My church raised me to love the Bible and all its stories, but didn’t talk much about tradition, or the historic creeds, confessions, and catechisms. I learned the Bible every week, but I was missing out on what my spiritual grandparents had to offer me. It wasn’t until seminary that the significance of what came before me began to sink in. That’s when I discovered my need for what I like to call extra-biblical humility.
Extra-biblical humility is a humble respect and gratitude for all that God has provided for the health and vitality of his Church outside of the biblical canon. This means respecting and caring about words like dogma, doctrine, and theology. It means cherishing our rich heritage as evangelical Christians by paying attention to more than just our Bibles. It means recognizing the call for all of this is grounded in Scripture itself, as 2 Corinthians 13:5a says, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.”
Up until seminary I had shown a willingness and desire to read my Bible and pray, but not much else besides reading a few modern Christian books and listening to my pastor preach. In so doing, I left some blind spots unguarded. If you feel like you only need to know your Bible and those who care about theology are slightly less holy than you, than you might have these same blind spots. Our weakness comes from redefining sola Scriptura from “no authority over the Bible” into “no authority except the Bible.”1
When my sister-in-law started college in Boston, she met a group of people who knew their Bibles from back to front. They were zealous for God, called themselves a church, but something about their beliefs didn’t seem right. They told her she had to be baptized to be saved and their’s was the only baptism that counted. After all, Ephesians 4:5 says “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” so someone must have the one true baptism. Warning sirens! The group my sister-in-law ran into was a very real cult. But how did they get to a place of such poor theology? They got there, and we can too, by placing our personal interpretation of the Bible next to the Bible in importance.
Where then should our beliefs and practices come from? We first want them to come from the Word of God, but where should we check our beliefs to make sure they’re right? Where should our interpretation fall in comparison to other teachings? Michael Horton, in his systematic theology, unpacks a “proper order:”2
“(1) the Scriptures as the infallible canon, qualitatively distinct from all other sources and authorities;”
A healthy Christian belief system rich in extra-biblical humility is like a house. The Bible is the rock upon which we build our home. It is where we build our theology, not around it, but upon it. This differs from Roman Catholicism which puts Scripture and tradition on par. We test everything we believe today to make sure it stands upon God’s word.
“(2) under this magisterial norm, the ministerial service of creeds and confessions;”
The creeds and confessions are the foundation from which the house that is evangelical belief, practice, and personal interpretation should rise. Various traditions will hold to their own specific confession, like the Westminster, Savoy, or London, but we should all hold to the early creeds. This is why we need to recite the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds often. Catechisms like the Heidelberg or more modern New City also function as checks for our beliefs. All of these help us stand firm within the circle of orthodox Christian belief.
“(3) contemporary proclamation of God’s Word in the church around the world;”
We now build the structure of our home with the global preaching of pastors and teachers. As a pastor in America, I have a different perspective on God’s word than pastors in Asia, but we should all preach the same good news and essential doctrines. Our explanations of the Trinity, the fall, salvation by God’s grace through faith, the inerrancy of Scripture, substitutionary atonement, and more, although contextualized, should mean the same thing.
“(4) Long-standing interpretations in the tradition;”
Our house rises higher with traditional interpretations of God’s word. Our home is almost built, but not without caring about the past and what it declared to be right belief. Have you just created a brand-new theology that solves everything? Be wary. If you think the Church has really gotten it wrong up to this point, then you could be right, but you could also be undercutting the role of the Holy Spirit as he sustains the ministry and belief of the Church.
“(5) the particular nuances of individual theologians.”
At the top we come to individual theologians. We all have pastors, elders, preachers, theologians, and popular authors we like. It’s often tempting to put their interpretations of God’s Word on par with Scripture, but we should always be careful in doing so. When our favorites preach a biblically true sermon, they too preach authoritatively, but their interpretation should not deviate from the rest of the house, especially the creeds and essentials.
Finally, we come to you, the chimney. Consider that a chimney isn’t just on the roof, it is laid at the ground level and is built through the house. It works with the rest of the house to heat the home and give life to the faith. Your faith won’t align with every corner of the building, but it shouldn’t ignore its place or a fire could start in the wrong location. When viewed from the outside, the chimney appears small in comparison to the rest of the house. For many evangelical Christians, we are simply a chimney on a hill, which is more like a fire pit than a home. This brings glory to us and our interpretation instead of glory to God and the Holy Spirit’s work in the Church.
A Rich Heritage to Mature Disciples
The Word of God is sufficient for faith and practice, but God has also given us a rich heritage to guard, protect, and mature us as disciples. Let’s make sure we and our churches understand the importance of what has come before us by reciting creeds in our worship services, teaching catechisms in our children and adult Sunday schools, and explaining orthodoxy from the pulpit. Knowing what’s come before and having extra-biblical humility is a sign of a humble and mature disciple. It’s a sign to those you are discipling that you don’t have all the answer and ultimately points them back to Christ and to the community of faith who looked to Christ before us.
When I arrived at seminary, I didn’t have much extra-biblical humility. I couldn’t have told you much about dogma, doctrine, or theology, but the more I learned about the history of the Church and all it has to offer, the more grateful I became. When I realized I didn’t have to figure out everything anew for myself, it gave me the freedom to enjoy, study, and discover the Bible in a whole new light because I knew I was safeguarded by historic orthodox belief.
Jonathan M. Romig (M.Div., Gordon-Conwell) is the associate pastor at Immanuel Church in Chelmsford Massachusetts (CCCC). He blogs at PastorRomig.blogspot.com and recently finished teaching New City Catechism to his adult Sunday school class and self-published his first ebook How To Give A Christian Wedding Toast.
1. Gary Parrett and J.I. Packer, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010), 68-69.↩
2. Michael S. Horton, The Christian Faith: a Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011), 218.↩