Why Protestants Need to Use Tradition When They Read Their Bibles

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Cartographer

A few of my favorite quotes on the topic:

“It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.”

—Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Commenting and Commentaries (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1876), 1.


“Tradition is the fruit of the Spirit’s teaching activity from the ages as God’s people have sought understanding of Scripture. It is not infallible, but neither is it negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard it.”

—J.I. Packer, “Upholding the Unity of Scripture Today,” JETS 25 (1982): 414


“The best way to guard a true interpretation of Scripture, the Reformers insisted, was neither to naively embrace the infallibility of tradition, or the infallibility of the individual, but to recognize the communal interpretation of Scripture. The best way to ensure faithfulness to the text is to read it together, not only with the churches of our own time and place, but with the wider ‘communion of saints’ down through the age.”

—Michael Horton, “What Still Keeps Us Apart?


“There is rugged terrain ahead for those who are constitutionally incapable of referring to the paths marked out by wise and spirit-filled cartographers over the centuries.”

—Larry Woiwode, Acts (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).


 

Theologians Peter Leithart and Brad Littlejohn have recently been having a back-and-forth online on the quest and dangers of novelty in theological exploration and formulation. In citing the following, I am not suggesting that Leithart is ignorant of the dogmatic tradition. But Littlejohn’s extended metaphor is instructive and illuminating, so I wanted to share it in full:

The Word of God is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path, and we should examine every step we take in its light lest we plunge into a pit or tread on a viper. And yet sometimes (most times!) it is useful to be able to see a bit of the broader landscape. This is what the the dogmatic tradition of the church supplies. Think of a systematic theology as being like a map (or, in the case of some of those 17th-century guys, a full-blown atlas), which offers us an overview of the vast and treacherous terrain of trying to speak about our God and who he has called us to be in this world, as it has been revealed by intrepid explorers over two millennia. With the aid of this map, one can quickly gain a sense of the well-traveled paths that are tried-and-true ways of getting to one’s destination, as well as the craggy and unexplored heights which the more adventurous might want to explore one day. It warns one of dead-ends that will end on the edge of a sudden precipice, and of boggy morasses where the unwary pilgrim might lose his way for days or weeks. It shows where one can expect to find friendly shelter and protection among trustworthy comrades, and where one is liable to be waylaid by thieves or lured away by deceivers.

Now imagine someone comes along and declares that ours is a new era, that the landscape has changed so much since the maps were made that it is time to start from scratch and explore anew. Now, he might be right from time to time (for the landscape does slowly change), but one can also imagine him triumphantly declaring that he has discovered a new pass through the mountains when a look at the map (or indeed, the recently-used campsites scattered around him) would tell him that it is one that has been in use for centuries. This would be a foolish error, but a harmless enough one, if he did not also pause to make a speech, deploring the oversights of his predecessors, who had been too blind to discover this wonderful mountain pass—more proof, if any was needed, that their maps should not be trusted. (This, of course, is one of my greatest complaints about Leithart’s Delivered from the Elements—he offers us soteriological insights that are often quite reminiscent of what the Reformers mined from the Scriptures, while telling us over and over how confused and unreliable those Reformers were.) So our intrepid explorer, in his zeal to do something new, would find himself more often than not, doing nothing of the sort.

Not only would such an explorer tend to tread well-worn paths while claiming to be a trailblazer, but when he did succeed in charting new paths, they might not be very good ones, or at any rate very useful at present. They would turn out to be rocky and circuitous, plunging through heavy vegetation so that any trying to follow after would be liable to get lost in the thickets and wander over a nearby precipice. Until our intrepid explorer had succeeded in clearing, smoothing, and signposting this new trail, the majority of pilgrims would be wise to avoid it, whatever its theoretical advantages. So it is with Leithart’s Delivered from the Elements—when it comes to the features of the book that seem most genuinely new (such as Leithart’s theories about “nature” and “natures,” and what it might mean for the church to be a “poststoicheic society”), they are also the most confusing and opaque. The nice thing about the well-worn paths is that they are, well, well-worn. The footprints of thousands of adventurers have crushed the brambles and smoothed out the treacherous bumps. Doctrines that have been refined over centuries, whatever their weaknesses, at least usually have the strength of having gained remarkable clarity (at least, for those patient enough to examine them) and having weathered the barrage of centuries worth of objections, becoming ever more refined through the process. Brand-new doctrines, like brand-new trails, don’t have this advantage. Indeed, they are often hard to make out at all, so that anyone trying to follow in the footsteps of the trailblazer is likely to miss the new path entirely and wander off a cliff. This is not to discourage the important work of trailblazing (whether in mountaineering or in theology); simply to note that any trailblazer needs to recognize that he has a lot of work to do (more than he can probably do single-handed) before he is ready to advertise his trail to the public and say, “Come and follow me!”

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