by Matt Slick
Yes, we should believe in Scripture above Church Tradition and Church Councils. Only Scripture is inspired (2 Tim. 3:16). Tradition is never said to be inspired, and church councils are filled with people who have made mistakes. Some church councils approve a doctrine were other ones don't. So, we then have to ask which Church councils are the right ones. That, it seems, depends on which church you already belong to.
Furthermore, in order to know whether not a tradition is true, there must be a standard against which it is judged. Since Scripture is the only infallible standard, then Scripture has to be what is used to judge tradition. But if that's the case, then tradition is subordinate to Scripture. Furthermore, if tradition is not judged by Scripture, then there is no real way to find out if it's true or not.
There are those who say that because the Christian church has the authority of God, it can infallibly determine which traditions are true and which are not. But this argument is dangerous because if the church becomes corrupt and submits Scripture to its interpretation, then there's no way to know if it's true or false. Nevertheless, such appeal to Church authority is sought in Scripture. Two verses used are Matthew 16:18 and John 20:23.
- Matt. 16:18, "And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it."
- "The word, "Peter," is 'petros' in the Greek. The word, "rock," is 'petra.' Petros is masculine and means a small rock. Petra is feminine and means a large rock. The feminine, "petra," occurs four times in the Greek New Testament: Matthew 16:18, 27:60, 1 Cor. 10:4, 1 Pet. 2:8. Aside from the text in question (Matt. 16:18), we see that in each of the other occurrences, petra refers to a large immovable mass of rock in which a tomb is carved out (Matt. 27:60) and is also in reference to Christ (1 Cor. 10:4, 1 Pet. 2:8). Note that Peter himself in the last verse referred to PETRA as being Jesus! If Peter uses the word as a reference to Jesus, then shouldn't we in Matt. 16:18?"1
- John 20:23, "If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained."
- "The context of John 20:23 is that Jesus was speaking to the disciples (v. 19). He breathed on them to receive the Holy Spirit (v. 22). Then they said, "have been forgiven." It is aphiami, perfect passive, "have been" forgiven. They are not forgiving but pronouncing the sins that "have been" forgiven."2
- In other words, John 20:23 is not teaching that forgiveness of sin is obtained by the authority of the church. Rather, the church authoritatively proclaims that a person sins are already forgiven due to the work of Christ. For all who trust in him have their sins forgiven.
Some say that Scripture tells Christians to follow and adhere to Church Tradition. In support of their position, they often quote three verses that speak of tradition. Let me quote them and put respond to each one.
- 1 Cor. 11:2, "Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you."
- Response: In 1 Cor. 11:2 the context appears to be where Paul is either telling the Corinthians to avoid idolatry or he is restating the tradition concerning head-coverings, authority, and prayer. There is nothing in the context about Church Tradition being authoritative.
- Furthermore, Paul mentions the traditions that he gave and that the Corinthians were to abide by them. This tradition is rooted in the apostle Paul. Since he is no longer with us, his proclamations are no longer forthcoming. They are recorded in Scripture..
- 2 Thess. 2:15, "So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us."
- Response: This is not about listening to church tradition. Instead, 2 Thess. 2:15 is referring to the second coming of Christ as is spoken of in (2:1-3). It is not and following Church Tradition as is found in Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.
- 2 Thess. 3:6, "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep aloof from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us."
- Response: The tradition Paul is speaking of here is concerning working hard and not being idle. There is nothing here about abiding by Church Tradition as is found in Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.
Church Councils and Scripture
The same thing works with the Church and Church Councils. Through history, many Church Councils have correctly represented Scripture and defined various theological creeds. These Councils were trying to understand the inspired word and declare its truths, usually against false teachings. They sought to accurately represent what God has said in Scripture. By nature, such an undertaking means that Scripture is superior to the Councils because those councils were seeking to represent what God has said in his word. This means there submitting to the word as they declare what it says. The Councils do not declare new Scripture nor do they pronounce new truths which are then said to be inspired. Instead, Church Councils recognize what is already been revealed in God's word as they define orthodoxy.
Scripture is the final authority on all things that it addresses. It is what Church Councils have appealed to in all its gatherings in the past. But, whenever they do this, they are automatically placing Scripture above Tradition and Councils. This supports the doctrine of Sola Scriptura and proclaims Scripture over Tradition and Church Councils.