Kevin Vanhoozer’s Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology has one of the most sophisticated and nuanced Protestant approaches to the doctrine of sola scriptura and the relationship between scripture and tradition that I’ve encountered yet. As I was perusing through it the other day, I ran across this wonderful little teaser passage on Calvin, scripture, and the councils:
The Reformation was not a matter of Scripture versus tradition but of reclaiming the ancient tradition as a correct interpretation of Scripture versus later distortions of that tradition. The Reformers regarded the early church councils by and large as true because they agreed with Scripture, not because they had authority in and of themselves.
Certain critics of sola scriptura that the Reformers demythologized tradition by chasing the Holy Spirit out of the life of the church into a book. This goes too far. It is preferable to view tradition, like the church itself, as an example of what Calvin calls “external means” of grace. Tradition does not produce its effect ex opere operato; on the contrary, tradition efficaciously hands on the gospel only when it preserves the Word in the power of the Spirit. It is an external aid to faith, but not an infallible one. To speak of the ministerial authority of tradition is not espouse not a “coincidence” but an “ancillary” view of the relationship of Scripture and tradition.
Calvin honors the early church councils precisely because, for the most part, they were governed by word and Spirit: “[W]e willingly embrace and reverence as holy the early councils, such as those of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus I, Chalcedon and the like…insofar as they relate to the teachings of the faith. For they contain nothing but the pure and genuine exposition of Scripture.” (Institutes 4.9.8) However, when one council contradicts another, as Chalcedon contradicted Ephesus II, the church must return to the word as ultimate norm. Church councils have a provisional, ministerial authority. To give them absolute authority, says Calvin, is to forget biblical warnings about false prophets and false teachers (Matt. 24:11; Acts 20:21-29; 1 Tim 4:1; 2 Tim 4:3; 2 Pet. 2:1). Indeed, with regard to Ephesus II–the council that accepted Eutyches’ heresy concerning the person of Christ–Calvin offers a sobering judgment: “The church was not there.” (Ibid., 4.9.8) This haunting observation neatly reverses the medieval formula extra ecclesiam, nulla salus. Calvin might well have said: Extra scriptura et pneuma, nulla ecclesiam–“Outside word and Spirit, there is no church.”
Sola Scriptura refers to the practice of attending the Spirit speaking in the Scriptures as the final appeal in doctrinal disputes. How do we recognize the Spirit’s speaking? Church tradition enjoys the authority not of the judge but of the witness. Better: tradition enjoys the authority that attaches to the testimony of many witnesses. In this light, we many view the church fathers and church councils as expert witnesses as to the sense of Scripture in the courtroom drama of doctrine. Neither the Fathers nor the councils sit on the bench; the triune God has the final say. The task of theology is to cross-examine the witnesses in order to offer proximate judgments under the ultimate authority of the presiding judge: the Spirit speaking in the Scriptures.
To practice sola scriptura is to treat Scripture alone as the “norming norm” and tradition as the “normed norm.” A theology that practices sola scriptura recognizes the ministerial authority of tradition, namely, its ability to nurture individuals in and to hand on the apostolic faith through the church’s corporate witness. Canon may be the cradle of the Christian doctrine, but tradition is its wet nurse. —The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine, pg. 233-234
Again, that’s merely a teaser–Vanhoozer expands on each of those points at length. He shows us that the practice of sola scriptura is not a necessary recipe for historical ignorance or hopeless subjectivity in interpretation. It is a call to treat expert witnesses with all the due deference they deserve, while recognizing the true judge of the church: God in his Word.
Soli Deo Gloria