After several off-blog conversations about my post “What Evangelicals Can Learn From Francis Beckwith’s Conversion to Roman Catholicism,” the necessity of a post on identifying church tradition became expedient. Though no one (not even the Catholic commentators) raised the issue of how a protestant appropriates tradition in the previous post, it is an issue which must inevitably debouch from any sustained discussion.
I deliberately avoided such a hairy issue in the previous post and chose instead to emphasize how vital it is that evangelicals confess what are virtually noncontroversial creeds from church tradition. But once evangelicals go down the road of church tradition they quickly find too many forks in the road that lead to radically different places. Does this fact justify ignoring church tradition altogether (as most evangelicals have done)? No, it does not. The simple fact is that we are all influenced by church tradition whether consciously or unconsciously. How we read Scripture is shaped by the centuries of interpretation that are handed down to us. Those who are aware of this, however, will fare better in appropriating the best of tradition and casting off the worst of it.
But already I’ve made a massive assumption about how we relate to church tradition: that the individual can and should choose which parts to follow and which parts it should not. This assumption is what separates the protestant approach to tradition from the Catholic approach. On the Catholic view, the church holds authority in doctrine: it canonizes Scripture, it authoritatively interprets Scripture and thereby demarcates the bounds of orthodoxy and heterodoxy. This, of course, provides the luxury of a simple, cut-and-dry view of tradition. The Catholic church throughout the ages dictates what is and what is not the tradition to follow. But there are no free lunches and this luxury comes at a price. You must adhere to Catholic theology even when it violates what you see as a plain teaching of Scripture. You must update your doctrine in accord with the eclectic doctrines of the church. You must affirm the infallibility of a church when you cannot know what it will confess in the future. You must deny that one papal decree has ever contradicted another. You must uphold the anathematization of those whom each council anathematized. This is just some of the theological currency that Protestants cannot afford.
But how then should a Protestant decide which part of church tradition to follow? It would be simplistic to the point of inaccuracy to say “follow the part that doesn’t contradict Scripture.” The problem with such an answer is that it doesn’t account for the influence that church tradition has on our reading of Scripture by which we assess the accuracy of church tradition. Any correct approach must give a place both to judging tradition and being influenced by it. True, the church is under the authority of the word of Christ expressed in Scripture alone, but the history of the church is the story of how it has sought to understand and live out that word. So one cannot simply think that when he reads the Bible that it is speaking to him apart from the influence of centuries of past interpretation. Nevertheless, while we are under the influence of tradition, we not under its authority. Thus, as I become more aware of the influence that tradition has on me, I am better positioned to learn from the best of tradition, rather than simply receiving passively what is handed down to me. Thus, as I am in conversation with church tradition, if I come to believe that Scripture says one thing and a particular strand of tradition says another then I must take my stand with Scripture against that particular tradition.
However, should a person, through the process of interpreting Scripture, become convinced of a doctrine never before taught by any strand of tradition, he/she is almost certainly wrong. Has every person who ever claimed the name of Christ missed this doctrine until now?
Conversely, when one comes to reject a doctrine universally considered orthodox by the entire church from beginning to end, the person is undoubtedly wrong. Does Christ not teach his church? Does he not preserve her in the truth?
The failure to recognize these two points has been the seedbed of every Christian-based cult. They all claim to either have a new revelation that has never been heard before, or claim that the entire church has apostasized until now. This is nothing short of despising Christ’s providence, protection and preservation of his truth and his church. All Christian cults must deny Christ’s promise to build his church (Matthew 16:18), or at least deny that he has been building his church for the last 2,000 years.
“The Bible and Me” approach to biblical interpretation will continue to give birth to heterodoxy and to threaten the truth of Scripture. This is why tradition is necessary. Not as a guarantee against error in the church but as a useful guard against error. In short, we need tradition because it helps to protect the church from one another’s creativity, bad doctrine and current passion.
For this we should be thankful to Christ. Tradition is a gift to the church that should be celebrated, reiterated to each new generation, and staked as “ours” by any group who stands on it.
By way of example, Calvin and his subsequents appealed to the 6th century Second Council of Orange in defense of sola gratia and total depravity. It was a significant part of their defense against the charge that they invented these doctrines. They turned the charge around claiming that the church that once confessed these truths now denied it. The heirs of the tradition in this case was not the Catholic church but the Reformers. The Council of Trent contradicts what was previously decided at Orange. A short portion of each will bare this out.
Concerning the will of God and of man. Men do their own will and not the will of God when they do what displeases him; but when they follow their own will and comply with the will of God, however willingly they do so, yet it is his will by which what they will is both prepared and instructed (Canon 23 of the Second Council of Orange).
If any one saith, that man’s free will moved and excited by God, by assenting to God exciting and calling, nowise co-operates towards disposing and preparing itself for obtaining the grace of Justification; that it cannot refuse its consent, if it would, but that, as something inanimate, it does nothing whatever and is merely passive; let him be anathema (Canon 4 of the Council of Trent on Justification).
The rightful heir of tradition is not decided by who succeeds the pulpits, buildings and ecclesiastical authority of those who went before. Tradition is not handed down by ecclesiastical geneology. Rather, one inherits a tradition when one upholds the doctrine of those who went before, regardless of the group to which one may belong.
Tradition may be a helpful guide or it may be cumbersome baggage. Which one it is depends not on tradition but the way in which we appropriate it. As Jaroslav Pelikan’s famous axiom goes: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” When tradition is no longer a guide to interpreting Scripture but the ruler over Scripture then it has become traditionalism. But when what we confess drives us to the Scriptures and helps us understand them, we can be sure that what we have is a living faith. Tradition is no supplement to Scripture, rather it is Scripture’s servant. The usefulness and richness of tradition cannot be discovered through the study of tradition itself. It will only exert its proper influence on us as we consciously compare the tradition to the teaching of Scripture which we interpret under the influence of tradition. The circular nature of the interplay between tradition and Scripture should neither surprise nor trouble us. Nearly everything that Scripture helps us understand is something that simultaneously influences our reading of Scripture. Culture is certainly to be interpreted in the light of Scripture but our reading of Scripture is certainly under the influence of culture. The latter is inevitable as well as desirable; the former is only desirable. Using the Scripture to inform our understanding of culture must be intentional and conscious. And the more it is intentional and conscious the more that culture will exert the proper influence on our reading of Scripture instead of controlling it.
The goal should not be to develop our awareness of tradition and culture so as to cut of their influence on our reading of Scripture. This again shows the problem with “the Bible and me” approach. Those who would only want to be under the influence of Scripture and not culture or tradition are naive. Scripture was given to be read by those involved in culutre and under its influence. Were it even possible to disabuse ourselves of tradition and culture it would not prove beneficial, for we would not even know how to understand Scripture. In order for tradition, culture and Scripture to relate properly to the development of our theology we must be familiar with each. We must continually become aware of the effect that each one has on us so that we can reject traditionalism, cultural obsessions and faulty readings of Scripture. When it comes to tradition and culture we should avoid the pitfalls that each presents. As John Milbank writes,
I would suggest that neither a reiteration of Christian orthodoxy in identically repeated handed-down formulas nor a liberal adaptation to postmodern assumptions will serve as well. The latter response would clearly be a betrayal, but the former might well be a betrayal of a more subtle kind — allowing us the illusion of a continuation of the faith in merely formal, empty terms that have discovered no real habitation for faith in our times, either with or against them. Instead, we must allow the very critical engagements with postmodernity to force us to re-express our faith in a radically strange way, which will carry with it a sense of real new discovery of the gospel and the legacy of Christian orthodoxy (“The Gospel of Affinity,” The Strange New Word of the Gospel [Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002], 8).
Milbank rightly points out the pitfalls of traditionalism and the worship of culture. Without a better understanding of the influence of tradition and culture on our reading of Scripture we have no choice but to end up in the ditch of one of these pitfalls. A proper appreciation of tradition will keep us from worshiping culture and and proper appreciation of culture will keep us from traditionalism. However, the church too often flees to one polarization or the other either by despising tradition or by despising culture. The fault of evangelicalism has been their rejection of tradition. Evangelicals are drunk with culture, and for this reason, I’ve chosen to harp on the richness and greatness of tradition, while only giving a whisper of the positive influence of culture. There is a place for both in our local churches and a place for both in each person’s reading of Scripture, but only as we become aware of the influence of each one will we be able to “eat the fish and spit out the bones.”