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The place of tradition in the Christian life

23 June 2010

I was once in an Anglican church where there was a supposed expert in church history, and taught it at all levels throughout the parish. The main content of his teaching, however, seemed to be that “tradition” was a bad thing. I once asked a group of teenagers in that church what they thought were the biggest problems in the church, and most of them answered “tradition”. Not fighting, or backbiting, or gossip, or lukewarmness, or failure to evangelise or lack of love. No, the biggest thing wrong with the church was “tradition”. When I asked them what they meant by “tradition”, they said things like “vestments” or “incense”, but they really had no idea what “tradition” meant.

The aversion to “tradition” is actually a product of modernity, and part of the mindset of modernity, as Fr Stephen Freeman points out in a recent post on his blog Reading Tradition | Glory to God for All Things:

Modernity has an assumption that those who live in the present always know more than those who have gone before us. Thus we always expect our children to be able to program a digital clock when an adult cannot.

I have taught four children how to drive. It is a tradition. Over the years I hope to have taught them how to live the Christian life. It is a tradition. To learn from a tradition requires a humility and a recognition that not everything worth knowing can be expressed in words. It requires that we accept that a disciple is not greater than his master. The child is not greater than the adult.

As the bumper sticker says: “If you can read this – thank a teacher.”

And the rest of his post is worth reading too.

I’ve also found that Protestants often try to set “Scripture” and “Tradition” in opposition to each other, and yet Scripture is part of the Tradition, and endorses tradition, most notably in II Timothy 2:2: “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” And also in II Thessalonians 2:15, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle. “.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 3 July 2010 5:53 pm

    2 things: First, Protestants do set Scripture against tradition insofar as the latter contradicts the former and with the presupposition that one needs to remain sceptical about tradition because it is often motivated throughout history by sinful human beings and thus full of sin and error. Second, I like the often quotation from J. Pelikan, a former Lutheran who turned Orthodox: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

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