The religious scene of the country in which I minister is populated by mainline Protestant churches, some of whom place great emphasis on tradition. However, in many of these churches, the gospel itself is all but invisible, an assumed but unseen foundation of the house. The problem is, most of those in the house have never clearly heard or understood the gospel, and the same might be said for many of the religious professionals who teach there.
Once a person comes under the sound of the true gospel and believes it, he is struck by the sad irony of having attended a church for decades in which the gospel itself was never proclaimed. Inevitably, this new-found knowledge of biblical truth tends to produce a desire to distance himself from anything and everything connected with the former church, including any allegiance to tradition. Since such churches often rely on and turn to their traditions, the new Christian concludes that tradition must be part of the problem that caused the gospel itself to go into eclipse in such churches.
The truth is, tradition is indeed a double-edged sword. When tradition preserves the truth, it is both a reliable record that comes to a newer generation without that generation having to re-invent the wheel. When tradition preserves untruths, it becomes the guardian of a lie that will not die. It is an accomplice to deception, using its antiquity to give credibility to its spurious beliefs and practices.
In reaction to gospel-eviscerated traditionalism, it is possible to make tradition itself the problem. This would be a mistake. If a museum keeps something worthless, this does not invalidate the value of museums. Clearly, what matters is what tradition preserves. A gospel-eviscerated tradition is a bad one. A gospel-centered tradition is a good one.
Pastors who wish to have churches in which the Christian tradition is rightly viewed and used must help their parishioners to see just this. Tradition is neither pure evil nor unmitigated good. Traditions must be judged for the truth of what they preserve. To help Christians overcome either an unhealthy antipathy towards tradition, or an unquestioning deference to tradition, I suggest pastors teach several things.
First, we must teach that tradition is biblical. One of Paul’s instruction to Timothy is to teach faithful men who will be able to teach others also. This command is nothing less than a command for a tradition. The truth is to be taught to others, who will teach that same truth to others still. Since each generation receives the truth from teachers who heard from others, this is tradition at work. Simply because each generation holds to sola Scriptura does not mean that they were not helped, influenced or enabled to understand the truth by former generations. When we train leaders, and encourage people to disciple others, and disciple their children, we are perpetuating a tradition. We want the truth passed on. We want right practices passed on. We want ordinate worship passed on. This is only right, and it is the biblical idea of tradition.
Second, we must teach that we all depend on tradition. One way of pointing this out is to ask how people came to faith. They will often mention a person who shared the gospel with them. The question then becomes, who shared the gospel with that person? And with the person before that? Soon we find a line of Christians who preserved and taught the gospel stretching back through the centuries. We would not be saved had Christians before us not preserved and passed on the gospel. This is true not only of the gospel, but of doctrine. We do well to help our people understand that we ourselves did not invent the categories of essence and persons when it comes to explaining the Trinity. Rather, we have received these categories after centuries of debate and theological refinement. Were it not for the work done at Nicea, Chalcedon, Augsburg and so on, we would be wallowing in a mass of biblical data, taking on the gargantuan task of figuring it all out on our own. Fortunately, we do not have to do the pastoral or theological equivalent of swimming the Pacific, but we can and do receive the baton of orthodox doctrinal categories from centuries of Christian work.
Third, we must deny that tradition is a straight or unbroken line. While it is tempting for some to style themselves as true heirs of an undiluted orthodoxy that never wavered from the days of the apostles, church history simply does not bear this out. Church history is a time-line of doctrinal combat, a series of reactions and overreactions to heresy and hypocrisy, with corrections, over-corrections and corrections-that-never-were. Church history is a very crooked, jagged line, with many branches veering off into denials of the faith. In order to rightly value tradition, we need not try to find ourselves with our combinations of beliefs and practices in the pages of church history for some form of self-validation. Rather, we can rejoice in the providence of God in bringing what we now have through the twists and turns of church history.
Fourth, we must teach how to evaluate the Christian tradition. Not all traditions are equally helpful. Not everything calling itself Christian today is so, and the same is true of the past. We must help our people to evaluate what they read from the Christian past to judge its worth. We will consider this next.