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.

Advertisements

Saint of the Week: Richard Hooker

At a small meeting of people from the Presbyterian church I currently attend, a man said (in a grrrea’, rrrrolling Scots’ brrogue) that the Reformation never went as far in England as it did in Scotland. If by ‘Reformation’ we mean producing a national church that little resembles Roman Catholicism, then this is true. But if by ‘Reformation’ we mean putting Scripture high again, placing justification by faith to the fore, eliminating clerical abuses, and various other things, perhaps England went far enough.

Either way, we have folks like Richard Hooker (1554-1600) to thank for it.*

My first encounter with Richard Hooker was his Learned Discourse on Justification. In this, originally a sermon preached in 1585 when he was Master of the Temple, he proclaims justification by faith so completely and radically, perceiving the grace of God to transform us into righteous persons, that he says:

God, I doubt not, was merciful to save thousands of them [pre-Reformation Catholics], though they lived in popish superstitions, inasmuch as they sinned ignorantly; but the truth is now laid before our eyes.

Even if someone holds faith ‘but weakly and as it were by a slender thread’, God will smile upon that faith and save the soul at hand.

This stirred up the ire of the Puritans. Of course. Immediately upon working through Hooker’s florid, sixteenth-century prose, I was fond of the man.

Hooker, born in Devonshire, studied at Corpus Christi in Oxford, and was ordained priest in 1579. His first posting was as one of the preachers at Old St. Paul’s (no longer standing) in London, and three years later was rector of St. Mary’s Drayton Beauchamp, Buckinghamshire.

HM Queen Elizabeth I took an interest in Richard Hooker and appointed him Master of the Temple Church in London, one of the most prominent pulpits in England, the next year, 1585. His preaching there and then elsewhere as the years went by, as noted above, drew fire from Puritans who were scandalised by the idea of Roman Catholics being saved and who felt that Hooker’s support for further reforms in the Church did not go far enough.

In 1594, as part of his response to the Puritan reaction to his preaching, Hooker published the first four volumes of his eight-volume Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie. The next year, 1595, he became rector of the parishes of St. Mary the Virgin in Bishopsbourne and St. John the Baptist Barham in Kent. In 1597, he published the fifth volume of the Lawes, but the last three were published posthumously, following his death in 1600.

Hooker helped forge the beast ‘Anglicanism’ into what it historically has been. He saw the value in tradition and chose not throw it all away as the Puritans were urging. Instead, he believed that tradition and Scripture working together with our God-given reason can lead us to a proper understanding of Christian doctrine and the interpretation of sacred Scripture.

This ‘three-legged stool’ has survived in Anglican thought through the centuries, as we seek to understand the Scriptures anew with every generation, as we seek to explain the words of life in new ages. Our understanding of Scripture, exegesis, salvation, and the Church are much affected by Hooker; he helped steer us between the Presbyterianism of the Puritans and the Catholicism of some of his other contemporaries.

Would that we could find a safe path along this historic middle way today, using the critical faculties of our reason as we seek to be creatively faithful to our tradition and the Scriptures.

*See also Saints of the Week Thomas Cranmer and Lancelot Andrewes.

Tap into the Tradition: The Remedy for “Matthewism”

As may be known, I have a habit of listening to Ancient Faith Radio and reading Eastern Orthodox books (the most recent being Being As Communion).  The Eastern Orthodox are a voice worth listening to, and one of the main reasons they are worth listening to is because they, in turn, listen to the Fathers.  They are, thus, deeply traditional, preserving that which has been handed down to them.

Frederica Mathewes-Green, one of the many Orthodox converts on Ancient Faith Radio, says:

I realized that my selections [in my spiritual life] were inevitably conditioned by my own tastes, prejudices, and blind spots. I was patching together a Frankenstein God in my own image, and it would never be taller than five foot one. (Quoted here.)

This is the Christianised version of the religion cited by Miroslav Volf in Exclusion and Embrace of “Sheilaism” — whatever you feel like believing, however you feel like worshipping, however you feel like living is what comprises your worldview, religion, and lifestyle.

What Mathewes-Green discovered in Orthodoxy was the corrective of tradition.  We all have our idiosyncrasies that we bring to how we think and live, and as Christians we have them when we approach Scripture and worship.  Tradition is the accumulation of what has been handed down from the Apostles and generally approved of in each generation.  It challenges our presuppositions and idiosyncrasies, sometimes very uncomfortably, but when entered into prayerfully, the Spirit will use it to conform us more and more into the image of Christ rather than the accumulation of stuff and culture and self that we bring with us to begin with.

I decided that, while Orthodoxy is interesting and all, I already have a tradition of my own, and it sprang up in England around 596 with the arrival of St. Augustine of Canterbury.  To ensure that I actually am part of this tradition, I recently re-read the 39 Articles of Religion, and I find myself in agreement with them.  So, besides reading the 39 Articles, what am I to do to engage with the Anglican tradition in all its richness?

1.  I have decided to plug into the Book of Common Prayer more frequently, using Morning & Evening Prayer and Compline, but also on occasion the Anglican Society of Saint Francis’ Celebrating Common Prayer for the divine office.  The daily office is an important part of traditional English spirituality.  It is a way to pray to and draw near to God while at the same time joining with believers within the tradition throughout the world and throughout time.

2.  I want to read the classics of the Anglican moral/ethical tradition.  This will first mean finishing off William Law’s Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, but moving on to Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and John Wesley’s Plain Account of Christian Perfection.  This aspect of the tradition includes both virtuous living and the call to social justice, both of which are part of the endless movement towards holiness and perfection (on this endless movement, see St. Gregory of Nyssa).

3.  The Anglican tradition also includes the English Reformers, so the Book of Homilies and Richard Hooker at large are to be part of my long-range plan, as is Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

4.  The Anglican tradition has a large component of hymnody worth exploring, and since I have 3 copies of Canada’s 1938 Hymn Book, I am well-prepared for this angle.  Alongside hymnody are the poets — Donne, Herbert, et al.

5. The pre-Reformation English tradition, from St. Augustine of Canterbury to the Venerable Bede to St. Anselm to Lady Julian of Norwich and more is part of the tradition as well.  I think a study of the mediaeval roots of “Reformation” thought would be a worthy activity.  Despite the arguments over the date of Easter and monasticism, mediaeval English Christianity tried to adapt local Celtic customs as part of their own, thus making “Celtic” Christianity also fair game.

6.  Patristics is fair game, being the root of much mediaeval Christian thought as well as much Reformation thought.  The Fathers are the Fathers of all Christendom, not just the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox bits.

7.  The theologians other than the Reformers, up to the present day.  The emphasis on Tradition means that, while I should probably grapple with the likes of Spong, Ingham, and more, my emphasis should fall on the Wesleys, the Anglo-Catholics/Oxford Movement, C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, J.I. Packer, John Stott, and their ilk.

The above should probably last me until I’m dead.  Re those within Anglicanism who are divergent voices of dissent who attack and judge the tradition, I believe that the way to approach them is to look at them through the lens of the tradition, taking those bits that fall beyond the bounds of Scripture, the Creeds, and the 39 Articles, and providing cogent, reasonable, biblical, and traditional critique.

What about your tradition?  What are the roots and classic writings of Baptists, Mennonites, the Christian Reformed Church, Roman Catholicism, Pentecostalism?  With these in one hand, the Bible in the other, large doses of prayer, and the enlivening of the Holy Spirit, we should be more clearly drawn towards the image of the likeness of Christ than when our own idiosyncrasies take control as we read our Bibles all alone in our rooms.  Oh, also, take along a worshipping ecclesial community for the journey.  God will use them to shape you mightily as well.

John Wesley on Spiritual Reading

As promised, here are some thoughts on Wesley’s thoughts on spiritual reading.

First, go and read his brief introduction to The Christian’s Pattern, Wesley’s abridgement of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis.  A non-copyright edition is available through Google Books.  My thanks to Liam for making me aware of this fact.

In our world of instant, consumable media such as blogging, newspapers, TV, magazines, etc, Wesley’s advice goes somewhat against the grain.  His first piece of advice?  Find an assigned time for reading your spiritual book (in this case, The Christian’s Pattern).  Same time every day.  Don’t give it up unless absolutely necessary, and then reassign your time for reading to time as close to the original as possible.  Most of us tend to read whatever we want whenever we want.  Wesley urges not to do this.

This first piece of advice is actually quite good.  It is sensible for someone who has limited time and a specific book to work through.  The establishment of a routine can be the establishment of a good habit.  By doing our spiritual reading at the same time every day, we are less likely to forget about or let it slide to the wayside.  And if we keep it up for 40 days, it becomes a habit.  Some habits are good and worth keeping.

Second, he encourages the reader to read with purity of intention.  We are supposed to prepare our hearts and minds for reading.  We are to read prayerfully, asking God to enlighten us through the reading, to make us attuned to what he is saying.  Most of us just grab a book/computer/magazine/whatev and plunge in with no preparation or time for self-examination.

I like this second piece of advice.  Clearing your mind of the detritus of the day before engaging in any task that requires mental preparation just makes sense.  You are less likely to be distracted and more likely to follow Kierkegaard: “Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing.”

Third, we are not simply to burn through our spiritual reading like it’s a thriller by Frank Peretti, Dan Brown, or Daniel Defoe.  We are to read “leisurely, seriously, and with great attention.”  We are reading for our own profit.  We are to read and reread until we thoroughly understand what is being said and have applied to our lives.  If something is of especial profit to us, we should go over it and meditate on it more than once, trying to appropriate the lesson for how we ought to live.  Again, most of us are careless in our reading.  We read quickly and for pleasure, not slowly and with leisure.  If we wish to have our souls scoured and made clean by the spiritual books in our lives, Wesley urges us to slow down.

If we read slowly, carefully, and methodically, our reading is more likely to have a lasting impact upon the way we think and live.  I think we need to engage in this kind of reading more than once a week (if we are readers, that is), and possibly every day.  I have read a lot of stuff about spirituality and the Bible, but very little had truly soaked into me.  Perhaps if I followed John Wesley’s advice on spiritual reading, it will finally soak in and transform who I am, how I live, what I think.  And perhaps I’ll more easily be ready for the movement of the Spirit when He says, “This part here — not such a good idea…”

Fourth, John Wesley exhorts his readers to stir themselves up to “a temper correspondent with what you read.”  The idea is that we are more than mere intellects but are also spirits and bodies, with emotions and passions.  This paragraph is a reminder that John Wesley is the man whose “heart was strangely warmed,” a man who once had an experience that looks suspiciously like “being ‘slain’ in the Spirit” to my eyes, the man who gave Hooker’s three-legged stool a fourth leg, that of experience.

I understand what this fourth piece of advice is driving at.  However, it seems the most suspect to me, to someone of academic training, to someone who, since high school at least, has been told to set aside passions and emotions when approaching a text.  A text is to be studied with the intellect alone.  To bring the bundle of emotions and passions that make me me is to compromise my point of view, to ruin my objectivity.  I am, as a result, not sure how far to go with Wesley on this fourth piece of advice.

Finally, he exhorts the reader to conclude with a prayer.  This is sensible advice.  We are to lead lives soaked in prayer, imbued with the very presence of God in all that we do.  We should begin and end all activities with prayer; we should also pray in the midst of them.

This little introduction also serves as a reminder that John Wesley was a Methodist before he wasn’t an Anglican.