Gerald McDermott wrote the following in a chapter on scriptural authority. My comments are in red.
We evangelicals typically say we use only the Bible (sola scriptura) to compose our portrait of Jesus. We have criticized Mormons for going beyond the Bible to extra-biblical traditions, such as when they make assertions about Jesus based on the Book of Mormon. We pride ourselves on following Luther and called in their rejection of church traditions (such as late-medieval views of purgatory and indulgences) that were not clearly rooted in scripture. When evangelicals have debated Latter-day Saints and their doctrinal differences, we have often accused Saints of following the later medieval Catholic pattern of favoring tradition over scripture. Recently evangelical theologians have seen the importance of tradition in interpreting scripture, but generally the evangelical approach to Jesus has been, ”We teach only what the Bible teaches and refuse to accept anything outside the Bible for authority.” Since evangelicals discount the authenticity of the Book of Mormon and other Mormon scriptures, they regard Mormon use of these sources as clear violations of the sola scriptura principle. Their conclusion is that evangelicals teach only the Word of God, while Mormons mix the words of a man (Joseph Smith) with the Word of God.
But evangelicals should reconsider this presumption. It is not at all clear that we have operated exclusively by the sole scripture principle. We accept the results of the early church’s Trinitarian debates
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(which took place after the closure of the canon), using, for example, the word “Trinity,” which is not found in the Bible. We tacitly accept the authority of the early creeds, such as the Council of Chalcedon’s model of the relationship between Jesus’s human and divine natures, which we believe is based on biblical testimony but which also contain words that cannot be found in the (Greek) Bible, such as homoousion. Most evangelicals in the twentieth century favored a model of justification that stressed the primacy of the forensic or legal dimension of the atonement, a model that some scholars are now claiming to be based more on sixteenth-century debates than the Bible itself. And many of us hold differing views about eschatology (life after death, the millennium, and the fulfillment of God’s final purposes for the world), none of which has persuaded a majority that it is clearly taught by the Bible-not to mention our own differences over the proper mode of baptism, what happens in the Lord’s Supper, how the local church should be governed, women’s roles in ministry, and the gifts of the Spirit. Our differences on these issues owe more to interpretive traditions than to disagreement over the actual wording of the biblical text.
Even Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), often said to be evangelicalism’s premier theologian, departed from strict adherence to the sola scriptura principle. Edwards professed repeatedly that our only authority in religion is the written text of the scriptures. But in practice he seemed to operate with the assumption that the Bible can be read only through and with tradition. For example, scholars have recently described the way, for Edwards after 1739, the real authority for theological work became, not the biblical text per se, but his imaginative construal of the story inscribed there, which he called the ”work of redemption.” This was a master narrative beginning in eternity with the Trinity’s plan, proceeding through the ”fall of man,” the history of Israel, the incarnation, and the history of the church and world, all the way until the end of the world. It was centered in the work of Christ but orchestrated by all the members of the Trinity.
This plan for redemption could not be read off the face of the biblical text, for central to the plot was the assertion that Christ was the
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real actor in all of Israel’s communication with God-speaking at the burning bush, for example, and camouflaged by every appearance of “the angel of the Lord” in the Old Testament. Only through this story, as told by Edwards, could the true meaning of the biblical text be seen. Hence the watery of the flood were types of the blood of Christ,
and the cultus of the law that included “all the precepts that relate to building the tabernacle that was set up in the wilderness and all the forms, and circumstances, and utensils of it” were directed by God “to show forth something of Christ,”
These interpretations were just that–interpretations of the biblical story, by no means explicitly stated by the biblical text itself.
Edwards was following and developing a long tradition of reading the Bible typologically. Some denial and scholarly readers of the Bible agreed with this kind of reading, but not all did, because many said they could not find this taught explicitly or clearly by the Bible.
My point is that the theologian who is routinely regarded as evangelicalism’s greatest showed that he used tradition in his reading and teaching of the Bible. The text’s meaning was not always obvious but often needed help from theological tradition in order to be understood better. This was also true of the early church. The great historian Jaroslav Pelikan has observed that supporters of sola scriptura overlooking “function of tradition in securing what they regarded as the correct exegesis of scripture against heretical alternatives.” Another historian has written that ”in the ante-Nicene Church . . . there was no notion of sola scriptura, but neither was there a doctrine of traditio sola.”
Interestingly enough, this is exactly where the LDS church was restored to, both scripture and priesthood authority.
Exegesis, doctrine, and liturgy were all lumped together under “tradition” Early church leaders operated without a clear demarcation between scripture and tradition: scripture was interpreted with the help of oral and written tradition (such as the Regula Fidei or Rule of Faith, outline statements of Christian belief that were circulated in the second century to guide biblical exegesis ), and the tradition of use in the churches is what determined which books were included in the biblical canon. Heiko Oberman calls
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this “Tradition I,” the view that tradition is simply scripture properly interpreted. Oberman argues that this was the unanimous position of the church in the first few centuries.
This may end up being a truly Evangelical assumption; the exegesis of “traditional Christianity” is the right interpretation. That’s why some Evangelicals get so upset when Mormons suggest a different interpretation may be (is) more correct.
A similar notion has become a truism today in such diverse fields as philosophy theology, and literature–that it is impossible to read any text, much less the Bible, without tradition. To put it another way all of our reading is done through a filter of our own cultural traditions. There is no naked text that we can access without seeing it through the screen of traditions that we have absorbed.
And ironically enough, this alone gives Mormons ammo, because our position is that the worldview that was adopted into “traditional Christianity” is all wrong. Jesus was a Hebrew, his teachings were Hebrew. While I don’t doubt that Paul correctly brought Christianity to Greek culture, after Paul some actors changed the worldview of Hebrew Christianity to something more acceptable to Greek Philosphers, and in the act, lost the fullness of the truth along the way. The Mormon viewpoint is that the post 200 AD worldview has been the wrong one, and that it had to be restored via revelation, and that it has been.
Stones and Creeds
We often hear it said that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones, and this applies here. If evangelical use their own traditions to interpret the Bible, they should not criticize Mormons for reading the Bible and interpreting it according to Mormon tradition. Whether Mormon traditions and scriptures are authentic is another question. But the principle of reading the Bible with the help of a religious tradition-Latter-day Saint tradition or any other-is valid and unavoidable.
I am grateful for McDermott pointing this out.