Tradition Suspicion

Rightly viewing tradition

The religious scene of South Africa is populated by mainline Protestant churches, some of whom place great emphasis on tradition. However, in many of these churches, the gospel itself is all but invisible, an assumed but unseen foundation of the house. The problem is, most of those in the house have never clearly heard or understood the gospel, and the same might be said for many of the religious professionals who teach there.

Once a person comes under the sound of the true gospel and believes it, he is struck by the sad irony of having attended a church for decades in which the gospel itself was never proclaimed. Inevitably, this new-found knowledge of biblical truth tends to produce a desire to distance himself from anything and everything connected with the former church, including any allegiance to tradition. Since such churches often rely on and turn to their traditions, the new Christian concludes that tradition must be part of the problem that caused the gospel itself to go into eclipse in such churches.

The truth is, tradition is indeed a double-edged sword. When tradition preserves the truth, it is a reliable record that comes to a newer generation without that generation having to re-invent the wheel. When tradition preserves untruths, it becomes the guardian of a lie that will not die. It is an accomplice to deception, using its antiquity to give credibility to its spurious beliefs and practices.

In reaction to gospel-eviscerated traditionalism, it is possible to identify tradition itself as the problem. This would be a mistake. If a particular museum keeps something worthless, this does not negate the value of museums. Clearly, what matters is what tradition preserves. A gospel-eviscerated tradition is a bad one. A gospel-centered tradition is a good one.

Pastors who wish to have churches in which the Christian tradition is rightly viewed and used must help their parishioners to see just this. Tradition is neither pure evil nor unmitigated good. Traditions must be judged for the truth of what they preserve. To help Christians overcome either an unhealthy antipathy towards tradition, or an unquestioning deference to tradition, I suggest pastors teach several things.

First, we must teach that tradition is biblical. One of Paul’s instructions to Timothy is to teach faithful men who will be able to teach others also. This command is nothing less than a command for a tradition. The truth is to be taught to others, who will teach that same truth to others still. Since each generation receives the truth from teachers who heard from others, this is tradition at work. Simply because each generation holds to sola Scriptura does not mean that they were not helped, influenced or enabled to understand the truth by former generations. When we train leaders, and encourage people to disciple others, and disciple their children, we are perpetuating a tradition. We want the truth passed on. We want right practices passed on. We want ordinate worship passed on. This is only right, and it is the biblical idea of tradition.

Second, we must teach that we all depend on tradition. One way of pointing this out is to ask how people came to faith. They will often mention a person who shared the gospel with them. The question then becomes, who shared the gospel with that person? And with the person before that? Soon we find a line of Christians who preserved and taught the gospel stretching back through the centuries. We would not be saved had Christians before us not preserved and passed on the gospel. This is true not only of the gospel, but of doctrine. We do well to help our people understand that we ourselves did not invent the categories of essence and persons when it comes to explaining the Trinity. Rather, we have received these categories after centuries of debate and theological refinement. Were it not for the work done at Nicea, Chalcedon, Augsburg and so on, we would be wallowing in a mass of biblical data, taking on the gargantuan task of figuring it all out on our own. Fortunately, we do not have to do the pastoral or theological equivalent of swimming the Pacific, but we can and do receive the baton of orthodox doctrinal categories from centuries of Christian work.

Third, we must deny that tradition is a straight or unbroken line. While it is tempting for some to style themselves as true heirs of an undiluted orthodoxy that never wavered from the days of the apostles, church history simply does not bear this out. Church history is a time-line of doctrinal combat, a series of reactions and overreactions to heresy and hypocrisy, with corrections, over-corrections and corrections-that-never-were. Church history is a very crooked, jagged line, with many branches veering off into denials of the faith. In order to rightly value tradition, we need not try to find ourselves with our combinations of beliefs and practices in the pages of church history for some form of self-validation. Rather, we can rejoice in the providence of God in bringing what we now have through the twists and turns of church history.

Fourth, we must teach how to evaluate the Christian tradition. Not all traditions are equally helpful. Not everything calling itself Christian today is so, and the same is true of the past. We must help our people to evaluate what they read from the Christian past to judge its worth.

Rightly evaluating tradition

If we are to grow a right view of the Christian tradition within our churches, we will have to overcome the “suspicion of tradition” that pervades many evangelical churches. One way to do this is to teach Christians how to evaluate writings, hymns, prayers, and liturgies from the Christian past. When Christians have a set of tools to judge the value of tradition, they are less jittery about reading it. I suggest three important considerations that pastors can communicate to their people for the evaluation of the Christian tradition.

First, any ostensibly Christian writing must be judged for its allegiance to the biblical gospel. Just as we would not recognise a contemporary writing as Christian if the author denied the gospel, so we cannot recognise writings from the past as Christian if they do the same. That is not to say that such writings become useless to us. It simply means we would not accord them status as genuine parts of the Christian tradition. We would read them with the same interest we might read the modern commentaries by critical or liberal scholars. Of course, in judging the ancients according to this test, we will not expect them to articulate the gospel precisely as contemporary evangelicals do. (Perhaps that is a good thing.) Instead, we will look for confession of the fundamentals of the faith: the triune God, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, the death and resurrection of Christ for sinners, His ascension and return, the need for salvation by grace through faith, the existence of the church, the reality of judgement and resurrection after death. These essential doctrines were defended in the earliest creeds, and orthodox Christianity has always affirmed them.

Second, we must understand doctrinal turning points. In the progress of Christian thought, there is often a point at which controversy causes a particular doctrine to be carefully defined by Christians. Chalcedon was a turning point for Christology. The Athanasian Creed was a turning point for Trinitarianism. Luther was a turning point for justification by faith. Calvin was a turning point for the atonement of Christ. These turning points mark off important distinctions we must make in evaluating tradition. The writings on a particular theme or doctrine before the turning point must be judged differently from those written after it. Often, before the turning point, a doctrine is assumed, or it has not been come under the careful scrutiny it will in later times. After the turning point, dissident views are self-consciously so. When Irenaeus offers us the recapitulation view of the atonement, or when Anselm offers his satisfaction view, these are not necessarily denials of orthodox Christianity. There is truth in them, though penal substitutionary atonement is at the very heart of the doctrine of atonement. When Calvin articulates penal substitution, we have reached a turning point. Writings after the sixteenth century that attempt to use other theories of the atonement to deny penal substitution are now in a very different category to the writings of the early church Fathers that emphasise other aspects of the atonement. The Council of Trent is a denial; Origen not necessarily so.

In teaching how to evaluate tradition, we must teach that a fair judgement of tradition must consider these turning points. Critics of inerrancy who claim such a concept is absent from church history misunderstand that the doctrinal turning point for inerrancy was the 19th century, perhaps captured in the Chicago Statement a century later. Similar situations prevail for many other doctrines. We often fail to grant the necessary charity to writers before the turning point (or perhaps, the necessary severity to writers after it).

Third, we must look for catholicity and enduring value. If a particular hymn, prayer, treatise or book has tended to find favor with Christians across the ages, it probably represents something permanent and enduring. It will more than likely continue to speak to Christians today. Ironically, these are probably easier to spot in today’s Christianity than ever before. Given the modern intoxication with novelty, works which still remain on the fringes of Christian consciousness are likely those with just such enduring value. To keep its head above the deluge of contemporary Christian writing, a work needs the buoyancy of its catholicity and timelessness.

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