Evangelicals, Scripture and Tradition
Access to an article by Gerald McDermott from the April 2011 edition of First Things has been posted at the site for the past few weeks. It is titled "Evangelicals Divided" and concerns recent theological fissures, breaks or tensions - I cannot decide amongst these terms - concerning the role of Scripture and Tradition amongst evangelical theologians. I do not know if these arguments are being played out amongst the ordinary evangelical Christian in the pew, though the fact that these issues are in play amongst their theologians is somewhat of a surprise to me, as I was raised in a Mennonite home with strong evangelical leanings. It is, I must admit, intriguing to look at this from the perch of a Catholic theologian, from which there might be many issues to consider not found in some Christian denominations, but the positive relationship between Scripture and Tradition and the authoritative voice of the Magisterium is not amongst them. As I read the article, I was happy to know that I have pronouncments such as Dei Verbum, Verbum Domini, and the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church by which I guide my reading of Scripture. Here is an excerpt from the article:
Traditionists also affirm sola scriptura, but in a manner that is really prima scriptura: Scripture is primary, but the Great Tradition is the authoritative guide to its interpretation. Because Traditionists see doctrine and experience not above or below but inextricably bound up in one another, they allow the Great Tradition a veto. They are ready, as Meliorists are not, to say that not only the words of Scripture but also significant segments of the unfolding of the Great Tradition were guided by the Spirit.
What does all this bode for the future of evangelicalism? Present divisions between Meliorists and Traditionists will widen along two tracks: theological method and the nature of Scripture.
On method, the issue is differing interpretations of the historic evangelical appeal to sola scriptura. Disagreements on this issue have spawned repeated divisions from the first evangelical awakenings in the eighteenth century, and the question is how those disagreements will be addressed in our time. The lesson evangelicals should have learned is that sola scriptura is a necessary but not sufficient principle for maintaining theological orthodoxy. Only a “single-source” view of tradition in which hermeneutical authority is given to the mutual interplay of Scripture and orthodox community—the method that the Church practiced for most of Christian history—can protect evangelical theology from going the way of all flesh, to liberal Protestantism.
Overreacting to evangelicalism’s often rationalistic, a-historical, and un-literary reading of Scripture, Meliorists have separated revelation from the biblical text, and located a so-called Christian essence in religious experience fundamentally removed from the text’s words and concepts. Vanhoozer offers a far better response. He is not afraid to call Scripture “inerrant,” but he reads it in terms of its different biblical genres and ancient literary conventions. He knows that ancient historiographical standards were different from ours.
A better response still is the return of many Traditionist theologians to the medieval “four-fold sense” that restores a theological reading of Scripture, rejecting the modernist assumption that every biblical text has only the precise univocal meaning intended by its human author. More and more Traditionist theologians are recovering this theological reading of Scripture as the foundation of systematic theology, finding the “literal” sense that corresponds to what we call the literary but not literalistic meaning.
Click here to read the whole article and do not forget to read the comments in which a number of the persons mentioned in the article weigh in on their own behalf. I cannot help but thinking, though, that on the matters of Scripture and Tradition, and I do not mean this in an unkind or snide manner, that answers to these concerns are readily available.
John W. Martens
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