Biblical Authority and Church Tradition

In the Protestant family of churches, the phrase “church tradition” raises a red flag and is almost immediately rejected as an assault on the Bible’s authority.  After all, sola Scriptura is a key Protestant rallying cry.  At the same time, our churches have a plethora of their own traditions—practices and beliefs we embrace without much thought.  For example, many churches celebrate the Lord’s Supper monthly as opposed to weekly.  Someone in those churches at some point gave the question thought, came to a conclusion, and the church adopted it.  But, most of us simply accept the monthly celebration as a given and go with it without a clear understanding—I’ve certainly been guilty of that myself!  If we simply “go with it,” haven’t we adopted tradition in some form?  That being the case, rather than rejecting all tradition, the question is whether there is legitimate tradition that upholds biblical authority.

During the 16th century, partly in response to the growing Protestant movement, the Roman Catholic Church initiated the Council of Trent that met, off and on, from 1545 to 1563.  In 1546, Trent issued a decree concerning the canon of Scripture that officially and formally recognized the authoritative place of unwritten traditions, i.e., oral, which were believed to be dictated by Christ or the Spirit.  These unwritten traditions were handed down by Christ and the Apostles “and preserved in the Catholic Church in unbroken succession.”  Although the Council debated whether revelation was contained partly in Scripture and partly in tradition, the decision made adopted a broader, more ambiguous statement that the truths and rules from God “are contained in the written books and in the unwritten traditions.”  Whether one takes the view that all revelation is found partly in Scripture and partly in tradition or fully in both, tradition is considered as authoritative a source of God’s revelation as Scripture.  At the same time, the Council of Trent reaffirmed the Catholic commitment that no individual may interpret Scripture contrary to the “holy mother Church,” i.e., the institutional church.  What this means is, even though tradition is given a place on par with Scripture, the real authority rests with the magisterium—the Church’s teaching and doctrinal authority of the ordained hierarchy.

Protestants reject the existence of revelation in a standalone oral tradition.  For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith declares, “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” (WCF 1.6).  The entirety of what is needed for belief and behavior is clearly and sufficiently delivered by God in Scripture.  If that’s the case, can there be, in any sense, legitimate church tradition?  I’d like to suggest two ways there can with one critical proviso: neither of the two is inspired revelation from God.  Both may carry authority in the church, but neither can claim inspiration, inerrancy, or direct divine communication.

First, confessional statements are legitimate church tradition.  Confessional statements include creeds, catechisms, confessions of faith, and other officially recognized church documents that express and clarify the beliefs of a church.  When each expression of a faith or duty commitment is shown either explicitly or “by good and necessary consequence” to come from Scripture, that statement is a legitimately authoritative tradition.  Confessional statements codify key biblical truths to make them quickly and easily accessible and so function as a rule or standard of faith.  Even though they express biblical truths and principles, not being Scripture themselves, we call them tradition.

Second, church practices derived directly from Scripture or from principles of Scripture are legitimate tradition.  Here I’m thinking of the “regulative principle of worship”— we ought worship God only in ways he commands.  This is a protective principle meant to keep illegitimate, conscience-binding tradition from being foisted on anyone.  Those who codified the regulative principle in the Westminster Confession also insisted that gathered worship must include reading and preaching of God’s word, singing, prayer, etc.  Reading Scripture, preaching, singing, and praying are all practices I call tradition.  They’re legitimate traditions because they come from God’s word.  But, to engage in them and employ them in our worship doesn’t require we prove repeatedly that they’re called for by Scripture.  Rather, they’re settled issues—a form of tradition.

Whether settled practices or confessional statements, legitimate church tradition is a tool to uphold biblical authority, not replace it.

Michael J. Matossian was ordained to gospel ministry in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1998.  He has served since 2009 as Senior Pastor at Emmanuel OPC in Wilmington, Delaware.  He holds a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Marquette University.  He and his wife, Judy, and their Son, Matthew, are all natives of southern California.

Michael Matossian