Tradition and Scripture: part one of a two part series
The United Methodist Church holds that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.
What is your understanding of this theological position of the Church?
We might define “the living core of the Christian faith ”as that path along which our faith, our knowledge, and our relationship with God will and must grow and change. To love God is to desire relationship, to feel the pull of God’s purposes on all parts of our lives, to become more of what God wants us to be.
It is a journey, and while there is a map to point the way (Scripture) and guides along the way to help us when we get off the beaten path (Tradition), each journey is very much its own (Experience), so we must keep our wits about us (Reason). While this methodology for theological reflection is credited to John Wesley, the term itself was coined by Albert C. Outler in his introduction to the 1964 collection John Wesley.
I would argue that the living core of the Christian faith is, in fact, first revealed by tradition and then illumined by Scripture, but because Scripture has best tested and canonized, it still has primacy with regard to theological reflection. This may seem on its face like the chicken-or-egg argument, but the point is this: Scripture cannot come without tradition, but tradition can, in fact, come without Scripture. The earliest oral tradition led to written Torah, which served as the building block for new traditions which were recorded for subsequent generations and at the root of all of it is the communal working of the Holy Spirit.
The gospel accounts were written many years after Jesus left this earth, as early Christians realized that Jesus may not be coming back as soon as they thought and it became important to write down the constitutive stories and tenets of this burgeoning faith movement. The New Testament writers were adding to the testimony of a tradition (Judaism) that began in creation, continued in covenant, and that they understood in reflection as pointing to Christ, the cross, the promise of a Comforter, all of which gave them hope for a second coming (parousia).
Tradition reveals the living core of the Christian faith and is the reveal. “Reveal” is both a verb, meaning to make something (secret or hidden) publicly or generally known, and a noun which refers to a threshold, the place or point of entering or beginning. According to Achtemeier, Scripture grew out of the community and it was for the community that Scripture was written.” If it is true, therefore, that the church, by its production of Scripture, created material which stood over it in judgment and admonition, then it is also true that Scripture would not have existed save for the community and its faith out of which Scripture grew. That means that Church and Scripture are “joint effects of the working out of the event of Christ.” This focus on the traditions of the community rather than the experiences of individuals may explain why so many authors and compilers of Scripture remain anonymous. Thus, “the composition of Scripture is not so much the point of inspiration as it is the culmination of the process by means of which the community sought to express its understanding of its own history with God.” Tradition remembers the past for the sake of the present and future. It is “the cradle in which each new generation of community is nurtured.” While tradition gives us a threshold to cross, a point of entry into the faith, Scripture points the way.
Once Christian faith has been revealed by tradition, it is then illumined by Scripture. Judeo-Christian traditions recognize Scripture as a crucial aspect of the Divine pedagogy. “United Methodists share with other Christians the conviction that Scripture is the primary source and criterion from Christian doctrine.” Since the Reformation, Protestants have held to the principle of Scripture alone (Sola scriptura). The Psalmist proclaims, “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” By shining a light on the stories of our faith, Scripture reaches back into the dark corners of this “house not built with hands” and pushes back the fog of our self-deceptions. Throughout history, God uses spokespersons who are “intimately involved in the life and in the tradition-based self-understanding of that community” to cast light on the situation God’s people find themselves in, hinting at how ancestors in the tradition may have responded to similar circumstances. Scripture is not as much history as it a confession of faith of a community that understood its history as the working out of the purposes of God to which it pointed in its confession. Paul J. Achtemeier, in his book Inspiration and Authority suggests that Scripture rarely says any one thing about anything, but is instead one long story, with twists and turns and many characters, all with different concerns. He holds that the inspiration of Scripture is located at the place where, and in the dynamic way that, tradition, situation, and respondent meet: “Inspiration thus describes more the process out of which our Scriptures grew than simply the final result in canonical form.”
The chief task is to point away from itself to something or someone who is far more important. Why does the New Testament seem to “fulfill” prophecy of the Hebrew Bible? Stated simply, the New Testament authors and compilers read all of Israel’s Scripture in light of Christ. For example, Hebrews begins with seven citations of Old Testament texts from diverse contexts and genres (Psalms, Deuteronomy, and 2 Samuel) yet all of them are applied to Christ. Christ takes center stage because of who He is for the early church in God’s economy of salvation. Certainly, tradition and Scripture build upon each other.
_____________________________________________________________ ibid, 99  ibid, 102  ibid, 103  ibid, 110  Ibid, 111  Book of Discipline, United Methodist Church 2012. (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 2013), ¶ 105, 81.  Psalm 119:105 KJV  2 Corinthians 5:1  Paul J. Achtemeier, Inspiration and Authority: Nature and Function of Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 100.  ibid, 118.