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.’”