Tradition and traditioning…

Posted by on Jan 10, 2017 in Blog | 0 comments

I grant you that most people don’t spend lots of time wondering about tradition and particularly the tradition of the Church, and if they are being true to it or not. But if you have ever had a bright idea of yours shut down with a “It’s not going to happen. We’ve never done it that way before”, or if on the opposite end of the spectum you’ve felt a little uneasy that you might be about to embrace something that humans have only really been doing for the last 5 minutes of their existence, and which doesn’t bear any correspondence with all earlier history, you have bumped into the tradition question.

To put the question bluntly, to what extent should the tradition (or more accurately traditions) of the Christian community shape our beliefs, attitudes and actions in the present? Do the beliefs of the past have any special weight and value, and to what extent do we have to commit to the continuity of faith and practice over the generations?

The easy way to side step the question is to reply: “We’re not interested in tradition (or traditions). Our commitment is to what the Bible teaches. If tradition has got that right, it continues; if not, dump it without a moments hesitation.”  Some would claim that the sola Scriptura principle – we should be willing to make a firm commitment only to what Scripture teaches – justifies that… probably not noting the irony that they have appealed to tradition to dispense with it.

While a predictable answer, and fair enough in its own way, the “Bible only” reply is remarkably naive. The assumption is that our interpretation of Scripture is itself unaffected by the theological tradition we have come to embrace. Realistically, that’s most improbable. The history of the interpretation of the Bible is a fascinating study, and no genuine advocate for definitively allowing the Bible to shape our belief system (and I classify myself in this camp) can avoid a serious study of hermenutics – the science of interpreting the Bible. There are so many choices to make. One of the most fundamental is whether we decide to read the Bible with a Christological lens (a position I strongly encourage), or whether we simply leave the gospels to fend for themselves amidst the swirl of the many different narratives in scripture.

But I digress… Back to the tradition question.

Clearly the claim that “we’ve not done that before” cannot be the defining trump card, or we would never have birthed the wide array of denominations, beliefs and practices that have emerged over 2000 years of church history. Even those who emphasise the importance of tradition readily acknowledge that you cannot talk about tradition in the singular – we have traditions, and there are many of them. For all that, most would note that some traditions have been dominant. Clearly a faith as long lasting and wide spread as Christianity is going to have a significant lunatic fringe – that’s just part of the territory of being old and large. What we can look for and appeal to are dominant, widespread and long lasting traditions.

And certainly these criteria (dominant, widespread and long lasting) are important.

But what about changes in the ethical sphere? Certainly a fair few have been embraced – and especially by those in churches falling within the broad scope of Protestantism.

Take divorce. It was not that long ago that a divorced person had almost zero chance of being allowed any active ministry in a local church. While still viewed with sadness, it is now unusual for divorce to be the excluder that it once was (unusual does not mean never, and I grant you there are exceptions).

The obvious big ticket item being debated at present is gay marriage. Tradition’s voice in this regard is clear. Marriage has been seen as being between a man and a woman. When those who advocate for gay marriage shout down the voices of those who try to express some reservations at changing this status quo, they are taking a stance on the tradition question (basically – “tradition, who cares…” – though granted, some are a little more nuanced.)

And there are a multitude of other questions that are being raised.

Many are ethical (euthanasia is another big issue, while advances in gene technology are likely to throw up challenging questions at a bewildering rate – indeed, they are likely to force us to ask the question “what does it mean to be human?” with new depth and seriousness).

Some are more classically doctrinal… are the lost really lost? Is “hell” a biblical concept? If it is, how long does it last for? Is Jesus the only way to God?

Many are more subtle and might not be on the radar of the average church attender, but within the academy questions about the Trinity are being debated almost as furiously as they were when the doctrine was first mooted.

So how should we view tradition?

First it is helpful to distinguish between tradition as a noun and traditioning as a verb.

If we view tradition as a noun, we are more likely to take a static approach to it. Tradition is then a thing – a body of evidence of what has been in the past, and which cannot be altered without accusations of infidelity to the past.

A static view of tradition can be stifling – even oppressive. It can be used as a death knoll for creativity, thoughtfulnesss and genuine engagement. True, it can be liberating as well. When tradition is a noun, I don’t have to argue with it. I find the freedom of acceptance, the wonder of embracing ancient ways without qualm or question. I am one with the many, many generations who have gone before. I am freed from the tyranny of novelty and having to constantly raise the bar on what has gone before.

Whatever the benefits and deficits of tradition as a noun, it doesn’t really meet the criteria of being biblical or – wait for it – true to tradition.

Take the biblical question.

The Bible engages more in traditioning than tradition. In other words – tradition is an interactive concept. You allow yourself to be shaped by it – but not mindlessly. You ask questions of it, and dig more deeply into the underlying motifs behind each practice. An example may help. Take the book of Deuteronomy. A key claim is that obedience leads to blessing, disobedience, to curse. The Bible then pits the claims of Deuteronomy against Job… a new conversation emerges. The theological equation of Deuteronomy needs many fresh new qualifications in the light of Job’s experience. True, the book of Job is not introduced in the Bible with careful throat clearing and an announcement that it will challenge previous wisdom – but in effect, that is what it does. It digs into questions more deeply, and arrives at more considered answers.

Indeed, we haven’t really read the Bible carefully unless we see it as an ongoing narrative – a conversation where new ideas are set forth and tested. Most would agree that a reading of either the New Testament or the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) is deeply defective without listening to the qualifying insights of the other. As that debate takes root, a new faith is formed. While Christianity is deeply indebted to Judiasm, it is not Judiasm. It is a different faith – a different religious tradition.

There is also discussion within each Testament. While Luther was inclined to dismiss the letter of James as a “right strawy epistle”, we can be glad that it pushes back on any understanding of grace that tries to numb our social conscience or ignores the importance of kindness and justice. In other words, we understand Paul better because of James (and James better because of Paul) – and both far better because of the Gospels.

Traditioning involves sorting through and interacting with the ideas of the past – rather than slavishly adopting them. At its best, traditioning picks up the heartbeat of the past, and helps us to recreate it relevantly in the present. Traditioning is never lazy. It honours the past, takes seriously the present, and lays a foundation for the future.

At its finest moments, Christianity has a strong tradition of challenging the status quo, advocating a different vision of life and of providing meaning for people for both the present and the future. It has actively explored new ideas and has been at the forefront of almost all of the most important societal changes. This is our tradition.

So let’s keep traditioning our tradition – and enthusiastically and constructively interact with the questions of our time.

As always, nice chatting…

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