Lesson 9: Tradition

TraditionMy life has paralleled the growth of the modern Evangelical movement. I heard the canned introduction of so many of their spokespersons so many times, I would mouth it as they began their pitch. “I am not educated, but I know what the Bible says…” From their point of view, the Bible is God’s voice in society. The extremists among them believe that extends to providing a handbook for science, government, and the family.

Most of us know it is not that simple. We value the Bible as the primary standard of the Christian life, yet we know it is a text that is interpreted every time we cite it. Even translating it from the original language to our own involves interpretation. Whenever we ask what a passage means for our time and place, we have to begin by asking what it meant when it was written. And we have to examine how it is understood by other elements of tradition.

Anyone who reads the Bible carefully realizes it preserves many different traditions that do not necessarily agree with one another. The approved creeds identify the positions the Church think are essential. They, also, define some tradition that has developed after the Bible was written, such the Trinity. The liturgy is another part of tradition that keeps us on the right track. Word and Sacrament remind us who we are, as well as highlighting the most important parts of scripture through the approved lessons and the Church Year. And, of course, each denomination has some tradition it regards as important. For example, Lutherans teach “justification by grace through faith alone” as fundamental.

Acknowledging tradition is terribly important, because the Gospel is good news passed from person to person. We should be able to trace our message all the way back to the apostles who accompanied Jesus. Paul talked about that tradition he is passing on in I Corinthians 11 and 15. The first Church replaced Judas with someone who had been with Jesus throughout his entire ministry. And one of the four marks of the Church listed in Acts 2 is listening to the Apostles’ teaching.

Of course, not everything that has happened in church history is good. That is why remembering tradition that reports positions approved in the past is used to support or correct what we believe and do now. We do not want to repeat mistakes, and we don’t want always to be relearning values.

There has always been conversation, and sometimes tremendous conflict, over what tradition says. In embarrassing periods, Christians have even gone to war over doctrine. We seem to be in one of those times right now, as Christians argue over what our tradition says about sexuality. Goodness, even presidential candidates are asked where they stand. Obviously, our society wants to know who speaks for the Church.

Some of our problem stems from living 2,000 years after Jesus walked the earth. How do you judge which parts of tradition are timeless? Are any? Certainly the Holy Spirit has led to our modifying some parts, notably recently the position of women and slaves.

Our dilemma is aggravated, because a shortcut used by the Reformers has proven not as simple as we supposed. Luther advocated using only tradition found in the Bible and the first four ecumenical councils. Now after 500 years, we argue over how Luther interpreted these.

Pentecostals in our time go back even further. Regarding themselves as Restorationists rather than Reformers, they pretty much deny any tradition. They claim their churches restore the charisma and offices in the first century. In other words, personal experience authenticates all teachings when tongue speaking certifies this experience. This seems to take us back to the situation with which the earliest church struggled, the situation that led to using leadership, tradition, and community as standards for judging those who claimed to speak for God.

I think this makes creative conversation between Christians essential in our time, especially since the main argument of the militant atheists is the Church should be abolished, because it leads to division rather than unity in a global society. Our answer should not be a bland tolerance for all thoughts and actions, but rather a careful presentation on what can be agreed to be the essentials of the faith. It is quite a challenge.

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