Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Confessing our Traditions

Recently, I heard a sermon making the boilerplate claim that we Protestants value Scripture over Tradition.  “Sola Scriptura!” and all that.  However, while we negate the authority of overt Tradition, we also neglect the role of covert Tradition, which can blind us to its effects, allowing us to make unintentionally deceptive claims about ourselves.  As I've said before, it isn't a question of Tradition or not, but which Tradition.

What would be nice, although it would be difficult for many of the faithful, is a full confession of our hidden Tradition, comprised of many traditions.  The claim that we have no Tradition, or that we read Scripture without the influence or interference of Tradition, is to fall into an objectivist trap.  Objectivism, here, means an unmediated access to the full and true meaning of the texts of Scripture in the original languages.  No one who has fluency in the scholarship of hermeneutics holds this position, but it isn't quite a strawman, as it is often used in the charged rhetoric of the pulpit.  Regardless of if the theologically savvy in the congregation are able to see through such bluster, there are many who receive statements like these as authoritative truth.  We owe it to them to be honest about these things, plus it will give us more room for ecumenical endeavors across the Protestant-Catholic-Orthodox divides.

With that said, what are our hidden traditions that comprise our covert Tradition?  This list is by no means exhaustive.  I may need to make this an official series.  Comments are welcome for adding to the list.

1) Sola Scriptura: this is, in my mind, the biggest hidden tradition, which forms the substructure for many (if not all) of the others.  Put frankly, the teaching of sola Scriptura is not found in the Scriptures.  Certainly, the inspiration of the Scriptures are attested within (2 Tim. 3:16-17), but, as I've argued before, this isn't a passage that limits inspiration to only those Scriptures.  Such an argument needs to be made on other fronts, from other texts within Scripture.  In fact, in the passage’s context, it is Scripture as used by Timothy, a bishop in apostolic succession from Paul, that has the powers listed therein.  The verses were not meant to be used for the foundation of “soul competency” (a rather curious addition to much of the Reformed world, imported as it is from the Baptists).  While the Scriptures consistency hold a high view of themselves, or rather those who wrote or were quoted in the Scriptures do, there isn't a sustained argument within them for their exclusivity, authority-wise.  To hold sola Scriptura as a foil against Tradition is rather like shooting ourselves in the foot.  It is a tradition, one necessary maybe for the Reformation to arise and continue, and it should be understood as such and scrutinized by its own premises.

2) The Primacy of the Masoretic Text over the Septuagint: I am a Hebrew teacher.  I love the language and I love the work of the Masoretes (the “tradition bearers”), all except the qamets hatuf.  However, the Protestant insistence on viewing this text tradition as inspired, while negating such a status for the LXX or the Peshitta or the Vulgate, does not actually arise out of the Scriptures themselves, and was almost a theological novum in the Reformation period (the correspondence between Sts Jerome and Augustine being, arguably, the first appearance of such).  I have heard, although I cannot verify, that Luther preferred the MT (with its lack of so-called Apocrypha) because Hebrew was the original language, so it must be the closest to what the authors originally wrote.  If that is the case, then modern textual history criticism complicates this greatly: many scholars believe there were multiple textual Vorlage extant, in use, and authoritative in Jesus’ day and prior.  This is why, for example, we have two texts of Jeremiah with significant differences (one preserved in MT, one in LXX, and both -- if I remember correctly -- preserved in the DSS).  First-century Judaism didn't seem to bother much with the problem, except as a foil pitting Palestinian and diaspora communities against each other, honor-wise.  Why, then, privilege one over the others?  At some point, all the Vorlage were in Hebrew, marking Luther’s (supposed) point moot.  The Scriptures themselves don't express a preference one way or the other, except that many of the OT quotations in the NT are from some form of the LXX (but this, itself, is complicated by many, many factors such as extant hermeneutical strategies at the time of composition/editing).  The quest for the original (text, Church, Jesus, whatever) has usually shown that we can retrieve no such Ur-moment without considerable, and sometimes bizarre, scholarly reconstruction (the Q tradition comes to mind here).  All of this to say that the privileging of one text over another is a matter of tradition: which texts does the community use and recognize as being authoritative, either in a primary or ancillary way?  Most Protestants, at any rate, don't use the original MT, but an eclectic text that sometimes privileges readings from other text families over the Hebrew.  In the end, the Protestant Bible is a scholarly tradition that, like all good traditions, is still in flux and under great debate.

3) Protestants value Scripture in worship more than the liturgical traditions: leaving aside Anglicans, who in the BCP are the most consistent in their expression of the tradition, this one irritates me the most.  Now, in my denomination -- itself a wildly non-, if not un-, Scriptural tradition -- we do get a fair amount of Scripture in the corporate worship service (none dare call it the Liturgy), as we sing the Psalms exclusively.  However, the text read for the sermon is often short, often fails to have an OT or Epistle lesson as well (no lectionaries here!), and is often out of context from surrounding Scripture (think of the visiting preacher who chooses their own text every week).  What we actually value is the “Word preached,” which is to say, the uninspired interpretation of the Scriptures offered as authoritative because it comes from the pulpit.  By what authority does this person exposit the Scriptures and dare to call it the “Word preached”?  By the authority, not of the Scriptures which grant no such authority nor could they, but by the Church who ordained the person to such a role.  What is being preached is tradition based on the Scriptures, or at least based on their interpretation of that tradition and those Scriptures.  Where did they get the interpretation?  Maybe from insight while reading and studying them?  True, but this is a claim to some sort of inspiration from the Spirit; albeit a lesser level than the Apostles and the Prophets (who Scripture explicitly says are the foundation of the Church -- these are not contiguous with the Scruptures themselves).  Maybe they get the interpretation from scholarly or pastoral commentators?  Well, where did that come from?  It's turtles all the way down.  What might be claimed, and this is a dangerous claim for a Protestant to make, is that all interpretation of Scripture comes from, and adds to, the Tradition.  Tradition is inescapable.  This is why, I think, a post like this is so important: we need to be up front about our Tradition, about the traditions it is based on, and why we accept these specific traditions and not others.

More could, and should, be listed.  The point, though, even if I've misunderstood my own traditions, is that Tradition, or better, an authoritative, Holy Tradition is inherent in the very fabric of the Church.  It can, as well, be corrupted if not joined to the salvific presence of the Holy Spirit.  The genius of Protestantism, I think, is its ability to examine its own traditions, even foundational ones like sola Scriptura, and correct its course.  (The secret, of course, is that Catholics and Orthodox have the exact same genius.)

No comments: