15 December 2023

Evangelicals, let’s be a little bit more Reformed Catholic

By Tom Underhill

Tom Underhill is the Operations Director of the South West Gospel Partnership, and a PhD candidate in Systematic Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary via Pastors’ Academy, London. He’s married to Katy and they have four children.


What attitude should evangelicals, committed to sola Scriptura, take to extra-scriptural church tradition? This article, taking cues from the recent book Reformed Catholicity, argues that Scripture itself gives us reasons to cultivate an attitude of trust and receptivity to tradition (though not uncritically), and that it would be beneficial for UK conservative evangelicalism to recover such a posture.


Many evangelicals today are well-versed in C. S. Lewis’s “sea-breeze of the centuries” argument for the value of tradition: reading the theological reflections of past ages grants us a different perspective from that of our current generation, revealing to us our assumptions with their limits and blind spots.[1] This is a fine pragmatic argument, but not a theological one, and therein lies a vulnerability. For without theological rationale, a posture of friendliness towards tradition is susceptible to criticism on the basis of anti-tradition themes in Scripture (particularly Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees), and the historic precedent always near at hand to evangelicals who see themselves as heirs of Luther’s stand on Scripture alone over and against church tradition. This article attempts to supply such a theological justification for a presumption of trust towards tradition that is both consistently Protestant and persuasive to evangelical readers. It takes the form of an analysis of the book Reformed Catholicity by Michael Allen and Scott Swain,[2] appropriating and bolstering their arguments along the way, and applying their conclusions to the context of UK conservative evangelicalism.[3]

Reformed Catholicity, published in 2015, is a defence of a certain kind of theological mindset. Allen and Swain argue for methods, habits and instincts in theological endeavour (at every level) that are friendly to and exploitative of tradition from a geographically, historically and ecumenically wide range of sources. This is what Reformed catholicity is (a “sensibility, not a system”).[4] The authors note the recent popularity of projects of “retrieval”: attempts to address contemporary theological issues or resource church cultures using sources from the past. Their definition of retrieval projects is extensive, ranging from ressourcement Thomism[5] to the hymns of Keith and Kristin Getty. But the book aims to serve as a manifesto for specifically Protestant retrieval, by defending this posture towards tradition on the basis of Protestant theology and exegesis. Allen and Swain argue that it is consistent for Reformed theology to be properly “catholic,” that is, to affirm significant areas of continuity with the teaching of the church in all past generations and therefore make profitable use of resources from anywhere in time or location that shared doctrines are confessed. If Reformed theologians hold a doctrine of the Trinity essentially the same as that taught by the pro-Nicene theologians of the fourth century, there is much to be gained from reading those writers on the Trinity; if that same doctrine is confessed today by Roman Catholic theologians, they too can be read and quoted with profit.[6]

It may be that such a description (or even the book title) already sets the teeth of evangelical readers on edge. Isn’t to be Protestant simply to be not-Catholic? Allen and Swain, however, argue that this was not how the Reformers themselves conceived of their identity. Their project is inspired by William Perkins, the original self-styled “Reformed Catholicke,” who emphasised that his theological starting place was the heritage of doctrine held in common by the church, from which the errors of Rome (and others) were to be pared off.[7] It should be noted that this is quite a different procedure from that, instinctive to much modern evangelicalism, which requires all doctrine to be immediately and directly generated from Scripture. In such a culture, the value of tradition (a creed, or doctrinal statement, for example) is reduced to functioning as a signpost to or patchwork of Bible verses. No person should be bound by such tradition unless they can come to the same conclusions by simply reading the referenced proof texts; the artefacts of tradition hold no authority whatsoever in themselves, but only as windows on to Scripture (and therefore the thinner and more transparent they are, the better). Again, it might seem to evangelical ears that this is the only possible position for those who hold to the principle of sola Scriptura. But the Reformers themselves reached precise conclusions about the ways in which Scripture both does and does not claim sufficiency. The shape to the doctrine – sola Scriptura being of course a doctrinal conclusion derived itself from more than a single text of Scripture – sketched above does not match that on which they took their stand.

Our argument below, following the course of Reformed Catholicity, is that it is not merely pragmatically unwise, a la Lewis, but unjustified on the basis of Scripture itself to give a cast to the doctrine of sola Scriptura so as to exclude the necessary contribution of the teaching agency of the church, and the possibility of assigning secondary authority to the artefacts of tradition. We are talking here of the relation between tradition and Scripture, theologically and exegetically, and the implications for our practice of theology and exegesis. The contention is that the Reformed catholic sensibility, which receives theology and theologians of the past with thankfulness and a certain degree of trust (though not without critique, and not yielding the position and function of Scripture as single source and ultimate authority), and casts a wide net to do so, is a more biblical attitude.

It is also one which evangelicals need to recover. For, as Lewis’ argument predicts, a church culture averse to the wisdom of the past suffers from blind spots. These come in the form of theological and practical conclusions that appear to a generation of evangelicals self-evidently based on Scripture, yet are novelties.[8] We also suffer from a lack of the kind of extended theological constructions that are only possible as multi-generational projects. If we can rely only on a single layer of exegesis that can be generated afresh by any competent pastor, we will not have the resources to meet the complex challenges of contemporary situations.[9] During the coronavirus pandemic, churches suddenly faced acute questions about the nature of their gatherings relating to the importance of embodiment to our human nature. Is “online church” truly church? Is there a more than pragmatic reason why we should meet physically rather than virtually (and what is the difference in any case, given the increasing power of technology to mediate presence more and more effectively)? Can the Lord’s Supper be celebrated in a dispersed manner? Many answers given followed a minimal “the Bible doesn’t say we can’t” logic. A rich heritage of Christian thought on the importance of embodiment and the nature of immediate versus mediated presence was appropriated by few. Questions about the appropriate limits of political authority and Christian approaches to government were raised by the same exigency; the issue of human nature and of the meaning of humanity as male and female has been pressing with urgency for some decades now. We need to see it as worthy of our time as evangelicals to engage with and to produce writing that thinks deeply on these matters, and that can patiently hold off the demand for practical answers while giving careful and extended theological attention to the foundations. We need to license and resource efforts to construct rich and thoroughly biblical accounts of reality, which can only be done in conversation with the resources we possess already in the reflections of past generations. But all such endeavours will only flourish if evangelicals see proper theological and biblical warrant for them.

We will summarise and follow Swain and Allen’s argument by means of four statements, assessing and supplementing where possible with a particular eye for how their arguments can be bolstered and rendered persuasive to the UK conservative evangelical context. These attempt to represent the argument of each of the first four main chapters of the book.

As the teacher of the church, the Spirit’s work is to enable the church to fully receive Scripture. The fruits of this work are the artefacts of tradition, which the Spirit also uses to teach the church across generations. As such, tradition should be received by each fresh generation with thanksgiving and a (qualified) presumption of trust.

The first step in Allen and Swain’s book is to describe theologically the activity of theology. Simply put, they argue that both the activity of theology and the products that result from the activity should be seen as the work of the Holy Spirit. The New Testament characterises the Spirit as the teacher of the church, the school of Christ. Firstly, the inspired Scriptures are given as the single, completed and sufficient source of theology; then in an ongoing way the Spirit works to bring the disciples of Christ into a fuller and more mature knowledge of Christ from that one source. They make a number of key theological claims underpinning this characterisation that appear fairly straightforwardly from the New Testament texts: the Spirit of Truth is the possessor of divine truth with the mission of revealing truth to the church (John 16:13-15, 1 Cor. 2:9-13); the church is enabled to understand by being born of the Spirit (John 3); the church is identified as the location in which believers will come to mature knowledge (Eph. 3:16-19).[10] This maturing is not a supply of new knowledge, which is given completely in Scripture, it is rather being led deeper into that same deposit.[11] But Scripture is given to be received, meaning not merely read but understood in all its manifold implications and applications. This the Spirit enables the church to do; this is the work of theology.

The products of the work of theology (artefacts like creeds, confessions, commentaries, treatises, prayers, liturgies, sermons and so on) should therefore be seen “not simply as human cultural activities and artifacts but also as fruits of the Spirit.”[12] Even more strongly, their claim is that tradition is the goal of theology, for these artefacts are the necessary by-product of the church coming under the Spirit’s teaching to fully receive (grasp, comprehend) what is given in Scripture.[13] But the products of tradition are not only records of the understanding of the church at a given moment, merely evidence of a past layer of the Spirit’s work: they are means by which the teaching work of the Spirit spans generations. Receiving Scripture is not a process that starts from scratch in each new generation; it is an activity extended through time. What is passed down is not the words of Scripture alone, which then need to be interpreted entirely anew, but the words of Scripture and the fruit of the Spirit’s work teaching the church from Scripture. This whole process is part of Christ fulfilling his promise to build his church, which is put into place down the ages, by the Spirit, upon the apostolic foundation.[14]

Allen and Swain also suggest the necessity of a multi-generational aspect to the building process given the role of renewed reason in the maturing of the church. Reason is the divine gift given that we may know and love God. In the creation account, humanity is created differently to the other animals in that we have intellectual capacity that enables us to be true covenant partners with God: of mankind alone are we told that God speaks “to” them (Gen. 1:26-28), and to mankind alone is given a conscious task and a law (Gen. 2:15-17).[15] This gift of reason that serves fellowship with God is damaged at the fall and renewed by the Spirit. We do not receive salvation by a process in which our rational faculties are bypassed. Rather, our reason is (wholly and from outside) renewed and so grasps the gospel (2 Cor 4:6; Acts 28:23). We know Christ through understanding his words, we mature through searching and being taught the Scriptures given for our instruction. But there are no grounds for thinking that the role of reason should be purely individualistic or occasional. The church exercises reason collectively (cf. Paul’s appeal in 1 Cor. 11:13-6). Tradition is “the temporally extended, socially mediated activity of renewed reason.”[16] Allen and Swain point out that evangelicals are familiar with the “negative correlate of sola Scriptura”: Scripture is the sole foundation for theology, so all theological tradition must be built solely upon it. But there is also, according to them, a “positive correlate…that has not always received due recognition in Protestant theology”: “the Lord authorizes the church to build on that foundation.”[17] Should we not expect collective maturing of the mind of the church, fruit from the collaborative exercise of renewed reason? In fact, whenever we gratefully receive a confession or a creed, a council verdict or even a pan-evangelical statement, we are tacitly accepting that such a process can take place.

The core of their argument thus laid down, what might be the likely evangelical responses to such a theological positioning of tradition? I can imagine three. In the first place, someone might question if such a posture is sufficiently justified only by extrapolation from the scriptural data about the Spirit’s role teaching the church. Not entirely: Allen and Swain argue there is in fact an indication of these processes within Scripture itself, to which they devote their third chapter. But nonetheless, there is a certain willingness to make inferences and rest on good and necessary consequence in their construction, which itself is part of the theological sensibility for which they are advocating.[18] It would hardly be self-consistent to refute biblicism with biblicism, though those used to a shorter path between exegesis and conclusions will need patience to bear with their approach and judge the wisdom and persuasiveness of it as a whole.

Secondly, and rather more significantly, Allen and Swain assume without defence a significant kind of visible unity to the church. When they refer to “the renewed mind of the church,” they presume both that there is such a collective thing, and that it can be known. Given the diversity of the visible church through history, this requires some justification. How does one know what the mind of the universal church thinks? To which, perhaps Allen and Swain would answer, tradition! But what of the “lively tradition of debate about what does and does not count as the faithful extension of tradition”?[19] What if one group claiming to belong to the visible church advocate the inclusion of some tradition that others reject, even to such a degree that they become, in the mind of some or the majority, outside the bounds; no longer a part (in Allen and Swain’s language) of the school of Christ under the teaching of the Spirit? Such a situation, after all, is pretty much the short history of Christianity and certainly of the Reformation. If we grant that the Spirit is at work through the ages teaching the church, we still face the question of how we know where this is genuinely taking place, and where error has entered and is distorting, not clarifying, the truth of the gospel: how we identify the church. To evangelicals, Allen and Swain’s picture of the church on earth as one school of Christ may appear an ideal construction at wide variance from reality.

However, unless committed to a radically atomistic ecclesiology such that no unity at all is conceived between the whole collective of Christians in the present, most evangelicals do speak generally and collectively of “the church” denoting something visible. And Protestants have usually allowed that the church, in this most general and collective sense, has been taught by the Spirit over the centuries in a cumulative manner. The results of controversies in the fourth and fifth centuries, for example, yielded greater insight over time as faulty trinitarian and christological conclusions were ruled out as un-scriptural by successive collaborative efforts. The results of these have had such an extensive and foundational impact that virtually every branch of the church has benefited (whether the source is explicitly acknowledged or not). A certain receptivity to at least this tradition as the work of the Spirit has indeed been a mark of Protestant churches; witness the adoption of the traditional language of “one God in three persons” evidenced from the Reformed confessions of the sixteenth century down to evangelical doctrinal statements today. This kind of mere catholicity, some acknowledgement of the possibility of speaking of the church as visibly one, is all that is needed to sustain Allen and Swain’s case at a basic level.[20]

But how do we deal with “churches” that some Protestants have historically claimed are no such thing (pointedly, of course, the Roman Catholic church)? The standard Protestant response to this question is to reach for sola Scriptura: Scripture is the sufficient and clear guide that will enable us to discern the boundary of the visible church and the authenticity of all tradition that genuinely is the teaching of the Spirit. But while the Reformed catholic agrees, he or she also argues that one can reach too eagerly for sola Scriptura. If the Spirit’s teaching of Scripture is to be respected as having been at all successful (in any generation except our own!), what is passed down to us needs to be taken and sifted with patience and humility. If we have to justify any tradition entirely afresh from Scripture at every instant of adoption, we are not really receiving anything at all: the actual teaching and interpretation is done anew every time. Rather than stand alone and defined only against what has gone before, it is a consistently Protestant procedure to accept with gratefulness and trust a heritage of tradition received from the church of the past (generously so defined), and then to pare off as error that which has gone awry, even up to the sad determination that a given error rules the originating branch outside the bounds of orthodoxy (as in the case of the original Reformers).[21] To consciously adopt this procedure is both more honest (for churches that claim to stand on the Bible alone almost always do so in some stream of interpretative tradition), and is the practical outworking of trust in the work of the Spirit as the teacher of the church.

Finally, the eschatological convictions (or merely inclinations) of some evangelicals might lead them to baulk at the way in which Allen and Swain’s attitude to tradition requires a belief in overall positive doctrinal development: “Although the apostolic deposit cannot grow, the church’s understanding of that deposit can.”[22] A wholehearted embrace of premillennialism, for example, would be more likely to tell a story of the church that moved from the pristine apostolic era, through a subsequent decline into corruption, on through various downs (medieval Roman Catholicism) and ups (the Reformation) to the present time, with no reason for optimism about the earth-bound end of this story (greater apostacy and persecution being the destination). Nor is it only premillenialism that leans in this direction: any more general conception of the true church predominantly as a permanently embattled minority, both in the world and amongst corrupted branches of the visible church, could make an upward story of doctrinal development less plausible. Such eschatological views may not have been held by the historic majority of Protestants, but can hardly be ignored given their widespread currency in 20th century evangelicalism. But aside from refuting the eschatological position, the advocate of Reformed catholicity can answer by pointing to the inherent inconsistency of tenaciously holding to Reformational gains such as sola Scriptura itself while denying the possibility of doctrinal advance. Surely despite (perhaps through) the constant multiplying and shedding of heresies along the way, there are some ways at least that the ongoing work of the Spirit has matured the mind of the church.

Historically, the doctrine of sola Scriptura did not present Scripture as the only theological authority, but as the only supreme authority. A healthy Protestant approach to theology accords tradition a secondary, derivative, but real authority under Scripture.

The second and third chapters of Reformed Catholicity are devoted to sola Scriptura. We have already noted the critical importance of the shape of this doctrine. Different ways of construing sola Scriptura will lead to different evangelical attitudes to tradition.[23] Allen and Swain first show that the principle of sola Scriptura, as historically articulated, did not imply an instinctive hostility towards tradition. Although the doctrine of sola Scriptura has often been taken as indicating exactly this, at both popular and more scholarly levels,[24] Allen and Swain’s contention is that sola Scriptura is “frequently misinterpreted” and needs to not be “pulled loose…from its wider doctrinal context.” In its best form, “sola Scriptura is meant to shape engagement of the catholic tradition as a theological authority, not to foreclose such retrieval.”[25] The authors make both an historical and then a biblical case for this best form of the doctrine.

Their historical case rests on three strands of evidence that the original form of sola Scriptura envisaged the supreme authority of Scripture functioning in a “catholic context,” in continuity with the way that the Church Fathers deployed Scripture and tradition. First, the Reformers typically discussed the authority of Scripture within a context of discussing Christ’s rule over his church exercised through ministers and other forms of subordinate churchly authority.[26] But if church ministers and synods (or equivalent) exercise any authority at all in how Scripture is understood, then it is not the case that there is only one authority. These secondary authorities are always dependent on Scripture and to be judged by it, but the collective health of the church depends upon there being structures of subsidiary authority to whose teaching is accorded more weight than individual interpretation. It therefore is not the case that rejecting the authority of the Roman magisterium to define doctrine made all doctrinal formulation for Protestants a process of private judgement. To put it another way, Scripture is the authority that rules other authorities (there is one norming norm), but other authorities do exist and function as such (there are normed norms). Anyone who accepts the necessity of a doctrinal basis admits this to be the case.

Secondly, Allen and Swain note that the early Reformed confessions explicitly “received the pastoral witness of the catholic past with gratitude and thanks.”[27] The magisterial Reformers accepted the doctrine of the Trinity as defined in the Nicene Creed, for example, as orthodoxy and considered deviation from such to be apostasy, in marked opposition to the radical Reformers. Notably, we might add, they did not do this only because they considered the verdict of Nicaea to be simply a summary of Scripture. They do refer to the basis of such tradition in right reading of Scripture, but, as the First Helvetic Confession puts it, “Where the holy fathers and early teachers…have not departed from this rule [i.e., Scripture], we want to recognize and consider them not only as expositors of Scripture, but as elect instruments through whom God has spoken and operated.”[28] The church’s tradition, in such cases as it faithfully reflects Scripture, is a product of God’s ongoing work to bring the church to maturity in her reception of Scripture. Such tradition is more than a signpost pointing to Scripture; it is a guide to the meaning of Scripture, a guide which the church subsequently is under obligation to treat with respect. The secondary authority of tradition consists in this claim upon the respectful attention of the church. The nature of the tradition would determine the level of authority (under Scripture) assigned to it, and the proper context for any proposed correction. If Scripture is truly to be the supreme authority, every subsidiary authority must be susceptible to such correction, but in an appropriate manner. The time-tested deliverance of an ecumenical council, for example, generates a very high bar for potential revision. Occasional declarations by single church bodies, though they may be binding on individuals in that church, bear far less authority in a wider context.

Finally, the authors note the widespread Reformation practice of producing confessional and catechetical materials, and the passing down of Reformed liturgical traditions to be followed by subsequent generations. In practice, those who formulated the principle of sola Scriptura evidently considered that the production of tradition would not generate a burdensome layer through which their children would have to dig to recover the pure teaching of Scripture. Rather, they believed that such Reformed tradition would provide an aid and safeguard to right interpretation of Scripture, and to the maintenance of sound doctrine. Allen and Swain conclude that “[p]rincipled commitment to biblical authority as the ultimate determining factor for all faith and practice did not lead to diminishing concern for ecclesial authority or waning reception of church traditions.”[29] This is a conclusion that their historical evidence warrants, and against which it seems hard to argue. The attitude of the magisterial Reformers towards Scripture simply was not the same as that of the radical Reformers, despite the attempts of some historians to argue that their different attitudes amount to the same practical result. While it may well be true that strands of evangelicalism have been nervous of ascribing any real authority (even secondary and normed) to anything other than Scripture, the strength of Allen and Swain’s argument at this point is suggestive that such an instinct is fuelled more by late modern individualism than fidelity to the Reformation.

Exegetically, this tradition-friendly form of sola Scriptura is justified because Scripture itself does not speak of tradition in a uniformly negative way, but teaches that tradition will form a healthy part of the Spirit’s teaching of the church across generations.

To claim that sola Scriptura is compatible with valuing tradition on the basis of the traditional meaning of the doctrine alone would be self-undermining. Hence Allen and Swain also offer a “biblical case…for locating the Bible alone as a final authority amid a catholic context of other, subordinate authorities in the church’s life.”[30] Their major evidence comes firstly from the biblical account of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. For Allen and Swain, the Jerusalem Council is a model for the exercise of authority within the church, in which Scripture is the foundational authority.[31] They are at pains to refute the suggestion that the council weighed spiritual experience as the sole or major grounds for its conclusions, as some recent interpreters have argued. Rather, Scripture was the source of the decisions of Council: “the words of the prophets are in agreement” (Acts 15:15). But the declaration of the Council, although an interpretation and re-expression of Scripture, is disseminated in its own authoritative form (Acts 15:23-29). As such Acts 15 is both pattern and warrant for that which Luther also affirmed: “the necessity of church councils for Christ’s continued governance of his church.”[32]

Evangelicals might observe that the unique apostolic constitution of the Council of Jerusalem creates a problem for reading it as a simple paradigm for the exercise of ecclesial authority in the post-apostolic age. Though the judgement of the Council is founded on Scripture, as Allen and Swain show, the procedure cannot simply be transferred to later councils as if they were in complete continuity, for no subsequent councils contain apostles. However, there are also indications of continuity in the account in Acts that justify some application of principles to the ongoing government of the church. The inclusion of the elders in each description of the constitution of this council (Acts 15:2, 4, 6) demonstrates that it was not leaning on pure apostolic deliberation to the exclusion of other leaders. Furthermore, the description of the final judgement as that of “the apostles and elders, with the whole church” (Acts 15:22-3), show that the official authority to which the pronouncement appealed was not that of the apostles alone.[33]

A similar criticism might be levelled against their second major strand of biblical evidence in apostolic teaching on tradition, especially as evident in the Pastoral Epistles. According to Allen and Swain, Paul’s call on Timothy to “follow his authoritative example,” is a call “to maintain a catholic heritage.”[34] They claim that the “pattern of sound words” (2 Tim 1:13-14) refers to “a vibrant and ongoing interpretative tradition that serves to provide authoritative parameters for expositing those sacred Scriptures.”[35] They resist the idea that this represents an “early Catholicism” emerging the in Pastorals because the same documents strongly emphasise Scriptural authority: “biblical authority is not juxtaposed with but paired alongside thick practices of catholic traditioning.”[36] But Allen and Swain assume too quickly the meaning of “the pattern of sound words.” Is this some tradition that Paul has passed to Timothy outside of the now-inscripturated word of the New Testament? Or is it simply a reference to the content of the apostolic gospel, spoken to Timothy and contemporaries and now sufficiently communicated to us in the apostolic writings? It could well be countered that the interpretative choice here is between what they don’t want to acknowledge: an “early Catholicism” emerging the in Pastorals, or a reference purely to what is passed down in Scripture. John Stott’s commentary on 2 Timothy 2:2, for example, is striking in this regard: “Speaking ideally, ‘Scripture’ and ‘tradition’ should be interchangeable terms, for what the church hands down from generation to generation should be the biblical faith, no more and no less.”[37]

But a positive function of tradition (in a slightly different sense to that of Stott) and the processes of traditioning is not necessarily at odds with the position that the content of what is passed down is simply the inscripturated apostolic word. When Paul exhorts Timothy to “entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” this inscripturated word, he surely imagines more than the physical act of handing them a Bible. They are to be taught the meaning and equipped to handle the word (2 Tim. 2:15). Such a process takes place by means of “tradition”: if by such we mean either the words or the writings of those faithful teachers in each generation who guard and pass on the truth of Scripture. Scripture is not transmitted sealed and pristine, but both geographically and chronologically by people and communities who give their understanding of the meaning of Scripture along with Scripture itself. This is a feature not a bug. According to the pattern Paul lays down to Timothy, this is how the gospel will be preserved (not the reason why it is constantly in danger of being obscured). Scripture does not function alone in God’s economy, as the importance of the people-gifts Christ gives to the church in Ephesians 4 also makes clear.

To admit this does not yield a Roman Catholic doctrine of unwritten tradition in the possession of the institutional church, nor does it foreclose the possibility of mistakes made by one generation and passed down in tradition. It merely points again to the living continuity of the work of the Spirit and the context in which Scripture is designed to operate: the proper transmission of Scripture will involve Spirit-enabled people in Spirit-born communities teaching the meaning of Scripture as they themselves were taught. Allen and Swain also point out that this language is frequent in Scripture: texts like Isaiah 59:2, Psalm 145:4, and Acts 2:39 demonstrate that it is a perennial characteristic of the church that one generation teaches the next.  It is also true that the work of the Spirit will involve correcting mistakes in tradition by means of fresh exegesis of the Scriptural foundation.

Reading Scripture in a way that is guided by tradition can be part of the church’s submission to Scripture, rather than a muting or eclipse of Scripture.

Finally, Reformed Catholicity moves to the question of how this theological sensibility affects the practice of exegesis. Here the authors give a theological argument for the practice of “ruled reading”: exegesis done with the aid of the rule of faith. According to Allen and Swain, the rule of faith is “an ecclesiastically authorized re-presentation of scriptural teaching whose hermeneutical function is to provide not only a starting point for biblical exegesis but also to direct exegesis to its goal.”[38] Evangelical hackles, once again, might be raised by such a thought. Surely this process is the wrong way around: should not our doctrine flow from Scripture, rather than shaping the understanding of Scripture, still less exerting any kind of ruling function over what we might be allowed to find therein?[39] But once again the challenge is to more accurately specify the relation between our own doctrinal formulations and Scripture as their source and norm. The Reformed catholic claim is that this can be conceived in such a way as to envisage a healthy shaping influence in both directions (though not symmetrically). The notion of the rule of faith is a major way in which this has historically been attempted.

As Allen and Swain point out, Scripture itself contains such summaries of the sweep of Scripture (Deut. 6:4-5, 1 Cor. 8:6, Eph. 4:4-6), which provides important warrant for the practice of making summaries and using them as guides to the shape of Scripture as a whole.[40] Such a procedure is very similar to that to which Don Carson appeals when he states that theology and biblical interpretation must be shaped by “the non-negotiables of biblical theology.”[41] The idea of “the” rule of faith is an attempt to articulate some shared historical consensus of what these non-negotiables might be, what vital elements to the biblical story and articles of biblical faith centre and shape our reading of the whole. There is a limit to the consensus: the rule is not singular but is “found in various expressions throughout the life of the church,”[42] though there are common elements such as the Triune name and the outline of the gospel or redemptive narrative. But over time the witness of the church contributes a helpful pressure on fresh articulations of the rule: the Protestant creeds gratefully acknowledged and incorporated earlier summaries such as the Apostles’ Creed, often verbatim.

These summaries are always subject to Scripture, to which they do not claim to add but merely to re-present. But as such, they help us read the parts of Scripture in light of the whole by serving up the whole in precis form suitable for such use. When such a summary “reflects Scripture’s proportions and purpose,” it aids our interpretation of Scripture in varied ways: it “serves in training our senses to perceive Scripture’s fullness, order and beauty,” it “aids doxological reading,” and it serves as a “guard” against reductionism or hobby horse exegesis.[43] The authors remind us that as no reading can take place without pre-understanding, the rule of faith is a tool to shape that pre-understanding in a manner that will be most receptive to Scripture. It helps us to enter the hermeneutical spiral from a privileged starting point.[44] As well as immediately ruling out obviously heretical interpretations from the exegete’s consideration, having a miniature image of the whole of Scripture at hand surely helps us to read the parts in light of the whole so as to “perceive Scripture’s fullness, order and beauty.” Good catechetical instruction should develop virtuous habits in our Scripture reading.

Once again, we must consider the possible evangelical objections. The notorious difficulty with the rule of faith, it might be pointed out, is identifying it. If it is something that is ecclesiastically authorised, as Allen and Swain claim, we are forced to ask: by which ecclesia? This could be a call for confessional reading of Scripture, where the rule of faith is the document or documents adopted as standard by a particular church; the rule of faith is, after all, “found in various expressions” according to Allen and Swain. Such a claim would be a natural extension of their argument for the propriety of secondary authorities in the life of the church in the previous section, and would point modern-day evangelicals to the value of the standards of their own church or denomination in their reading of Scripture. However, that would not in itself have much to do with catholicity. The Reformed catholic position pushes further to argue that the standards should be authorised in some way by the whole church (or should at least be based on, contain, or reflect such standards). The ecumenical creeds are the best candidates here (being verified by the widest and deepest range of church assent) and so we have an argument for contemporary church statements of doctrine to incorporate or echo the language of these symbols in their own standards (as Reformed churches historically did).

Another question that might be raised is whether a particular concrete version of the rule of faith is in practice (not just principle) errant. Certainly it must be in theory fallible if “the church can and has erred in its confession.”[45] But the reader of Reformed Catholicity is left unclear how to hold together the status of the rule as always in need of scriptural justification, and yet not open to “endless revision.” If “Dogmas… stand as ‘irreversible’ expressions of the rule of faith,” then is it or is it not true that the church can err? One can sympathise, as Peter Leithart puts it, with the tightrope the authors walk here.[46] If the teaching work of the Spirit is a cross-generational activity leading to stability, this seems to exclude endless ground-up revision. Yet if there is no possibility of adjusting fixed forms of the rule, they seem to have acquired a practical equality with Scripture. Moreover, the practical value of the rule can be overstated. If the ecumenical creeds are the core of the rule, much error as they exclude, they still leave plenty of room for heresy. And given the rule only sets broad parameters, as Allen and Swain acknowledge (per Augustine), it is possible to have a reading that is validated by the rule of faith and yet mistaken.[47]

But these objections need not be fatal. They do not refute the basic contention that the Spirit’s teaching of the church in the past should be privileged as the best starting point for formulating those summaries of Scripture that themselves are the best starting point for exegesis (and exegesis, after all, must start somewhere). Reading Scripture as one coherent whole is crucial to good exegesis and the formation of sound doctrine, and in this the rule of faith provides invaluable aid in forming precise summaries that serve as accurate keys to that whole (even if the rule itself does not answer many specific exegetical questions). The question of the stability of the rule and its revision in light of Scripture is not in principle more difficult than that of secondary standards and Scripture: to which the preceding argument about the validity of secondary authorities in the life of the church may be applied. It is worth nothing that for the Reformers and their heirs in the subsequent generation of post-Reformed theologians, the rule of faith was usually articulated as equivalent to the analogy of Scripture: it was seen as a part of the process of attempting to “explain the scriptures by the scriptures.”[48] Van Mastricht’s treatment of the means of interpretation, for example, moves fluidly and directly from the analogy of faith, to interpreting Scripture by Scripture, and on to the value of keeping in mind “the whole plan of Scripture.”[49]

Applications and conclusion

It is the argument of this article that Scott Swain and Michael Allen are correct to argue that a posture of receptivity towards theological tradition from a wide range of sources is historically compatible with Protestant convictions (including sola Scriptura) and is biblically warranted. We have theological, not merely pragmatic, reasons to stand self-consciously in the stream of doctrine that has flowed down to us from the church through the centuries; it is there that we are best placed to seek faithfully and ever more fully to receive and inhabit the truth revealed in Scripture. If this is true, and if it is also true that evangelical attitudes to tradition have been at worse dismissive and at best uneven, then one of the needs of evangelical theology and evangelical church culture is a greater receptiveness to the value of the Spirit’s work in the church that comes to us in the form of tradition. So, at this point, leaving Allen and Swain’s book behind, we turn finally to ask what would it look like if we all became a little more Reformed catholic?[50]

First, and simply—if unnervingly—the scope of our influences would widen. It is generally acceptable in a wide swathe of evangelicalism, for example, to plunder Puritan writings at some length for wisdom. But a true Reformed catholicity will push us further than our favourites. Simply adopting one branch of tradition (probably the closest to our own outlook) will not do justice to the work of the Spirit throughout the whole church, nor will serve to thoroughly highlight our own blindspots (Lewis’ argument again).[51] So we would receive not merely the Puritans, but the desert Fathers; we would not only read John Owen on Song of Songs, but Bernard of Clairvaux; we would not stop at Calvin’s exegesis, but would sample that of Aquinas or Chrysostom. Conservative evangelicals can learn from the Christology of Thomas Weinandy or the theology of the body of John Paul II. Reformed catholicity inspires evangelicals to think this can be done not only with a critical eye that measures what is received against Scripture (though this remains vital), but also with generosity and gratitude. Perhaps such is already happily and increasingly the mood within conservative evangelical academic and seminary contexts. If so, such resourcing needs not to be hidden from the wider church, but to filter through more or less transparently to the benefit of congregations. We should stop placing such sources on implicit prohibited indexes, which both cuts off much that might be beneficial and fails in the long run to guard the flock. Surely better is the attitude of confidence in sound doctrine that can engage with those outside our own immediate tradition, finding common ground to rejoice in as well as discerning error.

Secondly, we would develop a patience with extended theological reasoning. The truths of the supreme authority and clarity of Scripture would not be misused so as to give the impression that every truth that might be of use to the church is immediately available to the most recent convert by their own isolated labour, or even to the kind of exegesis appropriate to a sermon. The work of the Spirit teaching the church is far richer than this. His work takes place in community, so we will need different sorts of theological work: the individual reading of Scripture, the preaching of the pastor, the study of the scholar. His work takes place coherently over time, so each generation of the church will need to pick up and press on with labours begun long ago. His work is to lead the church into ever-deeper appreciation of the infinite subject matter of Scripture, God and all his works, so will generate lengthy, rich and complex reflections. His work equips the church with truth so as to guide our obedience in every situation, so we should expect to be able to formulate complex theological judgements fit to meet complex contemporary questions. A theological conclusion that is not evident from a single Bible passage would not be therefore immediately suspect. The positive contribution of well-formed doctrine to exegesis would be welcomed, helping us in what we already recognise to be good reading: that in which we treat Scripture as one coherent whole and seek to hold together the manifold truths taught by the various strands of the biblical witness.

Thirdly, our attitude to secondary authorities would be recast. Do we, as I recall one teacher putting it, “receive Nicaea because Nicaea is biblical”? What might appear at first glance to be the only Protestant, sola Scriptura-honouring, attitude is not so clearly so on closer inspection. For as we have argued, treating traditional theological formulations as mere pointers to Bible verses is not to treat them with any authority at all, even secondary authority. Actually, I receive Nicaea initially on the authority of the united witness of the church that Nicaea guards and expresses biblical truth, not because by my own authority alone I can affirm the correlation with Scripture. The principle extends outward: the authority of the words preached to me Sunday by Sunday is not suspended pending the independent verification of my own exegesis. I take them substantially on trust, while acknowledging their authority is indeed secondary and in principle falsifiable against the touchstone of Scripture. This submission to the context in which the Spirit teaches the church from Scripture should breed humility and counter the pride of a culture in which the individual is lauded as the arbiter of truth (with which sometimes, perhaps, we have been complicit).

Finally, however, we return to the core of the preceding argument. Reformed catholicity is not held out here primarily for the benefits just listed. Still less is it offered as a panacea for perceived evangelical ills. Rather, Reformed catholicity is offered as a more consistent posture for evangelicals to take, because it is more scriptural and therefore more honouring to God than the alternatives.

About the author

Tom Underhill is the Operations Director of the South West Gospel Partnership, and a PhD candidate in Systematic Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary via Pastors’ Academy, London. He’s married to Katy and they have four children.


[1]  St. Athanasius and John Behr, On the Incarnation (Yonkers, N.Y: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), From the preface by Lewis.

[2]  Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2015).

[3]  It would be tedious to keep repeating “conservative evangelicals/ism in a UK context”, so I will speak simply of “evangelicals” and “evangelicalism” indicating primarily this subset of that wider culture.

[4]  Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 3.

[5]  A movement of Roman Catholic theologians giving increased attention to the work of Thomas Aquinas. For definition, see Reformed Catholicity, 11.

[6]  While Allen and Swain work from a distinctively Reformed stance, their reasoning on the key points is more historically Protestant than theologically Reformed, and hence can be appropriated by evangelicals more broadly.

[7]  Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 3.

[8]  The recent neglect or denial of the classic doctrines of divine simplicity and immutability comes to mind, as might contemporary attitudes to the connection between Sabbath and Lord’s Day.

[9]  To say this takes nothing away from the vital importance and centrality of the exegesis of competent pastors. It is to question, however, if this is the only or omni-sufficient way in which the church is to be taught from the Scriptures.

[10]  Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 18.

[11]  Allen and Swain consciously distinguish this from Roman Catholic approaches. Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 35.

[12]  Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 25.

[13]  “While Holy Scripture, as principium cognoscendi externum, is the divinely authoritative and sufficient source of theology, tradition, the Spirit-enabled reception of Scripture, is the divinely appointed goal of theology.” Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 36. The strength of Allen and Swain’s claim is not novel, however: Bavinck says the same. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed by. John Bolt, trans by. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2004), 1:493-4.

[14]  That these artefacts are fruits of the Spirit does not imply their perfection or finality, just as we would not expect the fruits of the Spirit in the character of the believer to manifest perfection.

[15]  Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 36-41. Allen and Swain do not flesh this out; I am supplementing their argument here.

[16]  Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 36.

[17]  Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 42–3. Emphasis original.

[18]  For a defence of the principle of good and necessary consequence, see Ryan McGraw, By Good and Necessary Consequence (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Reformation Heritage, 2012).

[19]  Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 38.

[20]  It is noteworthy that some advocates of catholicity seem to recognise the necessity of making at least some minimal ecclesiological claims as part of their case. Kevin Vanhoozer, for example, seems to imply that catholicity is difficult without commitment to “one, translocal, visible church.” Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2018), 198.

[21]  As Luther wrote concerning the Trinity: ‘We have precious books on this subject by St. Augustine, Hilary, and Cyril at our disposal. And this article of faith remained pure in the papacy and among the scholastic theologians, and we have no quarrel with them on that score’. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann, eds., Luther’s Works, 55 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1958)., 15:310.

[22]  Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 43.

[23]  The notion of the “shape” of the doctrine comes from Keith A. Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Moscow, Id.: Canon, 2001).

[24]  Allen and Swain reference A. N. Williams as an example of one who, while recognising that some evangelicals have begun to appreciate tradition, thinks this is incompatible with sola Scriptura, because she believes that the doctrine originally “denied any authority to tradition whatsoever.” Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 53–4.

[25]  Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 50.

[26]  They illustrate this particularly from the writings of Martin Bucer.

[27]  Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 67.

[28]  Emphasis mine, quoted in Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 67.

[29]  Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 70.

[30]  Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 72.

[31]  This is the “paradigmatic model of ecclesial authority exercised in the form of a church council.” Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 74.

[32]  Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 78.

[33]  Allen and Swain do not address these issues in this chapter, although they do return to some of them later, where they make a similar point about the mixed constitution of the Council. Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 112–3.

[34]  Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 81.

[35]  Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 82.

[36]  Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 83.

[37]  John Stott, The Message of 2 Timothy (Leicester: IVP, 1999), 52.

[38]  Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 99.

[39]  Many may be familiar with the charge not to let one’s “framework” control the meaning of a given Bible text.

[40]  Expanding them is the “faithful extension of an inner-biblical impulse.” Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 109.

[41]  D. A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Leicester: Apollos, 2008), 59.

[42]  Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 107.

[43]  Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 110–1.

[44]  Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 113, 115.

[45]  Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 111.

[46]  Peter J. Leithart, “The Word and the Rule of Faith,” First Things, 30 January 2015, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2015/01/the-word-and-the-rule-of-faith (accessed October 19, 2021).

[47]  Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 115. Allen and Swain make varied claims for the power of the rule of faith: their strongest is that “church dogmas provide…a divinely authorised interpretative key,” or that it is a “benchmark,” (115) but these are balanced by statements such as “the rule of faith offers an entry point into the hermeneutical spiral,” (113) or “promising orientation or starting point for the reading of Scripture,” (115) which seem rather more modest.

[48]  Quoting Whitaker. Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 102.

[49]  Petrus Van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, Volume 1: Prolegomena, ed by. Joel R. Beeke, trans by. Todd M. Rester (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Reformation Heritage Books, 2019), 194–5.

[50]  Which, we should recall, is a “theological sensibility, not a system.” Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 12.

[51]  Of course, we are even selective about what parts of the Puritans we retrieve: their exegesis of the Song of Songs or their political theology is largely passed over because strange to our ears. In other words, precisely where we find stimulating challenge. Moreover, if we truly received the Puritans, we would follow their (Reformed catholic!) lead in benefitting from the Fathers, Bernard, Aquinas, Scotus and so on.