a random thought on being shapers of our theological traditions

Taking seriously our embodiment as finite and as situated within a particular space and time means that we are all inevitably placed somewhere within an unfolding historical and cultural tradition and that thinking we are able to attain a universal and timeless understanding through the exercise of critical reasoning is illusory. We are both shaped by tradition and shapers of tradition in that we construe our tradition in particular ways in order to guide our present and our future.

The quote is from Andrew T. Linclon’s recent book on the virginal conception of Jesus and the incarnation, Born of a Virgin?: Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology, pp. 290-91 (and please don’t judge the book by the title).

The point of this quote is something I have carried very close to me over the years and find it utterly compelling. I would even say it drives much of my own thinking and contemplating about God, my faith, and why in the world I do what I do. We honor traditions best when we take seriously the responsibility for shaping them for our time and place rather than preserving them in past iterations out of nostalgia or fear.

But how can you hold to a tradition and also shape it? Isn’t the point of holding to a tradition to, well, hold it rather than shape it?

I understand the point, but think of this: we see tradition shaped throughout the Bible, within the Old Testament and also, in rather dramatic fashion, in how the New Testament shapes and transforms various strands of Old Testament tradition.

Without successive generations shaping their tradition, the tradition dies. I think the Lincoln quote captures that well.

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  • Andrew Dowling

    Thus a prevailing internal conflict of Christianity . . .the fight to maintain both institutional and theological power structures throughout its history, while the religion itself revolves around someone who flaunted the breaking of institutional power structures and certain components of tradition. It creates quite a friction!

  • leighcopeland

    Wouldn’t/doesn’t the knowledge of our own ‘shaping’ bring with it the pride of accomplishment but also the loss of the sense that a gift has been given to us?

    • C. Bauserman

      You see, I don’t think that’s the case. Yes, we can be proud because we shaped it; but at the same time you’re right, we have to keep that humility in mind, that we are simply building on, or perceiving differently than, those who came before. He maintains a very subtle distinction: it is not necessarily the tradition that changes, but our perception (although there are elements that could use a change every once in a while). And again, he keeps in mind the hermeneutical circle/spiral: we are both interpreters and interpreted. We, as being interpreted by tradition, are supposed to further interpret tradition with new information and progression. We all bring something new to the table with each progressive interpretation.

      • leighcopeland

        Perhaps that is why the ‘hermeneutical spiral’ must be done with others, in public; on my own I’m not going to be able to put much confidence in ‘furtherings’, new information, progressions I’ve come up with precisely because I will always know that I did it. It reminds me of someone (C. S. Lewis?) pointing out that the lowest moment for a preacher can be right after he preached his best sermon: the realization that he has just supported the thing that was supposed to be supporting him.

      • Lars

        “We all bring something new to the table with each progressive interpretation.” That’s the rub. We can’t further the truth, as its been ‘traditioned’ into oblivion, if we ever had it to begin with. We can only ‘spruce up’ the tradition for our time, taking care to make sure that these new and improved traditions are vaguely recognizable to the previous generation and adaptable by the next.

  • The unspoken in this discussion needs to be the revelation of God in Scripture.

    “We are to place our trust in God who gave us Scripture, not in our own conceptions of how Scripture ought to be.”

    “The bible itself demonstrates the inevitable cultural dimension of any expression of the gospel. This is not to say that the meaning of the gospel shifts with every cultural wind. It simply means that each generation, by the power of God’s Spirit, has to make the gospel message its own by wrestling with how the gospel connects with the world in which that generation is living.”

  • Rick

    I understand what you are saying, but some questions come to mind. Can we use the relationship of OT tradition to NT tradition as a basis for our own practices since things were fulfilled in Christ? Isn’t then the NT tradition (I am not defining it) what is solidified and should be passed along?
    Also, isn’t this more of a case of the “application” of a given tradition for our time, rather than transforming it?

  • Ross

    A nicely put and concise quote that. To some extent it is to be in a vulnerable position to not fully rely on the old certainties, to be holders of the tradition but to interpret for today and give a foundation for the future.

    Here I keep going back to the old traditions of “mystery” which the modernist and recent views just did not seem to be able to deal with. We wonder about how to be sure of how we communicate God’s word for today when certain certainties no longer seem to be certain (?!?). So I think we need to trust more in the revelation of God and the active work of the Holy Spirit. I think by obsessing and focussing on God’s revelation in Scripture, we may be failing to listen to what He is saying today. God is a dynamic and active God in my view and I think it unlikely He sat down in his La-z-boy after the “scriptures” were written.

    I don’t by this mean to relativise “scripture” to all other texts, no, we need to use it and accord it authority, and probably a higher authority than a lower one. Though we need to make sure we do not place it on an equal footing with God Himself. So we need to hold scripture in one hand, keep our eyes open and look around, our ears open to hear what’s going on around us, but also to hear what God is saying.

    It’s a mere 30 years since I asked “how can I hear God’s voice” and I’ve not necessarily come that much further. Maybe we can look back into the past and tradition for help. To the time when Christians were more accepting of mystery and allowed for some quietude in order to listen out for His voice. I remember when 20 years ago I suggested this I was met with a view that this was dangerous thought and need be resisted, but many many people were doing this then.

    If there is a danger in it, it is the degree to which it is practiced and the importance given to it. Here we need to define a balance. Scripture may be sufficient as to what it is itself, but I don’t believe it is sufficient to be the only reference needed for us to follow God.

    Maybe we need a rallying cry, such as; “It is not good enough that we are condemned to repeat the mistakes of our fathers, we need to be able to make mistakes of our own”. (I say that with tongue slightly, not fully, in cheek).

    • C. Bauserman

      This is, very succinctly, what Dr. Enns has been getting at for the past 18 months or more, I think. He’s already stated his doubts concerning the life of mind and how one experiences God (particularly stating that most Protestants would rather avoid the subjective experiences) and ultimately the fact that revelation has come and is still coming through more channels than just Scripture (although that was more of a reflection of Ken Sparks, but I think Dr. Enns mostly sympathizes with the plurality of voices that speak alongside the Scripture). Because of this plurality of voices and the (somewhat) failure of modernity within Christianity (I would say modernity did give us some good progressions, but others, not so much), we are still in the process of development, and always will be, because ultimately, the topic of our faith is a God who choses to not reveal his full self. He will continually be shrouded in mystery. We have his revelation through this plurality, but ultimately even these many voices still leave much blank. So we must make do with what we have, continually working out that pursuit and not sitting on our laurels; accepting that we must approach God with a good bit of humility and gratitude because of the very fact that the one we are approaching chose to reveal enough of himself for us to approach in the first place, and even to approach with confidence.

  • I think there is a significant fear of the responsibility to shape tradition to our time. The fear is somewhat warranted because evangelicals don’t want to go the way of the mainline Protestant churches or Unitarians, and they view revision of any kind as a capitulation. The Bible is used as an apotropaic ward against the onslaught of modernity, which is not what scripture was designed for. The Reformation was about spiritual authority within the church, but the crisis today is whether the church is going to acknowledge all the ways God reveals himself, or cling to an “inerrantist” interpretation of revelation which eclipses all other revelations. Yet scripture attests to other revelations and never claims authority above them. Scripture never asks us to ignore or downplay evidence. I wouldn’t underestimate the amount of work that has to be done in reshaping tradition. In my view it has to be a movement supported by pastors – academics can help our understanding but the tone of the Christian life is often set by spiritual rather than intellectual mentors. I know that having a variety of spiritual mentors (who often disagreed on these subjects) was crucial to my faith. I wonder how much this fear of authority being lost among evangelicals is due to lack of trust in God to work through us. Since God seems distant at times, we try to anchor ourselves in scripture and tradition without doing our part, without taking our own responsibility into consideration. The pottery imagery is apt, because we actually act on tradition even when we think we are doing nothing but holding our hand firmly in place. The unformed pot remains formless unless God acts through us – we are the Body, after all. Instead of a bold commitment to truth, being stubbornly “committed” to tradition is just as often a failure to acknowledge the truths God sets before us today.

    • Andrew Dowling

      Great post. I agree that if change is to happen, it will have to be led by pastors and not academics. But I’m always disheartened by how little true scholarships pastors are aware of/have studied . . .and I think many ignore it because, especially given their pastoral position, they fear their own faith will be shaken to a point of no return. And the catch is . . depending on what they “base” Christianity around . . it very well maybe.

      • Brian P.

        Great point on the relationship between these topics and the pastoral. Having tried to engage my pastors on content, simply I think they think they have better things to do with their time. Far from reaching limits of shaking faith, I think many just need to keep running in the hamster wheel they bought long ago. Often it makes it difficult for me to take them too seriously. But not for others. I think I’m the exception. Many stay and drink the comfort of the Kool Aid. Some go, probably without too much fuss. I doubt many bother engaging.

        • Brian, I take your point regarding the pastoral “hamster wheel.” My first thought would be for pastors to avoid treading boldly over territory they have little understanding about, under the auspices of giving a “biblical” view (which is most often their own view). This doesn’t just apply to academic ANE studies or biblical criticism, but a whole range of issues which many pastors declare the Bible has clear answers on. Instead, they should use the opportunity to challenge their flock to think, pray, and give them resources. Having “pat” answers for everything may assuage the incurious in the congregation, but more creative, inquisitive members will want deeper answers. There is also a correct context for talking about these things – a sermon is very likely not the appropriate time to talk about scholarly or technical subjects. As Proverbs 12:23 says, “The prudent keep their knowledge to themselves, but a fool’s heart blurts out folly.” And of course there are plenty of passages about humility. Pastors need to realize the limitations of their job – they don’t have to be an expert on everything (despite the exhortations of Tim Keller). They are servants to their congregation and spiritual mentors – those are the areas they should have a job assessment. I don’t expect (or want them in most cases) to become amateur scholars. My second thought would be that many pastors with large churches are overextended and overworked and have to a) minister to the lowest common denominator, and b) still keep some level of theological/spiritual unity. I went to a “Questions & Answers” session at a local megachurch a few years ago, and the questions they were fielding were extremely simplistic. Questions like, “Does God disapprove of tattoos?” Please. If complex questions were asked, they simply weren’t addressed. . . I know for a fact that members of that church’s congregation do have deeper questions. If only they had the leadership willing to step out and allow discussion of such matters, openly, in the right setting. But in my observation/experience, such megachurches often answer questioning Christians blithely and insufficiently, or treat them as “projects” having some sort of crisis of faith if they don’t find their supposedly “biblical” answers sufficient. Pastors need to be encouraged that treating the Bible reverently means not squeezing it for information or spiritual insight it simply does not address.

    • Brian P.

      Look. Soon, the fearful will have fewer and fewer following them.

    • peteenns

      Very helpful point, Justin.

  • Pete, this is you at your very best. I’ve been trying to say something like this for years: we are responsible for how we read sacred text, and for the consequences that follow our reading. There’s no single right way to address this responsibility, but there are plenty of wrong ways to do it, and perhaps the wrongest way of all is to treat the text as sovereign and the reader as subject.

    • peteenns

      Maybe the only way to “hold to” the faith is by shaping it.

  • Brian P.

    Once one realizes that one is a receiver and holder and transmitter of a tradition, one realizes the wonderful opportunity that one has. For me, I think one of the more interesting questions is this: What is the most good for the most people that I can do within my spheres of influence? This may involve retaining nearly all of the received elements of the tradition for familiarity to audiences. This may involve recovering lost elements that can be used as more traditional than those who think themselves “traditional” and may benefit from prodding to increased humility, compassion, generosity, and service. This may also involve fusion or even net-new development, dare I say revelation from God that casts the received into a new prophetic lens. Rather than setting “hold” at odds with “shape,” perhaps faith itself is something a bit like clay where the warmth of the hands can’t help but shaping it in its holding. Or maybe another word, such as “curate” is all together a better way of reflecting up such a Sacred responsibility. Scripture clearly tells a story that this has been done before. If we take it seriously, perhaps we live more as its authors and characters lived before the face of a living God.

    • peteenns

      Very interesting thoughts here, Brian.

  • James

    There should be dynamic tension between tradition holders and shapers. Still, traditions are made to be shaped.

    • peteenns


  • Dear Peter,

    while you don’t view yourself as an apologist at all, I think you have a tremendous impact on the defense of the faith by promoting a version of Evangelicalism which completely honors our rationality and moral intuitions.

    Your work is simply excellent and awe-inspiring.

    As I have pointed out, I think it is time that Evangelicals realize their own Bible is part of a long tradition which we are called to transcend in some respect.

    But unlike that of Andrew Lincoln, my own progressive Christianity is quite open to the possibility of miracles.

    If God exists and is interested in human affairs, He might well have a very specific will towards some persons or events even if under other circumstances he leaves nature and the laws of statistics rule everything.

    Thus I am agnostic about both the empty tomb and the virgin birth, since I believe that neither Jesus nor Mary were just average people for the Almighty.


  • I love this. Realizing that we are finite, contextualized beings and can only squint and grasp at the universality and timelessness of God should limit our desire to loudly proclaim our understanding of “timeless” and “universal” truths.

    We are always looking through a mirror dimly.