The word "tradition" comes from the Latin term traditio, which can be understood to mean both the "act of handing over" and "what is actually handed over." The idea is found in the New Testament itself, as when Paul speaks of handing over to the church at Corinth teachings about Jesus Christ that had originally been handed over to him (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). The mainline reformers believed that the Bible had been honored, interpreted, and applied faithfully in the past and that Protestant theologians were under an obligation to take their reflections into account as they interpreted the Bible in the present day.22 Luther insisted that tradition—understood as ideas inherited from the past—operated in a ministerial, not magisterial, mode, serving not directing the church.
There is genuine disagreement within Protestantism over the relation of the Bible and tradition. The Anabaptist wing of the Reformation argued, not entirely without justification, that the only consistent way in which the sola Scriptura principle could be applied was to limit Protestant belief and practice to what was explicitly taught in scripture. Since the practice of infant baptism was not mentioned in the Bible, it was therefore to be rejected as unbiblical. Similar anxieties were expressed by some radical writers about the doctrine of the Trinity.
The mainline reformers, such as Luther and Calvin, held that upholding the supreme authority of the Bible did not mean rejecting the church's past history of biblical reflection as a God-given resource to help with its present-day interpretation.23 As we noted earlier, Luther styled his reforming program at Wittenberg as a return to "the Bible and Augustine" and regarded Augustine as something of a theological lodestar. Luther's colleague Philip Melanchthon developed similar arguments, most notably that the Reformation could be seen as a return to the consensus of the early church, especially as found in the writings of Augustine and Ambrose. Calvin insisted that the Reformation was about a return to the doctrinal purity of the early church, corrected as necessary against the Bible. Like Luther, he had an especially high regard for Augustine of Hippo.24
The fundamental idea here is that the past can be a resource for the present. Where radical writers such as Sebastian Franck dismissed patristic writers such as Augustine as servants of anti-Christ, mainline Protestantism valued them and saw itself as a continuation and expansion of all that was good about the early church. This allowed early Protestants to make a critical apologetic point. In response to their Catholic critics who declared that Protestantism was an innovation—
where was your church before Luther?—they replied that they stood in continuity with the early church. The Catholic church, they argued, had itself distorted the early church's teachings during the Middle Ages.
At the Council of Trent (1546), Catholicism responded by arguing that Protestantism had lost its theological moorings. It valued the Bible, which was good in itself, but failed to recognize that the church possessed unwritten traditions, passed down from one generation to the next, on central themes of the Christian faith. The principle of sola Scriptura simply cut off Protestantism from these necessary truths, and hence from the full riches of the Christian faith. Trent developed a "two-source" theory of tradition that regarded the Bible and unwritten tradition as sources of equal value for doctrine and morals. By denying tradition as a source of revelation independent of the Bible, Protestantism had cut itself off from the apostolic period, and hence from Christ himself.25
Protestant attitudes to tradition are deeply revealing about the movement's self-understanding. Mainline Protestantism was emphatic that it was not a new church brought into existence by the circumstances of the sixteenth century. It represented a reform and renewal of Christianity, implying and affirming continuity with the great historic tradition of Christian faith and stretching back through the patristic era to the apostles themselves. Protestantism saw itself as a purified and renewed vision of Christian identity and pointed to historical landmarks in the past—such as the Pelagian controversy—that indicated that a similar process of criticism and regeneration was built into the fabric of faith.26
Anabaptists, however, preferred not to speak of the "reformation" of the church, in that this implied that a Christian church existed before the Reformation—a belief that Luther and Calvin regarded as historically and theologically self-evident and unproblematic. For more radical Protestants, the church needed to be re-created from its very foundations. This Promethean reconstruction of the church from ground zero was better expressed as a "restoration" of the church rather than a "reformation."
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