Apostolic Continuity and Pelikan I

This glimpse at the intersection of Scripture and Tradition in the early church is worth thinking more about:

[Irenaeus’s] argument that apostolic tradition provided the correct interpretation of the Old and New Testament, and that Scripture proved the correctness of the apostolic tradition was, in some ways, an argument in a circle. But in at least two ways it broke out of the circle. One was the identification of tradition with “the gospel,” which served as a norm of apostolic teaching. The other was the appeal to the churches of apostolic foundation as the warrantors of continuity with the apostles. * * *

Argument in a circle or not, this definition of the criteria of apostolic continuity did propound a unified system of authority. Historically, if not also theologically, it is a distortion to consider any one of the critera apart from the others or to eliminate any one of them from consideration. For example, when the problem of the relation between Scripture and tradition became a burning issue in the theological controversies of the Western church, in the late Middle Ages and the Reformation, it was at the cost of a unified system. Proponents of the theory that tradition was an independent source of revelation minimized the fundamentally exegetical content of tradition which had served to define tradition and its place in the specification of apostolic continuity. The supporters of the sole authority of Scripture, arguing from radical hermeneutical premises to conservative dogmatic conclusions, overlooked the function of tradition in securing what they regarded as the correct exegesis of Scripture against heretical alternatives.

118-19. This seems to be a good summary of what is truly at stake in the Reformation-or at least of what both Protestant and Roman Catholic alike experienced as a real loss. If some sort of an either/or was historically necessary, the Reformers were on the right side of the immediate choice, especially in light of the recent history of the Western church at the time of the Reformation (which seems to have been reconciled, at least in part, by the RCC in the historical fallacy of picking a side and making in a normative requirement of belief). On the other hand, in the intermediate term neither choice would protect well against man-centered doctrinal and practical excesses. So, either of these choices seems to me to bring about a great loss and a victory for Satan-though temporary, a victory nonethless.

Other interesting notes: The Arian controversy broke out over the exegesis of Proverbs 8:22-31.

A sentence to keep in mind in sermon prep and in assessing the relationship between systematic and biblical theology:  “As in other cases, the transmission and translation of the biblical text introduced a greater precision than the text itself had possessed.” 246


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