Protestantism, it seems to me, is right in what it recognizes as the authority of tradition: tradition has a relative and limited authority which must be strictly subordinated to the authority of the word of God in Scripture.
Here are three brief examples of the Reformation position (these are just off the top of my head from having taught them more recently than other confessions; examples could be multiplied). Article 21 of the 39 Articles says that even the general councils of the church are not infallible, “forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God.” Therefore
they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.
The councils have a delegated authority, and the things they declare have no independent force or validity. As one classic commentary on the Articles put this point, Anglicans “reverence those Councils for the sake of their doctrine; but do not believe the doctrine for the authority of the councils” (G. Burnet, Exposition p. 254).
The judgments of the ecumenical councils must be drawn (“taken out”) from Scripture, and their biblical source must be openly shown (“may be declared” –though the Latin, “ostendi possint,” “able to be shown,” seems stronger).
In his dedicatory letter for the Heidelberg Catechism, Elector Frederick III boasted not of the doctrine but of the scripture references:, “My catechism, word for word, is drawn, not from human, but from divine sources, the references that stand in the margin will show.”
And the Westminster Confession, characteristically, gives the position simultaneously more substance and an incisive edge:
The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.
God speaks in Scripture in a way that judges and determines all other teachings, and this makes up our minds for us and enables us “to rest” in those sentences. Notice that Westminster enumerates the other sources of teaching: “all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits.” Some of these have legitimate authority; they may even be norms of a kind. But Scripture is the norm that norms these other norms without ever being normed by them: the voice of the Supreme Judge.
The view of authority at work in these Reformation documents is one that recognizes relative authority: a kind of sliding scale of different authorities, all of which can have their say. Perhaps Westminster lists them in descending order, with the ancient ecumenical decisions (“decrees of councils”) standing higher than the various writings of the church fathers (“opinions of ancient writers”), and your own personal opinion not negated, but standing lowest of all (“private spirits”). Scripture stands at the top of the list, or even above the list, as it has absolute rather than relative authority.
The notion of relative authority is very fruitful. Without it, authority is viewed as all or nothing, as something that must be absolute in order to exist at all. The presence of a supreme judge seems to eliminate all need for lower courts. But the Reformation (for all the variety of the way Lutherans and the Reformed developed and applied the insight, for instance in decisions about worship) worked with a fuller and more differentiated sense of the authorities that bear on our Christian life, so Reformation theology consistently hears and acknowledges other voices but places Scripture in a position of supremacy over those other voices.
Notice the difference between the classic Protestant view —sola scriptura— and the strange declension from it which has been described as solo scriptura or nuda scriptura: a total refusal to acknowledge that tradition has any sort of authority whatsoever. At the popular level, Christians with this view are in danger of making the kind of mistake that legend attributes to the destroyers of the library at Alexandria, who reasoned that “If those books are in agreement with the Quran, we have no need of them; and if these are opposed to the Quran, destroy them.” That’s a nice, clear flow chart, but the result, of course, is total destruction of all books except the Book.
Who holds such a view? I’m skeptical about the charge that most Protestants, or even most conservative evangelical Protestants who, like me, are entirely comfortable with the charge of biblicism (reserving the right to hedge its definition from extremes), have this all-or-nothing view of the authority of Bible or tradition. Most likely they retain some abiding memory of the classic Reformation view. Most likely they are aware that the Christian tradition brings us something more than just good advice. Most likely they benefit from Christian tradition’s contributions, and are aware that they are doing so. And most likely –well actually, I think this one is easier to demonstrate– they draw the same sharp line that recognizes Scripture as the supreme judge.
But there are two ways of being right about the supremacy of Scripture. One way, the classic Reformation way, is to consciously embrace the great Christian tradition and use Scripture to discern where it needs to be repaired, renewed, and revised. See above.
The other way is to maintain ignorance of everything but Scripture. And there are in turn two ways of doing this. One is to remain ignorant on purpose, on principle, bristling at every mention of creeds or of old authors and belligerently harumphing down all texts not inspired by God. This requires drawing some kind of bright line in history, earlier than which you will not go: some favorite living teacher, or Spurgeon, or Wesley, or Luther. This approach necessarily issues in anti-intellectualism, since it is a decision not to know. It’s also viciously circular since it requires buy-in to a tradition of anti-traditionalism.
But the second way of being ignorant is more benign because more accidental. If you grow up without the resources of the full Christian tradition at hand, you don’t know what you’re missing. You spend a lot of time re-inventing the wheel, and you feel like you belong with a tiny and homogeneous remnant of believers rather than to the great and bafflingly diverse company of the church of all the centuries since Christ.
This is the situation of a lot of the evangelical Protestants I generally encounter: they have the right theology of tradition, but they don’t have much actual awareness of the material they have the right theology about. It’s no good arguing with them about the status of the Apostles’ Creed or the Chalecedonian Definition or the Heidelberg Catechism (sorry to skip a millennium there), because the argument is abstract, and besides they’re already, abstractly, correct. Whatever ancient text or idea or practice you want to propose, they can tell you it’s subordinate to Scripture. Furthermore, they’re right about what they should invest their time and energy in: if you have to choose, pick the Bible over the church fathers and the Reformers.
But you don’t have to choose. Why not take it all? Why not be right and well-resourced? It’s the Protestant thing to do, after all. Scripture will still be the supreme judge, but it will be the supreme judge of more resources.