The Necessity of Tradition for Theological Interpretation – Part 3

The Necessity of Tradition for Theological Interpretation – Part 3 March 5, 2018

In the evangelical churches that esteem the gospel, the Word of God dominates their teaching and preaching. Scripture is the guarantee of the apostolicity of their message and the authorizer of their ministerial orders. The reading and teaching of Scripture in the church is what guides it back to its apostolic foundation and keeps it genuinely catholic. Yet all churches, even evangelical churches, approach Scripture through the grid of their own traditions. All churches rely on tradition and generate their own traditions. Tradition, therefore, is a lot like a nose. Everybody has one, even if you cannot see your own, it is still there. We all read Scripture in the context of a tradition of some kind, even if we do so unconsciously at first. As A. N. S. Lane put it: “It is impossible to read scripture without tradition, save in the rare examples of those with no prior contact with the Christian faith who pick up a portion of scripture. We bring to the Bible a pre-understanding of the Christian faith that we have received from others, thus by tradition.”[1]

Even the pulpit-pounding fundamentalist who claims that the Bible alone guides him, still appeals to an established consensus within his own community to validate his exposition of the Bible as a true and accurate account. This tradition, even if not openly acknowledged, is regarded as an authoritative declaration about what the Bible says in that group. Again, even the most jiving and thriving of Pentecostal churches have a normal way of doing Sunday morning worship that does not jump directly from the pages of the New Testament. This normal way of doing worship, how they organize everything from songs to sermons, is too is a type of tradition too. The fact of the matter is that if anyone claims that they believe the Bible, sooner or later they have to state what they think the Bible actually says. As soon as they say what that is, when they teach it, or write it down, they are creating a tradition. I need to stress the point again, all churches are receivers and creators of tradition! Tradition, then, is inevitable. There is no question of whether we will have a tradition, the question is which tradition will we operate in?

I submit that we should embrace the bountiful and nourishing fruits of the Christian tradition, digest it, drink from it, and share it. This tradition gives us the best chance for remaining orthodox and remaining in the catholic faith of the ancient churches. That is not to say we should absorb these traditions uncritically, far from it. We need to adopt an attitude of believing criticism towards traditions ancient, reformed, and new. The traditions embedded in the creeds, confessions, and liturgies of our churches should be afforded the opportunity to inform us as to what it means to believe in God and to worship him. Thereafter, we can assess them critically in light of Scripture so that they can be reinterpreted or corrected as required. In addition, we need to create traditions that orientate our churches to Jesus through Scripture and the wisdom of the accumulated tradition. We need to foster a theological culture of orthodoxy and catholicity that ensures that our churches remain true to the Christian faith and do not get seduced or snookered by false teachers. As Vanhoozer comments: “Christians today need to listen to all their predecessors who attended to the Spirit speaking in the Scriptures in order to make theological judgments about issues in their day that threatened the integrity of the gospel and the unity of the church.”[2]

To sum up, we should read Scripture in light of tradition for several reasons.

(1) The New Testament itself is both a product of the church’s tradition about Jesus and it in turn generated a tradition as to how Scripture should be read and understood.

(2)  Everybody has a tradition, whether they recognize it or not, so we should test our traditions to see if they are biblical, and develop our own traditions to help us understand the Bible.

(3) Ultimately, tradition is like a Philip who runs beside our chariot to help us understand Scripture. Tradition is the “Philip” of church history.[3] Tradition is what the church has learned by reading Scripture, so tradition is a tool for reading Scripture. We should read Scripture in light of tradition, and in reflex, we must test tradition against the grain of Scripture.

(4) To adopt a negative view of tradition is to regard all who came before us, our parents and grandparents in the faith, as nothing more than “thieves and robbers.” It is haughty to the point that it assumes that the word of God began with me, or else, I am the only one to have properly understood it (see 1 Cor 14:36). While everyone may have an opinion, not all opinions are equal. The Nicene Creed carries more weight than the internet opinions of Deacon Billy-Bob Emmerson IV of Make-America-Great-Again Baptist Church in Phoenix, Arizona, who claims that the Trinity is an unbiblical Catholic conspiracy. The Westminster Confession has more gravitas than the Rev. Margaret Kennedy of St. Marcion’s Episcopal Church who wrote a reflection in her church’s bulletin that God should be addressed in gender neutral prayers as “the ungendered monad without a gonad.” The vanity and folly of our generation with all of its pretentions to be wise about religion must always subject itself to what G.K. Chesteron’s “the democracy of the dead” where its folly and vanity is embarassingly exposed.[4]

To close, I am not calling for traditionalism, by which I mean the veneration of rituals, doctrines, and liturgies simply because they have always been there. I am advocating instead for an approach to biblical interpretation that places Scripture and tradition in a continuous spiral of mutual interpretation. Tradition is a prestigious pedagogue to help us in our own labours in the vineyard of the Word. I love how Jaroslav Pelikan put it: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”[5]

[1] A. N. S. Lane, “Tradition,” in DTIB (ed. K. J. Vanhoozer; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 811.

[2] Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority after Babel, 137.

[3] Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 116-20.

[4] G.K. Chesteron, The Collected Works of G.K. Chesteron (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1989) 15:310

[5] Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, 1:9.

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