This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book on the Holy Spirit.
In this post I said that the Bible is the foundational authoritative source for right thinking about God. In this post, we will look at the consensual tradition of the church represented in the ancient councils and the recognized orthodox theological interpreters of the faith across the centuries as a secondary source for right thinking about God. We will see that the Holy Spirit not only inspired the writing of the Bible, but he also inspires the reading and interpretation of the Bible, which is the basis for church tradition, which is better called “The Great Tradition” that is the shared lineage of all Christians.
The Need for Tradition: Interpreting the Bible
Many Christians—especially Protestants—are uneasy about the idea of church tradition as an authoritative source for accurate understanding of God and worship. If the Bible is the inspired Word of God and sufficient for salvation, why do we things like church tradition and creeds? Does following church tradition not violate the Bible’s commands to not add to the Scriptures (Deut. 4:2 and Rev. 18–19)?
The answer to the overall objection to tradition is rather simple: we need church tradition because the Bible—as a text—requires interpretation. Take, for example, the command to remember the Sabbath to keep it holy (Ex. 20:8–11)? Can we wash dishes on the Sabbath? Can we go for a walk? Can we get out of bed? Can we go to the grocery story? Watch football? Play with the kids? Secondly, when does the Sabbath begin and end? The answer to this question was not as clear for those living in a time without global clocks, time zones, and digital devices. In sum, the command to rest on the Sabbath needs interpreted. Even further, it is only on the basis of the church’s theological tradition that we understand why Sunday, rather than the Sabbath, became the Christian holy day. As one writer once said, the Bible sometimes gives us all the ingredients, but doesn’t always tell us how to bake the cake.
Tradition is the result of moving beyond what a text says and arriving at what it means. Tradition is founded on the conviction that the Holy Spirit is just as active in inspiring the reading of Scripture as he was in inspiring the writing of Scripture (Heb. 4:12 and 2 Tim. 3:16). When the worshipping community arrives at an interpretation by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that interpretation becomes tradition. The Holy Spirit not only gives God’s people the Word of God, but also helps us to understand what it means and apply it in our times. It is as Scott Swain writes, “The Spirit who enables and sustains our reading of Holy Spirit also provides a community to aid us in our reading.” The role of tradition, then, is to preserve the integrity of the original meaning of Scripture with the help of the Holy Spirit. By recognizing the Great Tradition of the Church and entering into dialogue with those who came before us in the effort to live faithfully, we are aided greatly in our own efforts.
The Bible Itself the Product of Tradition
It is important to remember that the Bible itself is the product of tradition. To deny tradition is to cut off the branch on which the Bible itself sits. Jesus told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would teach them all things and bring to their remembrance all that Jesus taught them (John 14:26). The writing of the New Testament is the fulfillment of that promise. The Holy Spirit was faithful to come alongside of the apostles and guide them in both recording what Jesus said, but also helping them understand what Jesus said and what they witnessed in Jesus of Nazareth. While the canon of the inspired, infallible Word of God is closed, it does not mean that it is the only source of illumination.
Scripture First (Prima Scriptura)
Even though the Holy Spirit still speaks in and through the church, the Scriptures are in a unique category of divine revelation. As we explored in the previous chapter, the Bible is the inspired, authoritative, inerrant, sufficient, united, Word of God. Tradition, while in the category of divine revelation and affirming that the Holy Spirit still speaks to illumine our understanding, is not equivalent to the Bible in its authority. While Scripture and tradition are meant to be complimentary and work together, Scripture remains the primary and final authority. This means that tradition must be measured against scripture and that tradition can never add to the canon of Scripture.
The key distinction of the revelation through tradition is that the Holy Spirit led the church in the discernment process when dealing with wrong teaching. When we look to tradition for teaching on the Holy Spirit, we are assuming that the faithful community of Christians were under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in arriving at their interpretive conclusions. Relying on the traditions of the church as an authority on Christian teaching is by no means replacing the Scriptures with the teachings of man; rather, it is believing in and relying upon the faithfulness of the Holy Spirit to speak in and through the church in history. Embracing church tradition is an exercise in faith that God did not fail in guiding his people in truth in the face of false teaching through the centuries.
Is Tradition Reliable and Authoritative?
Believing that the Holy Spirit was faithful to guide the church in truth through the centuries means that church tradition does, in fact, have authority. The doctrine of the inspiration of scripture says that since the Scriptures comes from God, they have in themselves the authority of God. Likewise, the guidance and teaching of the Holy Spirit through the ages of Christianity has authority because the interpretations of the Scriptures upon which tradition is based are inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Do We Need Creeds and Councils?
Within the first few hundred years of the church, there were several teachings that popped up that were incongruent with the convictions and beliefs of the spirit-filled, worshipping community. Take, for example, the heresy of Arianism which denied the divinity of Jesus. At the time of Arianism, the church did not have a definitive statement on the divinity of Jesus, but they knew that they worshipped him in the Spirit as the divine Son of God. The Arian challenge to the divinity of Jesus forced the church to revisit the scriptures for support for their worship of Jesus. The Holy Spirit then led the (whole) church in interpreting passages from scripture that taught that Jesus was, in fact, the divine Son of God. The result of that processes was the Nicene Creed, which became the definitive declaration of the church’s witness to the divinity of Christ. The beliefs held by all Christians are enshrined in these early councils.
Christianity is not just a biblical religion; it is also a historical religion. God showed up in time and space among witnesses. The Bible is the recording of that witness. The New Testament is built on the authority of what the apostles witnessed first-hand in Jesus of Nazareth. This means that councils were not deciding what was right and what was wrong. They were not determining orthodoxy. Rather, the early councils of the church were working out—with the help of the Holy Spirit and in accurate and faithful language—how to best describe what they inherited from the apostolic witness and the earliest worshipping communities.
Which Creeds and Which Councils?
There have been dozens of church councils which have produced dozens of Christian creedal statements through the centuries. Are they all authoritative, or only some of them? For all Christians, the only councils that are considered authoritative for all believers are the ones that were developed with representation from the whole church. The first council of this type was the Jerusalem Council from Acts 15. That council—which was attended by leaders from every region of the early church—decided that Gentile Christians were not required to observe the Mosaic Law of the Jews. In other words, the church had to come together to interpret the teachings of Jesus to arrive at an answer for a new problem.
A key dynamic of that council is that the entire church was represented by those in attendance. Leaders from whole church were there. Global representation is the determining factor for authority. The final decision, or decree, had to be a proclamation of the unified, collective body of Christ. Kevin Vanhoozer writes,
Church councils are called at particular times and places where decisions about something vital to the story of redemption have to be made in order to preserve the integrity of the gospel and the unity of the church (e.g., that charge that the Son is the highest created being as refuted by the homoousios of the Council of Nicaea). They reflect the recognition that authority is vested in the whole church, not simply a monarchy or hierarchy. “Catholicity” means the whole congregation of the faithful.
The councils that meet the criteria of representation from the entire church are:
- The First Council of Nicaea (325 AD)
- The First Council of Constantinople (381 AD)
- Council of Ephesus (431 AD)
- Council of Chalcedon (553 AD)
- Second Council of Constantinople (553 AD)
- Third Council of Constantinople (680–681 AD)
- Second Council of Nicaea (787 AD)
These authoritative councils, then, are what we mean by “The Great Tradition.”
Because Christianity is a historical faith, we need tradition and doctrine because the Bible needs interpreted. As we believe that the Holy Sprit inspired the writing of the Bible, we also believe that the Holy Spirit inspires the reading of the Bible. The danger of relying on the Bible alone as the sole, authoritative source of divine revelation and thereby neglecting the Great Tradition is evidenced in the emergence of pseudo-Christian cults, and the ever-lengthening list of Protestant denominations under the banner of a historic faith that was intended to be known in the world and set apart for its unity by its founder.
 Scott R. Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and Its Interpretation (London: T&T Clark, 2011), 100.
 John 1:1
 See Luke 1:1–4 John 1:1–4.
 The “whole church” typically is divided into the Latin speaking church in the West and the Greek speaking church in the East.
 Kevin Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016) 135.