Questioning the Role of Tradition
I ask today what the proper role of tradition is in Christian faith, including personal anecdote, key considerations, and a surprising example in which Eastern Orthodoxy recently reached across schism to embrace a decidedly Roman tradition.
I married into an imperfect, but healthy family. They play the same silly games each year at Christmas. They fill our bellies with great Southern cooking every time a family member visits, and they fill our arms again with food every time we leave. Instead of televisions blaring and portable devices hiding their faces, they continue the tradition of talking, listening, and asking great questions in order to show relatives that they are valued. They make no demands of visitors and somehow exhibit no disappointment. These traditions enable their goals of unity and love without demanding any family member conform to their traditions.
When I was a Protestant, I had no respect for pre-Reformation history, and thereby missed out on much of the benefits of Christianity’s historical and global traditions. As I shake off some of the errors which Protestantism has taught me, I now question how much Christian tradition should shape my theology and spirituality. I have eight factors in mind regarding Christian tradition which I present for scrutiny and correction:
Consideration #1) Protestants rely heavily on tradition. Despite their Sola Scriptura claim, Protestants trust tradition for both theology and spirituality.
- The most obvious example is the gospel. Protestants focus heavily on a gospel which is true (Jesus died for our sins) but which scripture never calls “gospel.”1
- With all due and sincere respect, Protestants overlook the message which scriptura explicitly calls “gospel”2 solely (or sola-ly) because Protestant tradition has already defined the gospel for them.
- As I seek the right way to embrace Christian tradition, it helps to recognize that all Christian branches including Protestants rely on tradition.
#2) Tradition makes mistakes. The immediately preceding “Consideration #1” exhibits a failure in Protestant tradition. There are errors in the traditions of the apostolic lines of Christianity as well. For example, the canon process was a process; which is to say that mistakes were made over a long period of time in discerning which writings had been handed down from the apostles with full, divine inspiration.
- As I wrestle with properly engaging Christian tradition, it helps me to recognize the fact that tradition has failed in some instances.
#3) I doubt that any apostolic branch of Christianity claims that all of their traditions were directly instituted by our Lord.
- The greatest strength of Christian tradition would be if Jesus Himself had directly initiated every traditional practice.
- As I try to engage tradition in a healthy way, it helps to realize that the force of apostolic succession is tempered by the fact that many traditional practices are later improvisations developments.
#4) Not all of the traditions of Jesus were perpetuated by all of His apostles and all of their successors. For example, Luke 22:39 appears to record the habit/custom of Jesus to take an after-dinner prayer walk.
- As I consider Christian traditions, I must recognize the fact that some of the traditions of our Lord were not universally perpetuated.
#5) Tradition holds greatest authority when unanimous. For example, early Christian writers attacked heretical doctrines by pointing to the unanimity of doctrine among all bishops whose appointments could be traced directly to those bishops whom the apostles had appointed. The early writers did not discredit every doctrine and practice which originated outside of apostolic succession. They did however rebuke doctrines and practices which contradicted the unanimous teaching of bishops in apostolic succession.
- As I come to grips with the right role of tradition, I am reminded that tradition holds its highest authority when empowered by unanimity.
#6) Jesus prophesied unanimity–the ultimate strength of tradition. In John 14:26 and 16:13, Jesus said the Holy Spirit would lead the group of disciples into all truth. It is pivotal that he did not promise that the Holy Spirit would lead any particular one of them into all truth; He prophesied to the group. Then in 17:23, he interceded for their unity.
- As I try to correctly subordinate myself to tradition, I find it crucial to know that my Lord ordained an apostolic unity which in turn birthed traditions.
#7) Outside of the Roman and Byzantine Empires, records of tradition and apostolic succession were not as carefully preserved. Eusebius of Caesarea and other early Christian writers record the original apostles as laboring in Ethiopia, modern Morocco, far northern Europe, modern Russia, Persia, and even modern India; yet the documented succession of apostolic bishops comes to us almost exclusively from within Roman and Byzantine borders. Since the original apostles established communities which did not maintain records of successive bishop lines, traditions must have existed outside of documented bishop lines as well.
- In attempting to give tradition its due, I recognize that apostolic Christian communities are not exclusively Roman/Byzantine.
#8) Unanimous and nearly unanimous traditions exist. Across three continents, both inside documented apostolic lines and outside of them, several great traditions arose with almost universal agreement. As I have laid aside Protestantism, I have laid aside all willingness to sneer at universal and nearly-universal traditions, even if I do not personally embrace them all. The most obvious examples are:
- Across all three continents, Christian Old Testament canons and translations traditionally reflected the Greek Septuagint.
- New Testament canons everywhere now reflect 27 books except for one addition in the Armenian Orthodox and several in the Ethiopic.
- Despite early variations, New Testament translations from AD 700 to 1700 so closely reflected one another as to establish an overwhelming “majority” manuscript line in contrast with only the Coptic New Testament.
- All pre-Reformation traditions highly honored Mary, including believing that she maintained her virginity in wedlock. Many early Reformed Christians believed this too.
- Christians everywhere taught transubstantiation of the Eucharist (communion).
- Christians unanimously practiced baptism by immersion for well over one thousand years.
When I married my bride, if I had broken every tradition in her family or sneered at them, then I would have lost many of their traditions’ benefits and unnecessarily hurt my relatives. The same is true in Christianity; sneering at traditions robs us of benefits and harms our spiritual family. A striking example of humbly embracing other Christian traditions can be found in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchal Text of 1904. That text is the authoritative New Testament in Eastern Orthodoxy, yet it includes the “Johannine Comma” which the Roman tradition almost exclusively perpetuated. Despite the rarity of that passage in early Byzantine manuscripts, Eastern Orthodoxy includes it as part of “a uniform ecclesiastical text which is a reliable and accurate witness to the truth of the Christian faith.”3
As I journey toward a healthier and “symphonic” form of Christian faith, I now hold in high regard those traditions which the universal church has historically held. So far however, I find no reason to believe that any single branch of the faith managed to perpetuate every tradition without error. What factors have I missed, and how do my siblings recommend I grow in embracing ecclesiastical tradition?