter of doctrine. Thus, while they would respectfully keep an external silence, out of reverence for the Pope, they refused an interior assent to give up the “Augustinus”.
As we have already noted, the Magisterium is only infallible when it comes to faith and morals. They can issue decrees concerning theological facts or matters of piety. What they do not have is the power to read human texts infallibly. They can get the theology of Shakespeare’s play wrong, they can be mistaken about the theology of Paradise Lost. The Petrine office does not turn the Pope into an infallible expert of English, or French as the Jansenist were, literature.
The pope was however hardly amused and his spokesmen derided this reply by arguing that if the pope or Magisterium lacks the competence to identify a particular theological proposition in a certain text how can they possibly exercise their teaching office? They would be reduced to merely issuing theological propositions which entails nothing in the “human” or historical plane.
While the argument makes sense, it contains a principle which can very easily spin out of control. Though it is a common point of Roman Catholic apologetics to allege that an infallible Magisterium is necessary to authoritatively settle disputes about faith and morals, the principle implied here is that *anything whatsoever* which even peripherally touches on matters of faith and morals, and especially if it prevents decisive settlement of a theological dispute, falls under the competence of the Magisterium. Thus not only does the Pope possess infallible insights into theological truth claims, he also now needs to possess infallible insights into the minds or intentions of the authors of “Augustinus” that he might properly identify the theological proposition contained within their text and be able to condemn it. Needless to say, to expand the scope of infallibility from communicating the deposit of faith to mind reading would be highly problematic. Where does their infallible competence end? Blaise Pascal, a famous Jansenist, in fact discusses the scope of church infallibility in the case of what happens if the Church declares that the body of a saint was located in a certain tomb but if with your own eyes you can’t actually find the saint there, etc.
Or perhaps Magisterial mind reading powers may not be as absurd as it sounds. One needs only recall an episode in the books of Acts where Ananias and Sapphira conspired to keep part of their money away from St Peter, however St Peter miraculously knew what was in their hearts and their intention to lie and they both were struck dead. Why indeed should the successors of St Peter themselves not possess such infallible mind-reading powers? Who is to say where does the line between ‘faith and morals’ and other matters lie? Why should it not extend to all matters which might involve faith and morals?
The answer is of course is that there is no reason because the distinction between “faith and morals” and other matters is a pure concoction. One is reminded of what Sir Humphrey Appleby once said about how a “clarification is not to make oneself clear but to put oneself in the clear.” The Roman Magisterium may “clarify” the faith, but their clarifications are not in aid of making things clear but in putting themselves in the clear. The device of “faith and morals” is merely an attempt to avoid the embarassing task of needing to account for their making mistaken judgements in the course of the life of their Magisterium.
What conclusion can the Protestant draw here? We do need interpreters of the Bible, but the people who possess such interpretative competence is not a Gnostic college of clerics with access to esoteric theological secrets, the people who do possess actual interpretative competence are those with a good command of the original tongues of the Bible, historical background, and other relevant empirical facts automatically precluded by the “faith and morals” definition of the Romanists. Not all are teachers as St James asserts, and we need to affirm this. However, the teachers which we do need are not Gnostic cultists but scholarly experts who can aid us in giving us the proper sense and referent of the Scriptures’ terms. This naturally entail the importance, if not outright necessity of an interpretative community whereby each part of the body can serve each other, in this particular contexts, teachers serving the Body of Christ by their knowledge of the Biblical texts and the empirical and linguistic facts in relation to that.