Having Said That…There Are Times When We Modern Christians Must Say Tradition Was Wrong
In my immediately preceding blog post I argued that modern Christians ought not to throw out long-held Christian beliefs just because they not longer seem suitable to modern cultural sensitivities. I gave some examples.
Here I want to return to something I wrote about years ago—“postconservative theology.” People misunderstood my meaning even though I explained it very clearly.
“Conservative theology” CAN hold too rigidly to tradition. For example, I heard on conservative evangelical preacher say “If it’s new, it can’t be true; if it’s true, it can’t be new.” A conservative evangelical biblical scholar told me that a relatively new theological idea was unworthy of consideration because it was new.
Lutheran-turned-Orthodox historical theologian Jaroslav Pelikan said that “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”
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There are times when we modern Christians have to say all (or almost all) of the Christians of the past were wrong. Except when the matter is trivial we need to do this with great caution and respect for those Christians who cannot agree, who insist on sticking with what has always been believed.
There are two situations that can require change in Christian belief—from what it has always been.
First, as we all know, science can require it. No, I don’t mean every scientific theory that comes along and I don’t mean scientism—the belief that science has all the answers—or naturalism—the philosophy often confused with science that says nature is all there is. What I mean is that when something is true beyond doubt, a “material fact” of science ( Bernard Ramm’s term), we have to question and even correct traditional interpretations of scripture insofar as they conflict with what is now known to be true beyond doubt.
The classic example of this is, of course, the “Galileo affair,” but another one is the age of the earth and another one is evolution, that species have evolved over time.
Second, as most of us know, the Bible itself can sometimes require change in contemporary Christian belief—from what has always been believed since the first century, Jesus and the apostles. Most of us who are Protestants (there are very few exceptions to this) believe that men like Jan Hus and Martin Luther discovered a truth in the Bible that was lost almost immediately after the apostolic age. That is that salvation is by grace alone and does not require sacraments or good works.
Still, I do not agree with those who rush to throw out major doctrinal and ethical beliefs that have always been considered crucial, key to Christianity, by church fathers, medieval theologians, reformers and post-reformation Christian leaders—just because culture demands it. Christianity was always meant to be somewhat counter-cultural and cultural accommodation is perhaps the greatest danger to Christianity.
How odd it is today, in 2021, to hear left-leaning, liberal Christians accusing right-leaning, conservative American Christians of accommodating their Christianity to American culture (viz., American nationalism). Liberals were the champions of cultural accommodation and still are! Only they accommodated Christianity to “the best of modern thought” by which they meant academic culture. Almost all of them were and are involved in secularized academic settings. Rudolf Bultmann desperately wanted Martin Heidegger to become a Christian and so altered Christianity drastically to fit existentialism (as believed in by Heidegger). In the process he left true Christianity behind or, to switch metaphors, threw the baby out with the bathwater. (Here the “baby” being the bodily resurrection of Jesus and everything miraculous and supernatural.)
One theologian has quipped that liberal theologians were (and are) so afraid of being kicked into the ditch by modernity (modern academic culture) that they jumped in to avoid the pain of being kicked in. There’s much truth in that image and accusation.
Disagreement with what Christians have always believed must be based on brute, undeniable facts that emerge from the sciences or on fresh and faithful biblical interpretation.
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