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.