Evangelicalism is awash in the 3Rs: retrieval, renewal, and ressourcement. As Michael Allen and Scott Swain explain in Reformed Catholicity, recently published by Baker Academic press, various movements have emerged sharing the conviction that “the path to theological renewal lies in retrieving resources from the Christian tradition.” In their view, these efforts have been haphazard, and their book sketches a “programmatic assessment of what it means to retrieve the catholic tradition . . . on the basis of Protestant theological and ecclesiological principles.”

To that end, Allen and Swain offer an elegant, biblically grounded account of church tradition as a “fruit of the Spirit.” Scripture is norm and foundation of all theology, but the Bible authorizes the Church to build on the apostolic foundation. Scripture isn’t inert but is given so that the truth of God might be internalized and embodied in the Church: “Scripture is a means to the end of church tradition.” Tradition formation is the work of the Spirit, the teacher in the school of Christ, who anoints the Church and is personally active in the writing of creeds and confessions, the transmission of liturgical forms, catechetical training, and theological formulation. Though fallible and imperfect, these aren’t merely human products but “natural signs and instruments of the Spirit’s illuminating presence.” Tradition signifies that the Word has been received, believed, and spoken by the Church, and it ensures that the Word continues to be received and passed on.

A positive evaluation of tradition doesn’t violate the “formal” principle of the Reformation, sola scriptura. Sola scriptura isn’t a stand-alone doctrine; it has to be understood in the context of claims about God, redemption, and the Church. In early Protestantism, sola scriptura wasn’t individualistic or deistic, nor did it undermine the validity of the Church’s secondary authority. As the authors say, “the very existence of confessional writings is a sign of genuine ecclesial authority.”

Allen and Swain’s treatment of the “rule of faith” in biblical interpretation highlights the challenge they’ve set for themselves. By their definition, the rule of faith is “any shorthand summary” of Christian faith, typically focused on the Trinity and the Gospel story. By encapsulating the shape and scope of Scripture, the rule provides “a divinely authorized interpretive key for unlocking the treasures of God’s word, a blessed pathway into Holy Scripture.” To read according to rule means to read specific texts in the light of the whole. The rule of faith isn’t a muzzle on the Spirit, since the Spirit guided the Church to formulate the rule of faith in the first place. A creed is a precipitate of the Spirit’s work.

The authors are walking a tightrope here. On one hand, because the rule of faith is not Scripture, its “various expressions . . . are always subject to revision and reform in the light of the clear teaching of Scripture.” Theoretically, even the most revered “rule of faith” might need perfecting. (One wonders, for instance, about the adequacy of a precis of the Bible that never mentions Abraham or Israel, skipping 75 percent of the book it’s supposed to summarize.) On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that “the rule of faith is open to endless revision.” Dogmas are “the church’s public and binding summaries of scriptural truth.” Dogma is “a sign of Christ’s victory, accomplished through Word and Spirit, within the common mind of the church,” an ancient landmark “that should not be moved.”

And then there’s the question of whose rule of faith guides biblical interpretation. Allen and Swain present “the Reformed and Lutheran confessional classification of the Word of God into the categories of ‘law’ and ‘gospel’” as an example of how “the rule of faith has functioned . . . as a standard for measuring the faithfulness of one’s exegetical results.” Put aside substantive questions about the law/Gospel hermeneutic. Doesn’t the decision to erect specifically Protestant principles as “ancient landmarks” militate against the catholic aim of retrieving an early Christian consensus? Can Scripture unify if each church reads as seems right in its own eyes?

As one who affirms sola scriptura, values tradition, and acknowledges the legitimacy of church authority, I’m happy to share the tightrope with them. But in my view, we can keep our balance only by leaning in a somewhat different direction. Allen and Swain are not uncritical of Protestantism, but anyone who says that the rule of faith is “like a Kantian a priori” is stressing the stability of tradition. That’s a necessary corrective to the anti-traditional strains of Protestantism, but it risks dulling the edge of sola scriptura and undercutting the project of ressourcement, whose purpose is to reform as much as to affirm. As John Webster puts it, “because dogmatics is evangelical, it is critical and reformatory.”

Scripture authorizes tradition, and the Spirit molds the treasures that the Church hands down through time. This we must confess. Yet the Word is also a hammer that shatters preconceptions and demolishes venerable idols. It’s a sword, and swords kill. This is the challenge of Reformed catholicity: to deploy tradition without turning it into a protective sheath. 

Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.

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