Ecclesiastical tradition has in recent years become an increasingly important element in theological discussions and in the thinking of most Christians. One of the sections at last year’s World Conference on Faith and Order in Montreal devoted itself entirely to the attitude of the Church toward tradition and to the relation of tradition to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Furthermore, in the current dialogue about church union, ecclesiastical tradition looms large, particularly when the contemplated amalgamations affect denominations of markedly different traditions. In this situation, what attitude should evangelicals adopt to the question of historically rooted church tradition?
The evangelical identifies himself with the fundamental position of the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century, who insisted upon “Scripture only” (sola scriptura) as the ultimate authority for faith and life. At any talk of tradition he becomes not only wary but even hostile. Tradition to him means corruption and infidelity that must be avoided like the plague. Yet, since he lives in the world of the 1960s he has to face the problem and try to see the situation in its reality. Is his flat denial of tradition proper, and is it in accord with the facts, even of his own Christian faith?
When one looks carefully at tradition, he soon discovers that even the most biblical Christians have a tradition. For instance, in August of 1963 a group of Christian scholars held a consultation at Winona Lake, Indiana, to consider the question of the evangelical Christian and war. Two traditions soon made their appearance, that of the Mennonites stemming from the sixteenth-century Anabaptist tradition, and that of the Reformed churches from the Calvinism of the same era. Listening to the arguments on both sides, one could hear Menno Simons or John Calvin speaking loudly. Yet one of the groups in particular kept disowning all tradition and charging the other with being “traditionalists.” The fact was that both followed a tradition in biblical exegesis, in systematic theological thinking, and in the application of doctrine, thus proving that even among evangelicals there is not just a tradition but a number of traditions.
In order to see why evangelicals have a tradition and traditions, one must go back to first principles. Generally speaking, evangelicals accept the Scriptures as the final authority for faith and action, and in this they all agree. Indeed, one might even speak at this point of an evangelical tradition. But evangelicals must go further, because the Scriptures do not apply specifically to every situation the Christian faces in life. Twentieth-century society technically, economically, and intellectually differs radically from that of both Old and New Testaments. How then may Christians apply biblical teaching in their own lives? They do so in light vouchsafed them by the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church into the truth of Scripture down through the ages.
Such a development of the understanding of Scripture is in fact the formulation of a tradition. Christian people have always lived in a specific social and cultural situation. But they still have had spiritual needs common to all believers throughout history, and to meet these needs they have had to turn to the Scriptures. Thus forced to study the Scriptures by external as well as internal problems, they have found it necessary to come to an understanding of what the Scriptures have to say to them in their existential situation. They have thereby discovered answers to what might be new problems or at least old problems in a new setting. But their discoveries have never been completely new, for their interpretation of Scripture has always reflected what Christians thought and wrote in earlier days.
Once they have determined what they believe to be the scriptural teaching concerning their problem, evangelical Christians have then endeavored to apply it. Calvin, for instance, believed that the newly developed national states should be Christianized, and so taught in Geneva. Konrad Grebel and other Anabaptists, on the contrary, maintained that the Bible called Christians out from human society to live apart according to the New Testament law of love. Therefore they separated themselves from the national state as much as possible. Both these positions became part of the beliefs of the respective groups that followed these sixteenth-century Reformers. And so each of these groups developed a tradition of exegesis, of philosophy, and even of political science. At the same time both insisted, as they do today, that their own tradition was correct.
This immediately raises the problem of the relativity of such traditions. The unbeliever scoffs: “If the Christians cannot agree on such things with their infallible Bible, how do they expect me to believe?” But at this point a distinction must be made between what is absolutely central, of the essence of the Christian faith, and what is not so close to the center. Consider, for example, the question of the person of Christ. This is indeed central; on it all evangelicals agree. They all hold that he was and is both God and man in one Person, although how this can be they accept as a mystery comprehensible only to God himself. Any denial of the Incarnation they would hold to be denial of a central doctrine stated in Scripture and handed down (tradition) through the Christian Church since the earliest days. Moreover, they would brand such denial as unchristian.
On the other hand, there are traditions relating to matters that, while important, yet remain on the periphery of the Christian faith. Upon these matters Christians may agree to disagree without denying one another’s membership in the body of Christ. Sometimes one finds it hard to define these peripheral matters, because what is to one believer peripheral may to another lie much closer to the center. Perhaps church-state relations and the form of civil government are in this category. Some may even hold that the form of church government or church worship belongs in this classification. At such points traditions may differ widely; even those holding the same basic faith in the Gospel may disagree, without finding it necessary to reject one another as unbelievers.
Thus, even though they may not admit it, evangelicals do hold traditions. Like all other human beings they are influenced by the history out of which they have come. To a large extent their history—i.e., their tradition—makes them what they are. From it they cannot escape. Their training as children and adolescents, whether by formal education or by the unconscious influence of their environment, indelibly stamps its design upon them—even if that design is a total rejection of all tradition in order to cling solely to the Scriptures. Tradition makes possible the understanding and application of the Bible after two thousand years of history and after transfer to a completely different social setting. Without tradition every Christian would have to begin to work out for himself the meaning of the biblical story anew—an impossible task.
Tradition must never be taken as infallible. The Holy Spirit has guided the Church throughout history in its understanding and application of biblical teaching, but he has never guaranteed to the Church absolute correctness in all matters. The Bible never speaks of an infallible Church. The visible church that interprets Scripture and forms the tradition consists of both regenerate and unregenerate, and even the regenerate are not perfect. Only Christ, the Lord of the Church, possesses infallibility, an attribute with which he has never endowed his Church.
Because of its own fallibility and because of the infallibility of its Lord, the Church has the obligation of continually measuring its tradition by his Word, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. In order that it may be true Christian tradition, tradition must be made to conform to the Bible. As new light breaks forth from the Word of God through new and deeper understandings of its teachings, so the Church must continually rethink and modify its tradition, aligning it with biblical teaching. In order to remain obedient to Christ, the Church may even need at times to reject a large part of its accumulated tradition. Such was the view of the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century. Christ speaking by the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures is the Lord and Judge of all ecclesiastical tradition.
Evangelicals cannot escape ecclesiastical tradition, for by God’s grace and the work of his Spirit, tradition enables them to understand their faith so that they may accept it and apply it to their own situation. But evangelicals must continually be critical of tradition—even of their own tradition. And their criticism cannot rest upon rationalistic principles that reduce everything to the level of man’s thinking. It must rather be critical in the light of the Scriptures. This may mean at times the throwing overboard of cherished customs and shibboleths, because in the light of a deeper understanding of the Scriptures these have been proved wrong. Thus neither the Church nor the Christian can ever say: “We have reached the ultimate in Christian truth and can now rest content.” Instead, they must continually dig deeper into the mine of God’s Word so that they may repeatedly reform their traditions and themselves in conformity to his sovereign will.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more