J.I. Packer on the Bible vs. Tradition

18828By Obbie Todd

Being tortured in Hades and facing the impossibility of relief, a rich man shouts across the “great chasm” and begs Abraham to send a servant named Lazarus to warn his five brothers on earth about the horrific destruction they would face at the end of an unrepentant life. In a stirring reply, Abraham’s response says just as much about Holy Scripture as it does of the human heart: “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’” (Luke 16:31) There is perhaps no verse in the Bible that speaks more profoundly to the power of God’s Word to change hearts than the one proclaimed to a man burning in Hell. The Spirit that raised a dead man from the grave is the same Spirit that inspired the Holy Scriptures – the power of God unto salvation. (Rom. 8:11, 2 Tim. 3:16, Rom. 1:16) And that’s precisely what it takes to raise dead sinners in faith. (Eph. 2:1) Spirit and truth. (John 4:24)

The primacy of God’s Word is something that evangelicals have consistently touted. For instance, David Bebbington has famously offered his so-called “Bebbington Quadrilateral” – the four chief characteristics of an evangelical. Not surprisingly, Biblicism is the number one distinguishing trait. (followed by crucicentrism, activism, and conversionism) However, this proper emphasis upon Holy Scripture (sola Scriptura) can often times morph into a kind of “Bible-onlyism” that eschews church history and Christian tradition as recorded in the church councils. Many Christians today read words like “creed” or “confession” with a modern suspicion. In many ways, the transition that took place during the Great Awakening from puritanism to revivalism branded confessional Christianity as “popish” and/or “intellectual.” As a result, many churches treat church history and even statements of faith as disciplines exclusively relegated to the seminary.

However, as Timothy George has suggested, there’s a large difference between confessionalism and “creedalism,” something that most evangelicals have never advocated. (“The Priesthood of All Believers,” eds. Basden, Dockery) Contrary to the individualistic American spirit that flows through modern Christianity, hearty confessionalism should be revived in order to unite churches in bonds of belief under a continuous faith once delivered to the saints. In this time of “Restoration” movements and “post-Protestant” theology, it’s important to look to some of the older scholars of our age who can lend perspective to the ethos of our time. Better than any theologian alive, J.I. Packer has articulated the dangers of “Bible-onlyism” in a vivid way that offers us insights into the balance of Scripture and church tradition:

“The evangelical emphasis on the uniqueness of Holy Scripture as the verbalized revelation of God and on its supreme authority over God’s people is sometimes misunderstood as a commitment to the so-called restorationist method in theology. This method sets tradition in antithesis to Scripture, and places the church’s heritage of thought and devotion under a blanket of permanent suspicion, thus reducing its significance to zero…But the authentic evangelical way has always been to see tradition as the precipitate of the church’s living with the Bible and being taught by the Holy Spirit through the Bible – the fruit, that is, of the ministry that the Holy Spirit has been fulfilling in the church since Pentecost, according to Jesus’ own promise.” (“A Stunted Ecclesiology?”)

When we distance ourselves from the major confessions of the Christian past, we’re not only implicitly declaring our own unchecked hermeneutical superiority in reading the same Bible, we’re creating a false dichotomy between the faith of the saints and our own. Those denominations who hold to historical creeds are not supplanting the authority of Scripture for man-made documents. In fact, these are the churches who uphold the supremacy of Scripture the most! They’re simply attempting to do two things: (1) create a guiding framework in order to maintain the orthodox belief of the church against ad hoc “whatever strikes me” reading of the Bible, (2) and hold their people accountable for confessing that belief. Confessions aren’t simply ecclesiological. They’re soteriological.

If Scripture matters, the truth of Scripture matters. And if Scriptural truth matters, Scriptural interpretation must matter. When a church pits church tradition and Bible against one another, it quietly rests upon a postmodern cornerstone that says “in with the new and out with the old.” But in a religion that finds its cornerstone in a 2000-year-old Nazarene and its foundation in apostles and prophets, completely novel ideas about the meaning of Scripture should be held in check and tempered against the backdrop of an historical faith. (Eph. 2:20) A truly personal relationship with Christ should never become license for a completely private interpretation of His Scripture. The God who saves is the same God who gave us history as an impetus for seeking Him and as a guide for learning. (e.g., Deut. 1-3) In turn, we should take heart in the “great cloud of witnesses” who attest to the precious truths of Scripture defended for the name of Christ and on our behalf. (Heb. 12:1)


Baptist Confessions of Faith by William Lumpkin

The Battle for the Bible by Harold Lindsell

Inspiration and Authority of the Bible by B.B. Warfield

Taking God at His Word by Kevin DeYoung

Baptists and the Bible by Bush & Nettles

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