The Attitude of Respect for Christian Tradition – 3

Once we agree that the Christian tradition and culture is something to be valued and relearned, we are faced with another question. How do we determine which parts of that tradition are helpful or useful for shaping ordinate affection, doctrinal understanding and ministry methodology? The situation is, we have nearly 2000 years of church history to sift through. Not all of it is useful. The worship, doctrine and ministry methods of the church have taken some pronounced twists and turns. The Christian tradition is not a straight line from the apostles to conservative Christians. It is a winding pathway. Sometimes the pathway is almost lost altogether, and then it once again appears.

What are the criteria we are to use when deciding if something represents the best of Christian culture? Should we ask the questions of the pragmatist (“Did it work?” “Was it popular?” “Did it create a bigger audience?”)? Should we ask the questions of the aesthete (“Was it beautiful?” “Was it well-formed?”) What kinds of questions should we use to test the traditions of the Christian past?

One advantage we have is that our very distance from the past allows us to judge those traditions from the vantage point of observers. We seldom detect our own excesses or imbalances, nor could those in the past detect theirs. However, from the perspective of Christians no longer embedded in those traditions, we can view the traditions with a measure of objectivity.

With that in mind, we have almost 2000 years of church history to sift through.  How do we find the true, the good and the beautiful in all that?

First, we should naturally seek only what is true. That does not mean we will expect every saint to cross every t and dot every i, doctrinally speaking, as we would. It does mean that we can only extend Christian fellowship to fellow Christians, albeit dead ones. While we can learn from unbelievers in many areas, the most helpful teachers of the church are going to be the ones who were truly regenerate and submitted to the gospel of grace. Certain eras were known for their purity or recovery of truth. The very early church fathers, the Reformation era, the era of the Great Awakenings – these are eras where truth was not banished to dwell in the deserts. It is likely that we will find much to learn from in these eras.

That is not to say that the later church fathers, the medieval period, or even the modern period have nothing to contribute to Christian tradition. In times where false doctrine has made a desert of Christendom, there have always been oases of true love for God. In fact, those very oases were often the instruments that led the church back into an era where truth flourished. The point then is to seek out sources that communicate truth, whether the era they emerged out of was friendly or hostile to that truth. There will be no value in learning the hymns of the Arians. There will be no value in the prayers of the Mariolaters. No Christian benefit (except to recognise error) will come from reading the writings of the Gnostics, Socinians, the Swedenborgians, the Neo-Orthodox or the Finneyites.

On the other hand, we will be able to glean much from the Ante-Nicene Fathers, many of the post-Nicene Fathers (notably Augustine), some of the medieval evangelical groups and writers, the Swiss Anabaptists, the German Pietists, some of the Radical Reformers, the Reformers themselves and their disciples, the English Puritans, the Great Awakeners and some from the modern era.

A second way of testing the value of the various Christian traditions is to test if the tradition was received and practised by the church over the centuries. That is not the same as asking, was it popular? Popularity often has to do with immediate relevance to the appetites of a particular generation; the consensus of the church of the ages has to do with permanence. If a particular prayer, hymn or writing has timeless value, it is sure to speak to many generations spanning many eras. That which is permanent and eternal is not anchored to the shifting sands of a particular century. This is why we still have the writings of Irenaeus, the hymns of Ambrose, the Confessions of Augustine, the writings of Thomas a Kempis, or the prayers of the Reformers. Certainly, some works would not have been received by the generation they were made in, the generation being hostile to truth and ordinate affection. That is why we look to their enduring value. Indeed, if they survive to this day, that can possibly be one sign of their value to pious saints of earlier times.

As we apply these tests, we are helped to parse the Christian tradition of the past. In the next post, we will list some of the works which Christians ought to work through at some point.

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