It is often thought by Protestant-Evangelical Christians that Roman Catholics are the only ones with “Tradition,” but this really couldn’t be further from the truth. Of course what differentiates us (Protestants) from Roman Catholics is that we see tradition in a ministerial way; while Roman Catholics approach ‘tradition’ through a magesterial perspective. In other words, us Protestants (at least those who admit that we have interpretive tradition in the first place) see ‘tradition’ as Scripture’s “servant;” Roman Catholics view it as its “master.” Alister McGrath provides some excellent insight on this issue; especially as it is related to Evangelical Christians (meaning all of those who hold to a ‘high’ view of Scripture). He says:

Evangelicalism celebrates and proclaims the supreme spiritual, moral, and theological authority of Scripture. At the Diet of Worms (18 April 1521), Martin Luther famously declared: “My conscience is captive to the word of God.” This powerful and bold statement resonates throughout evangelical history — a principled intention to listen attentively and obediently to Scripture, and to respond faithfully in our beliefs and actions. Yet evangelicals are aware that an emphasis upon the authority of Scripture cannot be uncoupled from the question of its proper interpretation. One of the major theological weaknesses of the “Battle for the Bible” within American evangelicalism during the 1980s was an apparent reluctance to accept that an infallible text was open to fallible interpretation. To assert the supreme authority of Scripture does not resolve how it is to be understood.

This familiar problem is often cited as the Achilles’ heel of contemporary evangelicalism. How can the validity of competing interpretations of Scripture be determined without appealing to some ground of authority that ultimately lies beyond Scripture itself? Evangelicalism, having affirmed the supreme authority of Scripture, finds itself without any meta-authority by which the correct interpretation of Scripture can be determined. This question is usually resolved politically, rather than theologically, by committees or organizations laying down how certain texts are to be interpreted. Yet this is not a new problem, nor one that is unique to evangelicalism. It has been an issue for the Protestant theological tradition as a whole. How can conflict over biblical interpretation be resolved without ultimately acknowledging certain criteria or agencies as standing above Scripture? To place any means of adjudication above Scripture is ultimately to compromise its unique authority. This realization has led to a growing appreciation of the role that engagement with the past might play in contemporary evangelical biblical interpretation and systematic theology. . . . (Alister McGrath quoted from, “John Calvin And Evangelical Theology,” ed. Sung Wook Chung, ix-x)

McGrath identifies an interesting condundrum for those of us who see tradition in ministerial ways; in other words, as Protestants and Evangelicals, we don’t have a ‘magesterium’ to tell us (with divine authority) how particular passages should be interpreted. But don’t we? As Alister, ironically alerts us to, Evangelicals, while asserting our ‘ministerial’ usage of tradition (that is if we recognize it in the first place, which most don’t); at the same time we appeal to our particular denomination’s interpretation of the text of Scripture. In a sense then, Protestants function in ‘magesterial’ ways of interpreting the text; appealing to our favorite Bible teachers (as an authority), or our denomination’s Confessions and Catechism as providing the ‘interpretive how’. Yet all along we continue to assert that ‘interpretive tradition’ is really only ‘ministerial’, or in the service of the text.

I think the only way around this problem is to humbly engage the past; understand and realize the role that it has had upon shaping the way we approach and interpret Scripture, and humbly test the shape of our “approaches” (or tradition) by what in fact “Scripture says.” Until we admit that we have interpretive tradition we will function like we don’t; and like the Catholics imbue the text of Scripture with our own preunderstandings as if they are native to the Text of Scripture (or self-same). The problem, for us Protestants-Evangelicals arises when we don’t appropriate a humble attitude in this regard; and when challenged with a variant interpretation from our own (from within the Protestant-Evangelical ‘tradition’), is that we see these Christians as “less-than” or even sub-Christian — since if they are disagreeing with my “denomination’s” (tradition) interpretation of Scripture, they really are disagreeing with Scripture itself.

I see this as a serious problem plaguing the Evangelical and Reformed traditions (with Protestantism); which has led to sectarian divisions within the Body of Christ, and sadly amongst those of us who all hold to sola scriptura.

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