Growing Into Union: Ch.1 Scripture and Tradition

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March 28, 2013 by Jesse Nigro


This is the first chapter of a book titled Growing into Union which was the project of four 20th century Anglican scholars. They were amongst the very best representatives in their day, of the Evangelical and Catholic wings of the Church of England. This book was intended to be a sort of theological reconciliation between the two warring factions within Anglicanism, for the purpose of determining whether a theologically solid union with the Methodist Church in England was possible. Well, the union never took place, and these scholars received a mixture of criticism and support from various sources. I find the agreement in this book to be a breath of fresh air. I hope that Anglicans and other Christians will seek out this book. It is not a compromise, but rather a robust theological statement of agreement, reached after rigorous study and debate. I was so impressed with the first chapter that I typed it up for others to see. To my knowledge this book in no longer in print, which is a real shame.


Jesse Nigro

Growing into Union: Chapter 1

Scripture and Tradition


C. O. Buchanan

E. L. Mascall

J. I. Packer

Bp. G. D. Leonard

The question of Scripture and Tradition is one which has consciously divided the Churches of the Reformation from the Church of Rome since the sixteenth century, and Anglicans from Anglicans since the commencement of the Catholic Revival in the 1830s. It is in fact a quite fundamental question, for our view both of the doctrinal and ethical content of Christian faith as a whole, and of the way to determine and delimit that content when controversies arise, will depend directly on our understanding of what Scripture and Tradition are, and how they stand related. Our method of theological construction, our practice of biblical interpretation, and our view of the Christian principle of authority, all turn on how we resolve this basic issue.

In recent years much rethinking of this question has taken place, misunderstandings and clarifying alternative positions; though it is equally clear that not all the differences have yet been resolved. Hence it is important for us to face this issue squarely at the start of our own book. The spectacle of a group of Catholic and Evangelical Anglicans testifying to what they believe to be important agreements (and this is the spectacle which we present) will naturally prompt readers to wonder how deep these agreements really go—whether they indicate genuine and abiding correspondence of theological outlook and method, or whether they are merely transient phenomena, born of a particular phase of domestic debate and likely to perish with it. What long-term significance might attach to our present conjunction? Could it be a growing-point for the future? Neither we ourselves, nor our readers, can know unless we address ourselves directly to the problem of Scripture and Tradition, and explore together the question how the authoritative truth which the Church must obey is to be known.

It will be salutary, if chastening, for us to start by noting the stereotypes of our positions which have long been current in the Church of England. Historically, both Evangelicals and Catholics have seen each other as involved, by reason of a faulty approach to the Scripture-Tradition problem, in a faulty grasp of the deposit of faith and a faulty mode of interpreting the bible itself. Evangelicals have seen Catholic convictions concerning the necessity of bishop in apostolic succession, the sacramental significance of confirmation and confession, the eucharistic presence and sacrifice, and the uncertain ecclesial status of the Free Churches, as directly due to an improper use of Tradition as a second source of doctrine, ever and above the Scriptures (which, it has been argued, will not themselves justify any of these disputed position). Catholics have in the past seen Evangelical counter-convictions on these points, together with what has seemed to them an intolerably “low” view of the visible Church and an impossibly individualistic understanding of the Christian life, as directly due to an improper use of the Bible which has isolated it from its ture context in the Church’s continuing life, the context in which alone it can be rightly understood, and has pressed it into the service of unbiblical negations. Thus each side has accused the other of muzzling the word of God. Evangelicals have argued that on Catholic principles, which yoke the Bible to tradition, Scripture cannot reform the Church when it goes wrong; the Catholic reply has been that on Evangelical principles, which set the Bible against Tradition, Scripture cannot form the Church in the way that is right. this is the issue between conservative Catholics and Evangelicals as it is commonly understood.


We wish, however, as the first step in our own discussion, to question the assumption about tradition which appears to underlie this view of the case—namely, the assumption that Tradition is a second source of doctrine, distinct from the Bible.

In has book, Holy Writ or Holy Church, Father Tavard has forcefully argued that this is an assumption originating in the late Middle Ages. He maintains that the notion of Scripture and Tradition as two parallel and virtually unconnected sources of Christian doctrine can be traced back only to the fourteenth century and that before that time, as in the early Church, they were conceived in a more flexible and dynamic way and as having an organic connection with each other. (It is noteworthy that in the writings of St Thomas Aquinas  Sacra Scriptura frequently denotes the whole body of the Church’s dogmatic teaching.) In the sixteenth century most Catholics and Protestants appear to have accepted the theological adequacy of the two-source formula, and of the diagnosis that Catholics accepted both sources and Protestants only one. Nevertheless, vestiges of the earlier view remained. The Council of Trent did not commit itself to the two-source formula and, while affirming that Christian truth is to be found in both written Scripture and unwritten apostolic Tradition, ignored the statement of an earlier draft that it is to be found partly in the one and partly in the other; it is thus open to a Roman Catholic (though until quite recently few have done this) to be loyal to Trent and yet hold that whatever part Tradition may play in its preservation and formulation, all Christian truth is to be found in Scripture. We may also remark that Trent explicitly says that “the source” (fontem, in the singular) of Christian truth as regards both faith and morals is in fact “the Gospel” preached first by Jesus with his own mouth and then committed to his Apostles. Vatican II, in its decree on Revelation, while endorsing the Tridentine teaching, very significantly takes as its starting-point the revelation given by God in Christ; Tradition and Scripture are in close connection and communication with each other, since both flow from the same “divine wellspring” (scaturigo). We shall return to this in a moment.

The view of tradition as a separate source of truth, distinct from the Bible, was buttressed for centuries by the extremely static view of Christian doctrine which was common to all parties in the Reformation and post-Reformation period. Dr. Owen Chadwick has highlighted this in his book From Bossuet to Newman. Not only in substance but in minute detail both Protestants and Catholics were anxious to prove that what they said and did was exactly what was said and done by the Apostles and the Fathers; any conception of development of doctrine was to all intents and purposes absent until the time of Newman. Now we are as anxious as anyone to insist that Jesus Christ is the full and final revelation of god; in him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily and he alone is the Savior of mankind. Nevertheless there can be and is development in the Church’s understanding of the Gospel, and it is a legitimate criticism of a great deal of post-Reformation theology, both Catholic and Protestant, that it has tended to interpret both Scripture and the other documents of the Church in a very wooden way without reference to their history and their context. Not only did this tendency prevent the recovery of a dynamic view of Tradition as essentially the process of the handing on by the Church of the faith of the Scriptures; it also enthroned the static view, which first reduced tradition to a series of traditions, and then represented these as units of divine truth having their status independent of the Bible.


Two further points must be noted at this stage. First, on the Protestant side, the historic appeal to Scripture has in recent years been seriously undermined in many quarters by the impact of biblical scholarship, especially that of the form-critical school. Much of this writing seems to us to be highly speculative and questionable but its effects are undeniable. When, for example, we see Dr Kurt Aland1 seeking a “canon within the canon” as the only authentic element in Scripture, or Dr Nygren2 detecting a declension from the purity of the Gospel in the Johannine books themselves, or Dr Käsemann3 asserting that the Fourth Gospel in a gnostic work which radically distorts both the teaching and the significance of Jesus, we can hardly fail to be conscious of the destructive effect of this type of scholarship on the authority of the Scriptures in Protestantism. If the New Testament is now to be downgraded as unauthentic, just as unwritten traditions were downgraded by the first Protestants four centuries ago, the question of the relation between Scripture and Tradition becomes a trivial one, on which nothing decisive hinges—the only question then is, which of these historico-critical popes we should truth to tell us, on the basis of his scholarly speculations, what the substance of Christianity really is.

Secondly, on the Catholic side, as Dr J. P. Mackey has shown in The Modern Doctrine of Tradition, there has been during the past hundred years a very strong tendency to assimilate tradition to the contemporary magisterium of the Church. This is in practice equivalent to ignoring tradition, in the historical sense, altogether, since if I can ascertain the truth by consulting the contemporary authorities what need can there be to investigate the past? Pius IX’s famous remark, “La tradizione son’ io”, may not be authentic but it expresses the attitude admirably. More recently, however, responsible Roman Catholic theologians have emphasized that a certain character of relativity attaches to even the most august deliverances of authority, and that these must always be situated in the historical context from which they emerged if their significance is to be properly understood. It is not, on this view, that Pius IX speaking ex cathedra is not Tradition, but that there is always far more to Tradition than Pius IX speaking ex cathedra. In some Roman Catholic circles this emphasis has resulted in a complete rejection of the notion of authority in the Church, parallel to the rejection by liberal Protestantism of the notion of authority in relation to the Bible; in more responsible hands, however, it implies a very salutary use of tradition, in the sense of the specific times, in the past, as a check upon contemporary divagations of the magisterium. If Vatican II is serious in its assertion Ecclesia semper reformanda, Tradition in this sense, as well as Scripture, will have its part to play in the needed reformation. Certainly, the full historical dimensions of Tradition, as the Church’s transmission of the faith down the ages, must be preserved in our thinking, if the true shape of the Scripture-Tradition problem is to be seen.

The purpose of the above paragraphs has been to pave the way for the statement of our own main theme, placing it in its own contemporary setting. That theme is this: the ground of both Scripture and Tradition, the reality to which both point, is the fact of divine Revelation given fully and finally in and through Jesus Christ, who is both the Word and the Wisdom of the Father and who, by his crucifixion and resurrection, has redeemed the human race. We recognize the partial and progressive revelation given to the Jewish people under the old dispensation; we affirm that it has found its fulfillment and culmination in Christ, who both climaxes and terminates it. It is not our purpose here to call in question whether, in a secondary sense, the term “revelation” may be properly given to the knowledge of himself which God has given through the non-Christian religions and through his work in creation (Acts 14.17; Rom 1.20), or whether, in a further secondary sense, it may properly be applied to the Bible itself, in which this revelation is authoritatively recorded. Both usages are, of course, ancient, and our argument does not require us to controvert them. What we are concerned to maintain is that salvation, the reconciliation of may to God, wherever and whenever it is attained, derives from God’s decision to reveal himself, and to do so in Jesus Christ who is both God and man.


The fact that God’s full and final revelation is given in a person is of the utmost significance. It has often been asserted in recent years that God reveals himself in acts and not in words, and some have rightly taken up the cudgels to vindicate the place of words in the revelatory process; the deeper truth is, however, that because we who are to be redeemed are persons, god has revealed himself to us in a person and as a person, and both his acs and his words ultimately derive from this. The part played by words in revelation should not be belittled; speech—the ability to communicate by words—is one of the gifts that distinguish man from the lower creation, and the Savior himself was the Rabbi, the Teacher, who taught by words as well as by deeds. How, in any case, can we describe God’s acts themselves except by words? And how could we know their meaning and place in his plan without words from God to instruct us? How, for instance, could anyone have guessed that the sordid liquidating of an off-beat religious teacher in an obscure Roman province was the redemption of the word, if God had not spoken to tell us so? Nevertheless, the fact remains that the central and basic locus of God’s full and final revelation was neither impersonal acts nor verbal statements as such, but a Person, and all God’s dealings with man must be seen in relation to him. Therefore, both Scripture and Tradition must be seen as deriving from Christ and as confronting men with him. Our understanding of them, as of everything else in the Christian religion, must be Christological; and because the Church is the Body of Christ, it must be ecclesiological.

The real defect of the two-source view was that it looked upon Scripture and Tradition as two parallel entities, each having the same essentially verbal nature. Written Scripture and non-written Tradition (or traditions) were both conceived as consisting of so many holy words. Tradition, however, as the early Church thought of it, is something much wider and more living than this. As traditio—paradosis—it is the handing on to each Christian of the riches of the Father’s jouse to which he became entitled by his baptism; as traditum it is the riches themselves which are handed on. And Scripture is included in these riches. In the Church’s very earliest days, the Scriptures handed on were simply the Jewish Scriptures, those which we call the Old Testament, which, following Christ’s own teaching, were taken as prophetic of Christ and as fulfilled in him, and were therefore claimed by the Church as divine instruction which had had Christians in view all along. Even in the later Nicene Creed, when we are told that Christ rose from the dead “according to the Scriptures”, the meaning is not that he rose as the New Testament asserts (though that is perfectly true) but that he rose as the Old Testament foretold. Some of the Fathers contrast Judaism as the religion of a Book with Christianity as the religion of a living and glorified personal Savior; the Old Testament was not seen as fulfilled in the New Testament (which as a collected corpus had not yet come into existence) but as fulfilled in Christ.


Nevertheless, when the early material concerning the acts and words of Christ was assembled into the form of our Gospels and when the other books that now form the New Testament came into circulation, all proceeding from the circle of authoritative inspiration which had the Apostles at its center, it was natural and right that their authority should be recognized, and it was under the providence of God that this took place. It is truer to say that the New Testament canon established itself by consensus than that it was established at any stage by formal legislation; it seems certain, however, that the canonical status of of most of the books, and certainly most of the major books, of the New Testament was effectively recognized throughout the Church before the end of the second century, as a result of reflection and inquiry provoked by the production of Marcion’s truncated canon, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, by the discovery that spurious books bearing apostolic names had begun to circulate. The Church did not believe itself to be conferring authority upon any of the books by recognizing them as authoritative; their authority was assumed without question to be intrinsic, deriving from the Christ who had bestowed the charisma of inspiration upon the circle of witnesses to which their authors had belonged. In the sense that the churches were testing the claims of various books to be authentically apostolic in origin and content, it may be truly said that the Church was sitting in judgement on the Scriptures in deciding the canon; but it must also be said at once that the Church was only doing this in order that the Scriptures should sit in judgement upon the Church. But the whole notion of sitting in judgement is really inappropriate in any case when the reality of the situation was that God was guiding his Church by his Spirit to recognize the Scriptures which he had given it.

We have spoken of Scripture as divinely inspired—theopneustos, “breathed our by God”. There are many problems and biblical inspiration which have not been adequately discussed or satisfactorily determined; like all problems involving the relation between divine and human activity, they are extremely difficult, and they need much more attention than they have yet received. This much, however, is certain: that the effect of inspiration was to produce a presentation and interpretation of the revelatory and redemptive fact of Christ that is normative for the Church’s faith and life for all time.

Professor R. P. C. Hanson, in his book Tradition in the Early Church, has pointed out that in the earliest period when the scriptural canon was as yet undetermined and some of the books were not universally known, Tradition held a larger place than Scripture in the preservation and propagation of the church’s entire faith, whereas later on the situation tended to be reversed. This is only natural. The supreme importance of Scripture as the normative element in the Church’s tradition arises from its character as, so to speak, the verbal precipitate of the Church’s primordial life and, therefore, as keeping the Church true to its historical roots as nothing else, except perhaps the Eucharist, can. This is true even when we recognize a development of doctrinal understanding within the New Testament itself; even those who seek for a canon within the canon or gospel behind the Gospels have to go to the canon and the Gospels for their material. The Scriptures would have this supreme importance even if they were purely human compositions accidentally assembled, but their importance is enhanced yet further when we see the gracious hand of God at work both in the production of the Scriptures and in his gift of them to the Church.


Scripture and Tradition, then, belong together. They are diverse in character but are organically related in accordance with their several natures. The activity of tradition (the handing-on process) is one essential form of the Church’s ongoing life. The content of tradition (that which is handed on) is, in idea and intention at any rate, precisely the faith of the Scriptures. Tradition cut off from Scripture is lifley to become undisciplined and unbalanced, and even positively distorted; on the other hand, Scripture cut off from the living tradition of the Church can come to seem remote and irrelevant. It is in the fellowship of faith of the Christian community that the Bible will most fully come to life. And neither Scripture nor Tradition can fulfil its true function in the Body of Christ, who is the personal Revelation of God. This is the truth that underlies the emphasis which Protestantism lays on the preaching of the word of god and which Catholicism lays upon the administration of the sacraments. For both preacher and celebrant are commissioned as personal agents through whom the personal Christ makes himself personally known to personal human beings. The function of either is gravely misconceived if this is ever forgotten. So Scripture, under Christ, should be thought of as the normative element in Tradition; and Tradition, under Christ, should be thought of as the vitalizing milieu of Scripture. Neither, however, can be its true self if it is cut off from the living Christ and form the Spirit of Christ who guides and illuminated and reforms Christ’s Body, the Church.

This is simply to say that what the traditionary process passes on should be viewed in the first instance as a primary and provisional exposition of the biblical faith, and that what is written in the biblical documents should be viewed in the first instance as the archetypal and normative tradition, the authentic apostolic paradosis which must both form and, where necessary, reform the later paradosis in order that the knowledge of Christ should not be obscured. Ecclesiastical tradition exists because of the work of the Spirit, for it is the precipitate of the understanding which the Spirit has given and deepened down the ages of what the apostolic witness to Christ means and implies, and how it may find expression. The Holy Scriptures also exist because of the work of the Spirit, who, having led the early Church to receive the Old Testament as divine instruction for Christians, caused the apostolic witness to be written down and then recognized as authoritative, alongside the Old Testament, in its written form. Tradition, however venerable, is not infallible as a mode of transmission, and needs constantly to be tested by the Scriptures whose witness to Christ it seeks to convey. Scripture, however inspired, was not meant to be self-sufficient as a means of instruction and life, but to operate within the common life of the Christian community by way of preaching, sacrament, fellowship, and prayers. Reformation Protestantism, arguing against the idea of an ecclesiastical magisterium acting as a second source of doctrine and an infallible interpreter of Scripture, rightly maintained that Scripture was clear in its meaning and sufficient in its content for purposes of salvation, and that the magisterium affirmed by Rome was superfluous; yet the fact remains that the witness of Scripture to Christ will be mode clearer, and its contents come to be better known and appreciated, within the living fellowship of the people of God, as Catholic eucharistic experience and Evangelical group Bible study alike proclaim. Scripture and Tradition are thus from every standpoint not antithetical, but complementary as means of leading us to Christ.


Once this is accepted, the ground is clear for the theological endeavour of the present book. As long as Catholics see Evangelicals as bogged down in a biblicism which refuses to contemplate theological justification for formulation and institution not exemplified in the Scriptures, or to entertain exegetical hypotheses which posit as the background of biblical statements factors which only later worked their way into explicit historical expression, and as long as Evangelicals see Catholics as trapped in a traditionalism which refuses to face requests for scriptural justification of elements in tradition, or to allow that what cannot be so justified may not be put forward as a universal norm, little can be done together in dealing with the matters of conventional dispute; the only course open then would be to see if we can agree to differ, on the ground that none of these matters of disputes is of much importance (which is, in effect, what the rejected Anglican-Methodist Scheme was asking us to do). But the argument we have pursued has already led us beyond this point of blockage. By allowing that the content of the traditionary process and the scriptural documents is ideally coincident, we have committed ourselves on the one hand to take with full seriousness any theological justification of traditional positions and institutions that may be offered on the basis of the biblical witness to the living Christ and his Church, and we have committed ourselves on the other hand to take with equal seriousness any plea for such justification, or complaint of lack of it, that may be pressed upon us. It is by dialogue along these lives what the agreements set forth in the book have been hammered out.

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