LIKE MANY EVANGELICALS, I grew up in a church that objected to "tradition," which we associated with dead orthodoxy. A furor erupted in the church office when the new, young associate pastor suggested that the Sunday worship folder contain a minimal order of worship. We disdained formality and embraced the spontaneity of the Spirit in worship. Or so we liked to think. The associate pastor's suggestion was rejected on the ground that printed orders of worship led to liturgy and liturgy was tradition. Some in the congregation whispered that the associate pastor was losing his zeal by attending seminary. The young minister yielded, but he pointed out that he was giving in to their tradition of rejecting liturgy and embracing informal, unplanned worship. He also said that since our worship services were pretty routine, we should help visitors by printing our normal order and then allow the Spirit to move within it.
The associate pastor's argument didn't sway the congregation, but it planted new thoughts about tradition in my mind. Had we developed our own traditions, including a tradition of rejecting whatever we perceived as the traditions of other churches that were not "full gospel" (as we called our type of church)?
Like the church I grew up in, numerous evangelical churches like to think that tradition is a Spirit-quenching fire extinguisher. But the matter of tradition is more complex than my home church imagined at the time, and I have come to appreciate much of the tradition handed on to us from the church's past. Nevertheless, I am troubled and remain concerned when evangelicals start touting "tradition" as a way forward in our faith, as many are doing today.
Let me be fair: I recognize that a completely traditionless Christianity creates more problems than it solves for the church. Evangelical suspicion of tradition and a yearning to live simply by the Bible go back to the Reformation. But especially in America after the Great Awakenings, a profound distrust of everything "traditional" set in. Many evangelicals now use tradition as shorthand for "having the form of religion but denying the power thereof."
Evangelicals have lost their memory of the Great Tradition of Christianity before the rise of revivalism and their own free church (less emphasis on creeds and liturgy) movements. We are like people who have forgotten our family tree and our cultural past—rootless wanderers without landmarks from our past to guide us. Is it any wonder, then, that so much of our preaching and teaching is shallow and that we keep repeating the errors of the past? New forms of the heresies that bedeviled the churches in the generations immediately after the apostles' deaths repeatedly appear in evangelical circles. Too many evangelicals accommodate to the therapeutic mindset of the culture and reduce proclamation to self-help tips. Christianity becomes compatible with too much and loses its cognitive shape. Evangelicalism is in danger of being reduced to a folk religion with little or nothing to say to the world out of its great intellectual heritage.
There is now a new Protestant attention to tradition that holds great promise for renewal of authentic Christianity in churches weakened by doctrinal pluralism and cultural accommodation. United Methodist theologians Thomas Oden and William Abraham, among other mainline Protestant conservatives, herald a revival in the Protestant mainstream through drinking deeply at the wells of the church fathers, through faithful adherence to the early creeds and through submitting to the received declarations of the undivided church's ecumenical councils.
Baptist theologian Daniel H. Williams encourages both mainline and evangelical Protestants to experience church renewal through rediscovering the ancient Christian tradition. Episcopalian Robert Webber appeals to postmoderns to rediscover Christian community across time and space in the ancient orthodoxy of the church fathers. Evangelical Episcopalian theologian Christopher Hall urges evangelicals to read the Bible and learn theology with the church fathers and avoid the heretical novelties foreign to the church fathers' apprehension of the apostolic testimony.
This new Protestant traditionalism is attractive. What is one to do when people calling themselves Christians deny foundational Christian beliefs such as the Trinity and the two natures of Jesus Christ under the banner of "new light from Scripture"? The church fathers faced a similar situation with heretics who claimed to prove their heresies from Scripture. Not every interpretation of Scripture is equal; some are unreasonable and some are opposed to what the church has always believed. Such are always to be suspected of serious error.
All of this is understandable and laudable. Traditionalism in any form is preferable to the unfettered theological experimentation characteristic of so many mainline Protestant seminaries and denominational bureaucracies, as well as to shallow evangelical experientialism too often found in free church congregations and organizations.
Tradition as an ISM
And yet there is a danger almost as great as lost memory, and that is hardening of the categories—traditionalism. Historian Jaroslav Pelikan quipped that "tradition is the living faith of the dead while traditionalism is the dead faith of the living." In theology, however, traditionalism has a different connotation. It is the method of theology that treats tradition as an authoritative source and norm for Christian belief and practice alongside or over Scripture itself. Against Roman Catholic traditionalism, the Protestant reformers declared themselves in favor of "Scripture alone" (sola scriptura). Many people have misinterpreted this as meaning that Christians should pay no attention to any source other than the Bible, but in fact Luther and Calvin made extensive use of the church fathers in their expositions of Scripture and in their programs for reforming the church. What sola scriptura really means is not "Scripture alone" but "Scripture above all." "Scripture first" (prima scriptura) would be a better motto for the Protestant view of Scripture as the ultimate source and norm for Christian faith and practice. Traditionalism, however, rejects even prima scriptura in favor of an equality or interdependency of Scripture and tradition.
Eastern Orthodox churches make this appeal to the authority of tradition explicit. For them, the church's Great Tradition (as distinct from particular traditions of folk piety) is the grand source and norm, and Scripture is part of that Great Tradition. Roman Catholic traditionalism has a more dynamic view of the Great Tradition. For it, tradition grows as the church faces new issues, though for Catholics the Great Tradition does not include novelties. Every addition is thought to recognize an old truth in a new way. Both Orthodox and Catholic traditionalists believe there are essential beliefs that are not explicitly taught in Scripture. These traditionalists recognize the results of universal councils and some common beliefs of the people of God as essential Christian beliefs, even if they are not directly supported by Scripture. For example, Orthodox tradition includes the veneration of icons as necessary for full Christian worship and devotional life, and Roman Catholic tradition includes belief in the dogmas of Mary's immaculate conception and bodily assumption into heaven.
Protestants have historically considered beliefs and practices not directly supported by Scripture as at best optional and often wrong. Scripture is the sole, supreme source and norm of all Christian belief and practice, and tradition is to be judged by it. That is part of evangelical faith for three reasons: because Jesus contradicted tradition but never Scripture, because it is a basic Protestant principle based on the Reformation experience, and because it is important for the continuing prophetic reform of the church. Evangelicals agree with Protestants generally that the church must be "reformed and always reforming." Treating extra-canonical expressions of truth as equal with Scripture impedes continuing reform. History reveals that the church in all its humanity often needs to be held accountable to a higher standard; Scripture is that standard.
Lately, however, in response to evangelical and mainline forgetfulness of the Great Tradition of Christianity, some evangelicals have been succumbing to a form of traditionalism. Rarely does this take the form of explicit repudiation of sola scriptura; instead it often appears in claims that the ancient, ecumenical consensus of the church fathers, creeds and councils, the early church's "rule of faith," or "the apostolic tradition" handed on by the church fathers represents the inviolably authoritative interpretation of Scripture.
The trouble with traditionalism is that it tends to place the theological consensus of the ancient, undivided church (or some interpretation of it) on the same authoritative plane with Scripture and thus undercuts the church's ability to reform itself by appeal to God's Word. In matters of theological development and debate, tradition should get a vote but never a veto, whereas Scripture is the gold standard by which every idea—including those developed within tradition—must be tested. Evangelical traditionalists need to acknowledge more readily than is their tendency that the Holy Spirit is still at work among the faithful people of God, leading them to deeper insights into God's Word that may sometimes correct ancient, medieval, and even Reformation beliefs and practices. Understandably, such an admission raises the specter of a Pandora's box of heretical new readings of Scripture. For all its risks, however, it must not be ruled out. Continuing reform depends on it.
A New Middle Way
What is needed today is a middle way between sola scriptura and traditionalism that holds fast to the unique and unsurpassable authority of Scripture even over tradition while requiring respect for the Great Tradition of biblical understanding in the church. The evangelical's stand with regard to Scripture and tradition should be that of Martin Luther, who is supposed to have said, when challenged to recant his "novel" teachings about justification, "Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God… . Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise." Luther believed that his rediscovered doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone could not be found in the church fathers or councils. He stated that the church fathers knew little about faith. He even criticized his favorite church father—Augustine—for failing to understand that justification is by faith alone.
Anabaptists and Baptists, of course, must reject traditionalism insofar as it elevates ancient consensus theology to a level alongside Scripture; believers' baptism was not part of the ancient ecumenical consensus, but they are convinced it is required by Scripture and the inner logic of conversion. Nor were the autonomy of the local congregation or the priesthood of all believers part of the ancient Christian consensus. Wesley's doctrine of entire sanctification in a moment is absent from the Great Tradition before him, as is the Calvinist doctrine of limited (particular) atonement.
Yet Luther, the Anabaptists, and Wesley valued the Great Tradition of Christian teaching and stringently resisted the rationalists who wanted to discard the mysterious doctrines of the church's heritage, such as the Trinity and the Incarnation. Luther often quoted the church fathers (even though he disdained some of them). Early Anabaptist leaders such as Balthasar Hubmaier regarded the early church's rule of faith as second only to Scripture in authority. Wesley was fascinated with the Greek fathers and considered them faithful and authoritative interpreters of apostolic Christianity.
Evangelicals, with the Reformers, should view the Great Tradition as dynamic and open to correction and revision in the light of Scripture while valuing the achievements of the early church fathers, the medieval theologians, and the Protestant Reformers.
In the recent debate over the doctrine of God, for example, any departure from so-called classical theism has often been harshly criticized for going against the weight of tradition. There are limits to revising the doctrine of God, and we should respect classical theism and adhere to it where possible, but our evangelical understanding of God's nature and attributes must be determined by Scripture and not by tradition. Many evangelicals are convinced that the philosophical categories have obscured the biblical writers' testimony to God as not only holy, sovereign, transcendent, and free, but also intensely personal, interactive, self-limiting, and vulnerable. This debate must be engaged over Scripture rather than closed with a mere appeal to tradition.
An analogy is the United States Constitution and the history of landmark Supreme Court decisions that serve as precedents for later decisions. Judges and lawyers must know the precedents, but the Constitution is the supreme authority. Landmark decisions of earlier courts can be overturned if they are judged to be inconsistent with the Constitution. No competent judge, however, simply tosses out the history of court decisions. They serve as secondary authorities, guides to interpretation.
So it is with the Bible and the Great Tradition. Evangelicals should study the tradition, for we are not the first to seek answers to difficult questions and problems in theology. However, we must not elevate the tradition to inviolable, authoritative status.
My own study of the Great Tradition of Christian belief led me to see that I have roots deeper than my own church affiliations and deeper than evangelicalism itself. I now want my free church tradition and evangelicalism in general to draw on the deep wells of orthodox and catholic Christian thinking, as well as on the wells of Reformation, Puritan, pietist, and revivalist thought. The consensus of Christian belief throughout the ages provides a compass for navigating the often treacherous waters of modern and postmodern religious confusion. It also serves as an anchor when the ship of evangelicalism is prone to drift into market-driven and merely therapeutic preaching. To a large extent, I have Protestant traditionalists to thank for this discovery of the value of the Great Tradition. Nevertheless, we should resist any tendency to pull Scripture down to the level of tradition; the evangelical house of authority must remain solidly on the foundation of sola (prima) scriptura. When a new theological idea arises among evangelicals, our first and foremost question must be "What saith the Scriptures?" and not "Is it consistent with tradition?" Like Luther, we must be open to the possibility that the Holy Spirit may break forth new light from Scripture that reforms even the ancient thinking of the church.
Roger E. Olson is a professor of theology at Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas, and author of The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity (IVP, 2002).
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Olson recently reviewed Thomas Oden's The Rebirth of Orthodoxy for Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture.
A compilation of quotes about tradition ran in a Reflections column.
Chris Armstrong, managing editor of sister publication Christian History, recently wrote on heresy trials.
This month, CT began a monthly column called Ancient Christian Commentary on Current Events.
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