September 3, 2014 Broadcast

Scripture and Tradition, Part 2

A Message by R.C. Sproul

To this day, Protestants and Catholics are divided over critical doctrines of the faith such as the doctrine of Sola Scriptura—Scripture alone. What does the Church of Rome teach about the Scriptures? Dr. Sproul gives us this answer as he looks at “Scripture and Tradition.”

From the series: Roman Catholicism

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. article

    The Value of Confessions

  2. article

    Is the Reformation Over?

  3. devotional

    Scripture Alone

The Value of Confessions

Douglas Kelly

To this day, Christian Churches, especially in the Reformation tradition, use a powerful tool for "maintaining the form of sound words" and for spreading the gospel to the world—their confessional documents. The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century represented a major rupture in the medieval church, one in which more than one-third of Europe had to go back to the "drawing board" to formulate their testimony to the rest of the world.

That drawing board was Holy Scripture, which consecrated pastor-scholars searched out on the basis of a fresh knowledge of the original languages, and also on the basis of a commitment to traditional Augustinianism and the church fathers. Hence, they saw themselves as true (or Reformed) catholics, not primarily a new denominational grouping, although they did wind up in new denominational connections owing to the fierce resistance of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to any serious reform.

It was necessary to define themselves in light of Roman Catholic charges that they had left the true church and were following heretical teachings. They carried out this task as churches with careful and prayerful exegetical work through the entirety of Scripture in order to state coherently the major lines of its teaching on both doctrine and duty. Several synods in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries fulfilled this task with solid grounding on the Word of God written and in line with the traditional creeds of the first five centuries of Christian history.

The results of their work were developed over time (from the first Reformed confessions in the 1520s and 1530s to the Westminster Confession of Faith in the 1640s). These standards solidly appealed to the clear teaching of Holy Scripture. The Bible was their touchstone. Indeed, the framers of the Scots Confession of 1560 stated that if anyone could show them that they were out of accord with Scripture, they would be willing to change. While always respecting the historical church, they clearly stated that Scripture must have the final word, for, in the words of the Westminster Confession, "The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error" (25.5).

Out of this crucible of controversy came several confessions that, with general brevity and clarity, express the main thrust of the teachings of Holy Scripture on salvation and holy living. Because of their biblical teaching, they have the value of guiding us as much today as they did our forefathers centuries ago. It is a mercy for the church today not to have to reinvent the wheel. Through the creeds and confessions, we abide in the health and safety of "the communion of the saints."

This doctrinal continuity runs contrary to the relativism of our Western secularized culture, according to which "ancient truth is uncouth." This relativism suggests that instead of ancient truth, one must feverishly follow the latest fads of the ever-changing intelligentsia. Furthermore, the aggressive relativism of our culture has not stopped at the doors of the church. To refer appreciatively to the confessional standards causes the raising of eyebrows, and, in some cases, open protest in not a few evangelical (and Reformed) congregations and denominations.

Many evangelicals, in order to avoid the clear teachings of these confessions (which are based on the supernatural claims of the Bible) and not offend the reigning relativism of our culture (which, at the end of the day, is anti-supernatural), employ a sort of "nominalistic" interpretation of the standards. A "nominalistic" interpretation means avoiding the plain teaching of these biblically based confessions by formally subscribing to them while employing clever and painful endeavors to make them say something else; something that will be less offensive to the secular culture.

One instance is how theistic evolutionists engage in a sort of "Jesuit casuistry" to force the first three chapters of Genesis to say precisely what they preclude—that there was sin before the fall of Adam and that life gradually developed by chance.

A great value of the Westminster Confession's teaching on creation, for example, is that in following it, we are not prey to changing paradigms of philosophical science (which is not the same thing as empirical or operational science, which, in my view, is fully compatible with the teachings of Genesis). Here the standards can help us greatly (if we abide in them realistically, rather than nominalistically evading their meaning): they plainly tell the church what the Bible has always said on creation rather than leading us on a wild goose chase of post-Enlightenment philosophies. They help the church to see that approaches such as theistic evolution come not from the Bible but from somewhere else, and need to be identified as such. Their valuable testimony helps us to continue to stand on a solid biblical foundation, which, though offensive to the secular world, is the place where we find intellectual coherence of truth in the context of Word and Spirit, which is life-giving and transformational for all of thought and culture.

Is the Reformation Over?

R.C. Sproul

There have been several observations rendered on this subject by those I would call "erstwhile evangelicals." One of them wrote, "Luther was right in the sixteenth century, but the question of justification is not an issue now." A second self-confessed evangelical made a comment in a press conference I attended that "the sixteenth-century Reformation debate over justification by faith alone was a tempest in a teapot." Still another noted European theologian has argued in print that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is no longer a significant issue in the church. We are faced with a host of people who are defined as Protestants but who have evidently forgotten altogether what it is they are protesting.

Contrary to some of these contemporary assessments of the importance of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, we recall a different perspective by the sixteenth-century magisterial Reformers. Luther made his famous comment that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is the article upon which the church stands or falls. John Calvin added a different metaphor, saying that justification is the hinge upon which everything turns. In the twentieth century, J.I. Packer used a metaphor indicating that justification by faith alone is the "Atlas upon whose shoulder every other doctrine stands." Later Packer moved away from that strong metaphor and retreated to a much weaker one, saying that justification by faith alone is "the fine print of the gospel."

The question we have to face in light of these discussions is, what has changed since the sixteenth century? Well, there is good news and there is bad news. The good news is that people have become much more civil and tolerant in theological disputes. We don't see people being burned at the stake or tortured on the rack over doctrinal differences. We've also seen in the past years that the Roman communion has remained solidly steadfast on other key issues of Christian orthodoxy, such as the deity of Christ, His substitutionary atonement, and the inspiration of the Bible, while many Protestant liberals have abandoned these particular doctrines wholesale. We also see that Rome has remained steadfast on critical moral issues such as abortion and ethical relativism. In the nineteenth century at Vatican Council I, Rome referred to Protestants as "heretics and schismatics." In the twentieth century at Vatican II, Protestants were referred to as "separated brethren." We see a marked contrast in the tone of the different councils. The bad news, however, is that many doctrines that divided orthodox Protestants from Roman Catholics centuries ago have been declared dogma since the sixteenth century. Virtually all of the significant Mariology decrees have been declared in the last 150 years. The doctrine of papal infallibility, though it de facto functioned long before its formal definition, was nevertheless formally defined and declared de fide (necessary to believe for salvation) in 1870 at Vatican Council I. We also see that in recent years the Roman communion has published a new Catholic catechism, which unequivocally reaffirms the doctrines of the Council of Trent, including Trent's definition of the doctrine of justification (and thus affirms that council's anathemas against the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone). Along with the reaffirmations of Trent have come a clear reaffirmation of the Roman doctrine of purgatory, indulgences, and the treasury of merits.

At a discussion among leading theologians over the issue of the continued relevance of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, Michael Horton asked the question: "What is it in the last decades that has made the first-century gospel unimportant?" The dispute over justification was not over a technical point of theology that could be consigned to the fringes of the depository of biblical truth. Nor could it be seen simply as a tempest in a teapot. This tempest extended far beyond the tiny volume of a single teacup. The question, "what must I do to be saved?" is still a critical question for any person who is exposed to the wrath of God.

Even more critical than the question is the answer, because the answer touches the very heart of gospel truth. In the final analysis, the Roman Catholic Church affirmed at Trent and continues to affirm now that the basis by which God will declare a person just or unjust is found in one's "inherent righteousness." If righteousness does not inhere in the person, that person at worst goes to hell and at best (if any impurities remain in his life) goes to purgatory for a time that may extend to millions of years. In bold contrast to that, the biblical and Protestant view of justification is that the sole grounds of our justification is the righteousness of Christ, which righteousness is imputed to the believer, so that the moment a person has authentic faith in Christ, all that is necessary for salvation becomes theirs by virtue of the imputation of Christ's righteousness. The fundamental issue is this: is the basis by which I am justified a righteousness that is my own? Or is it a righteousness that is, as Luther said, "an alien righteousness," a righteousness that is extra nos, apart from us—the righteousness of another, namely, the righteousness of Christ? From the sixteenth century to the present, Rome has always taught that justification is based upon faith, on Christ, and on grace. The difference, however, is that Rome continues to deny that justification is based on Christ alone, received by faith alone, and given by grace alone. The difference between these two positions is the difference between salvation and its opposite. There is no greater issue facing a person who is alienated from a righteous God.

At the moment the Roman Catholic Church condemned the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone, she denied the gospel and ceased to be a legitimate church, regardless of all the rest of her affirmations of Christian orthodoxy. To embrace her as an authentic church while she continues to repudiate the biblical doctrine of salvation is a fatal attribution. We're living in a time where theological conflict is considered politically incorrect, but to declare peace when there is no peace is to betray the heart and soul of the gospel.

Scripture Alone

Even though the doctrine of justification and the attendant issues of the sufficiency of grace and the work of Christ are the issues around which the Reformation initially was centered, the underlying debate that was reflected both consciously and unconsciously in the controversy had to do with the source of authority. Is Scripture the final authority for faith and practice that can alone bind the conscience of the Christian, or is there another source of authority equal to or above Scripture that serves this function?

Martin Luther’s defense of sola fide was based on the premise that the Bible is the sole infallible source of divine revelation, and it was his refusal to grant such authority to popes and church councils that really got him into trouble. Rome, on the other hand, appealed to Scripture and the living tradition of the church, unwritten teachings passed on orally from the apostles down through the bishops and interpreted by the Roman Catholic magisterium (the teaching officers of the church). The doctrine of justification of the Roman Catholic Church then and now is grounded in works of penance, the treasury of merit, and other elements established in tradition, not the Word of God.

According to Rome’s official pronouncements, these unwritten traditions are equal in authority to the Bible. Paragraph 44 of the current Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.” In practice, however, it is the church that has final, infallible authority. Its interpretations of the faith are binding even when they are unfounded in the Bible.

Jesus makes it clear that to violate the Word of God for the sake of the traditions of men is always wrong (Mark 7:9), and so Protestantism asserts sola Scriptura: Scripture alone is the final authority for the church. Church traditions such as are found in creeds and the writings of important church leaders do not lack authority altogether and can guide our understanding of Scripture. Luther and Calvin, in fact, both cited Augustine regularly in their teachings. But Scripture always wins out when it conflicts with tradition.  

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