Where Does Ultimate Authority Lie?
There is a science in theology and in biblical studies that we call hermeneutics. It is the science of biblical interpretation. It teaches objective principles and rules that govern our treatment of the text, lest we turn the Bible into a piece of clay that we can shape and form for our own desires, as the Pharisees did. At the heart of the science of hermeneutics in Reformed theology is the regula fidei, or “the law of faith,” which says that no portion of Scripture must ever be set against another portion of Scripture. The first assumption here is that all of Scripture is the Word of God. The second assumption is that God does not speak with a forked tongue, that what He reveals in His Word is always consistent. It is sometimes said consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. If that adage is true, we have to say that the tiniest mind to be found is the mind of God. However, I believe consistency is the sign of clarity of truth, and God’s Word is consistent with itself.
For a glaring example of pitting one portion of Scripture against another, we need look no farther than Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. When Satan tried to seduce Jesus, he quoted Scripture to Him. He took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem and dared Him to leap off, saying, “He shall give His angels charge over you,” a quotation from Psalm 91:11 (Matt. 4:6). He was saying to Jesus: “Throw Yourself down. Nothing bad will happen because God has promised that His angels will catch You.” But Jesus replied, “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the LORD your God’ ” (Matt. 4:7; Deut. 6:16). Jesus said: “Satan, you’re violating the rule of faith. You’re operating with a poor hermeneutic. You’re setting Scripture against Scripture. The Bible says I am not to tempt God. If I am to be obedient to that dictum, I cannot acquiesce to your suggestion.” He did not allow Satan to tempt Him to act on one verse of Scripture ripped from the context of the entire Word of God.
That is the kind of thing Jesus was dealing with in His dispute with the Pharisees and scribes. Their traditions were opening all kinds of loopholes to permit people to get out from under the clear teaching of the truth of God. For this reason, He said, they were “making the word of God of no effect through [their] tradition” (Mark 7:13).
The biggest theological controversy in church history was the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. On the surface, it seemed as if the whole controversy was about one doctrine—justification by faith alone, which is the gospel itself. When Martin Luther was brought into disputes with the princes of the church, they reminded him that his understanding of justification was not the traditional understanding, that the church long had explained justification in different categories. But Luther simply said: “Here is what the Bible says. My conscience is held captive by the Word of God. I must submit to Scripture, not to man-made traditions.” So, the secondary issue was the question of authority.
Where does ultimate authority lie? Is it in the Scriptures alone or is it in the Scriptures and tradition? If it is in both Scripture and tradition, tradition trumps everything by giving the binding interpretation of Scripture. So, for all practical purposes, there are not really two sources of authority, Scripture and tradition, but one, tradition, which becomes more important than the Word itself.
I do not understand how any sentient creature could read the New Testament teaching, particularly Paul’s words in his letter to the Romans about justification, and draw from it anything that resembles the Roman Catholic doctrine, which is based on tradition. But it is not only Roman Catholics who fall prey to this problem. We all do. We all tend to give our traditions more weight than Scripture. It is easy for us to look back and say, “Shame on the Pharisees,” “Shame on the rabbis,” or “Shame on the medieval theologians of Rome.” But we need to look no farther than our own hearts. The final arbiter of all theological and moral debates must be the Word of God.
This excerpt is adapted from the Saint Andrew’s Expositional Commentary on Mark by R.C. Sproul.