The heebie-jeebies about tradition

I’ve blogged about tradition a few times in the past, most recently this post hereTradition, or in Greek paradosis, is what is handed along, what is handed down. Usually, in Christian circles, we differentiate between the unwritten tradition and the Scriptures, although Cypriot Greek Orthodox priests do not; there is only tradition, of which Scripture is the primary and most important and authoritative part.

The rest of us, because of the Reformation, are aware of two forces acting upon how we do Christianity. In its widest sense, this force of tradition is enormous and unwieldy. It includes not just the ‘core’ in my more recent post about tradition as well as saints’ days (and the whole cultus of the saints), purgatory, the immaculate conception of the BVM, transubstantiation, consubstantiation, your mom, most of the liturgy/-ies, Romanesque architecture, Gothic architecture, icons, stained glass, particular translations of Scripture, and so on and so forth.

And when, in the Reformation, the western Church was abusing certain aspects of these traditions, such as manipulating purgatory to get people to purchase papal indulgences to raise money to build St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the question was posed, and answered, forcefully: Why are all of these traditions binding?

And it was determined amongst we ‘Protestants’ that no tradition that was not supported by the force of Scripture was binding. Thus, in the 39 Articles of the Anglican religion, we have:

VI. Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation.
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

Nonetheless, tradition is still a force at work within Protestantism, especially in the ‘magisterial’ Reformation (whose descendants largely reside in today’s mainline denominations: Lutherans, the Reformed incl. Presbyterians, Anglicans). Anglicans have bishops, priests, and deacons, and basically use a Reformed, English version of Sarum Use for the Lord’s Supper and the daily office. Only priests can consecrate at the Eucharist, only bishops can ordain priests and deacons. These are matters for which, despite perhaps Reformed Presbyterian outcries on the one hand and certain types of ‘Catholic’ voice on the other, Scripture does not lay down a clear, discernible rule.

So we follow tradition. These matters of church polity are not necessarily the central, core realities of the Christian faith. So how does one go about organising a Protestant church? Sort of like a mediaeval one, if you ask the Anglicans and Lutherans (though each group with its own modifications). This is the design of church governance handed down to us by tradition.

Tradition alone cannot be binding upon any Christian. For example, I believe that a robust theology of the incarnation leads at least to allowing icons, if not necessarily venerating them. But I do not consider iconoclast churches heretical; I do not think their souls are in danger of hellfire. Indeed, sometimes I worry more about iconodules and where their own emphasis lies in personal devotion.

Tradition is useful today when so many divergent readings of Scripture abound. The core of the tradition as found in the canon of the faith that I blogged about two posts ago is a lens of Scriptural interpretation that was in existence before the set limits of the canon of Scripture. As Baptist scholar DH Williams discusses in Evangelicals and Tradition, the two canons played off of one another as the church lived, worshipped, and meditated on the truth. That of the faith helped the church discern whether or not a text such as the Gospel of Peter was Scripture or not. The various documents of Scripture helped dictate the shifts in the canon of the faith that happened at Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381).

With the various twistings of doctrine and ethics justified by logically valid readings of Scripture, whether being proferred to us by liberal Christianity, Unitarians, Christadelphians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, atheists, or agnostics, those of us who hold to an ‘evangelical’ view of how Scripture is to be read, we ‘conservatives’ need the ancient, central tradition to help us justify why our readings are more true than others’.

Beyond the canon of the faith, there are also traditional readings of Genesis and certain ethical issues regarding the law and Christian morality, that we find in a broad consensus of the orthodox Fathers, mediaeval writers, and Reformers (both Protestant and Catholic). So, when people come up with reinterpretations of moral commands, we need not abandon our vision either of sola scriptura nor of the old morality; for sola scriptura works best with tradition as a hermeneutical tool (famously, alongside reason and then experience as a last resort [to make Hooker’s three-legged stool Wesley’s quadrilateral]).

This, in brief, is how I feel about tradition right now and most broadly.


4 thoughts on “The heebie-jeebies about tradition

  1. My dear, good, learned, quirky and wonderful friend: I am highly honoured, amused, humbled and blessed that you have graced my amateur and throwaway comments with such a full and thoughtful response; which I do most heartily look forward to devouring at soonest convenience. I know I shall learn much. Thank you! The fact is, your post finds me desperately scrambling to finish – actually, more truthfully, START – writing a paper which is due today. So this is the end of my brief distraction. We shall continue chatting later.

    • Jono,

      You are welcome for this post! You are one of the people whose throwaway comments I would always be glad to grace with a post. 🙂 May God’s good grace bless you and your paper. 😀

      Also, I neglected to say in this post that I think the heebie-jeebies about this sort of thing is a safe place to be; so long as we are all seeking to be faithful to Christ as well as to be critical about how we think about the faith. 😉

  2. The multitude of interpretations of Sacred Scripture and the traditions which derive from them bear witness to the fact that no one human person possesses the Divine Wisdom in its entirety. As the multitude of diverse creatures somehow faintly mirrors God’s absolute goodness, perhaps the multitude of religious traditions somehow reflects His manifold truth. This is not to suggest that we must be moral or doctrinal relativists. Certainly, some things are true and others are false. But only God knows for certain which is which. We can only hope that God will reveal to us the fullness of His Truth in the life to come.

    Thanks for an interesting post. Have a great weekend. God bless!

    • Hey SaintlySages,

      There is something in this vision of the living tradition(s). Although I am fond of Leo (for example), when I read the writings of the best of his so-called ‘Monophysite’ opponents, I find myself drawn to their vision of theology and the unity of Christ. And, honestly, both options seem supported by Scripture. I am certainly open to all Trinitarian traditions being reflections and refractions of the multiplex beauty of the Triune God — and us not knowing who is right on certain issues until after Judgement Day!

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