In my most recent post here on the blog, I pointed readers to a Christianity Today article that suggested “most American evangelicals hold views condemned as heretical by some of the most important councils of the early church.” In responding to this news, I noted how Christians need to take more seriously the history of the Church’s teachings.

What I mentioned just briefly here I elaborate on at length in a post for First Things. I suggest that one of the contributing causes to the re-emergence of heretical notions in contemporary Evangelicalism is a failure to proper understand the Reformation teaching of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). Rather than understanding it to mean that the Bible is alone authoritative, we somehow seem to have convinced ourselves that it means a solo-reading of Scripture is authoritative. As I explain at First Things, “We are right to trust in Scripture alone; but it is foolhardy to read Scripture by ourselves.”

To that end, I urge my readers to hold up their individual readings of Scripture to the scrutiny of the reading of the wider Church. It’s not because the Church has authority over the Scriptures (it doesn’t) but rather because the Church defended those things which are taught by Scripture.

We don’t follow the theological pronouncements of the Church merely because such and such a person says we should. Bishops and councils, after all, can err (remember the Robber’s Council?). But certain pronouncements—like the theological statements of the Ecumenical Councils—have long been recognized by the Church at large as true and faithful understandings of Scripture. They have codified important Scriptural truths—on the Nature of Christ, for example, and on the Personhood of the Holy Spirit—and so we refer to them as authoritative. That’s how the Nicene Creed came to be. These pronouncements do not invent new dogma not found in the Scriptures; instead, they clearly and carefully reproduce the teachings of Scripture. Consequently, they rightly norm our interpretation of the Scriptures. It’s Tradition in service to Scripture, not Tradition on the same level as Scripture.

This is, I suggest, a more accurate understanding of the Reformation understanding of the role of Tradition in the Church. I wrap up the article with some words from Melanchthon:

Philipp Melanchthon explains the Lutheran position well: “Let the highest authority be that of the Word which was divinely taught,” he explains. “Thereafter that church which agrees with that Word is to be considered authoritative.” And again: “Let us hear the church when it teaches and admonishes,” he writes, “but one must not believe because of the authority of the church. For the church does not lay down articles of faith; it only teaches and admonishes. We must believe on account of the Word of God when, admonished by the church, we understand that this meaning is truly and without sophistry taught in the Word of God.”

Read the whole thing here: “Misreading Scripture Alone: How We Ended Up Heretics.”


As a side-note, Christianity Today’s managing editor Ted Olsen and I have a discussion in the comments section of my First Things article about what the recent survey does (or doesn’t) say about Roman Catholics’ and Mainline Protestants’ own heretical leanings. My argument in summary? The numbers don’t tell us anything conclusive about these other groups. Watch me crunch the numbers there.