Theological Authority and the Role of Tradition
How do we understand Scriptural authority in light of the received Catholic creeds and ecumenical councils, confessions, and particular opinions of theologians? The Scriptures are of primary importance for the believer and rest of the lot, including creeds, councils, and confessions are subsumed under this head, but how does all this work? Oliver Crisp, in his book God Incarnation: Explorations in Christology (17), brings to the foreground these issues as he writes,
“Scripture is the norma normans, the principium theologiae. It is the final arbiter of matters theological for Christians as the particular place in which God reveals himself to his people. This is the first-order authority in all matters of Christian doctrine.
2. Catholic creeds, as defined by an ecumenical council of the Church, constitute a first-tier norma normata, which have second-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine. Such norms derive their authority from Scripture to which they bear witness.
Confessional and conciliar statements of particular ecclesial bodies are a second tier of norma normata, which have third-order authority in matters touching Christian doctrine. They also derive their authority from Scripture to the extent that they faithfully reflect the teaching of Scripture.
The particular doctrines espoused by theologians including those individuals accorded the title Doctor of the Church which are not reiterations of matters that are de fide, or entailed by something de fide, constitute theologoumena, or theological opinions, which are not binding upon the Church, but which may be offered up for legitimate discussion within the Church.”
First, Scripture is the primary resting place for all matters of theological import for the believer, yet this does not mean that Scripture is alone, for it is “always read within the context of a given ecclesial community, which is, as it were, surrounded by a great cloud of theological witnesses and informed by the Christian tradition (17-18).”
Second, Catholic creeds (Nicene, Apostles’, Chalcedonian, and Athanasian Creeds) derive their authority from the Scriptures but speak as authoritative as they reflect the Scriptures. On some occasions, the creeds are distillations of biblical teaching on what a person is to believe in order to be a Christian and the basic tenets of the faith, but do not encapsulate a robust teaching on fullness of Christian doctrine. Ex. We learn in the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and that the Christian reciting the Creed is to believe in the Holy Spirit, but we are not left with anything else concerning the Spirit. Therefore, the Creed points us back to the Scriptures to learn more about the Spirit, his work, and our role in the work of the Spirit.
Third, confessional and conciliar statements are of use to their particular denominations and serve as a third-order authority as they faithfully reflect the teaching of Scripture and of the creeds. One thinks of such confessions as the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Canons of Dort, and Heidelberg Catechism), but also documents like the Book of Concord (Lutheran), and the 39 Articles (Anglican), and the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith.
Fourth, the doctrines of particular theologians are of importance but mainly to spur discussion on theological issues, even church and ethical matters. One might study Calvin on the sacraments, Luther on marriage, or Wesley on preaching and find much to commend to faithful believers. Yet, their specific opinions on matters doctrinal and theological are not to cage believers in theological wrestling matches that end up being more about opinions and less about Scripture.
This model is beautiful in that it captures the top-down hierarchy of Scripture – Creed – Confession – theologians in a succinct and clear manner. Crisp writes, “For the Church catholic, dogmatic authority is top-down affair, generated by Scripture…It is not something generated from the bottom-up, that is, from the opinions of private individuals (18).” We feel the urge to start with the most popular or provocative display of writing, whether it be a preacher of professor and tag along for the ride in their discovery of theology. Yet, for all our strivings, we often find no new model of theology but a rehashing and reshaping of the old beliefs of the past. This model at least gives us pause to think Scripturally first, and then gauge the rest of our studies upon this firm ladder which rests firmly on the ground.
Two books that engage these matters are:
Oliver Crisp, God Incarnate: Explorations in Theology, Edinburgh, U.K.: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2009.
John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Current Issues in Theology), Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.