If we are to grow a right view of the Christian tradition within our churches, we will have to overcome the ‘suspicion of tradition’ that pervades many evangelical churches. One way to do this is to teach Christians how to evaluate writings, hymns, prayers, and liturgies from the Christian past. When Christians have a set of tools to judge the value of tradition, they are less jittery about reading it. I suggest three important considerations that pastors can communicate to their people for the evaluation of the Christian tradition.
First, any ostensibly Christian writing must be judged for its allegiance to the biblical gospel. Just as we would not recognize a contemporary writing as Christian if the author denied the gospel, so we cannot recognize writings from the past as Christian if they do the same. That is not to say that such writings become useless to us. It simply means we would not accord them status as genuine parts of the Christian tradition. We would read them with the same interest we might read the modern commentaries by critical or liberal scholars. Of course, in judging the ancients according to this test, we will not expect them to articulate the gospel precisely as contemporary evangelicals do. (Perhaps that is a good thing.) Instead, we will look for confession of the fundamentals of the faith: the triune God, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, the death and resurrection of Christ for sinners, His ascension and return, the need for salvation by grace through faith, the existence of the church, the reality of judgment and resurrection after death. These essential doctrines were defended in the earliest creeds, and orthodox Christianity has always affirmed them.
Second, we must understand doctrinal turning points. In the progress of Christian thought, there is often a point at which controversy causes a particular doctrine to be carefully defined by Christians. Chalcedon was a turning point for Christology. The Athanasian Creed was a turning point for Trinitarianism. Luther was a turning point for justification by faith. Calvin was a turning point for the atonement of Christ. These turning points mark off important distinctions we must make in evaluating tradition. The writings on a particular theme or doctrine before the turning point must be judged differently from those written after it. Often, before the turning point, a doctrine is assumed, or it has not been come under the careful scrutiny it will in later times. After the turning point, dissident views are self-consciously so. When Irenaeus offers us the recapitulation view of the atonement, or when Anselm offers his satisfaction view, these are not necessarily denials of orthodox Christianity. There is truth in them, though penal substitutionary atonement is at the very heart of the doctrine of atonement. When Calvin articulates penal substitution, we have reached a turning point. Writings after the sixteenth century that attempt to use other theories of the atonement to deny penal substitution are now in a very different category to the writings of the early church Fathers that emphasize other aspects of the atonement. The Council of Trent is a denial; Origen not necessarily so.
In teaching how to evaluate tradition, we must teach that a fair judgment of tradition must consider these turning points. Critics of inerrancy who claim such a concept is absent from church history misunderstand that the doctrinal turning point for inerrancy was the 19th century, perhaps captured in the Chicago Statement a century later. Similar situations prevail for certain other doctrines. We often fail to grant the necessary charity to writers before the turning point (or perhaps, the necessary severity to writers after it).
Third, we must look for catholicity and enduring value. If a particular hymn, prayer, treatise or book has tended to find favor with Christians across the ages, it probably represents something permanent and enduring. It will more than likely continue to speak to Christians today. Ironically, these are probably easier to spot in today’s Christianity than ever before. Given the modern intoxication with novelty, works which still remain on the fringes of Christian consciousness are likely those with just such enduring value. To keep its head above the deluge of contemporary Christian writing, a work needs the buoyancy of its catholicity and timelessness.
In the next post, I would like to suggest several ways that a right appreciation for and interest in the Christian tradition can be fostered in the local church.