The Danger of Reformed Traditionalism

The New Testament speaks of inspired apostolic tradition, which is good, and non-inspired religious tra­dition, which is often bad. This data should make us wary of any non-inspired ecclesiastical tradition that competes with or invalidates the supreme authority of Scripture. In this post, I’ll note the tendency of becoming over-infatuated with a good tradition and the tendency of reacting to modern errors by relying more on one’s favorite tradition rather than Scripture. Both of these tendencies can make good people resistant to changes in their tradition that are biblically warranted. Moreover, they can subtly influence one’s hermeneutic so that the Bible is read through the lens of the tradition rather than the tradition through the lens of the Bible.

Religious Tradition: the Good and the Bad

The NT employs the Greek παραδοσις (paradosis) to refer to religious teaching that has been handed down orally or in writing, commonly known as “tradition.” One finds examples of both good and bad tradition. Inspired apostolic tradition is viewed in a positive light (1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:13). Non-inspired ecclesiastical tradition is usually viewed in a negative light  (Matt. 15:1-9; Gal. 1:13-14; Col. 2:8). The danger of non-inspired tradition is its potential for distorting, invalidating, and even supplanting biblical truth. This would hold true not only of non-inspired Jewish tradition but also of non-inspired Christian tradition.

Putting Tradition under Scripture

The framers of the Westminster Confession of Faith were well aware of this danger and addressed it unambiguously:

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture (1.10).

All synods or councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore, they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice; but to be used as a help in both (31.3).

Although the second paragraph cited above is not included in the 1689, the first paragraph is. So our Particular Baptist forefathers concurred with their Paedobaptist brothers on the supremacy of Scripture and the subordinate nature of religious tradition. The former was to be our “rule of faith and life”; the latter, “a help in both.”

Reformation Today

Throughout the last several decades many evangelical churches in America have been engaged in a process of reformation that is in some ways analogous to the great Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Like the early Protestant churches, a number of churches today are reforming in doctrine, in worship, and in church government. In these and other respects, today’s reformation is similar to the Reformation of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, except on a smaller scale.

In other respects, however, these two reformations differ. For example, the Reformers lived in a context in which there was an overemphasis on the authority of the church and an under-emphasis on the priesthood of the believer (which is related to liberty of conscience). In our day it seems to be the reverse. Today there appears to be an overemphasis on the priesthood of the believer (i.e., individualism) and an under-emphasis on the importance and authority of the church. In the 16th century, the Reformers had to correct a distorted gospel, which attempted to make good works the instrument of justification, by restoring simple faith to its proper place. Today, we have to correct the perversion of grace and faith (i.e., Easy-believism) by an emphasis upon the necessity of good works as the fruit of saving faith.

There are other differences we could highlight. But there is one in particular upon which I’d like to focus our attention. This distinction between the Protestant Reformation and our modern reformation is subtle. But I believe it is an important distinction and worthy of our consideration.

To the Prophets and the Apostles!

One of the hallmarks of the Protestant Reformation was a movement away from traditionalism and a return to the Scriptures as the ultimate authority of the Christian church. This wasn’t a complete rejection of church tradition or legitimate human authority. Rather, it was a conscious effort to reestablish the primacy of Scripture in matters of faith and practice and to subordinate all church tradition to the teaching of Scripture.1 It was this restored focus upon Bible’s authority and teaching that gave birth to the Latin phrase, sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone). It also promoted the principle ecclesia reformata semper reformanda est secundum verbum dei (i.e., “the Reformed church is always being reformed by God’s word”).

To the Reformers and the Puritans!?

How does this differ from our modern reformation? Most Reformed churches today continue to affirm the principles of sola Scriptura and semper reformanda. However, alongside that affirmation, there is, I believe, a renewed emphasis upon historical tradition, particularly the Protestant Reformed and Puritan traditions. This renewed interest in the Reformed tradition is seen in the resurgence and republication of Reformed literature. Think, for example, of all the good Reformed and Puritan books that have been reprinted and republished by publishers like Banner of Truth Trust and Soli Deo Gloria. And many theologians today are publishing articles and books that analyze and expound this Reformed tradition—Luther’s doctrine of justification; Calvin’s doctrine of sacraments; the Puritan regulative principle of worship, etc.

Furthermore, there has been the republication of the great Reformed confessions and catechisms. This renewed interest in the Reformed creeds has coincided with the emergence of evangelical churches like ours that are studying and adopting these old creeds as doctrinal standards. In fact, many of these churches have chosen to express their commitment to and identification with this Reformed tradition by inserting the term “Reformed” in the name of the church. Thus, one can find a “Reformed Baptist Church Directory” on the Internet in which appear such names as, “Grace Reformed Baptist Church,” “Covenant Reformed Baptist Church,” or the “Reformed Baptist Church of Kansas City.” So alongside an affirmation of sola Scriptura, there is also this growing interest in and identification with the Reformed and Puritan tradition.

A Subtle Shift of Focus

As I said earlier, the Protestant Reformers were not opposed to all tradition. If you read their writings, you’ll find that they often cite the church fathers and earlier church tradition, sometimes in a positive light. For instance, both Luther and Calvin had a deep appreciation for the writings of Augustine. They quoted Augustine to demonstrate that what they were teaching was not entirely novel. But we do not seem to find among the Reformers a pronounced concern or preoccupation to be identified with the Augustinian tradition. We do not find Protestant churches springing up with the name, “The Augustinian Church of Wittenburg,” or “Grace Augustinian Church.” We do not find Luther and Calvin calling the church to return to the writings of Augustine. Rather, the Reformers were primarily concerned to take the church back not to Augustine, not to Athanasius, not to Irenaeus, but all the way back to Jesus, and to Paul, and to John, and to the other biblical writers.

By noting this contrast, I’m not implying that Reformed churches today are unconcerned with the Bible. On the contrary, one of the reasons churches like ours appreciate the Reformed tradition is because of its emphasis upon the Scripture. Along with the Reformers, we continue to affirm the principle of sola Scriptura. But here is where the danger lies: whereas the Reformers evaluated the faith and practice of the church in the light of Scripture; some Reformed leaders today seem to evaluate the faith and practice of the church in the light of the Reformed tradition, especially in light of their Reformed Confession of Faith. 

Confessionally Colored Lenses

Actually, the danger is really subtler. Few Reformed pastors today would begin their sermon by asking the congregation to turn to page 250 of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion or to chapter 14 of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Like the 16th century Reformers, modern Reformed pastors endeavor to take God’s people back to the Scripture. With a growing interest in and appreciation for the Reformed tradition, however, there can be a tendency to look at the Bible only through the lens of Reformed tradition. In other words, there is a real danger of imposing the Reformed tradition as a grid over the Bible and then insisting that every interpretation and application must agree with that tradition.

In principle no Reformed pastor or theologian would elevate his tradition to the same level as Scripture. But in practice I believe there can be a very subtle tendency in that direction. Let me give you two examples: first, consider Herman Hoeksema’s Reformed Dogmatics. This is a systematic theology written by a professor of the Protestant Reformed church. Let me quote the volume’s description from the dust jacket:

Here is a thoroughly Scriptural and Reformed exposition of the faith once delivered to the saints…. In the view of the author, there are three factors essential to a sound dogmatics.  The first is that dogmatics must be faithful to the Scriptures, and therefore thoroughly exegetical. The second is that fundamentally all of dogmatics must be theologically construed, and must therefore be theocentric. The third is that a sound dogmatics must be faithful to the Reformed creeds and to the dogma of the church (emphasis added).2

A perusal through the book demonstrates the author’s coordinate concern to base his doctrinal formulations both in the teaching of Scripture and also in the Reformed continental symbols.

A second example of this determination to remain within the confines of Reformed tradition can be found in D. G. Hart and John R. Muether, With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship. In the introductory chapter, the authors identify the purpose and method of their book. In light of what they see as wrong assumptions and practices in modern worship, they write,

We need to return to basics on worship. That is the purpose of this little book. On the basis of Scripture and Reformed confessions, we have designed a primer on what is arguably the Christian’s most important calling. A primer is defined as a short, introductory book on a single subject. This is exactly what follows—a brief overview of how Reformed theology informs the way we think about, put together, and participate in a worship service (emphasis added).3

Can you see how in both of these examples the authors want us to look at the Scriptures through the lens of Reformed tradition? Of course, they affirm the authority of Scripture. But there seems to be an underlying assumption that the only right way to interpret and apply the Bible is through the medium of Reformed creeds.4 The unfortunate result is that one can begin interpreting the Bible in light of John Calvin instead of interpreting Calvin in light of the Bible. Instead of looking at the Confession through the lens of Scripture, we begin to view Scripture through the lens of the Confession. The result is that historical theology sometimes manipulates or misuses exegetical and biblical theology. Kevin Vanhoozer’s portrayal is not too far from the mark when he remarks, “One typically begins with a doctrinal confession and then sets off trawling through the Scriptures. One’s exegetical ‘catch’ is then dumped indiscriminately into parenthesis irrespective of where the parts were found.”5

The Genetic Fallacy

It’s a genetic fallacy to assume that because the Reformed tradition is a good tradition, everything that comes out of the Reformed tradition must be good. Conversely, it’s fallacious to argue that because other traditions have weaknesses, nothing can be learned from them. What Donald Carson says about some Christian theologians and leaders is especially true of a growing number in the Reformed community: “Christian thinkers have often mistaken their own tradition for the sum of all truth.”6 I fear that this faulty assumption can slowly erode our commitment to the principle and practice of sola Scriptura, and it can dangerously elevate the authority of our Reformed tradition. Moreover, it tends to discourage or minimize any post- 16th or 17th century doctrinal development and reformation. John Frame perceptively describes this infatuation with Reformed tradition:

[Scholars] may sometimes attach themselves to some movement in the past or present that they come to regard virtually as a standard of truth. In Reformed circles, this tendency leads to a fervent traditionalism, in which, not only the Confessions, but also the extra-confessional practices of the Reformed tradition, in areas such as worship, evangelism, pastoral care, are placed beyond question. In an atmosphere of such traditionalism, it is not possible to consider further reform, beyond that accomplished in the Reformation period itself. There is no continuing reformation of the church’s standards and practices by comparing them with Scripture. Thus there is no way in which new practices, addressing needs of the present time, can be considered or evaluated theologically. This is ironic, because one of the most basic convictions of the Reformed tradition itself is sola Scriptura, which mandates continuing reformation, semper reformanda. At this point, Reformed traditionalism is profoundly anti-traditional.7

Respect, Not Reverence

I am not opposed to creeds or confessions. On the contrary, I’ve recently written a series of posts defending the use of creeds and underscoring their value to the church.8 Of all the historical creeds, I believe those of the Reformed tradition most accurately represent the teaching of Scripture. Of all the Reformed creeds, I believe the 1689 Baptist Confession is, overall, the best! To use the language commonly found in many Reformed Baptist local church constitutions, I regard “the London Baptist Confession of Faith … as an excellent, though not inspired, expression of the teaching of the Word of God.” Moreover, I not only believe in the validity and value of the Confession, but I also believe we should know and acquaint our congregation with the teaching of its doctrinal standard(s).

I am, nevertheless, sensitive to the danger of an unhealthy veneration of the Confession. As James Williamson notes, “Documents gain an unsightly prestige over time when they are foundational documents for a given body of believers. They are invested with a sense of authority and regarded as virtually untouchable by succeeding generations. We have seen this happen with the King James Version of the Bible”9 Such thinking can create the impression that the Confession is incapable of improvement or that the Confession has said everything that needs to be said or that teachings of the Bible must conform in proportion and emphasis to the teaching of our Confession. We should respect good tradition, but we should resist the temptation to venerate that tradition.10 As church historian Philip Schaff cautioned, “Symbolatry [i.e., the veneration of creeds and confessions] is a species of idolatry, and substitutes the tyranny of a printed book for that of a living pope.”11 Most of my readers rightly reject the crass traditionalism of much “KJV Only-ism.” My hope is that we’ll also be wary of a kind of “1689 Only-ism” that invalidates the primacy of the Scripture and circumvents the need for ongoing reformation.

Back to the Future – Just Not Far Enough

One way to make progress in the future is to look back to the past. This is where theological tradition and historical theology can serve an important role. “The history of the biblical period enables us far better to understand the Scriptures,” writes John Frame, “and the post-biblical history helps us far better to apply the Word to our own times. The latter helps us both to avoid the mistakes of the past and to build on the foundations laid by those who have gone before.”12 But we do wrong if we turn primarily to historical theology in our defense of the faith. I fear this happens too frequently in Reformed circles. As Nicolas Alford insightfully observes,

As modern church life has become increasingly egalitarian, democratic, and individualistic, the proverbial pendulum has swung back wildly too far. Confessional hubris has been the result. Good men have rightly fled the errors of the day, but they have found refuge in the false citadel of illegitimate confessionalism.13

Instead of “confessionalism,” we need to promote and cultivate “something close to biblicism.”14 Instead of expending the bulk of our energies exegeting the Confession and the writings of Luther, Calvin, and the Puritans, we need to go back farther in history and find the answers and solutions to modern questions and problems as they’re provided in the writings of Moses, the Prophets, and the Apostles.

Ad (Bible) Fontes!

In order to prevent our esteem for the London Baptist Confession in particular or our Reformed heritage in general from subtly weakening our commitment to sola Scriptura, I suggest that (1) we beware of the danger of traditionalism and (2) we be aware of the limitations of our own Baptist Confession. Of course, we may, to use the language of the WCF, continue using the 1689 Confession as “a help for faith and practice.” Sound theological tradition can help us avoid the errors of the past and provide a foundation of theological reflection upon which we can continue to build our understanding of Scripture and its application for today. But we do wrong if we rely primarily on historical theology for our interpretation and defense of “the faith once delivered to the saints.” Such an inordinate reliance on historical tradition (as good as it may be) will in the end result in a departure from rather than a return to apostolic truth and practice. John Murray’s warning is particularly relevant for Reformed Christians today:

When any generation is content to rely upon its theological heritage and refuses to explore for itself the riches of divine revelation, then declension is already underway and heterodoxy will be the lot of the succeeding generation…. A theology that does not build on the past ignores our debt to history and naively overlooks the fact that the present is conditioned on the past. A theology that relies on the past evades the demands of the present.”15

The theology of the past provides us with a solid foundation. But we mustn’t stop building and refining our theological reflections on and applications of Scripture. We must go farther back to the fountains (ad fontes) of all saving knowledge and truth, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. As we do, we’ll continue to respect our Reformed Confession and affirm the timeless truths contained therein. But we’ll also read the Confession through the lens of Scripture with a critical eye. Only in an atmosphere where the Bible reigns supreme and where the Reformed tradition serves the church rather than lords it over God’s people will the church mature in the grace and knowledge of Christ and effectively fulfill her mission to the world.

B.G.

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  1. For a brief overview of a Protestant view of ecclesiastical tradition in contrast with the Roman Catholic veneration of tradition and the anabaptist rejection of tradition, see Josh Dermer’s two part series, “We Have Tradition Too! Part 1″ and “We Have Tradition Too! Part 2.” []
  2. Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1966). []
  3. With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2003), 13. []
  4. The reader is invited to read these works and judge for himself. The authors engage in precious little criticism of their own tradition. This is especially true of the second book, which seems to assume that Reformed worship as defined by the Puritan symbols is the only biblical way to worship God. []
  5. “From Canon to Concept: ‘Same’ and ‘Other’ in the Relation Between Biblical and Systematic Theology,” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 12 (1994): 104, cited in Carson, The Gagging of God, 543. []
  6. The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, ), 101. []
  7. “Traditionalism and Sola Scriptura (accessed Nov 17, 2011). []
  8. See my series “On the Validity & Value of Confessions of Faith,” Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV. []
  9. “Is It Time for a New Confession?” 7. []
  10. I think John Frame reflects the proper balance when he writes, “So when the claims of a tradition are suitably modest, and that tradition facilitates the communication of the biblical Word of God, that tradition should be respected, even while being viewed with a critical eye. What we should avoid is traditionalism, such as (1) the view that once a tradition is established, it can never be changed, (2) the notion that some tradition is just as authoritative as Scripture, and (3) the notion that we should not test traditions by the Scriptures.” Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2010), 282. []
  11. The Creeds of Christendom, 6th edition, ed. David S. Schaff, 3 vols. (1931; Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1990), 1:7. []
  12. John Frame, “In Defense of Something Close to Biblicism: Reflections On Sola Scriptura and History in Theological Method,” WTJ 59:2 (Fall 1997): 271). []
  13. Emphasis his; “Confessional Imbroglio” (Unpublished paper, 2010), 18-20. James Williamson makes a similar observation: “Hand and hand with this overreacting adoration can go a traditionalism that looks back to a particular era rather than deeper into the Word of God itself for the answers to doctrinal questions and controversies of our day.” “Is It Time for a New Confession?” (Unpublished paper, 2009), 8. []
  14. See my article on sola Scriptura entitled “Something Close to Biblicism,” the title of which I borrowed from John Frame. []
  15. John Murray, “Systematic Theology,” in vol 4 of the Collected Writings of John Murray (Banner of Truth, 1982), 8-9. []
This entry was posted in Applied Theology, Biblical Studies, Confessionalism, Creeds & Confessions, Epistemology, Historical Theology, Polemics, Practical, Special Revelation, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Danger of Reformed Traditionalism

  1. Michael Wood says:

    Well said! Whereas we all have areas of which we have need to be enlightened by the Spirit through the scriptures, perhaps the Lord will be pleased to use this article to awaken others to their tendency toward the very things of which He has used you to address.

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  3. Manfred says:

    Many thanks for this well written article. I have had first hand experience with having a confession being held up as the first line of defense of a given doctrine. Confessions are good, but like a powerful dog, they must kept in their rightful place. Blessings in Christ.

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  5. yiremeyahu says:

    Thanks Dr. Gonzales! A post that I will often refer others to.

  6. Pingback: The Annoying Thing About . . . | Theologue in Uganda

  7. Dr. Bob, this is utterly fantastic. Thank you for laboring to compose this useful and encouraging essay.

  8. Scottico Veber says:

    Great article, brother.

  9. Pingback: The Danger of Reformed Traditionalism | Defending. Contending.

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