how much weight do we put on tradition?

Every  church, from the Quakers to the Roman Catholic has its tradition which means its belief and practice. And you can trace back certain tradition quite early in the early church fathers and in documents like the Didache.

I have held for some time to what is called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, meaning scripture as the word of God written always has primacy, tradition and reason and experience (understood rightly, an adjustment in my thinking after reading N. T. Wright on this). I think the churches I’ve known have often not done well in understanding the tradition of the church which dates back to the early centuries, some of it not that far removed from the apostles.

I admit, perhaps contra a bit, Christian Smith (The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture), that I am largely a Biblicist. That means I’ll keep going back to scripture itself to judge tradition. At the same time tradition helps us read scripture; we should not bypass or look lightly on the teaching and practice of the church, especially when there we find consensus. That actually has impacted my reading and understanding of scripture to some extent, whereas without that I would believe and practice differently.

The church forever in every generation needs to hear what the Spirit is saying to it from the written word. Such reading of course should be gospel centered as in finding its place and meaning in the story of God in which Jesus Christ is the fulfillment in God’s good news (gospel) in him. The church has not always been right on everything. One could argue against that on the basics of and related to the gospel. But, for example its sadly at times rampant anti-Semitism is a blight in its face and a contradiction to scripture itself. And there are other problems as well, not the least of which in my mind is the joining of church and state through Constantine and the problems which came out of that and impact us to this day, even here in the United States (on this latter point, see Allan R. Bevere: The Politics of Witness: The Character of the Church in the World).

Scripture is the written word of God; Christian theology consists of human words on that word of God. Theology is not the word of God. (I heard Richard Wurmbrand make this point). So again we always and forever need to be in scripture to let it inform and shape and at times reshape our theology. Having said that, I would also say we should be slow to quickly change tradition. If a traditional understanding (and I’m thinking of the church at large) is the possible interpretation of a scriptural passage or teaching (such as baptism or the Lord’s Supper), we should be slow to abandon that, or at least not sanguine in doing so. In other words tradition itself, due to God’s promise in scripture that God would guide the church into all truth (Jesus’ promise to the disciples that the Spirit would guide them in all truth which was in significant part fulfilled in their writing of what we have today as the New Testament, but in part may refer to church tradition which followed, as well).

And so let’s be slow to change tradition, yet always going back to scripture, in the words of the Evangelical Covenant Church: What does scripture say?


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