Does Tradition Matter?


Heather Reichgott's latest question in her theology game is "Does tradition matter?"

She points out that this question is actually part of a broader topic: what are the respective roles that tradition, the Bible, reason and experience play in matters of faith?

These are the sorts of issues that Protestants might easily agonize over. Does the Bible trump tradition? Are the Bible and tradition equal sources of religious truth? Can tradition ever contradict the Bible? I think therefore that one cannot really answer this question unless one steps back and takes a broader view of the nature of revelation and the nature of religious "truth".

I would begin by offering a few basic working principles that make sense for me.

First, there is not one single tradition of faith, but many.

Second, traditions build on and influence one another. These traditions of faith participate in a constantly evolving dialogue with each other, with previous traditions, with culture, with science, and with God. This is what I might call the dance of theology. To use another metaphor, traditions are like flowing streams that divide and merge with one another over the landscape of history. To make an idol out of an old tradition is like walking upstream to prevent the water from flowing downhill.

Third, there is no real distinction between the Bible and traditions, because the Bible is the written expression of some of these streams of tradition.

We are part of the same process that produced the traditions that preceded us. We are no different from the people who created those traditions, and we are no different from those who wrote the Bible. It is all the same process that we are engaged in--people of faith are all trying to make sense of God. Or at least I think we should be.

Tradition matters for the same reason that the Bible matters. It informs our position in the theological dance. Traditions give us something to work with, so that we are not all starting from square one. But tradition also carries no more or less authority than the Bible does. What tradition (and the Bible) grants us is not authority but insight. The best insights are about the process that produced these traditions. The process is what matters, not necessarily the conclusions that were arrived at. Sometimes those conclusions can be dead ends, or faulty in some way. Or, because there are often multiple traditions at work, the traditions can be contradictory.

John Shuck and another Presbyterian pastor have been conducting a friendly and open debate of a variety of theological issues. At one point, the other pastor stated that the Bible should not be through a modern cultural lens. To me, nothing could be more incorrect. I would argue that you have to view the Bible through a modern cultural lens. The same could be said for the traditions that both produced the Bible and which followed in its wake. As I wrote in John's blog in response to this,

...the Bible is a product of the cultures that it came from. To take ancient writings that reflect their own cultures and times and then elevate those to an idol, and to turn around and refuse to use our own cultural interpretation, is a complete contradiction. The Bible not only reflected the cultures of its writers, but it reflects an evolving sensibility as the cultures changes. Post-exilic theology was not the same as pre-exilic theology. Post-Maccabbean theology was not the same as pre-Maccabbean theology. The Bible is a record of culturally based evolution of theological understandings. To then freeze this process and refuse to participate in the ongoing dialogue with science, history, culture, civilization, and God, which the Biblical writers did, is to be in denial about what took place in the creation of the Bible itself. It is to idolize the Bible without really taking it seriously.
This process of culturally based evolution of theology did not stop with the closing of the canon. Ironically, Protestants who claim to subscribe to the dogma of sola scriptura are in denial about their own use of traditions. Most Protestants who insist on only relying on the Bible nevertheless adhere, for example, to Trinitarian formulas and creeds that were codified as Christian dogma not in the Bible, but by church councils in the fourth century AD.

Many people might like to think that each Christian "tradition" is a single, unbroken line of doctrines that stems from the apostolic faith of Jesus and his disciples. In fact, the Christian faith was diverse almost from the moment that Jesus died. It was only because of the later collusion between Christianity and the power of the Roman Empire that the illusion of homogeneity emerged. There was then said to be one "true" Christian faith that went back to Jesus, while all the other Christianities were "heresies" that had somehow deviated from the original true message.

An ossified tradition kills the very life of a religious faith. It chokes the very creative processes that led to the formation of those traditions in the first place. Instead of worshiping the idol of tradition, it would make more sense for modern people of faith to continue to participate in the evolution of the traditions themselves. Let us take the best of the ancient traditions, but not be wedded to any tradition in its entirety if we can build on it, amend it, correct it, or expand upon it. We are no different from those who developed the traditions that we now look back on. We are trying at limited and finite creatures to understand the infinite Divine reality. Let God speak to us as God spoke to those who preceded us. Let us continue to listen.


John Shuck said...

Thanks Seeker,

Very well stated. We have no other lens but our own!

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Thanks for the reflections on tradition. I agree that Scripture is part of the traditions that inform us and I would say form us. Coming from the Disciples tradition (and we don't like the word tradition) there is a discomfort with creeds and a desire to connect with Scripture (especially the NT) alone. The question then is whether Scripture is part of the traditions that inform us, but how do we decide which ones will form us. Protestants have tried, not entirely successfully, to give Scripture the normative place in this process. It is, thus, the norming norm for Christian life. -- by the way I've got a posting over at on creeds.