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The final round of the Ref­or­mation lecture series is underway. | Wikipedia

Who run the world: Scripture or tra­dition?

It’s a question church leaders and laymen still ask 500 years after Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses, a watershed moment that led to the Ref­or­mation and the claim that Scripture alone, and not the authority of popes and church fathers, defines faith.

The question of Scripture’s relation to the tra­dition of the church grounded the third and final series of lec­tures on central Christian debates in the “This Far by Faith” Ref­or­mation lecture series Nov. 30 and Dec.1. His­to­rians, the­olo­gians, and clas­si­cists from both tra­di­tions addressed the question in a way that reshaped the grounds for debate: Both Protes­tants and Catholics claimed they aligned with tra­dition in the way they used Scripture as an authority.

The “sola scriptura” prin­ciple grounded debates not only about the inter­pre­tation of Scripture, but about the supreme authority in the church as a whole, said Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of History Matthew Gaetano in his dis­cussion of views of the pope after the Ref­or­mation: Was the Catholic church’s pur­ported supreme authority the suc­cessor of Peter, or was he the antichrist?

“The basic question of whether Peter is the rock and whether his suc­cessors are supreme pastors of the faithful or not remains a central con­flict in Western Chris­tendom,” Gaetano said.

For Lutherans, Gaetano argued, oppo­sition of the pope was orig­i­nally mod­erate; they would accept him as the human leader of the church, as long as he would clean up his act. But if (and when) he claimed his divine right to lead the church and interpret the Scrip­tures, he defined himself, in their view, as the proph­esied man who would take over the church for the devil in the end times, for a number of reasons. 

“The claim that the Pope is antichrist may offend our 21st-century ears,” Gaetano said. “But the notion of pope as antichrist for early modern Lutherans explained the hid­denness of the Gospel for so many cen­turies and legit­i­mated the schism not from the one, holy, catholic, and apos­tolic church, but from the par­ticular church of Rome.”

The six­teenth-century Catholic Car­dinal Robert Bellarmine’s counter-argument, on the other hand, empha­sized the unity of the catholic church and decried schism as dia­bolical: “Bel­larmine, unsur­pris­ingly, saw Peter, his suc­cessors, and the Roman church as the sec­ondary foun­dation after Christ, the supreme pastor essential for securing the visible church,” Gaetano said.

Protestant and Catholic churches can strive for unity, however, by relying on the “sola scriptura” prin­ciple, said Kevin Van­hoozer, research pro­fessor of sys­tematic the­ology at Trinity Evan­gelical Divinity School in Chicago.

Protestant and Catholic dis­agree­ments about tra­dition are based on dif­fering views of the relation between “sola scriptura” and the tra­di­tions that interpret it. In the Protestant view, “Scripture is the appointed instrument through which God gives light,” Van­hoozer said. “Tra­dition is the lesser light, the moon to Scripture’s sun. What light tra­dition gives off is always and only a reflection of the sun. And yet, it is light.” 

This hier­archy, Van­hoozer argued, allows Scripture to remain the supreme authority without being the only text that Protes­tants accept as useful for instruction in the Christian life; it is “sola scriptura,” not “solo scriptura.”

And when Protes­tants of dif­ferent groups can again discuss their com­mon­al­ities by both lights, they can tran­scend the “solo mia denom­i­natio” mindset that often per­vades American churches.

“The kind of Protes­tantism that needs to live on 500 years after the Ref­or­mation is not the car­i­cature that empha­sizes indi­vidual autonomy or cor­porate pride, but rather the catholic original that encourages the church to hold fast to the Gospel and to one another in Christ,” Van­hoozer said.

Unlike the car­i­cature, Protes­tants have not dis­carded this lesser light in the past 500 years. According to Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of Classics Eric Hutchinson, tra­dition was an important battle to win after the Ref­or­mation. Far from claiming “solo scriptura,” they fought to prove that the church fathers were on their side.

“Antiquity was a con­tested field,” Hutchinson said. “Par­tisans of Rome were eager to show that Protes­tants had no grounding in the ancient church, and Protes­tants, on their own side, were equally zealous to show the opposite — in great detail.”

The Protestant use of the church fathers, many reformers argued, is the one the fathers them­selves would have sup­ported: “Rec­og­nizing that history is messy and com­pli­cated, they did not attempt to argue for a con­sensus of the fathers on every point of doc­trine, because they believed — cor­rectly — that such a thing did not exist,” Hutchinson said.

Throughout the semester’s lecture series, stu­dents and pro­fessors have approached the central debates of the Ref­or­mation in much the same way that the Reformers approached the church fathers — as vital voices in a larger con­ver­sation about the Christian faith.

“This is not like a cocktail party cel­e­brating the Ref­or­mation. It’s not like ‘We’re schis­matic, now we can’t have the­o­logical debates and we don’t want to be in com­munion with each other,’” sophomore Henry Brink said. “I like how we approach it espe­cially on an ecu­menical and often very polemic campus: Let’s try to figure out what’s hap­pened, and then why it’s hap­pened, and what people have thought about what’s hap­pened.”

Hutchinson’s assessment of the Reformers’ approach to tra­dition could serve for the motto of the entire lecture series: In their study of the church fathers, “their hope was that rea­soned dis­cussion around the rule of faith under the authority of the word would effect the tran­sition from ‘credo’ — ‘I believe’ — to ‘cre­demus’ — ‘we believe.’”