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THE TIME OF THE REFORMATION 

VIEWS ON THE CHURCH 

FORMAL PRINCIPLE 

(continued) 

We will now continue with our discussion of the Roman Catholic doctrine of Tradition. Our readers may recall that when we speak of the formal principle of the Reformation (the other main principle of the Reformation is the material principle, that of justification and only through faith) we mean that the Reformers acknowledged only one source of authority, namely the Holy Scriptures. Roman Catholicism recognizes, besides the Holy Scriptures, also Tradition. To this we now call attention a little more in detail. 

To state the difference between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, we must distinguish sharply and clearly. The real question between Romanists and Protestants is not whether the Holy Spirit of God leads His Church and people into the knowledge of the truth. Protestantism does not deny development in the truth. The real question, however, may be stated as follows: Is there not apart from the revelation contained in the Bible another supplementary and explanatory revelation which has been handed down from outside of the Scriptures, by tradition? Are there doctrines and institutions and ordinances, having no warrant in the Scriptures, which we as Christians are bound to receive and obey upon the authority of tradition, as interpreted by the Church (which, according to Rome, means really the pope)? 

The grounds which Rome advances for its doctrine of Tradition are several. First, Rome calls attention to the fact that there was no Bible in the church before the days of Moses, that many of the believers lived and died without ever reading and understanding the Scriptures, and that therefore many of God’s people lived out of tradition. We know that Moses wrote the first books of the Bible, the first five books of the Bible, and that therefore there was not a written word of God before the time of Moses. Secondly, is it not undeniably true that the great majority of the people of God live out of tradition? This applies to various spheres of life, does it not? Does not our life, as it were, rest upon tradition? Are we not connected by tradition with the generations that preceded us and do we not take over from these generations their treasures and pass them on to our children? If this be true of various spheres of life, would it not also apply to the sphere of the church? In fact, would it not especially apply to the sphere of the church because Christ has given unto the church His Holy Spirit and the promise that that Holy Spirit would lead the Church of God into all the truth? Thirdly, are there not several passages of Holy Writ that appear to support and teach tradition? We refer to passages such as John 16:12John 20:31John 21:25Acts 1:3I Cor. 11:2I Cor. 11:23II Thess. 2:14I Tim. 6:20II John 12III John 13III John 14. Finally, Jesus has taught His disciples many things which have not been recorded or written by them but have been passed on from mouth to mouth. Church fathers, councils, and popes have recognized such an apostolic tradition from the very beginning. In fact, the church also as of today continues to live out of this living tradition. Scripture alone is not sufficient. For, besides the fact that many things have not been recorded it is also true that several writings of the apostles and prophets have been lost. The apostles did receive a commandment to witness, but they did not receive a commandment to witness by means of writing. They wrote only because they were forced to do so because of circumstances. Hence, their writings do not contain everything that is necessary for the doctrine and the life of the church.. It is for this reason that we find little, if anything, in the Bible concerning the baptism of women, the celebration of the Sabbath and particularly the day when this sabbath must be observed in the New Dispensation, the office of the bishop, of the seven sacraments, purgatory, the holy and spotless conception of the virgin Mary, the salvation of heathens in the Old Dispensation, the inspiration and canonicity of various books of the Bible; in fact, dogmas such as the Trinity, the eternal generation of the Son, the procession of the Holy Spirit, the baptism of infants, etc., are not literally mentioned in Holy Writ. Expressed briefly, the Scriptures are profitable, but tradition is necessary. This is Rome’s conception of the truth that the Bible is insufficient and that Tradition must be maintained to fill this void. 

In our critical analysis of the Romish doctrine of Tradition we must surely be careful that we do not confound this conception with the sound conception of the doctrine of development. It is surely true that the Church has advanced throughout the ages in the knowledge of the truths of the Word of God. Hodge gives expression to this in his Systematic Theology, Vol. I, pages 116-118, as follows, and we quote: “All Protestants admit that there has been, in one sense, an uninterrupted development of theology in the Church, from the apostolic age to the present time. All the facts, truths, doctrines, and principles, which enter into Christian theology, are in the Bible. They are there as fully and as clearly at one time as at another; at the beginning as they are now. No addition has been made to, their number, and no new explanation has been afforded of their nature or relations. The same is true of the facts of nature. They are now what they have been from the beginning. They are, however, far better known, and more clearly understood now than they were a thousand years ago. The mechanism of the heavens was the same in the days of Pythagoras as it was in those of La Place; and yet the astronomy of the latter was immeasurably in advance of that of the former. The change was effected by a continual and gradual progress. The same progress has taken place in theological knowledge. Every believer is conscious of such progress in his own experience. When he was a child, he thought as a child. As he grew in years, he grew in knowledge of the Bible. He increased not only in the compass, but in the clearness, order, and harmony of his knowledge. This is just as true of the Church collectively as of the individual Christian. It is, in the first place, natural, if not inevitable, that it should be so. The Bible, although so clear and simple in its teaching, that he who runs may read and learn enough to secure his salvation, is still full of the treasures of the wisdom and knowledge of God; full of ta bathee tou theou, the profoundest truths concerning all the great problems which have taxed the intellect of man from the beginning. These truths are not systematically stated, but scattered, so to speak, promiscuously over the sacred pages, just as the facts of science are scattered over the face of nature, or hidden in its depths. Every man knows that there is unspeakably more in the Bible than he has yet learned, as every man of science knows that there is unspeakably more in nature than he has yet discovered, or understands. It stands to reason that such a book, being the subject of devout and laborious study, century after century, by able and faithful men, should come to be better and better understood. And as in matters of science, although one false theory after another, founded on wrong principles or on an imperfect induction of facts, has passed away, yet real progress is made, and the ground once gained is never lost, so we should naturally expect it to be with the study of the Bible. False, views, false inferences, misapprehensions, ignoring of some facts, and misinterpretations, might be expected to come and go, in endless succession, but nevertheless a steady progress in the knowledge of what the Bible teaches be accomplished. And we might also expect that here, too, the ground once surely gained would not again be lost. 

But, in the second place, what is thus natural and reasonable in itself is a patent historical fact. The Church has thus advanced in theological knowledge. The difference between the confused and discordant representation of the early fathers on all subjects connected with the doctrines of the Trinity and of the person of Christ, and the clearness, precision, and consistency of the views presented after ages of discussion, and the statement of these doctrines by the Councils of Chalcedon and Constantinople, is as great almost as between chaos and cosmos. And this ground has never been lost. The same is true with regard to the doctrines of sin and grace. Before the long-continued discussion of these subjects in the Augustinian period, the greatest confusion and contradiction prevailed in the teachings of the leaders of the Church; during those discussions the views of the Church became clear and settled. There is scarcely a principle or doctrine concerning the fall of man, the nature of sin and guilt, inability, the necessity of the Spirit’s influence, etc., etc., which now enters into the faith of evangelical Christians, which was not, then clearly stated and authoritatively sanctioned by the Church. In like manner, before the Reformation, similar confusion existed with regard to the great doctrine of justification. No clear line of discrimination was drawn between it and sanctification. Indeed, during the Middle Ages, and among the most devout of the schoolmen, the idea of guilt was merged in the general idea of sin, and sin regarded as merely moral defilement. The great object was to secure holiness. Then pardon would come of course. The apostolic, Pauline, deeply Scriptural doctrine, that there can be no holiness until sin be expiated, that pardon, justification, and reconciliation, must precede sanctification, was never clearly apprehended. This was the grand lesson which the Church learned at the Reformation, and which it has never since forgot. It is true then, as an historical fact, that the Church has advanced. It understands the great doctrines of theology, anthropology, and soteriology, far better now, than they were understood in the early postapostolic age of the Church.” ― end of quote from Hodge. 

Indeed, how true are these two great characteristics of the Bible, the written Word of God: its perspicuity or transparency and its profundity. The Word of God is surely transparently clear. Any child of God can read it unto his own salvation and joy and peace. That Word is a lamp before our feet and a light upon our path. Its doctrines concerning sin and grace, the creation of the heavens and the earth and the re-creation of new heavens and a new earth, the salvation of the elect as merited by Christ and sovereignly and unconditionally bestowed upon them by irresistible grace, etc., are as clear as crystal. However, this is only one characteristic of the Word of God. Another characteristic of the Bible is its profundity. The Bible may be compared to a clear mountain lake which appears to be bottomless. Its waters are clear but its bottom cannot be seen. Its truths are so simple and yet they are so majestically and wonderfully deep and profound. And throughout the ages it is the privilege of the Church to look into those depths. Continually the Church grows and advances in the knowledge of the Scriptures. Continually new treasures are discovered. O, they were always present in the Word of God. But the people of God did not always see them. And the Church also advances and grows in its understanding of them. How limited was the understanding of Jesus’ disciples, while our Lord was among us, of the doctrines of His coming and the spiritual purpose of that coming! How earthly and carnal they were in their conceptions! How they advanced in the knowledge of His death, and resurrection, especially through the Spirit as He was poured out, into the Church on the day of Pentecost! And throughout the ages the Church grows in the knowledge of those wonderful treasures that are hidden as so many golden nuggets in the Holy Scriptures. 

H.V.