Tradition: It’s not an anchor to weigh you down but a sail to move you forward

I came across this blog post, now over 3 years old, while meandering through the internet this morning. The point is made so succinctly  and expresses so well my own thinking, I wanted to post it to see what you think.

The author is Fr. Ted Bobosh, a priest at St. Paul the Apostle Church, Dayton, OH (Orthodox Church in America). He has degrees from the Ohio State University, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and Fordham University, and was for 12 years an adjunct professor at the University of Dayton, Religious Studies Department.

The title of the post is “Tradition: The Ship of Salvation’s Sail Not Its Anchor.” Bobosh makes a point that is vital for adherents to any Christian tradition.

Tradition, like Scripture, is not made holy by being carved into stone, but rather by being interpreted within a community, by being the heart of the community’s relationship to God and the world.  Tradition is thus alive and constantly relating to the world, not written in stone and frozen in some past understanding.

His basis for this claim is how the New Testament writers transformed their own tradition–what we call the Old Testament. Paul use of the Old Testament, for example, shows how tradition is “dynamic, creative, vivifying and renewing and keeps people focused on the goal – where God is leading us to, not the past and where we were.”

Bobosh cites New Testament scholar Sylvia C. Keesmaat, and I can’t resist reproducing the entire quote.

When a tradition is handed on unchanged it loses its potency and has little meaning for the present. Some would go so far as to say that an unchanged tradition is dead, it has been killed…a vibrant tradition must be not only a conserving (conservative) force, but also an innovative one. The past tradition needs to be revivified for a new cultural and historical context….The only hope for survival lies in a tradition’s ability to provide a fresh word of hope in a new situation…this dynamic can be described as the interpretation of tradition; what gives a tradition its life is an effective interpretation for a new time and context. The success or failure of such interpretation (or re-interpretation) can result in either the life-giving continuation of the tradition, or its lifeless end… In addition, in a situation of crisis, fraught with uncertainty, entrenchment seems a safe path to walk… To those in the Galatian community, who would revert to the tradition unchanged, Paul emphasizes that this tradition must not be merely mimicked. It cannot be simply passed on unchanged, the community in Galatia needs to hear the word of God’s radically new thing, of God’s revelation in Jesus, of the end of order. For this community Paul ‘defines and defends the radically new in terms drawn from the old’… That is why abandoning the tradition is not an option for him. However, that importance is evident partly in the ability of the tradition to provide a fresh word of hope for a new situation…. He transforms tradition so that it continues in the living world. 

Expecting the Bible to maintain the type of precisionistic, propositional, consistency–that all of Scripture speaks with one voice as required in some conservative Protestant views of Scripture (i.e., inerrancy, etc.)–fails to embrace Scripture’s own necessary dynamic quality, a quality the New Testament authors were so diligent in expressing.

A very new thing happened in the Gospel that previous iterations of God’s word were not able to grasp–namely a messiah who was executed by the Romans rather than defeating them and then raised from the dead. The tradition had to be transformed to account for this.

To miss this dynamic sells not only the Bible short, but the Gospel and God himself.

At least that’s what I think.

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  • mark

    Happy father’s day to all fathers!

    I’ve tried this before, but I’ll try it again.

    What Christians need is a real, serious theory of revelation, and talk about “the Bible” and “the word of God” doesn’t really qualify.

    What do I mean? Well, we have to take Jesus seriously, and recognize that the Israelite scriptures are not at all revelational in the sense that the person Jesus is. Yes, the Israelite scriptures are integral to the person Jesus, but what we need is a theory for how they fit in with the person Jesus–and the answer is NOT that Jesus is a character in “the Bible” more or less like Moses or Abraham, etc.

    Jesus understood that about himself–look at the way he is portrayed as using the Israelite scriptures, and compare that to the way the evangelists use them when speaking in their own voices–i.e., not purporting to record Jesus’ ipsa verba.

    Paul got it. He understood that the Jews were right–a crucified Messiah IS a scandal, it IS nonsense in light of the Israelite scriptures. UNLESS, that is, Jesus truly rose. What then is the relation between the two? I think Paul gets at it in the first few chapters of Romans.

    His basis for this claim is how the New Testament writers transformed their own tradition–what we call the Old Testament. Paul use of the Old Testament, for example, shows how tradition is “dynamic, creative, vivifying and renewing and keeps people focused on the goal – where God is leading us to, not the past and where we were.”

    I would say that Paul, in his use of the Israelite scriptures, is “theologizing.” That is to distinguish what he is doing in that use of the Israelite scriptures from that other very important thing he was doing in his teaching: handing on what had been handed down to him, exactly as he had received it, without innovation.

    Expecting the Bible to maintain the type of precisionistic, propositional, consistency–that all of Scripture speaks with one voice as required in some conservative Protestant views of Scripture (i.e., inerrancy, etc.)–fails to embrace Scripture’s own necessary dynamic quality, a quality the New Testament authors were so diligent in expressing.

    Again, the early Christian writers–the evangelists, Paul, the author of Hebrews and the other writings that we hold as foundational–were “theologizing” based on their background. Jesus didn’t do that–he spoke as one having authority that was his alone (received from the Father). Those early Christian writers did their level best to hand on, without innovation, what Jesus had handed down to them in his life and words on his authority. They also attempted to theologize on all that. Those are different things. Both are part of tradition, but they are distinct.

    • peteenns

      Very helpful insights, Mark. Well put. Thanks.

      Piggybacking on this, in the OT, Israel’s God was portrayed as displaying his glory in victory–namely nationalistic. In the NT, the victory is through the scandal of the cross, which turns everyone’s categories upside down–Jew and Gentile.

      • Lars

        At least until Revelation, then it’s clobberin’ time again!

        Like Susan below, I too come from a fundamentalist upbringing but instead of being convinced, I’m confused. What is “God-inspired Tradition and how is different or identifiable from little-t tradition? If “we must find the ways to express that truth in a comprehensible way to the current culture,” isn’t there a risk for (further) corruption of that truth? Also, how do we know when we are in a “new time and context”? When the old interpretations fail to inspire? And if the new interpretation fails…?

        I can see why the entrenchment of the inerrantists is so appealing. It’s a lot less work and the(ir) Truth does not risk becoming a victim of the Telephone Game.

        • Our church did a study of Revelation this year, using mainly N. T. Wright’s _Bible for Everyone_ study book and also Eugene Peterson’s _Reversed Thunder_. In both cases the authors argue that in Revelation God conquers in the same way he always has — through sacrificial love. The sword is in Christ’s mouth, not his hand… the book partly uses the imagery of violence to show how serious a problem evil is, and partly to subvert violence.

          Also, I relate to the fundamentalist background and how scary and bewildering it is to read all these other perspectives on how Scripture works and how to approach it. Things fell apart for me as I kept reading the Bible and finding things that didn’t seem to fit with inerrancy and literalism — things like the two creation accounts with differing chronologies, things like legendary language (and that’s why snakes crawl on their bellies and childbirth hurts…), things like disjointed connections and odd repetitions in texts…

  • Susan Gerard

    Having come from a fundamentalist background, I have struggled with this and am now convinced of it’s truth. However, I still struggle with the words to use to describe this, as I am not a theologian. Reading this, I went back to read Father Ted’s post, and in the comments, he states: “So Tradition is always grappling with how to express oursevles in the current culture – we must be able to do that to fulfill the Great Commission – while at the same time affirming that the truth is one and the same, it is only that we must find the ways to express that truth in a comprehensible way to the current culture with the intention of enlightening that culture with the truth rather than cementing the truth to that contemporary situation.” I found these words helpful to understanding your post, esp. Keesmaat’s point. I realize you express this point exactly in your post, but sometimes (esp. for me) simplest helps. Posting in the hopes that if anyone else needs to start off more simply, this might help.

  • I think traditions that help keep us anchored to Christ are a good thing. They help tie us to those who have gone before us and keep that Old Adam from reinventing the wheel and putting ‘us’ at the center…and not Christ Jesus.

    Good stuff here.

    Thanks, so much.

  • rvs

    I’m intrigued by the phrase “an unchanged tradition is dead.” Given my enthusiasm for zombie lore, I contemplate the following: might an unchanged tradition also be “undead” in certain respects? –And unchanged tradition wrapped carefully around with doctrines, safe, dark, motionless, airless. In that casket, however, it will also change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable (I’m trying to remember that C.S. Lewis quote about love).

  • Bev Mitchell

    It can help to look at tradition the same way we should look at many things related to our faith, viz. what is the fruit like? Is it fearful, defensive, brittle, overbearing, controlling, anti-historical, anti-science, harsh, polemical, angry? or, as the wonderful quote from the post puts it, “dynamic, creative, vivifying and renewing (keeping) people focused on the goal – where God is leading us to, not the past and where we were.”

    A great book-length discussion closely related to this is Roger Olson’s “Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology”. In it he contrasts conservative and postconservative approaches, and the contrast could not be starker. The core is the same, very orthodox, but the approaches – well, you’ll just have to read the book.

  • Eric Kunkel

    My hope and prayer would be that more people are helped not just by God, but by the Church with her tradition and doctrine. Although I know when it comes to the Church this has not always been so. For me, those traditions and dogmas have mostly been an anchor when I needed stability and a sail when I needed to move.

    So I cannot disagree with the Father. I often find myself learning something afresh from the other ancient traditions.

    And having recently returned from abroad, from the deep roots of Presbyterianism, it gives me a certain comfort. I know here in the States Christian institutions are adrift, some people have been hurt or hurtful. But still we have a Liberty unknown in Church History, Western History or any kind of history I can think up.

    There are no large campaigns of killing large numbers of people for tradition, doctrine or praxis. At least not here and now.

    Eric Kunkel