A common argument against accepting homosexual practice is that the church through the centuries has unanimously declared it sinful. But why should that matter? Aren’t we committed to sola Scriptura—the authority of the Bible alone? Hasn’t the church gotten things wrong before, like supporting slavery? What authority does church tradition have for us anyway?
It’s true, human tradition can be a hindrance to divine truth. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for breaking God’s commands for the sake of their own traditions (Matt. 15:3). And the 16th-century Reformers rejected the magisterial authority of tradition espoused by the Roman Catholic Church. Shouldn’t we seek to emulate Restorationist leader Alexander Campbell, who counseled his followers to “open the New Testament as if mortal man had never seen it before,” no longer bound by the prejudices of the past? Why should tradition be important in seeking to understand the teaching of the Bible? Let me offer two lines of argument—one philosophical, the other theological.
Socially and Culturally Situated
First, respect for tradition in interpreting the Bible helps to overcome an important problem so clearly identified by postmodernism: we are all socially and culturally situated. There are no neutral interpreters. We are influenced by all sorts of non-rational and often sub-conscious factors, leading us to believe what we want to believe. We all view the world from our own point of view, with pre-understandings based on our own experience with the world and our own place in it. Postmodernism rightly calls us to recognize our limitations and our finitude.
An aspect of this is what C. S. Lewis called “presentism”—the seductive assumption that ideas about what’s reasonable and mainstream today necessarily apply to all ages. Such “chronological snobbery” can only be overcome by an intimate acquaintance with the past. “Not that the past has any magic about it,” Lewis explains, but study of the past is important “because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present.” He likens the value of such study to the benefits of travel: “[A] man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village.” So the scholar who has become acquainted with the views of the past “has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age” (“Learning in War-Time” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses).
Attending to the views of Christians of the past, from many and varied cultures, helps us in our biblical interpretation to overcome the hermeneutical blinders arising from our own cultural setting.
A second argument for appreciating the value of tradition in interpretation is theological. It arises from the conviction that the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Bible has been at work in believers through the ages, illumining their minds to understand it. Since the Spirit's work is to guide God's people into truth, to ignore the understanding of Christians of the past is to dishonor that work. As J. I. Packer declares,
Dismissing tradition as representing only the worldliness of the church reflects unbelief in the Spirit’s work since Pentecost as the church’s teacher; embracing the dogma of faultless tradition reflects a lapse into ecclesiastical perfectionism. In seeking to profit from tradition I oppose the deifying of it no less than the devaluing of it. (Engaging the Written Word of God, 210)
Those same Reformers who affirmed the final authority of Scripture also affirmed the secondary authority of church tradition. Just as “faith alone” included the notion that true faith wouldn’t be alone but would be accompanied by works, so “Scripture alone” was never understood to mean the authority of Scripture by itself (nuda Scriptura), but Scripture understood in the company of God’s people through time. They believed the early creeds, for example, could be abandoned only at great peril. “In this sense,” Timothy George observes, “tradition served as a kind of guardrail on a dangerous mountain highway, keeping the traveler focused on the goal of the journey by preventing precipitous calamities to the right and the left” (Reading Scriptures with the Reformers, 123).Tradition, then, could not trump the Bible, but it could be an aid in understanding the Bible. It had a ministerial rather than a magisterial authority, but a real authority nonetheless.
In the early fourth century, Vincent of Lérins proposed a threefold test of the truth taught by the church: “What has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.” This “Vincentian standard” in its fullness has only rarely been achieved, but up until the later half of the 20th century it has described the church’s position on the sinfulness of homosexual practice. (And even in our day, dissent from this view is almost entirely confined to the West.) So what difference should that make in the present debate?
Hermeneutical Virtue of Humility
At the very least it ought to invoke the hermeneutical virtue of humility. Are interpreters today only now coming to a truth no one else has discovered? Are they the first to see the light? Some might argue that only now have Christians affirmed the evil of slavery. But as Rodney Stark has so clearly demonstrated (see For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts and the End of Slavery), there have been Christian voices denouncing slavery since the early days of the church. Contrary to the discredited argument of John Boswell (see Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the 14th Century), none has endorsed homosexual practice.1
Surely this must raise the bar on any exegetical conclusion that is contrary to such a vast company of witnesses. This united testimony of the past requires that arguments in our day about Scripture endorsing homosexual practice must face a higher burden of proof, moving from mere “reasonable suspicion” to “beyond reasonable doubt.” I believe that is a standard they can never achieve.
1 Note the view of David F. Wright (author of the article on homosexuality in the Encyclopedia of Early Christianity): “The conclusion must be that for all its interest and stimulus Boswell’s book provides in the end of the day not one firm piece of evidence that the teaching mind of the early church countenanced homosexual activity.”