The Attitude of Respect for Christian Tradition – 1

If our affections are shaped by example and exposure, then we need to be exposed to examples of people with ordinate affection. We cannot create our affections, worship or tradition out of thin air. As we have said, the most powerful form of shaping the affections is the culture you dwell in. When a culture is stretched over a period of time, it can be called a tradition.

But what do we do if we are living in a dark time for the church, where the Christian culture is filled with inordinate affection? What do we do if the historic Christian culture and tradition was abandoned around the time of Charles Finney, and replaced with a innovated, pragmatic culture that sought to reflect the secular world back to itself? What do we do if our choices of modern examples of piety are between hysterical glandular worship on the one hand and stoic cerebral worship on the other? Where do we learn ordinate affection from if our modern examples are reflections of the sentimentalised, trivialised, and sensualised church of the 21st century?

The answer is to adopt the second kind of attitude which should characterise conservative Christians: a familiarity with and respect for historical Christian tradition and culture.

When I am in a foreign country, people ask me where I am from, because my accent is different to theirs. They do not get asked that question, unless they board a plane and travel to another country. When we leave our own culture, and dwell in another one, we notice how different we are. We see that ‘they do things differently’. We begin to notice our own customs, ways, attitudes, speech, mannerisms, saying, expectations, likes and dislikes, which formerly we took for granted. Only once you have some distance between you and your culture can you begin to understand it.

We can never properly understand the culture of modern Western Christianity from within. We are too deeply engaged. We are embedded in it, and are not be able to spot its innovations, improvisations, or impiety, except where it seems particularly outrageous to us.

But if we were to spend time with the saints of old, we would be confronted with affections quite different to many of ours. We would notice some of their prayers, hymns, attitudes, aspirations, and disciplines are quite different from ours. By ‘living’ with these dead saints through their writings, we would be exposed to examples of ordinate affection. We would be confronted with ways of thinking and feeling and acting towards God, the world and humanity which would contrast with our own.  Furthermore, we would connect with a heritage which is the church’s birthright, albeit one sold by various Esau-like leaders for their pragmatic mess of pottage.

We may make the mistake of brushing ancient Christian culture off as ‘too serious’, or ‘melancholy’, or as ‘Roman Catholic-and-therefore-irrelevant’. This would be a great error. Possibly the only way a modern Christian can be shaken out of the complacency of modern Christianity is to be exposed to the example of Christians now gone. To read Christians before Charles Finney is to enter into a Christian culture which we both like and do not like, for it elevates us and intimidates us simultaneously. Their use of language sounds strange to us. Their writings appear obscure. They do not deal with what we think is ‘relevant’. They call for disciplines that seem harsh. But to dismiss them would be to remain prisoners of our own modern Christian culture. If, in fact, our modern Christian culture is riddled with inordinate affection, to remain bound to it is a horrible fate. As the saying goes, He who knows only his own generation remains forever a child.

There is something quite conceited and egocentric about members of a 2000-year old institution who have no interest in its past, and a near-obsession with its present. To listen only to contemporary Christian leaders, to read only contemporary Christian authors, to sing only “contemporary Christian music”, to follow only contemporary models of ministry is a kind of narcissism. We are so in love with our generation, so convinced that we are the furthest point on the scale of Christian piety, so enamoured with novelty, so impressed with ‘progress’, and so convinced of the inherent merit of contemporaneity, that we dismiss a study of the church triumphant as merely the ‘subject’ of Church History. We are convinced that our piety is ordinate, our prayers are humble, our worship is reverent, our liturgies are pleasing to God. How do we know? Because the big churches we admire all do it that way. And so the dog chases its tail.

To embrace the attitude of respect for historic Christian culture, we will have to do several things.

First, we will have to deal with the ‘suspicion of tradition’, so prevalent in many evangelical and fundamentalist churches. We will have to have the right approach to evaluating Christian tradition, neither giving it blanket approval, nor ignoring it altogether.

Second, we will have to set ourselves the goal of deliberately exposing ourselves to the Christian church of the past, parsing it for meaning and evaluating it carefully. This will not be a book here or there, but a deep saturation with the writings of saints now gone.

Third, we will have compare our current Christian culture with the ancient one we absorb through immersing ourselves in it. From there, we can make better (ordinate) judgements about our worship, liturgy, piety and general Christianity.


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