A Dialectic Dance: Scripture, Tradition, and Mike Bird

Michael F. Bird’s Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introductionet has arrived. I’m only about 130 pp into it and so far I’ve really enjoyed it. I find his style engaging and fresh, his occasional humor witty and thoughtful, and his interplay with historical thought responsible and informed.

One of the first things that grabbed me was this comment, to which I say a hearty “AMEN!”

The chief end of theology is not the accumulation of theological propositions. Instead, it is equipping of the hands to serve, the warming of the heart to love, and the arming of the mind to engage. Let us then celebrate the ‘various ways’ (Heb 1:1) that Scripture speaks to us in all its genres. Let us learn in ‘knowledge and depth of insight,’ so that we might ‘discern what is best,’ be ‘pure and blameless for the day of Christ,’ and be ‘filled with the fruit of righteousness’ (Phil 1:9-11). (p 80)

In the prolegomena he covers a lot of territory and the section titled “Sources for Theology” was especially good. This review nicely summarizes that section, but I wanted to offer more thoughts and some possible implications on the interaction between Scripture and tradition.

According to Bird, sources for theology include Scripture, tradition, nature, experience, and culture (though he admits that the latter category is not so much a “source of theology [but is] more of an embedded context in which theology takes place,” p 76). I find it odd that he leaves out “reason” as a source for theology, but in fairness I  suppose he presupposes it. And, I would like to have seen an exchange on how reason and experience work together (or sometimes against) in helping outline a coherent picture of God’s revelation to us. More on this later. As with all writing, one has to draw the line somewhere in the sand. 

He makes it clear that “the primary source for theology is God’s revelation of himself in the Holy Scriptures” (p 62), yet Bird also insists (and I believe rightly so) that theology is constructed in the context of these other “sources” for gleaning how God’s revelation in Scripture speaks to us. And so, section 1.6 (pp 62-76) seeks to highlight the amount of weight and authority these other “sources” have for the task of doing theology.

Regarding tradition, Bird notes the irony of what I would label as the evangelical tradition of “NO TRADITION EXCEPT THE BIBLE!” showing how this attitude takes on “canonical status in some churches” (p 64). Almost contemptuously Bird says  “the Bible did not fall out of the sky, bound in leather, with words of Jesus in red, written in King James English, and complete with Scofield footnotes” (p 65). (I could not help but be reminded of the coke bottle in “The Gods Must Be Crazy”). I would argue that if Bird’s apparent contempt seems unkind, it is not unfounded and perhaps even warranted in light of the sheer ignorance some evangelical circles have for any regard of and respect for the historical context out which the Scriptures came. Those who cry “NOTHING BUT THE BIBLE” are themselves steeped in a tradition that not only is narrowly focused but misses out on some important auditing tools that were essential in maintaining the purity of God’s message to us. For example, the early church was keen on Scripture being read and interpreted after the tradition of the apostalic teachings that were handed down.

Wisely noting the “symbiotic relationship between Scripture and tradition” (p 65), Bird begins to unpack how this relationship has worked out since the beginnings of the Christian faith. He offers some historically important, and I believe considerably impactful, comments that should create considerable pause for those biblicists who wrongly insist and even misapply the principle of “sola scriptura” (“only Scripture”). [Incidentally, the next section, 1.7 (see esp. pp 77-80), Bird charitably and ably critiques the “biblicism” of one of the most popular theologies to date; viz., Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology.]

First, it is well documented that the canon of the Christian Scriptures consisting of all 66 books of the Bible was not finalized until several centuries after Christ (see my 3-part series on the New Testament Canon, Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3). Yet, the Apostle’s Creed was widely recognized as a faithful summary of the Christian faith and preceded the recognized biblical canon. “Thus, in historical sequence, the ‘canon of Scripture’ is a written expression of the church’s ‘canon of faith'” (p 66). Put differently, the 66 books of the Bible were not compiled in a historical vacuum, but were vetted out by a series of criteria, one of which was a “rule of faith” or regula fidei. Concerning this rule of faith, and what I consider a fine example of this “symbiotic relationship” between Scripture and tradition, Bird opines:

The regula fidei was not an oral tradition that existed parallel to Scripture. The regula fidei was what emerged out of the preaching and teaching of Scripture in the early church. The regula fidei was both derived from Scripture and was the interpretive lens through which Scripture was to be understood. In this perspective, Scripture and tradition mutually reinforce each other. The regula fidei was the attempt to safeguard the authority of Scripture by adopting an interpretive framework sanctioned by Scripture. That took the form, not of a creed, but a general narration of the Christian story as it had been handed on in the early church. (pp 67-68)

What this suggests, at least to me, is that if I had lived in the mid- to late-2nd century as a newly converted Christian and someone shared with me a writing of Irenaeus or Tertullian that contained a narration of the Christian faith with the basic teachings that we find in the Apostle’s Creed, then that writing would have had the weight of the authority of Scripture. Why? Because that scroll aligned with and was sanctioned by the essential tenets of the Christian faith as found in the biblical canon that was inspired by God and passed on to us from the apostle’s teaching. So much for the principle “NOTHING BUT THE BIBLE!”

After warning that tradition must not be misused or even trump the teachings of Scripture (as in some Catholic teachings such as immaculate conception, papal infallibility), Bird offers a corrective to the Reformer’s “sola scripture” that is more after the spirit of suprema scriptura,  meaning that “the Bible is our primary authority, but not our only authority” (p 69). This corrective I find to be thoroughly evangelical!

This section is concluded with a call to adopt a “believing criticism,” which is to say that the “creeds, confessions, and liturgies…should be afforded the opportunity to inform us as to what it means to believe in God and to worship God. Thereafter, we can assess them critically in light of Scripture so that they can be reinterpreted or corrected as required” (p 69).

It is at this juncture that I believe an appeal to “reason” as a “source” for theology would have helped Bird’s case. After all, one must be rational before any criticism could be leveraged for/against any reading of Scripture. God does not speak out of both sides of his mouth and the elements of sound reasoning are required to make sense out of just about anything. First principles of reason include (but are not limited to):

  1. the laws of logic [laws of identity, excluded middle, and noncontradiction] cannot be denied without contradiction
  2. language and thought are meaningful and not mere social constructs
  3. the phenomenal/material world is real and not illusory
  4. relative truth is self-refuting
  5. absolute truth exists and transcends all time and culture and is, therefore, absolutely true for everyone, everywhere, and at all times

Despite this omission, near the end of the section Bird cautions against a traditionalism that puts tradition on equal footing with Scripture (of course this is implied in his “suprema scriptura” principle). Instead, he advocates “an approach to biblical interpretation that places Scripture and tradition in a continuous spiral of listening to the text and listening to our forefathers in the faith” (p 70). This dialectic dance between tradition and Scripture has, for me, much to commend it as the weight of authority rests squarely with God’s inspired text but that text is not an isolated voice with little or no regard for all that has gone on before us.

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