Christian conservatism stands upon two primary pillars: 1) a commitment to align one’s ideas with transcendent absolutes that are rooted in God himself; and, 2) a commitment to preserve those traditions that have best expressed those transcendent ideas. In this essay I will explore the second of these twin pillars.
In order to understand the basis for a commitment to preserving certain forms and traditions, we must first understand the nature of tradition and its relationship to worship and culture.
No one “invents” cultural expressions, artistic forms, rituals, liturgies, customs, languages, or styles out of nothing. Every human being builds upon what has come before him, and we call what has come before “tradition.” Tradition is not a bad thing; it is inevitable. Allow me a few illustrations:
No one has even built a house without first receiving instruction from someone else. This instruction may have come in the form of an apprenticeship, a blueprint, a text book, or at very least an observation of a house itself. But no one decides one day to build a house without having ever been told how a house works or at least discovered himself how a house works from studying a completed house.
Likewise, no one bakes a cake without some instruction first. Every person who has ever baked a cake for the first time has at very least seen and eaten a cake and most likely has received instruction from someone else or has followed a recipe.
This is the nature of tradition—we never create something new without building upon what others have done before us. Now after we have come to understand a given tradition, we may do one of three things with it: 1) We may simply continue to use the tradition; 2) We may nurture and further develop and cultivate the tradition; or 3) We may reject the tradition altogether and create something completely different. But even with the latter, we have begun with a tradition in the creation of something new.
The implication of this is that all of the various cultural institutions, forms, artistic expressions, media, languages, and systems of thought are what they are today based on hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years of nurture and development.
In the realm of Christianity, this is perhaps no more clearly apparent than with how we articulate doctrine today. How we explain the Trinity or Jesus Christ comes to us, not explicitly from the pages of Scripture (although the truth is certainly there) or from our own novel ideas, but from tradition. These ways of explaining difficult doctrines were cultivated over time, sifted through controversy, debate, and intense discussion.
The same can be said of worship forms and standards of conduct; how we worship and how we act is built upon customs and forms that have been, at least in some cases, nurtured for a long time.
Yet we must also remember that just as some traditions have been cultivated within crucibles of transcendent, biblical values, others were nurtured in an environment of paganism. Cultural forms, customs, and mores are as they are because of the value systems in which they grew, and we must evaluate those value systems in order to judge the traditions themselves.
This becomes no more important than when we attempt to preserve the absolute, transcendent values of God’s character and nature. We have been given a truth deposit to protect (and remember, “truth” involves more than mere propositions); we are the pillar and support of that truth (1 Timothy 3:15), and it is our responsibility to pass those values and ideas to future generations (Acts 20:27). So what is the best way to both protect God’s truth and pass it on?
A conservative Christian will seek to accomplish this duel goal by cultivating Christian tradition. Again, this is fairly obvious with regard to doctrine. With the difficult truths that are not necessarily systematically explained in Scripture, we do not attempt to “reinvent the wheel” in our explanation of those truths to each new generation. Nor do we try to “repackage” those truths using contemporary idioms or categories developed in pop culture. We have always and will always explain the Trinity in terms of God being one is essence and three in persons. We have always and will always explain Christ as one person with two natures. We do not get these categories (essence, person, or nature) from Scripture itself; these categories have been nurtured within the Christian tradition in order to explain Christian doctrine.
The same is true for patterns of godliness. Patterns of conduct and ways of living come to us from a tradition. These may change and develop over time, but we do not simply invent new ways of doing things, completely divorced from what has been done before us, with every new generation.
And the same is true for our Christian worship. A conservative Christian will build upon the tradition of the historic Church; he will learn the essence of that tradition and then seek to preserve and continue to cultivate that tradition.
This perspective is biblical. For example, Paul appeals to the “customs” of the churches as an actual basis of argument in his discussion of head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:16. As Paul commands others to imitate him (Philippians 3:17), so we are to imitate the traditions and practices of those who have come before us. The biblical command to honor parents and elders is more than simply an attitude, but a direction and disposition.
This principle is even implied, I think. In Matthew 18:15-20. Jesus clearly states that two or three believers gathered in an official capacity to make a decision for the full assembly possess a certain amount of derivative authority because God is “among them.” Certainly this authority applies most directly to discipline situations contextually, yet the principle applies more broadly. This authority is not infallible and equal with Scripture, as the Romanist view of Church tradition argues, but it is real authority nonetheless.
These biblical principles should make us very cautious about quickly rejecting the customs, practices, and traditions of those within the Christian heritage.
Now remember, this does not mean that these traditions, customs, and forms will never change. One of the valid responses to traditions is continued cultivation of the tradition. But the change will not be one of an entirely different form but one of further nurturing. Nor does this mean that we will never reject a particular part of the tradition that has been handed to us. Tradition is fallible because the humans who have cultivated it are fallible. Tradition, just like anything else, must be evaluated based on what values it carries. We may sometimes see the need to reject a particular part of the established tradition because we find that it does not express the transcendent absolutes that we are trying to preserve and pass on.
But what a Christian conservative will not do is completely reject the tradition he has been given in favor of other traditions. He will not throw away the customs, expressions, and forms that have been nurtured for thousands of years in order to express transcendent values in favor of customs, expressions, and forms that were, in the words of Mark Minnick, created by pagans to express pagan values to other pagans. A Christian conservative will not favor novelty for novelty’s sake—he will not reject his tradition merely because it is tradition.
And yet, of course, this is what a large segment of confessing Christianity has indeed done, and this will be the subject of my next essay.