This is Part 2 in a series. Part 1 is located here.
Advocates of sola scriptura often speak as if the Apostles* wrote the New Testament and, having achieved their purpose, promptly keeled over so that the Church could get on with the business of figuring out what it meant.
The Inspiration of St. Matthew - Caravaggio
But in fact, the Apostles were pastors and teachers, founders of Churches. And after their deaths, their followers still remembered the things that they had been taught by “word of mouth” (2 Thess. 2:15); they didn’t develop a sudden case of amnesia. Because of this, the Scriptures are meant to be read within the context of the Apostles’ whole teaching, not just those things which were explicitly written down.
Let’s take a specific example. Baptism is clearly important to the Apostles. Yet Scripture doesn’t clearly address whether it should be administered to infants or only those capable of choosing it. There are principles that can be adduced in favor of either side, but without a shared interpretive key, there isn’t a way to resolve this question.
Suppose, though, you were part of the Apostolic Church. All you have to do is look at what the Apostles do. Apostolic practice interprets the ambiguity of Scripture.
Now, suppose that you live a generation later and the Apostles are no longer around, but your bishop knew the Apostle John. You ask the bishop, who tells you how John baptized and how he continues the Apostolic Tradition.
And a generation later, you would be told how Polycarp practiced baptism in the same way as John, and that your church still maintains the Apostolic Tradition regarding baptism. And if you have doubts, you can verify it by looking at the other churches founded by the Apostles, because they follow the same practice. in this way Apostolic Tradition reveals the true meaning of Scripture when it is obscure or difficult to understand.
Is this tradition’s content less binding than Scripture? To be consistent, it seems the Protestant must answer, “Yes.”
But this is remarkably counterintuitive, for not only does that position devalue Apostolic Tradition, but also ends up devaluing the very interpretive key which allows us to understand Scripture in the first place.
To put the problem more sharply: The Apostles, by their teaching and practice gave their followers a specific framework by which to interpret both Old and New Testaments. Other frameworks are rationally possible (consider Marcionism). Are we at liberty to discard this Apostolic framework as sola scriptura would suggest? Or is it only in union with this Apostolic framework that we authentically encounter the Word in Scripture?
* Yes, I know that it’s not just the Apostles, but “authors of the books of the New Testament” is rather long.