Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 28 – Conservatives and Tradition

A church that is self-consciously conservative has a relationship with both the past and the future. If we are conserving Christianity, we must be conserving the Christianity we have received – from the church of the past. If we are conserving Christianity, we must be doing so for the sake of passing it on – to the church of the future. Since conservatives are not trying to re-invent Christianity, conservative churches have a special eye towards the Christian past, for the sake of the present and future church. This is the eighth mark of a conservative Christian church: rightly viewing and using the Christian tradition.

Churches in the Reformed and more confessional wings of Protestantism do not appear to struggle with the concept of tradition as much as many in the evangelical and fundamentalist circles do. I grew up in circles which were, if not overtly, then certainly implicitly, anti-ecclesiastical, anti-traditional and anti-intellectual. Anything that was not immediately accessible to the common man was something viewed with suspicion. When I heard the word tradition, it was usually said with the curled lip of scorn or contempt, pointing out those who were not as biblical as we were, and were dependent on the fallible opinions of church history. However, I came to see that such attitudes had the childishness of an infant on his father’s shoulders, exclaiming “Look how tall I am!”

In fact, we all stand on the shoulders of Christians that have gone before us. The Christian tradition is neither dispensable nor optional to our faith. A church that thinks it has independently arrived at the Christian orthodoxy hammered out at Nicea, Constantinople, Chalcedon, Augsburg, Schleitheim, Westminster, London or New Hampshire is similar to that child. No church approaches the raw mass of biblical data and makes sense of it without help. Like that child, it might feel as if it has attained to heights of interpretive genius on its own, but in fact, even its working definitions for theological concepts have been supplied by Christians of the past.

The Christian tradition does not only serve us in the area of orthodoxy, but in orthopraxy and orthopathy as well. The church of the past is not only a record of doctrinal statements and re-statements, it is also a testimony to how Christians have lived out their faith and testified of their devotion to Christ. It is an ongoing record of how Christians have applied the doctrine they confessed, and how they have worshipped God. For a church that tends to be enamoured with its own novelties and innovations, it is a helpful corrective to compare our piety and liturgy to that of thousands of Christians over thousands of years. While we do not expect them to be identical, we ought to expect that they will be equivalent, given our differing cultural circumstances. And when we find that our piety or liturgy has no equivalent in any of the Christian traditions since the apostles, we ought to be filled with alarm, not pride.

Exposure to the Christian tradition is rather like visiting another country. Once confronted with differences, you become aware of your own idiosyncrasies, oddities and eccentricities. When we become familiar with the Christian tradition, we can be jolted out of the complacency that assumes contemporary Christianity is a healthy and historic Christianity.

For these reasons, a conservative Christian church must learn how to rightly value and use the Christian tradition. In the next few posts, I would like to suggest some ways that pastors can encourage this approach to the Christian tradition within their churches.

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