Tradition in Trinitarianism

All Protestant believers descended from the Reformation recognise the primacy of Scripture to rule on all matters of faith and practice. We reject the Romanist view that Scripture is to be interpreted through the Magisterium, and the Magisterium through tradition.

Unfortunately, believers of our persuasion may mistakenly come to think of our doctrine as ‘tradition-free’. We may imagine that only Catholics use tradition for their doctrine; we biblicists need nothing of the sort.

This would be a profound mistake, and it would exacerbate the chestless Christianity so prevalent around us – churches without judgement. Understanding the crucial role of tradition in our judgement is vital for the health of the same.

Take the doctrine of the Trinity. Orthodox Protestant believers hold the doctrine of the Trinity as one of the fundamentals of the faith, and rightly so. But what does the Bible, by itself, teach on this doctrine?
1. The Bible teaches that the Father is God.
2. The Bible teaches that the Son is God.
3. The Bible teaches that the Spirit is God.
4. The Bible teaches that the Father is not the Son.
5. The Bible teaches that the Son is not the Spirit.
6. The Bible teaches that the Spirit is not the Father.
7. The Bible teaches that there is only one God.

Those seven statements summarise what the Bible explicitly affirms about God. Once we begin speaking of the tri-unity of God, of the three Persons united in one God, we have left pure exegesis and moved into systematic theology. Here the truth of what Scripture affirms and what it negates is harmonised and systematised. Those hyper-biblicists who point out that the word ‘trinity’ is not found in the Bible are correct in what they affirm, but wrong in what they deny. (The word Bible is not found in the Bible either – does that mean the Bible does not contain the Bible?) We always have to move beyond the biblical data and systematise it, arrange it, and explain it in light of other Scripture. And when we do this, we do not start inventing theological words out of thin air. We use words such as trinity, persons, essence, generation, spiration, co-eternal, autotheos, because these are words developed over the centuries to help explain the biblical data. They are part of a theological tradition. Tertullian is the first to begin using the word ‘trinity’. The Nicene Creed in 325, and its revision at Constantinople in 381, gives us a framework to use. The words of the Athanasian Creed summarise biblical data in theological form and tell us, “We can say this of God, but not that, we may say it this way, but not that way…” The post-Reformation confessions had nothing to modify when it came to the received Trinitarian orthodoxy of the Catholic church, and continue to use its categories.  We depend on this theological tradition to make sense of the biblical data.

In fact, the writers of these creeds went beyond systematic theology into the realm of philosophy. Using the categories of ousia (being, essence) and hypostasis (subsistence, instantiation), these thinkers borrowed from Greek philosophy to attempt to relate and explain the biblical data. God was one ousia (Latin = essentia), but three hypostases (Latin = persona). Every time you hear someone say that God is one Being, but three Persons, he or she is really relating an explanation rooted in tradition.

Now it happens to be so good an explanation that I doubt it can or will ever be improved upon. The explanation of the data has come to be known as Nicene orthodoxy, or orthodox Trinitarianism, and a deviation from it is rightly regarded as heresy. But my point here is that this explanation, while the best explanation of the biblical data, is a product of a long tradition of Christian interpretation, theology and philosophy.

Of course, no tradition is infallible. The tradition is always to be tested with Scripture. Where the tradition is clearly shown to be wrong (such as the tradition of baptising infants), it must be dropped. But without any tradition, you do not even have a starting point to begin the critique. You don’t even have a vocabulary to begin understanding concepts in the Bible. You have an avalanche of biblical data. Rather, you receive a tradition, and once in it, you are able to test it, and evaluate if it is faithful to Scripture.

We are deeply indebted to tradition. We rely on it so often it has become invisible to us. For the Christian believer, tradition is not authoritative, but it is indispensable.

  3 comments for “Tradition in Trinitarianism

  1. paul
    October 10, 2016 at 9:22 pm

    You seem a bit off the mark here to me. Isn’t there a difference between trying to formulate theological explanations of the scriptural data and beliefs and practices which are not taught in scripture but rather are handed down as tradition?

  2. David
    October 11, 2016 at 7:48 am

    There is certainly a difference between a faithful explanation of the Scriptural data and handing down extra-biblical teaching. There the difference is the fidelity to Scripture. My point is, both groups have to use tradition. The second group uses it to perpetuate a lie, and uses its antiquity as its authority. The first group, even though its authority is Scripture, has to rely on tradition when formulating theological explanations. It does not re-invent the wheel every time, but turns to those words, ideas, and concepts that have already been suggested. It does not hold these to be more authoritative than, say, those seven biblical affirmations about the Godhead. But in explaining those seven statements, each generation of Christians that holds to the final authority of Scripture is leaning on tradition to assist in the explanation.

    • paul
      October 11, 2016 at 3:39 pm

      My thought would be that Protestants traditionally would not categorize theological formulations as “tradition”. I accept your point, but just wonder about applying the word tradition to two different processes – preserving the work of previous generations in explaining scripture vs. preserving beliefs and practices of previous generations that are not found in scripture. Thanks for your article and reply to my question.

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