Church Without Tradition?

Church Without Tradition?

I understand why many people are frightened by Church Tradition. I sure was. For me Church Tradition was the enemy; it was the great resurgence of the kind of “Pharisee-ism” which Jesus Christ fought against in the gospels and ultimately died to save us from. Tradition was the great antithesis of faith; one either had faith or they had tradition, but never both. Faith was no more compatible with tradition than a fish with a bicycle (to quote the great St. Bono of U2).

There is a great deal wrong with this understanding of the faith, but here are a couple of points that immediately come to mind:

1. If Jesus came to destroy all tradition why did He leave us with Scripture, leadership, and (God forbid) sacraments? If His work was to destroy tradition, He only succeeded in establishing a new one.

2. There is no such thing as a “tradition-free” Christianity. Everyone exists in the faith according to a tradition, be it their own tradition, someone else’s tradition, or the Apostolic Tradition.

It is clear that Jesus did not come to destroy tradition; He came to destroy sin and death. The problem with some of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes of His day (and our own) was arrogance and hypocrisy. Pride has always been repugnant to God, as the Scriptures say: “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.” God does not resist those with a tradition otherwise He would resist all people everywhere, for we are all creatures of tradition, created that way by the Lord Himself.

The “trick” of the Christian life is not to attempt to outrun all forms of tradition, but rather to follow the right tradition. The New Testament teaches that there is an Apostolic tradition, which is distinct from all other traditions established by men based on their own philosophical ideals.

I recently had an interesting banter with a senior pastor of a charismatic, independent church who claimed that tradition was the enemy of faith. During the course of our discussion I asked him what he specifically disliked about the Orthodox Tradition (since Orthodoxy was the topic of the discussion). This banter took place on Facebook and after literally 40+ posts he could not pick out a single doctrine of Orthodoxy that he had issue with. One of the problems was that he was wholly unfamiliar with Orthodoxy and continuously confused it with Roman Catholicism (a usual mistake). He eventually settled on the Catholic version of confession and the authoritative position of the Pope as the aspects of “tradition” he didn’t care for.

Though I’m not particularly interested in defending Roman Catholicism, I had to bite. After explaining in depth the doctrine of confession, demonstrating through both Scripture and Church history the reason for confession, he simply ignored it and shot directly to the issue of the Pope’s authority. I followed the bunny trail and attempted to illustrate my second point above by showing the awesome similarity of this pastor and the Pope. I asked him, “In your church who decides the proper interpretation of Scripture; who stays and goes in leadership; what sacraments (if any) are practiced; the basic direction of the church? Is it you? Aren’t you then a miniature version of the pope for your church?”

His response was disappointing. He said, “You have a lot to learn,” and deleted me from his friends list – the ultimate cyber middle finger.

But this experience is typical. Those who are valiant in distaining the Church’s Tradition usually turn out to be the most entrenched traditionalist of them all; that is, entrenched in their own philosophical ideals. Turning to the Christian faith requires one to lay aside their own religious philosophy and take up the Apostolic Tradition – i.e. the message preached by the Apostles, captured in the dogma of the Church Fathers. The further one strays from the Church Tradition is the further he/she wonders alongside their own culturally, physiologically, and emotionally conditioned “ideas” of the faith rather than the true faith delivered to the Church by Christ and His Apostles. “But,” the argument would go, “doesn’t that mean that we must have faith not only in what is written in Scripture but also what the Church has taught throughout her history?”

The short answer is “yes.” The long answer is that one must have faith not only that the Bible is the word of God, but also in one’s interpretation of the Bible; this is essentially faith in one’s own rational powers. There is a better way. The Orthodox teach that the Bible grew out from the Church, not the Church from the Bible. In effect, the Bible is the property of the Church and not the property of every individual to interpret it as he or she sees fit according to their own desires. To wrestle the Bible from the Church and lay it prostrate before your own will is to invite every heresy under heaven to flood your walk with God. The Tradition of the Church is in fact present to protect Christians in their journey to the Father, not inhibit them.

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14 thoughts on “Church Without Tradition?

  1. Excellent. I think your post demonstrates why evangelicalism has flown into a frenzy over the Rob Bell “controversy”. When your historical scope is as limited as is most of evangelicalism’s, how do you adjudicate who’s “in bounds” and “out of bounds” without seeming arbitrary? John Piper’s tweet “Farewell Rob Bell” was as “papal” as it gets. Who is he to make such a claim?

    Anywho… nice blog template 🙂

  2. Haha, great point about Piper’s tweet. I don’t even have a Twitter account, nor do I keep up with Piper, but I still managed to hear about this semi-infamous tweet (which will come back to haunt Piper for sure).

    It’s completely arbitrary to label someone as either correct or heretical while at the same time denying the authoritative claim of the Church’s Tradition. Who’s to say what is and is not heretical if there is no referencing of the Church’s authority on such matters? Who’s to say we can even use Scripture to call out heresies unless the Church first authorizes what is and is not Scripture?

    Tradition is a tricky thing. Its similar in nature to reason: one can only attack reason by using reason, thereby establishing reason even more than before it was attacked. Likewise, one can only attack tradition by establishing a counter tradition.

  3. Absolutely. This recent theological snafu of which we speak, which, at least for me, is a microcosm of so much of what is incoherent about evangelicalism, makes me wonder how much shelf life evangelicalism has left. I wonder if, 500 years from now, when the church history books are re-written, evangelicalism winds up being remembered as a “branching out” from the root which ultimately died off (or assimilated into branches closer to the tree).

    Oh gosh… and I say all this as a pastor of a non-denominational church 😉

  4. Yah, but first the history books will have to find an adequate definition for “evangelicalism.” When writing my blogs I never know what to call it so I always opt for 3 or 4 words to cover it, something like: evangelical, independent, charismatic, non-denominational.

    Maybe the best way to understand it is to realize that, whatever it is, it is a reflection of American culture first and foremost, and only slightly a reflection of Christianity. Kind of how the Roman Church for many centuries was simply a reflection of Roman culture first and Christian second. Evangelicalism wrapped in an American flag and being claimed by political parties has disgraced the name beyond our ability to comprehend in our place in history. In 30 or 40 years it will be interesting how it will be spun.

    Anyway, yah, at a minimum its a dying branch. But, I’m wondering how much “life” it ever had to begin with.

  5. Good post. I’ve come to a personal conclusion, that where tradition is involved there needs to be a balance with the Spirit of God. We can’t just hold to tradition because it has always been that way. We can’t allow tradition to keep us from moving into something new when God calls us into it. However, tradition is a good foundation or base for us to have. When your foundation is solid, then you can build creatively upon it.

  6. Agreed, Brittaney.

    The the best route to go is with the Tradition that is built on the Holy Spirit and who’s tradition relies on the continual involvement with, and revelation from, the Holy Spirit. In this way one’s walk is consistent with the Holy Spirit’s movement with those throughout the history of the Church, with those current, and even with those to come in the future. This is all necessary if one believes that the Holy Spirit is always the same and never changes from one generation to the next, as Scriptures declare. I’ve found the Orthodox Tradition to be the most Spirit based Church in existence in the fullest sense of the word.

    And, though I’m with you on the “creative” building once one has a solid foundation, any structural engineer will tell you that it is possible to ruin an otherwise perfect foundation by building on it inappropriately. I think there’s enough mystery in the faith to keep even the most creative beings among us busy for more than a few lifetimes 🙂

    The Orthodox guard the mysteries of the faith from any attempt to give a perfect rational framework for them. For instance, they define God as a Trinity, but refuse the attempt to break the idea down to the point of attaining a perfect rational concept of “Trinity.” Same with the incarnation as it relates to the Eucharist. Where the West has developed such ideas as transubstantiation to explain what happens to the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the Orthodox simply say, “the elements are made into His flesh and blood, period.” The understanding is a matter of faith, not academics.

  7. Ooh. You remind me that the apophatic way is another thing that I love about the Orthodox. “Guarding the mysteries” doesn’t equal solving them…

  8. Christianity without tradition is dead. How can someone be a Christian ignoring like 15 centuries of Church history, that is beyond me. Unless its pure ignorance. I

    was lucky to be born in an Orthodox country, still most of the people can’t tell the true tradition from superstitions, and dismiss it just because tradition is evil.

  9. Thanks Eric! I grew up and still live in Romania, Eastern Europe.

    It’s pretty sad to see such a rich cultural and religious heritage dusting all over. But I’m also so happy to see people around the world discovering with so much joy and passion the treasures we, here, tend to ignore.

  10. That’s sad that Orthodoxy gets ignored, not just in Romania, but from what I hear, all over Eastern Europe. I wish we could see what places like Russian would have been like today had it not been for a century of Communist rule. Due to the suppression of the Church for so long in that part of the world this new generation knows very little of what was so great about the Church for so long.

    I’m blessed to have ever discovered Orthodoxy. I was a Christian for 19 years before I finally discovered it during my graduate studies in theology, more specifically in studying Church history and Christology. John Zizioulas was my first intro to the Church followed quickly by Alexander Schmemann and Kallistos Ware. I feel like I’ve become a Christian all over again (only, right this time 🙂

    We need the East to light the fire again in Orthodoxy. The West still has a long way to go. Though little by little they are gaining credence in America.

  11. People who don’t understand and are disinterested in history are really shielding some sort of fear that they will be proven wrong, or at least misguided.
    I like Christian was born Orthodox, so I’ve seen this sort of fear and denial my whole life. I’ve always found it very interesting to hear the journeys of former otherwise-persuaded-Christians and evangelicals. I’d love to sit down with you and the wifey sometime and hear yours, if you wouldn’t mind sharging. 🙂

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