Tag Archives: traditionalism

Tradition

I’m attempting this as another post from my phone, written over the weekend and edited in my lunchbreaks. Hopefully, that means it will be short. We’ll see.

Tradition is one issue about which I am quite passionate. On the few occasions I choose not to bite my tongue, I invariably get a torrent of abuse for doing so. This usually happens on Twitter which, due to the character limitations, is rarely the best platform for nuanced discussion. Taking shortcuts in the thinking or using alternative, shorter, words can lead to misunderstanding, which, in my view, is probably the leading cause of disagreements and arguments. It is therefore my hope that I may avoid such unnecessary unpleasantness here.

This should not be seen as any sort of attack or dig at particular groups or individuals. That’s not the sort of thing I would do. Instead, the motivation for speaking out is the hope that it will prompt others to think and have a reevaluation. Though as the post will hopefully go on to show, this may be a bigger obstacle for some given the subject matter.

What do I mean by tradition? Roughly speaking, it’s the practice of doing something on the basis that it has been done before, repeatedly, and for an extensive period of time. This might be done by an individual for a number of years or it could be done by an identifiable group over centuries.

Most traditions are, I believe, benign. Some are helpful, some are unhelpful though some may be positively damaging. I would hope that that statement is relatively uncontroversial. Where we might all differ is on which traditions fall into which categories. Part of the difficulty is that many traditions are ingrained within various cultures to the extent that the traditions help to form a significant chunk of that cultural identity. To question the tradition may be seen to call in question that cultural identity, or even to attack it. If an individual feels strongly identified with that culture then in order to defend it against a perceived attack, the individual will feel compelled to defend the tradition. Please bear this in mind when considering critiques of those traditions which you have a vested interest in. It is not a wholesale attack on on a person’s identity; though if considered rationally it might to lead to some reconsideration of the use of tradition within a given community.

To give an example of a tradition that I would consider benign, having the family and friends of a wedding party sit on a particular side; bride’s family & friends on the left, groom’s family & friends on the right. There’s no functional purpose to this and though it may a cause a little consternation for those who are friends of both, there is neither any great reason to stick to it, nor is there any pressing need to depart from it.

Though I may write about tradition in general, I will often have in mind tradition within the church. As a nonconformist, I do have the luxury of not being tied into any one tradition. Though I have qualms about those who identify themselves through their tradition (or else use the term ‘christian’ as a synonym for their particular tradition), that is not to say that any and all traditions are inherently wrong, misleading or unhelpful. Part of the reason they develop is because of their helpfulness to a particular community in a particular society at a particular time.

Yet that specificity is the seed of why I don’t wholly embrace one tradition or another. The very nature of tradition carries with it a normative overtone that may not translate across cultures and centuries, resulting in a community that can be anachronistic or simply ill-fitted to the society in which it finds itself.

It often strikes me as odd that those who are most passionate about quite radical reform within our present western culture are often those who most strongly defend their own brand of traditionalism. If the church is to be at the heart of God’s plan to renew creation, surely the church has to be the first to change. There is a strange irony here, though. Of the many -isms and -ists that pervade our lexicon, christianity seems to have its fair share. One I recently came across is one that could be used a fair description of me: restorationist (though if you click the link you’ll see it’s quite a jumble). Broadly speaking, though, I hold to the idea that the modern church should have the same aims as the early church. So in some respects, I could be seen as an ultra-traditionalist. Though I would contend that that’s not quite the right way to look at it, as I would not advocate replicating the praxis of the church as it existed then, but rather advocating that a modern praxis should have recognisable echoes of the early church.

The advantage the non-conformist has over the traditionalist is that of picking and choosing what lessons from the past we can best learn from. One need not, say, accept and bind ourselves to everything that is recognisably  anabaptist, yet that does not mean we cannot look at their beliefs and practices, adapting the most helpful of these to our present circumstances. In other words, tradition is not something to be adhered to and defended in the face of prevailing circumstances and evidence; and it should certainly not be used as a substitute for scripture. Yet it can be regarded as a useful resource which may be used to help us understand where we have come from and how others have understood scripture, without having to adhere to the lessons of the past unquestioningly.

I’ve tried to talk in generalities here, though if you want more specifics, see other posts I’ve written on liturgical chanting, priests and saints. I hope that clarifies my position, though please do let me know if anything was unclear if there are any points you think I’ve overlooked.

Book Review: Justification – Five views by Various Authors

This is the last book that I intend to look at (for now) in my continuing quest to understand the new perspective on Paul and the grounds for critiquing it. To date I have read the following:

Paul: A Very Short Introduction by E.P. Sanders
What Saint Paul Really Said by Tom Wright
Paul: Fresh Perspectives by N.T. Wight
The Future of Justification by John Piper
Justification by Tom Wright

You may note that of the main proponents of the new perspective, I have thus far omitted James Dunn. Well, Dunn is the representative of the new perspective here. So what we have are five essays from six different writers:

Traditional Reformed – Michael Horton
Progressive Reformed – Michael Bird
New Perspective – James Dunn
Deification – Veli-Matti Karkkainen
Catholic – Gerald O’Collins & Oliver Rafferty

The book is highly structured, with the editors, James Beilby and Paul Eddy, writing a lengthy introduction, giving the background against which the essays are set. There is a brief history of the doctrine of justification, including the broad sweep of theological thought of the Reformation. Helpfully, the editors have included a fair variety of denominations including Anabaptists and Pentecostals – strands of christianity which form part of the tapestry of my own faith.

The bulk of the book is devoted to the 5 essays and the reaction to each of them from the writers of the other 4.

Horton’s essay is very traditional and reminded me much of John Piper’s book on the same subject. Though he makes some good points, and presents his view very clearly and faithfully, I couldn’t help but think, having read some of the ‘new perspective’ writings already, that his essay just lacked some key aspects. It was like a landscape painting without the sky.

Michael Bird is not a theologian I had ever heard of before, though I liked his essay very much. This may be because of confirmation bias, I freely admit, as his view is very closely aligned with my own. While he recognises the value of traditional thought, this is not because tradition has intrinsic value; he recognises the fallibility of the likes of Luther and Calvin, who were merely doing their best to be faithful expositors and interpreters of the biblical authors. I will aim to read more of Bird’s writings in the future.

James Dunn was another that I liked. He is quick to point out that not all of the proponents of the ‘new perspective’ are univocal, and he does distance himself from one aspect of Wright’s writings that I found myself disagreeing with, namely the reinterpretation of “God’s righteousness” as “God’s covenantal faithfulness”. Indeed Dunn’s essay serves to highlight the fact that the real core of the arguments over justification are semantic. What do we mean when we speak of justification and righteousness and what did the biblical authors mean?

Karkkainen is an odd one. In his responses to the other essays, he rarely engages, but rather alludes to his own essay. His view itself is one that is completely new to me. To explain briefly, it is a sort of conflation of Lutheranism with Eastern Orthodoxy (the latter of which I confess near total ignorance, the former only slightly less so) whereby people are made to be ‘like God’ though Karkkainen is a little woolly in his definitions, a point picked up by one of the responses. I found myself interested, yet unconvinced by his essay. I know I will have to do more reading on this subject though to come to a more rounded, informed opinion.

The piece on catholicism is split into two parts. The first is a very straightforward statement of catholic doctrine written by Rafferty where his appeal is almost entirely to the Council of Trent. Some of the pronouncements of it are reproduced in Michael Horton’s earlier essay. Rafferty’s part does nothing to dissuade me from the view that the Reformation (and the council of Trent) marked the final separation between christianity and catholicism. Only a full renunciation could mark the beginnings of the restoration of Rome to the church of Christ. O’Collins’ section is a personal testimony. Here, he seems to take a very different line of thinking which is much more open to the possibility of the need of catholicism to change. His testimony culminates with his being part of a “joint declaration on the doctrine of justification” in 1999 between the catholic and Lutheran churches, though it is noted that this document is binding on neither church.

What I found most striking was that the deification and catholic pieces almost entirely discussed tradition. This was true to a fair extent of the Traditional Reformed piece, though not quite so much. It was really only the Progressive Reformed and the New Perspective views that gave any weight at all to scripture. Were these two omitted and one were to approach this without any prior knowledge, one could easily get the impression that the documents over which the debate occurs are the writings of Martin Luther and the decrees of the council of Trent. Jesus, Paul and James barely get a look-in.

Interestingly, I wrote the preceding paragraph when I was 90% of the way through the book, only to find a very similar critique in the last 10% made by Dunn in response to the essay on the catholic point of view. So while each essays, and the responses to them, are highly informative as to the stance of each of the writers, very little is given (with pun fully intended) by way of justification of their own view.

Overall, this is well worth a read and serves as a good summary of different points of view.

Sacraments as Signposts

I was having a little think the other day about what those of a high church persuasion refer to as “sacraments.” I wrote a little about these fairly recently. What got me thinking was a few instances where I had various people push the idea of the sacraments as being the main part of any church service. That is, they were more important than the worship or the sermon, even to the extent that anything else was marginal.

Also, I was recently described as being anti-anglican, though I think this is not really an accurate label. What I am opposed to is tradition for tradition’s sake and instances where a church has become an institution. There are strong aspects of these in both Catholicism and Anglicanism, though it would be unfair to apply such a specific charge universally against such large and diverse bodies.

Coming from an independent church background, looking as an impartial outside observer upon the public face of these two organisations, I cannot escape the idea that today’s anglican and catholic churches are the equivalents of the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Key to this is the sermon on the mount as recorded by Matthew. Throughout this section, Jesus emphasises that there is a reason for the law. The law does not exist for it’s own sake, it is an application of more fundamental ideas. He gives something of a backhanded compliment in chapter 5:17-20 (Green):

“Do not think that I came to annul the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to annul, but to fulfil. Truly I say to you, until the heavens and the earth pass away, in no way shall one iota or one tittle pass away from the law until all comes to pass. Whoever then shall break one of these commandments, the least, and shall teach men so, he shall be called least in kingdom of heaven. But whoever does and teaches them, this one shall be called great in the kingdom of the heavens. For I say to you, if your righteousness shall not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, in no way shall you go into the kingdom of heaven.”

His point, which is also made elsewhere in the gospels is that the law was being observed for its own sake. The scribes and the Pharisees come across as being more concerned about the letter of the law than the underlying reasons for it. So while law and tradition are important, they are not the end goal.

So when I look at the institutional churches, what I see are institutions that are more concerned about their self-preservation and keeping their own rules and traditions than they are about actually being a church; where I’m using the term church to mean a collection of people.

So coming back to the sacraments, they are important for christianity, but they are not the be all and end all. They are signposts and symbols for God and the gospel. To become “evangelical for the sacraments” is like a person who spends their time admiring and arguing for the preservation of a motorway sign. We may be used to seeing the signs in a particular form, and if this form is changed, then I don’t doubt a conservative element would protest at such a change. But if a new format of the sign is used, which still serves the function, then it is in no way false, misleading or heretical. It’s just a different way of doing things.

Of course, one can to the other extreme and try to rid christianity of any and all traditions, embracing everything new just because it is new. Here, I am thinking particularly of the use of technology within churches. If you have song books that work well, is it really justified to spend a lot of money of a projection system? Of course, some investment may be necessary, but upgrading one’s PA system just for the sake it shows, in my opinion, questionable discernment; and I have seen instances of this is quite a lot of churches of varying stripes.

Returning to the signpost analogy, by concentrating on the sign, you never embark on the journey. This is probably my biggest concern for those whose energies are devoted to the preservation of tradition. Trying to stick to the precise methodologies by those who lived in vastly different time period and culture seems to against the instruction for each “to work out their own salvation.” By concentrating on treading in the footsteps of others, we may never look up and notice our surroundings or where we are headed. To this end, I love the maxim from Hebrews “Looking unto Jesus” which was, by the way, my old school motto.