Thoughts About Tradition, Scripture, and Authority

Over Thanksgiving break, I learned something about myself: I talk about faith traditions as faith traditions… a lot.

And my current faith tradition, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has turned out to be more important to me than I knew, particularly related to how and why I consider the Bible authoritative.

Why the Bible is Authoritative for Me

My wife and kids and I drove to Pennsylvania where I’m from, and Thanksgiving night, one of my brothers sat down between my father (still a fundamentalist) and me (a progressive Christian pastor) and tried to stir the pot a little.

I’ll save you the fascinating boring details where my brother thinks it’s going to come as a faith-shattering shock to either of us that Some Guy in a Youtube Video said the Biblical canon was put together at the council of Nicea in 325.

Aside from Youtube Guy With a Faith-Shattering News Flash being rather predictably wrong – says the canon was set at the Council of Rome in 382 – even the correct answer (382, Council of Rome) isn’t faith-shattering for me any more than it was for my fundamentalist dad, though for different reasons.

I think it might have been the kind of thing that would’ve been faith-shattering at one time, but at this point in my life, my faith – and my viewing the Bible as authoritative – is not dependent on the Bible being an inerrant book that was handed down by God to humankind.

For me, the Bible isn’t authoritative because it has no mistakes, or because Jesus put a divine stamp on it, or however my brother or my dad or I might have imagined the Bible came into existence prior to learning that church councils who decided the contents of the canon were a thing that existed.

The Bible is authoritative for me, at least in part, because the Bible is authoritative in my particular Christian tradition.1

Which feels weird for me, a former fundamentalist, to say, but also feels very reasonable for me, a PC(USA) pastor, to say.

“It’s Still in the Canon.”

I still remember a conversation with my seminary advisor when I learned about the pseudepigraphal2 books – specifically, books falsely attributed to the Apostle Paul, like the pastoral epistles (Timothy and Titus)3.

I wanted to learn about pseudepigrapha because of an earlier conversation my wife Kristen and I had in a Bible study at Faith Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs where we were talking about that passage in Timothy where “Paul” says “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a woman.”

We were reading Marcus Borg’s book Evolution of the Word and Borg (may light perpetual shine upon him) said Paul almost certainly did not write the pastoral epistles, and an older woman said, “Good! I never did like that verse.”

When I told my advisor I wanted to learn about which letters were and weren’t written by Paul, he said,

“So what? It’s still in the canon and you still have to deal with it.”

I was blindsided.

Earlier in my seminary career (I think), I had a conversation with my Greek professor, the Rev. Dr. James Durlesser (may light perpetual shine upon him), about biblical authority, and, if I recall correctly, he said that from one perspective, the reason the Bible has any authority at all is because Christians have collectively decided, and continue to decide it does.

While talking to my advisor, I suddenly realized the pastoral epistles’ authoritativeness does not depend on them being correctly attributed. Their authority came from their presence in the canon.

Their authority came from the church, for almost two millennia, saying they were authoritative.

This doesn’t mean women aren’t allowed to speak in the church, only that I can’t just say “Well, those weren’t written by Paul so I’ll just snip them out” and remain in the broader Christian tradition.

I can wrestle with those passages, and I can be informed by my knowledge that Paul probably didn’t write them, and I can even say “I think whoever wrote these was off-base and speaking from their cultural milieu rather than from God,” but I can’t toss them.

According to John Calvin (citing Augustine), some of the earliest versions of the creed said “I believe the church,” not “I believe in the church.”

One might reasonably say, then, that I believe in the authority of scripture because I believe the church – I believe the church when it says scripture is authoritative.4

Playing by the Rules

In a sermon or book, I think it was Bryan Zahnd, said Christianity is like baseball, in a way.5

You can have all this equipment but that doesn’t mean you’re doing it right. The Bible, in this example, and prayer, and whatever else you’ve hung onto, is the equipment, your bats and your bases, but the rules are tradition.

You can have all the equipment, he said, but unless you’re following the rules, whatever you’re playing with that equipment, it’s not baseball, or, if it is, you’re not playing it right.

Another example of this idea that I encountered in an undergraduate course was an idea from second-century church father Irenaeus, of a tile mosaic: You can take those pieces and put them together in a particular way and make them into a picture of a lion, or you can take those same tile pieces, or many of them, and arrange them differently into a picture of a fox.

In the same way, scripture verses can be arranged and interpreted in so many different ways. Christian history is littered with proof of the endless possible configurations of those Bible-verse tiles.

My undergrad professor said the creeds served as a “guide,” perhaps like the picture on the back of the puzzle that shows how the pieces are to be properly put together.

All Christians Are Part of a Tradition

After arguing that Thanksgiving night that the way we interpret the Bible is from a tradition, I spent longer than I should have trying to convince my dad that even the Bible itself is a product of tradition. It didn’t convince him, and it wasn’t really worth the effort, because a core tenet of his tradition is that his tradition is not a tradition.6

We (Protestants) have these specific 66 books and no more because we started with the Catholic tradition and its canon and did a little editing and the reformers de-canonized some books they had decided shouldn’t have been included.7

Everyone who says, “Yes, these 66 books the Reformers decided are canonical,” is part of the broader Protestant tradition by virtue of agreeing on that canon in particularly, and by (ironically) by agreeing with that tradition on the primacy of scripture.

My Tradition

I’m an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and we have a document called the Book of Confessions, which contains a number of confessions – rule books, paradigms, what-have-you, that explain how we believe scripture is rightly understand and interpreted.

In my ordination vows, the first three questions I was asked to answer in the affirmative were these:

    1. Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and Head of the Church, and through him believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

    2. Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to you?

    3. Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?

Notice the order.

Jesus Christ first.

Then scripture, as unique and authoritative witness to Jesus.

Then “the essential tenets of the reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church.”

Jesus. Scripture. Tradition.

Jesus is at the center.

Scripture as a witness to Jesus.

Tradition (the essential tenets in the confessions) as reliable expositions of scripture – as the right way to put together the mosaic, the proper way to play the game.

Essential Tenets

Something that has caused endless frustration to many who eventually left the PC(USA) is that those “essential tenets” are never explicitly defined.

That vagueness around which tenets count as essential is also what allowed me to get ordained. There are indeed a number of tenets in those confessions that seem to me essential to Christianity, and to my own faith.

Are there other traditions that have it “more right” than the PC(USA)? Probably. But I wasn’t asked if they were the best expositions; I was asked if I sincerely received and adopted them, and I did and I do.

And when I said that, I was brought, formally into a tradition: the Reformed tradition. I was brought into a tradition that takes things John Calvin said seriously – we quote him, we argue about him… I have a picture of him in my office at the church building somewhere.

I was brought into a tradition that takes scripture seriously, and one that takes the confession of 1967 seriously, and the Confession of Belhar, and 10 or so others. We don’t worship the confessions and we don’t set them above scripture, but we do take seriously their claims about how scripture works.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is a church in the Reformed tradition, and it is my church and it is my tradition.

If You “Believe the Church,” shouldn’t you be Catholic?

I don’t recall how it came up, but I told my father and brother I’m not in the PC(USA) because I think it’s the One True Church. If I was looking for the One True Church I would probably end up Catholic or Orthodox or in one of those apostolic succession traditions. But I’m not.4

Which, I suppose, is a little ironic after everything I said about mosaics and the right way to play the game, but in truth, I think the Presbyterian Church (USA) is close enough, at least theologically, to having the mosaic more or less right that if you squint you get a pretty decent idea of how it’s supposed to look.

I’m not in the Catholic or Orthodox traditions because, if we’re being honest

(a) it’s a lot of work to rearrange those pieces and get conditioned to play the game that way and adapt to a different tradition, and I know the Protestant and Reformed traditions and they’re working for me in the connection-to-God sense,

(b) I don’t think they’re as faithful to love and inclusion, particularly love and inclusion of LGBTQ people, which is an essential and non-negotiable tenet of my understanding of the Christian faith,8 and

(c) I don’t actually care very much about being in the “right” tradition.

My mom told me when I left to go to the bathroom, my dad told my brother that our conversation could have eternal consequences, which I assume means he thinks my brother and I – or at least one of us – may be bound for hell if we don’t come to the same conclusion he has.

I don’t care so much about being in the “right” tradition because I believe God is bigger than our traditions. I think God can reach us whether we’re in the PC(USA) tradition, the fundamentalist tradition, the Baptist tradition, the Catholic tradition, the Orthodox tradition, even traditions that are not Christian, and even no religious tradition at all.

I believe this because I have come to believe, as a foundational truth, something I once told a young woman who was wondering how to pray to a God she had been long ignoring: “I don’t think God is a bigger dick than we are.”

God not being a bigger dick than we are frees us up, I believe, to do what C.S. Lewis proposed in Mere Christianity:

Imagine Christianity as a long hallway, filled with doors that open to rooms (specific churches and church traditions).

It doesn’t matter quite so much to be a Christian exactly which door you go into; only that you go into it.9

This isn’t wishy-washy, anything-goes spirituality so much as it is saying each of these traditions is a valid expression of the Christian faith.

The Reformed tradition is the door I went through, though I have spent time in some of the other rooms in this hallway. The PC(USA) may not be the best, and it is certainly not the only one, but it is mine.

The Reformed tradition informs me, and it calls me, as all good traditions should, to love God and to love my neighbor.

From this room shall I endeavor to do so, with God’s help.


Take me back to where I was reading
  1. Scripture is also authoritative for me because of my own experience of scripture; in view of my finding it occasionally comforting, inspiring, and my own experience of sensing that God is speaking to me through it; and in spite of my own experience of finding it to often be a very frustrating book very much rooted in its time and the prejudices and ignorance of its time.
  2. Psuedepigraphal means somebody wrote it and said somebody more famous wrote it. Kind of like all those quotes you see about the internet written by Abraham Lincoln.
  3. The pastorals feature a writing style very different from Paul’s in his other books, and also ecclesial structures that didn’t come into existence until after his death. No, I’m not interested in that debate. If you could argue me into a corner and force me to believe beyond the shadow of a doubt Paul wrote the pastoral epistles, it wouldn’t change how they shape my theology in the slightest.
  4. One might reasonably ask, “Well if you believe the Church about the Bible, why not believe the Church about everything else the Church says? Shouldn’t you be Catholic or Orthodox? Wouldn’t that be more logically consistent?” Well, yes, it probably would, but none of us are logically consistent, not really, and if I were going to be fully logically consistent, I wouldn’t believe in the resurrection. More on that later.
  5. I’m not interested enough to find and link to it. It’s probably deep in an untranscribed sermon.
  6. Ironically, my dad is part of a Christian tradition (fundamentalism) that denies it is a tradition, but it very much has a set of rules – which biblical books are canon, how to interpret them, rules for “getting in,” like a tradition. There are ways in which he has deviated from the fundamentalist tradition, but I would argue he’s very much still in that stream and reading the Bible (mostly) by those rules.
  7. I could probably trace the details of who of the Protestant reformers was/were responsible for the Protestant tradition excluding the deuterocanonical books, but I’m doing this on my own time for fun, and I’m not especially interested in doing that right now. If you are, or you know off the top of your head, you’re welcome to drop it in the comments 😀
  8. I’m not interested in arguing this one anymore and I will delete comments inviting me to read verses they think will change my mind. I will delete those comments with extreme prejudice because believe me, I’ve read them, and I’m bored with having them come up over and over again.
  9. This was my recollection of what he said; the actual quote, linked here, differs in a way I think is appreciable, but I do not think is critically important.

About David M. Schell






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