Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Place of Tradition in Hermeneutics

Among all of the controversies surrounding the Protestant reformation, one of the primary concerns was the proper appropriation of tradition. In Cardinal Sadolet's letter to the people of Geneva, he argues that Calvin and his contemporaries did not have the support of Christian tradition on their side. The reformers had a mere 25 years of tradition to the Roman Church's prodigious 1500 years. Calvin's response is cunning. He writes, “…the ancient church is clearly on our side, and opposes you, not less than we ourselves do.” (Calvin, John. “Reply by John Calvin to Letter by Cardinal Sadolet to the Senate and People of Geneva.”49). In responding this way he turns Sadolet's logic around and claims that the reformers are actually being more faithful to the tradition than the Catholic Church was. Thus, the appeal of the Protestant reformation was not meant to dispense with tradition. Rather, it was an argument against the way in which the Catholic Church had appropriated it.

The question then is this: What is the role of tradition in interpreting Scripture? The Catholic position appears to be that Scripture and tradition are to be held on the same level. The mainline Protestant reformers clearly hold up Scripture as authoritative (sola scriptura) without dispensing with tradition, but (perhaps problematically) leave the question of its proper position unestablished. The radical reformers seem to completely disregard tradition as irrelevant, professing that one can really read Scripture unassisted by tradition. The result of this lack of articulation on the part of Protestantism seems to be partly responsible for the fractious milieu that has become one of its hallmarks.

At the risk of muddying the waters of discussion, I will go ahead and say that, on this point at least, I think the radical reformers were more than a little naive simply because nobody is able to completely divorce themselves from their own context (cultural, historical, denominational, etc). Thus, even in the most deconstructed traditions, such as the Quakers, you will find them to be just that–– a tradition. But how does one interpret Scripture in continuity with all of Christian (and Jewish!) history? Can we just appeal to the early church without looking at the less flattering parts that follow? Should we go so far as the Catholic Church and put the two on the same level?


david gentino said...

Great questions Jon. And I think you're right, we all have a very robust tradition (and theology), so we're really asking how to consciously treat/challenge what we already use.

Somehow there must be a place for Scripture to converse with traditions and theologies. Not that I take my objective reading of Scripture in one hand and my ingrained tradition in the other, but that I acknowledge that the Bible is wholly other. The Spirit energizes a living Word to break through myself, tainted by the Reformation, Enlightenment, and what I had for breakfast.

Can't I conceivably read my Bible with Calvin, challenging and being challenged by him?

John Paulling said...

Great questions. I would want to add that there must be a way that our readings of other traditions can challenge our appropriation of our own tradition. In other words, to me, it is a good thing when orthodox traditions other than our own (along with Scripture) shape our convictions.

P.D. said...

First of all I must say again Furst, READ THE DRAMA OF DOCTRINE!

Second, I think sometimes we can submit to a kind of hermeneutical determinism. Our reading of the text is certainly influenced by factors that we are blind to. However, I do think we can acknowledge and cultivate these factors more than we think sometimes. I think a confession and creed is absolutely critical for this. We all have a tradition that has interpreted the text before we approach it, yet we're not stuck there. The promise of the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth holds for the past two millenia... Thus Vanhoozer's Tradition vs. tradition.

John Paulling said...

I'm pretty sure Furst has read that book.

P.D. said...

Furst? What say you?

Jon Furst said...

No, I'm ashamed to say that I haven't read all of it. I am feeling new impetus, however.

Phill Grooms said...

As a southern baptist, I grew up practicing the tradition of ignoring Catholic tradition while being held to others.

I love these questions. I read these blogs and long to listen in on such discussions again.