Reformed Catholicity

February 3, 2015 — 3 Comments

More and more, Protestants are questioning what it means to be catholic and Reformed. After all, people like Luther were not trying to separate from the church, but reform it from the inside.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain seek to advance the discussion. They look at two different topics under the banner of biblical interpretation (sola scriptura and the role of the church’s confessions in interpretation). These two topics intersect as they are about the role of tradition.

Tradition, Tradition

“The path to theological renewal lies in retrieving resources from the Christian tradition.” They describe the tradition as a fruit of the Spirit. Scripture is the foundation, but the Scripture itself authorizes the church to build on its foundation. They (along with Bavinck) go as far as to say that the reason for laying to foundation is to build: Scripture therefore is a means to the end of church tradition.

Tradition is the living process whereby the Holy Spirit introduces us to the fullness of truth and teaches us to understand what previously we could not grasp. The apostolic deposit cannot grow, but the church’s understanding of the deposit can and must grow.

But if tradition is a work of the Spirit is tradition fallible? Allen and Swain affirm that tradition is fallible but that does not mean it is not valid. Could the concern for absolute purity lead the church to fail to honor the plenitude of God’s self-revelation? Tradition can be considered as an aspect of salvation history. God can communicate through an imperfect but genuine church, as he did through Israel in the OT.

The modern era has birthed a deistic donatistic approach to interpretation. God has only spoken in the past, so method becomes of utmost importance to discover what he said. In this line of thinking, God is not presumed to be involved in the present horizon of communication.

But God does not only communicate through perfect beings and he also continues to speak in the present. Therefore, while maintaining the priority of foundation of Scripture, they carve out an important role for tradition in the life of the church.

They also speak of the two rules of biblical interpretation: the rule of faith and the rule of love. They focus on the rule of faith arguing it is a summary of Christian doctrine and should guide interpretation as it did in the patristic and medieval era. While their description was sufficient, the rule of faith as Augustine asserts does not protect against bad exegetical decisions, so it functions more as a boundary marker, or a rail to keep your hand on, but most wonder how it functions in detailed exegetical decisions.


The book is a careful examination of the role of tradition in biblical interpretation. Sola Scriptura is not a stand-alone doctrine and does not invalidate the church’s secondary authority.

The book was at times hard to read, because of the tightness of the argument, but their comments were almost always insightful. The last chapter on proof-texting did not seem to fit as well with the rest of the book and Billings afterward felt much more conversational.

Reformed folks looking for a robust analysis of the role of tradition should heed this book, and remember that despite their applause and retrieval of tradition, the authors continually assert Scripture is the foundation and the norma normans (the rule that rules).


Patrick Schreiner

Posts Twitter Facebook

I teach New Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. I am married with three children. This blog, against all wisdom, includes anything I am interested in. That includes movies, music, theology, culture, hermeneutics, the Gospels, and politics. Feel free to comment and let me know you are reading or that you have found something helpful. I reserve the right to delete unhelpful or rude comments. Many of these posts are simply things I find interesting and therefore I am not asserting I agree with everything I link to.

Leave a Reply

Text formatting is available via select HTML. <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>