Scripture and Bias of Tradition?

One of the nuances on the Sola Scriptura doctrine I recently come across is to acknowledge the role of tradition in scriptural interpretation, but as a source of ‘bias’ (correct or incorrect).

As a believer, I would be asking if all tradition is ‘bias’, or can it be more? As a believing Catholic, but also as a believer open to the objective data, I would say it is more. Let me outline a few reasons and data which seems to me to indicate this.

First is Scripture. Upon examining the case of Bereans (Acts 17:11), one sees that these Jews are examining the Apostolic teachings with the Jewish scriptures. Would it be true that “the Bible has authority over church tradition”? This would seem to me to be hasty generalization, for a few reasons. Firstly, the Apostles were teaching new doctrines that went above and beyond the Old Testament, of the Christ who authoritatively fulfilled and also superceded the Law of Moses. The Bereans, in this sense, were checking for consistency with the prospect of Messianic doctrine that would supercede the limitation of their scriptures. Secondly, the Apostolic teaching as superceding the Old Testament is explicitly acknowledged and, in fact, proclaimed, as coming in two modes: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (II Thess 2:15). Indeed, this Apostolic word of mouth is considered to be divine revelation: “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (I Thess 2:13). If one is to go by the scriptural practice of the Bereans, then, it would stand to sense to allow authoritative Apostolic teaching to properly guide scriptural interpretation.

Now, this is not some isolated theory, but, again, found in historical data in the early Church:

Papias:

Whenever anyone came my way, who had been a follower of my seniors, I would ask for the accounts of our seniors: What did Andrew or Peter say? Or Phillip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew, or any of the Lord’s disciples? I also asked: What did Aristion and John the Presbyter, disciples of the Lord say. For, as I see it, it is not so much from books as from the living and permanent voice that I must draw profit (The Sayings of the Lord [between A.D. 115 and 140] as recorded by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3:39 [A.D. 325]).

Irenaeus:

For even creation reveals Him who formed it, and the very work made suggests Him who made it, and the world manifests Him who ordered it. The Universal [Catholic] Church, moreover, through the whole world, has received this tradition from the Apostles (Against Heresies 2:9 [A.D. 189]).

True knowledge is the doctrine of the Apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved, without any forging of Scriptures, by a very complete system of doctrine, and neither addition nor curtailment [in truths which she believes]; and [it consists in] reading [the Word of God] without falsification, and a lawful and diligent exposition in harmony with the Scriptures, both without danger and without blasphemy…(ibid. 4:33 [A.D. 189]).

Origen:

Seeing there are many who think they hold the opinions of Christ, and yet some of these think differently from their predecessors, yet as the teaching of the Church, transmitted in orderly succession from the Apostles, and remaining in the churches to the present day, is still preserved, that alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition (On First Principles Bk. 1 Preface 2 [circa A.D. 225]).

So, historically, Apostolic tradition was not seen as merely a basis for ‘bias’ – no; according to historical and Scriptural data, this view is novel and foreign to both. Church has faithfully obeyed the Apostolic exhortation to “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us”, since they recognized the Apostolic teaching as “what it really is, the word of God”.

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2 thoughts on “Scripture and Bias of Tradition?”

  1. (I think bias, when not used preparatively, is a useful shorthand for describing the act of interpretation.)

    More of an observation then a counter argument, we need to be careful not be anachronistic when reading the early church fathers, making them say more than they meant. We also need to be careful in analyzing whether the church fathers were arguing for the transmission of authority or the transmission of sound theological tradition. Furthermore the recognition of the canon indicates an awareness of Scripture as opposed to tradition. Neither of us are Mormons!

  2. Hi Luke, welcome.

    > “I think bias, when not used preparatively, is a useful shorthand for describing the act of interpretation.”

    Yes, fair enough. I think it also seem to carry a few connotations with it though (from the normal usage of the term). The Early Church Fathers did not seem to see it as an Apostolic bias, but rather as the authoritative source of teaching conforming to the will and teaching of Christ.

    > “we need to be careful not be anachronistic when reading the early church fathers, making them say more than they meant.”

    Yes, this is fair. Do consider, though, that Irenaeus does attest to “very complete system of doctrine” being present in the Church at the time, and Origen would go far as to state the criteria that, “that alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition”. These are strong words to describe even correct ‘bias’.

    > “We also need to be careful in analyzing whether the church fathers were arguing for the transmission of authority or the transmission of sound theological tradition. ”

    The Early Church Fathers’ testimonies above were cited as historical evidence for theological tradition. However, there are others with focus on Apostolic succession, Holy Orders and the Papacy which would be more relevant to the question of authority.

    Ignatius of Antioch, for example, states the following:

    “Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from the beginning and is at last made manifest” (Letter to the Magnesians 6:1 [A.D. 110]).

    “Indeed, when you submit to the bishop as you would to Jesus Christ, it is clear to me that you are living not in the manner of men but as Jesus Christ, who died for us, that through faith in his death you might escape dying. It is necessary, therefore—and such is your practice that you do nothing without the bishop, and that you be subject also to the presbytery, as to the apostles of Jesus Christ our hope, in whom we shall be found, if we live in him. It is necessary also that the deacons, the dispensers of the mysteries [sacraments] of Jesus Christ, be in every way pleasing to all men. For they are not the deacons of food and drink, but servants of the Church of God. They must therefore guard against blame as against fire” (Letter to the Trallians 2:1–3 [A.D. 110]).

    > “Furthermore the recognition of the canon indicates an awareness of Scripture as opposed to tradition. Neither of us are Mormons!”

    I’m not sure I understand you here. I would have thought that the canon of Scriptures is part of tradition and, furthermore, evidence of the Church’s authority. As it’s commonly said, the scriptures did not come with an inspired table of contents from heaven; the Church authoritatively made a pronouncement as to what books are regarded as being inspired, and what books were extra-canonical.

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