This is a series to further explain the articles of “A Conservative Christian Declaration.” .
We affirm the importance of beginning our pursuit of sound worship and holy living within the bounds of traditions that we have inherited from the saints of the entire church age (2 Tim. 2:2, Phil. 3:17). Many of these believers, even the ones with whom we would have significant theological disagreements, have had a clearer understanding of what it is to love God rightly than we do. We affirm the value of learning from the culture that developed around and in response to the growth of Christianity.
We deny the chronological snobbery that ignores the past, the naïve longing for some past golden age, and the postmodern inclination to isolate and select elements of historic Christian practice to suit personal taste. We further deny that Christendom represents pure and unmixed Christianity.
One of the recognizable characteristics of those Protestants who were not identified with the magisterial Reformation, is a distrust of tradition. In an oft-noted irony, this has led to many churches upholding an unexamined and hardened tradition of anti-traditionalism. The New Testament, however, repeats an emphasis on the central responsibility of receiving and passing down, unaltered, the tradition. For example, Paul commended the Corinthians: “because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:2). He also exhorted the Thessalonians, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thess. 2:15).
This respect for tradition cannot be reduced to mere doctrinal fidelity, as important as that is. Aspects of the tradition go beyond theology to practice and attitude, as in Philippians 4:9: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” Christians are responsible to practice, not merely the teachings of Paul, but an entire pattern of life and piety.
Consequently, conserving Christianity entails more than conserving doctrinal propositions. The tradition is not merely doctrinal. In the context of his statement to the Corinthians, Paul’s references to the tradition include the practice of head coverings and the observance of the Table, among other things.
For this reason we insist on a conservative orientation toward our discussions of worship and reverence. We would be both arrogant and unwise to discard the doctrinal tradition of the church, including all of the teachers whom God has used to develop the system of faith and to bring it to us. By the same token, we would be arrogant and unwise to resist or ignore the church’s tradition of worship. Instead, when we think about worship, we will deliberately make what the church has handed down to us our starting point. We think it particularly wise to give special attention to those periods of church history in which the church has cultivated expressions of reverence and honor.
We recognize that our respect for tradition runs counter to the spirit of our age, which is consumed with the present moment. We insist that a Christianity that must change with each wind of fashion is confessing that it has nothing permanent to say. We would be immeasurably impoverished if we were forced to reinvent or even rediscover the Christian faith during each passing generation. The Christian past provides us with rich resources that we can appropriate and upon which we can build, both in our theology and in our devotion. Nothing is less relevant than a trendy church.
On the other hand, we reject two contemporary methods of appropriating the reverence and piety of past saints. One is the attempt to repristinate present-day Christianity by recovering the forms of some mythical golden age from the Christian past. We offer unqualified allegiance neither to the fathers nor to the Reformers nor to any particular age of the church. Our appropriation of any era remains critical in matters pertaining to both doctrine and affection. Nevertheless, we recognize a core of orthopathy throughout church history, as we acknowledge a core of orthodoxy.
The other is the tendency to look at past expressions of piety as a chest of curiosities out of which we may draw this or that expression to create some particular effect. We do not adopt any tradition uncritically, for we recognize that every stage of the Christian tradition includes accretions that are of merely human, and sometimes sinful, origin. Our goal is not to conserve those elements of the tradition that most reflect right thinking about God, obedient conduct in the presence of God, and right love toward God.