Introduction to the Series

In the past couple years in this Sunday school class I have presented some vignettes from church history: two summers ago we looked at some issues from the 4th century church (including the Trinitarian debate and monasticism) and took a brief foré into the 5th century by looking at the life and work of Patrick, missionary to Ireland. Last summer we considered a more modern subject, that of Christian responses to Darwinism.

In preparing the topic for this year, rather than focusing on another specific period or person in church history, I decided instead to discuss a topic that spans the centuries. A topic that is relevant for all generations of believers in Jesus Christ. That is not to suggest that my previous topics are not relevant in our day—quite the contrary. But the topic that I intend to discuss during the next few weeks is different in that it does not belong to a particular period of church history, but rather is more like a seam that runs throughout church history and holds the individual pieces together. What I have in mind can be summed up in one word: TRADITION

This word connotes a wide variety of ideas. It may bring to mind a family tradition, such as a favorite and regular vacation site, or if you were born in another country, it may bring to mind pictures of festivals and food peculiar to your homeland. For those of us who are Presbyterian in our Protestant orientation, mention of “tradition” no doubt also brings to mind what is referred to as “the Reformed tradition,” which traces back to John Calvin and other like-minded reformers.

At the outset I offer this simple, working definition of “tradition”: a tradition is that which is handed down, or delivered, from one individual or group to another. In the handing down process, the intent is that that which is being handed down will be remembered and held onto by succeeding generations. For example, when we speak of a “family tradition”, we have in mind a practice or custom that is handed down from one generation to the next, and so on, thus promoting its continuity in the family line through the succession of generations. Family traditions typically commemorate important events or persons in the family tree. So, too, with many national traditions, such as celebration of Memorial Day, and spiritual traditions, such as the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (“Do this in remembrance of me.”).

In 2 Thes.2:15, the word “traditions” refers to doctrine, that is, authoritative teaching that is handed down from one generation of believers to another. A closely related word is “customs”, which refers to practices, based on doctrine, that are handed down (Acts 6:14). Next week, Lord willing, we will look more closely at the use of these words in the New Testament.

Suffice it to say today that the Biblical meaning of tradition, and the modern secular meaning, are essentially the same. The meaning has changed little, if at all, over time. The applications, of course, are quite different. Many of the traditions of our culture are hardly worth “holding on to,” as Paul encourages Christians to do in more than one of his epistles (2 Thes 2:15; 1 Cor. 11:2). How about the tradition of dressing up in costumes and going trick-or-treating on Halloween? Clearly this is an American tradition, but hardly one that Christians ought to “hold on to” or for which they should “stand firm”.

Admittedly the topic of “the role of tradition in the life of the church” is a broad one, and will take some time to unpack over the next 4 weeks in a way that is meaningful to us as modern Christians. I beg your patience at the outset of this study. I ask you to hold in abeyance any preconceived notions that you may have about this subject. I intend to show in due time, with the Lord’s help, that there is a proper and very necessary role for tradition in the life of the church, a role which I fear has been lost in much of modern Evangelicalism; as well, I intend to present examples of abuses of tradition, examples that we should heed lest we repeat the same mistakes.

Also I ask your forbearance at points when I digress into some autobiographical material. My opinions on this subject are, to a great extent, the product of my various church experiences, beginning with formative years in the Roman Catholic church, college years in non-denominational fundamentalism, early adult years in an Arminian brand of Evangelicalism, and midlife years in conservative Presbyterianism (a mid-life crisis you say!). Each church or denomination views the role of tradition in a somewhat different light. My personal pilgrimage has allowed me to witness several different perspectives. I will attempt to distill them into what is hopefully an informed and biblical perspective that aligns most closely with classical Protestantism.

What piqued my interest in this topic is simply this: in looking out at the American Evangelical landscape today, I am impressed by what appears to be a dearth of interest in tradition. In fact, there is almost a shunning of tradition in many churches today. It is chic, so it seems, to promote “relevant preaching” and “contemporary worship style”, both of which frequently trump over any acknowledgement of, or respect for, tradition. But more than constituting simply a passive neglect of tradition, the attitude of some Evangelical churches approaches actual disdain for anything even remotely traditional.

As an example of this disdainful attitude, consider the following advertisement for an online church known as “Cyber Church”:

“A church with no doors, no walls and no limits! We are not bound by a denomination, religious rules or tradition…Tired of the same old boring church services? As Jesus did 2000 years ago, we’re here to break religious tradition.” (quoted in Modern Reformation, Nov/Dec 2001, p11)

Much of what I will say in the next few weeks may be viewed as a critique of this anti-traditional approach to “doing church”.

Does this type of anti-traditional church appeal to you? To babyboomers and generation Xers who grew up under the influence of the sexual revolution which put a premium on personal rights and freedoms, this approach to “doing church” does have an appeal, I suppose. To quote a modern adage, “Let go and let God.” In other words, let go of the old church traditions and let God show you how it should be done.

How liberating, one might muse. Not to be bound by the shackles of “rules or tradition”. Free to shake off those tiresome, needless traditions. If you find yourself attracted to this prospect of an unshackled church—as the advertisement intends for you to be—may I warn you of the deceptions and dangers along this road. Oftentimes the churches that seem at first glance to be the most liberating are, in fact, more shackling than those which they purport to free you from.

A closer inspection of the claims of the “Cyber Church” reveals at least two glaring faults. First, this church without walls naively assumes that it is, and will continue to be, free of tradition. As I will attempt to argue in week three of this study, all churches have a tradition, whether adherents recognize it or not. I will also argue that those churches which are forthcoming in acknowledging their particular traditions, and can articulate them well, are more likely to be faithful to the founding principles of that church/denomination. The converse of this is that they are less likely to fall into heresy and apostasy.

The second fault in the claims of the “Cyber Church” is a serious misunderstanding of the mission of Jesus Christ during his earthly ministry. To identify with Jesus as one who came “to break religious tradition,” as the ad says, is to totally miss the point of Jesus’ unmistakable mission statement found in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not think I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill.” (Mat.5:17-18) The Law and the Prophets were the religious tradition of Jesus’ day. True, rabbinical accretions and sectarian interpretations (such as those of the Sadducees and Pharisees) had distorted that tradition, and Jesus spoke to those distortions (see Matthew 23). But rather than breaking religious tradition, as Cyber Church exists to do, Jesus’ public ministry was devoted to a proper understanding of the religious tradition handed down to God’s people in His Word.

Jesus’ human parents, Mary and Joseph, were also respectful of religious tradition. Examples of this are many, including the following:

  • Jesus’ circumcision on the 8th day (Lk 2:21) according to the Abrahamic covenant (Gen.17:11-13)
  • Jesus’ presentation in the temple in Jerusalem (Lk 2:22-24) according to the Law of Moses (Lev.12:6-8)
  • The holy family’s annual attendance at the Feast of Passover (Luke 2:41-42).

In the Sermon on the Mount quoted above, Jesus goes on to declare emphatically that “until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished.” (Matt.5:17-18) He could not have been more emphatic on this point. What mattered supremely to Jesus was to do the will of his Father, which was one and the same as the fulfillment of the Law in its entirety.

Only the Son of God could have accomplished this great task, which is summed up in his final words from the cross “It is finished.”

Given the clarity of the Scriptures on this point—viz, the commitment of Jesus and his family to the Law and the Prophets—why is it that freedom from tradition is so exalted in many evangelical churches today? At the risk of “preaching to the choir,” I hope to emphasize a better way of “doing church”, a way that is grounded in a proper respect for, and reliance upon, godly traditions, that it to say, traditions derived from God’s word that were intended to be timeless rules of faith and practice. This way is the ancient way that has served Christendom well down through the centuries, though always at the peril of becoming encumbered with accretions of human traditions.

As our forefathers before us in the faith, we would do well to heed the injunction of the Apostle Paul: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught…” (2 Thes.2:15)

Questions for discussion:

Q1: What comes to your mind (first thing) when you hear the topic of this study: “the role of tradition in the life of the church”

Q2: Is it true, as I have contended, that freedom from tradition is exalted in many evangelical churches today, and if so, why?

Q3: In terms of tradition(s), what attraction is found in “ancient” churches such as the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church?

Q4: How would you define the traditions of classical Protestantism? How do these differ from those of the churches mentioned above?