When we talk about respecting Christian tradition, certain alarm bells go off in the minds of many evangelical Christians. Like sniffer dogs trained to detect an intruder, many Christians prick up their ears and get ready to oppose the idea of ‘Christian tradition’, once they hear the term. This is because for many, ‘Christian tradition’ sounds like one or many of the following: an endorsement of Roman Catholicism, an implicit denial or undermining of Sola Scriptura, and a mixing of false doctrine with the true. Christians respond this way for at least three reasons. The first is a misunderstanding of the way tradition and Christian doctrine work. The second is a misreading of church history. The third is an evolutionary (or Darwinistic) view of history.
Many Christians are fearful, if not disdainful, of Christian tradition. Misunderstanding how it works, they suppose that they are non-traditional or even anti-traditional, not realising that every church has a tradition. No church invents its doctrine or its worship from scratch. It receives its pre-understanding of Scripture, its hermeneutic, its particular doctrinal nuances, its hymnody, or its ministry philosophy from someone who went before: the church-planter, the missionary, the denomination, the collective Christian experience of the members that constitute it.
Doctrine, in particular, depends on tradition. No one could sit in a room alone and arrive at the whole counsel of God by himself. We come to our understanding of Scripture because we have teachers, who themselves were taught by other teachers. These teachers were taught by yet others, and so on, through twists and many turns, back to the apostles themselves. In fact, doctrinal progress only happens because the church builds on the doctrinal foundation laid by its predecessors. The church has fought battles over the Trinity, the nature of Christ, the inerrancy of Scripture, the depravity of man. The church does not have to re-invent the wheel with every generation, but can simply build on the doctrinal work of preceding generations. That is part of Christian tradition. The same is true of the way we pray, sing, worship, partake of the Lord’s Supper and disciple our own. These things are picked up from other Christians. The issue is not if you have a tradition, it is what tradition you have.
In the case of most modern evangelicals or fundamentalists, they trace their tradition to a form of popular (or populist) religion not older than the 19th century. Since this is their tradition, they tend to regard traditions outside (and older than) their revivalist tradition as ‘Catholic’, or ‘liturgical’, or ‘without the joy of the Lord’.
The accusation that the Christian culture pre-Charles Finney is Roman Catholic leads us to our second difficulty with tradition: a misreading or misunderstanding of church history.
Roman Catholicism has not always been what it is today. Roman Catholicism hardened its neck against the gospel of grace after the Reformation, with the Council of Trent canonising its rejection of it. Prior to Trent, there were several evangelical strands within Roman Catholicism. The writings of Thomas a Kempis, John Tauler, and the anonymous writer of Theologica Germanica display that these strands existed within Catholicism. Indeed, we must remember that proto-evangelical groups like the Waldenses, Arnoldists, Lollards, Hussites and other protest movements began within medieval Catholicism. The Reformers themselves were all Roman Catholics to begin with. So when we include pre-Reformation works as part of true Christian tradition, we are not necessarily toying with paganism, errant doctrine or the works-salvation canonised at the Council of Trent. So too, when we appreciate the occasional post-Reformation Roman Catholic with remnants of the evangelical influence remaining, like Brother Lawrence, Francois Fenelon, or Madame Guyon.
The mistake of rejecting all things pre-Reformation because they were produced in the era of medieval Catholicism is the same mistake of rejecting Anabaptist devotional writings because a very few were anti-Trinitarian or because most were persecuted by the Reformers, or rejecting the hymns of the German Pietists because some became too mystical, or rejecting writings from the Great Awakenings because of the excesses which occurred during that time, or rejecting the prayers of the Patristics because of some of the errors of their theology. These would be examples of misunderstanding church history.
We are uncharitable when we fail to accept the blindness of certain eras. We are not fair when we fail to factor in the theological controversies of each era, with the nearly inevitable overreactions and overstatements. We are partial when we read our understanding of theology, based on two-thousand years of progressive and cumulative understanding [due to tradition], back into theirs, and fault them for not possessing it. We must learn to deal fairly and even-handedly with Christian history. We must learn to distinguish the true heretics from the fallible but faithful teachers of the church.
Furthermore, because we value tradition does not mean we value it for the same reasons the Roman Catholic church does. For Romanism, tradition is a form of authority on the level of revelation. Romanists believe that the traditions contained in Roman Catholic practice reflect practices begun during the era of the apostles, and thus carry inherent authority, even if there is no biblical basis for them. Conservative Christians do not regard tradition as supplying revelation and authority, but as one of the aids to interpreting it. The Reformers’ cry of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) is not endangered by conservative Christianity’s respect for tradition, for tradition does not usurp the primary place of Scriptural revelation. However, we do not interpret the Scriptures in a temporal vacuum. We stand on the shoulders of other Christians. If it becomes clear that the tradition has failed to do justice to the Scriptures, then we abandon the tradition.
The third obstacle to respecting Christian tradition is a Darwinistic view of history. Whether they realise it or not, many Christians have imbibed a view of history that resembles evolutionary thought. That is, like the belief that organisms that go from simple to complex, this sees human history as the record of man steadily advancing from savage to civilised. By the process of natural selection combined with time, man arrives at greater enlightenment, technological progress, and humanitarian achievement. In this view, the latest point in history represents the most advanced state of mankind. In other words, the church of 2009 must be the most enlightened, knowledgeable, pious and successful church of all time. Why? Because its the latest one – and therefore the most developed.
If we believe this, then we will feel very little reason to respect Christian tradition, any more than a land mammal feels nostalgic over its supposed former life in the sea. We will simply assume our current state is the best the church has enjoyed and turn our backs on the past. Needless to say, this view is wrong, blind and deeply conceited.
When we understand the nature of tradition, some basic understanding of church history, and a correct view of history, we can be freed from the ‘suspicion of tradition’. We are freed to glean from the Christian past, with the advantage of being able to examine each prayer, hymn, devotional or writing without being embedded in that era. How we are to evaluate these things from the Christian past will be the subject of the next post.