Friday, May 28, 2010

Reformation, Tradition, Scripture, and the Church

I thank God for the Protestant Reformation. What a wonderful movement it was that reclaimed the biblical gospel. We owe a great debt to Reformers like Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, etc.

One argument that was used against the Reformers was that they were arrogant to challenge 1000 or so years of church history. They were told that to challenge what the church had learned over many hundreds of years was foolish and wrong. They were also called schismatic. The bottom line, from the Roman perspective, was that Rome should not be challenged because of the traditions that had been accepted for the millennium prior to the Reformation.

The problem for Rome, of course, was the scriptures. While Rome looked to tradition for authority, the Reformers looked to the bible.

We must keep something important in mind: the Protestant Reformation was a reformation primarily in soteriology, not ecclesiology. In other words, it was a rediscovery of the biblical gospel (salvation); it was not a rediscovery of the biblical church. There were certainly changes that took place within the church, but the PRIMARY change was a return to the gospel proclaimed by Jesus, Paul, Peter, etc.

Let's fast-forward 500 years. I think we all realize that there are both positives and negatives with the modern church in the West. We are all in a difficult spot because the Reformers did not complete a reformation of the church. If they had lived long enough they might have done so. Alas, we will never know. We do know that the modern church is in need of reform.

I'm sure that almost all readers of this post would agree that the church needs change. The disagreement, of course, is how much change is needed and in what areas. Some people think more and some think less. How do we know? What do we do?

In light of all the disagreement, we must look to our only objective source: the bible. If we are to try to live by sola scriptura, then let's do this not just for salvation but also for the church. Let us follow in the footsteps of the Reformers, but this time let's apply sola scriptura to how we live as the church.

One problem we will run into today is the same problem the Reformers faced. If we push for biblical change, there are many in the institutional church who will use what amounts to a Roman argument. They will say much has been learned from church history. They will say that since the church has done certain things (especially since the Reformation), we should do them as well. If we question certain beloved practices, we may be called schismatic.

If we think through these arguments carefully, what we see is an argument from tradition. Certain Roman church practices were barely changed at all by the Reformers. Many of these remain today. Many are found nowhere in scripture.

What happens when we question and/or challenge these today? Those who believe in these practices may defend them with scripture. If so, we should engage in healthy, gracious debate. However, they may also defend these practices by looking to church traditions (especially from the past 500 years).

When we hear this argument, we must recognize that it is an argument from tradition. It is a Roman argument. It is an argument that holds no weight.

As we think about what types of changes need to occur in the modern church, let us really live according to sola scriptura. These changes may be uncomfortable. They will not be welcomed by many. However, they must occur.

Let us have lively discussions about these important issues. However, let us only look to the bible, and only the bible, for authority.


Aussie John said...


Again,you are expressing my own thinking of some years ago. I hope they are food for thought for many sincere men/women of God.

My concern with most of those I know and am aware of, who are of "reformed" persuasion is that they appear to be holding the very same attitude as Rome did,looking "to tradition for authority", whilst belligerently declaring that "to challenge 1000 or so years of church history", is arrogant and heretical.

As you say,we must look to the "only objective source: the bible".

I pray that those you are called to lead will do just that, bearing testimony to the claim of Sola Scriptura.

Eric said...


I hope and pray for reformation within Christ's church. We desperately need it. It's amazing how difficult it is to see scripture without our traditions getting in the way. I'm sure I still depend on traditions for justification of things I do. I hope the Lord continues to open my eyes.

Pastor Pants said...

Good post. I do hope you will be expanding this futher in the future with some specifics. Looks promising...

Eric said...

Pastor Pants,

Specifics are the difficult part, aren't they? That's where we see if we are really willing to look to scripture instead of tradition.

Anonymous said...


You wrote, "It's amazing how difficult it is to see scripture without our traditions getting in the way."

An important side-note is that the Reformers were most emphatically and even self-consciously not making an argument against tradition per se (and offering a fresh interpretation of Scripture out of a vacuum to replace it), but were instead arguing that Rome was getting the tradition wrong. The Reformers were glad to let tradition "get in the way" insofar as they found tradition being faithful to Scripture. This is not just an issue of semantics either. The Reformers knew that marshalling the aid of faithful historic interpreters both a. helped them to know they were reading their Bibles rightly and b. validated their challenge of Rome. Even those most radically committed to reform--including ecclesiological reform--appealed to various witnesses in the history of the church (cf. Hubmaier's "Old and New Teachers on Baptism").

As you pointed out, the Reformers insisted that Scripture be the governing rule--in opposition to the Roman church's insistence on tradition. But they did not despise tradition and certainly had a place for it. In a real sense, many of them actually believed they were renewing it. Consider this quotation from Luther's treatise "Concerning Rebaptism":

"If we are going to change or do away with customs that are traditional, it is necessary to prove convincingly that these are contrary to the Word of God. Otherwise (as Christ says), ‘For he that is not against us is for us’ [Mark 9:40]. We have indeed overthrown monasteries, mass-priests, and clerical celibacy, but only by showing the clear and certain scriptural arguments against them. Had we not done this, we should truly have let them stand as they previously existed."

P.S. I admit the irony of quoting him positively here when he is arguing against a practice I hold to--believer baptism. Suffice it to say that I think he is generally right here in principle, but specifically wrong that baptism doesn't meet this threshold.


Eric said...


Thanks for your input. I appreciate it.

I should have been clearer in this post. I was trying to make the point that all tradition, regardless of what it is, must be viewed in light of scripture.

It is fascinating how powerful tradition is. I admire the Reformers for even being willing to challenge what they did. I wonder if we have the chutzpah to do the same today when we see traditions that violate scripture.