Sola Scriptura v. Tradition, or: Learning Karate from a Book

I’ve been reading Yves Congar’s The Meaning of Tradition and want to share some thoughts about it related to sola Scriptura, including naturally an allusion to the Karate Kid movie.

Tradition is the most confusing and misunderstood idea, especially for Protestants. Heck, I’ve been Catholic ten years and am still growing in my appreciation and understanding of it.

It is not some secret channel of teachings whispered from one bishop’s ear to another, nor is it only customs that change and evolve from place to place over time. Instead:

The reality that it communicates is primarily a doctrine, but not exclusively so. Indeed, if “tradition” is taken in its basic, strict sense, signifying transmission, or delivery, it includes the whole communication, excluding nothing. If, then, we consider the content of what is offered, tradition comprises equally the holy Scriptures and, besides these, not only doctrines but things: the sacraments, ecclesiastical institutions, the powers of the ministry, customs and liturgical rites–in fact, all the Christian realities themselves.

Tradition is hard to wrap your head around because it is truly the transmission of Christianity, the entire deposit of faith, to each and every generation, within and through the Church, by the power and action of the Holy Spirit.

Can you Learn Karate from a Book?

In the original Karate Kid movie, Daniel-san wants to learn karate to keep from getting beaten up again; he’s in the living room of his mom’s apartment practicing front kicks while consulting a “how-to karate book.” Mr. Miyagi walks in to fix the sink, looks at him skeptically, and asks “learn karate from book?”

And we all intuitively know that it’s preposterous to try to do such a thing. To really know karate you need to have a teacher, someone who is wise and has been themselves instructed in the particular martial art by another master. Even if you could, theoretically, learn how to kick in such a way or punch in generally the correct form, if it came to an actual fight, how would you put it together? How do you best respond if your opponent does this, or that, or comes at you with a knife.

And there are katas to learn, concepts like chi, honor, tea ceremonies, and the philosophy behind the martial art (strike first strike hard no mercy sir, or only use in defense).

Daniel-san knows all this and begs his mom to be able to go to a real karate school, with good teachers who are immersed in the tradition. Of course, Mr. Miyagi is a master and starts to teach him, along the way instructing him in other aspects of the tradition, like training bonsai trees.

Protestant “tradition”

A week ago when we went to the Baptist service, I noted the preaching of the pastor (a friend of mine). First, his intonation and style: it matched that of my old Baptist pastors. Now, nowhere in the Bible does it say that this is how you set the tone of your voice when you preach. Somewhere it seems there is a Baptist school where this is learned, or a way that preaching style is transmitted in the Baptist tradition.

But that is not all that is transmitted: the service itself matched closely with my old Baptist service. And the doctrinal content matched as well. It seems that an entire interpretive paradigm of the Scriptures is transmitted within the Baptist tradition. This is even though nowhere in the Bible are their official Baptist study notes that are on par with the Scriptures themselves. So doctrinal information and even the underlying principles of how the Bible is to be interpreted are also transmitted.

Realize that the New Testament nowhere tells us how to celebrate the liturgy. What is done when, and how is it done? What words are used? And the first NT letters weren’t written for many many years after Christ’s Ascension and Pentecost, but the early Christians knew how to do the liturgy because Christ taught them and the Spirit reminded them (see John 14:26 and John 16:12-15).

In Short

You can’t learn karate from just a book. And Christianity was not meant to be learned from a book alone, either. Protestants get this. Which is why they don’t just hand newcomers a Bible and tell them to go back home and read it and they’re “good to go.” No, they know that a living witness is needed, and help is needed to understand the Scriptures correctly.

This Protestant “tradition” though is not the same as Catholic sacred Tradition, for one thing because sacred Tradition is enlivened by the Holy Spirit. It is the Tradition, and it finds its rightful place within the visible Church, alongside the Magisterium. Still, it is an analogy that can help Protestants make sense of Tradition.

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21 thoughts on “Sola Scriptura v. Tradition, or: Learning Karate from a Book”

      1. Hi Devin,

        Thanks for checking it out. I subscribed to your blog as well. Merry Christmas or is it Happy Kwanza? Just kidding…

  1. Best. Analogy. Ever.

    As a student of a a couple different martial arts I find this to be the perfect analogy, Devin.

    One I studied and practiced in a dojo for years. The other that I wanted to study for years (Krav Maga) was not yet available in my area so I got a book on it. I thought I learned a lot about it from the book. Eventually, when it did become available I started taking classes. It was then that I realized I learned nothing about the real application of this martial art from the book. In fact it was embarrassing to find out I was doing some moves all wrong and would have been better off not trying to learn it by the book alone (sola kickbuttica? – ugh… I tried) because I now needed to unlearn something to get the real thing right.

    1. Hahaha! Glad you liked it, David.

      I think the response from a Protestant to this would be: “Yes, but the difference is there is no Karate Spirit, whereas Christians have the Holy Spirit, who leads us into truth. So I can read the Bible and the Spirit will show me what is meant by it.”

      Which could conceivably be true, if God intended the Holy Spirit to individually illuminate every person as they read the Bible such that all Christians would agree on the meaning. But clearly that is not the way He did it, since Protestantism has followed that paradigm and doctrinal chaos has resulted.

  2. Another point, regarding the potential Protestant response, is that each karate style has a founder who, as the primary master, determines the distinctives of that style – he appoints other masters (succession) to those he has confirmed have mastered the style and so a style stays alive. When someone deviates or reinterprets the distinctive of that style, they get kicked out or start their own style.

    1. …and one cannot become a genuine practioner of that style and advance in rank/belt without being within an authentic dojo, legitimately authorized to teach that style.

  3. Great points in this post.

    Far too many Protestants have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Tradition certainly does play a role in our Christian faith. We’d be fools to throw out 2,ooo years of Christian tradition.

    But tradition ought not contradict Holy Scripture. Where it doesn’t, it ought be kept, and utilized. Where it does, then maybe it needs tweaking of some kind.

    1. “But tradition ought not contradict Holy Scripture. Where it doesn’t, it ought be kept, and utilized. Where it does, then maybe it needs tweaking of some kind.”

      As always, the question is “Contradicts who’s interpretation of Scripture?”

      1. This can be tricky. We let Scripture interpret Scripture and through the lens of the pure gospel (the forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus).

        It is the gospel that creates faith (Romans 1:16). So, for us, that is the benchmark and the interpretive grid that everything passes through.

  4. I can’t remember the name of the philosopher who made this point. He used science as an example. That scientists need to work in a bunch of labs as part of their training. Basically asserting that book learning was not enough even for science. There were too many tricks used that never made it into the documentation. We have apprentices, interns, residents, practicums, etc. We call it different things but the idea is the same. Books are limited. The unwritten portion of a body of knowledge is huge.

    As a protestant I would reply by simply saying we are using the bible as the most trusted source of information. Tradition is important but less trustworthy. God works through both but only one is inerrant. So I would not see this as a shop stopper. But it is odd that God would choose to design humans in such a way that knowledge cannot be transmitted adequately by writing and then design His revelation so that only the written word can be fully trusted. It is not impossible but it is strange.

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