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Culture and Tradition

This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series

"Preserving the Truth in our Worship"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

I argued in the last post that all cultural forms are built upon something that came before, and we call this “tradition.” 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. ChristianTradition, then, is simply “the core teaching and preaching of the early church which has bequeathed to us the fundamentals of what it is to think and believe Christianly.” Tradition “sits in indispensable relation—historically and theologically—to the Christian use of Scripture and to the development of doctrine and spirituality. This was true in the early church; it is still true today.”1

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 in many cases, not explicitly from the pages of Scripture (although the truth is certainly there) or from our own novel ideas, but from tradition. The doctrines themselves are in the Bible, but the particular ways of explaining difficult doctrines were cultivated over time, sifted through controversy, debate, and intense discussion. Yet though these ways of expressing biblical truth have come from categories of thought outside Scripture, they nevertheless remain faithful to how the Bible itself expresses those doctrines. Stephen R. Harmon helpfully explains, from the perspective of a common Baptist aversion to tradition, how dependent we are on tradition for our doctrinal affirmations:

Many Baptists, though perhaps not consciously dependent on Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan trinitarian or Chalcedonian christological formulations, would nevertheless oppose theological proposals that seem not to regard Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as consubstantial, coequal, and coeternal, or that appear not to affirm the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus Christ—but only on the basis of what they believe to be selfevident in Scripture. Although the raw material for the later doctrine of the Trinity is present in Scripture, the fully developed doctrine would hardly have been self-evident to the earliest interpreters of the New Testament. Many Baptists would also regard paedobaptism, for example, as an erroneous doctrine not on the basis of a conscious appeal to a Baptist doctrinal tradition but rather because they believe it to be an unbiblical practice, even though it is the Baptist doctrinal tradition in which they are steeped that has influenced them toward this reading of Scripture.2

Furthermore, the canonization of Scripture itself was the result of a healthy dependence upon tradition in the providence of God. Again, Harmon explains:

Unless one expands the concept of biblical inspiration to include not only the production of the biblical documents but also their canonization in late fourth-century episcopal synods, it must be conceded that the canon of Scripture is the product of the same sort of consensual development of tradition in the post-New Testament period that also produced the regula fidei (“rule of faith”) reflected in the conciliar creeds.3

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, in most 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 develop because of the imaginations out of which they grew, and we must evaluate those imaginations in order to judge the traditions themselves. Scruton explains how some cultures may be better than others depending upon how closely they reflect biblical forms of expression:

As politically incorrect as it may sound, I believe an examination of various human cultures reveals that some cultures may be closer than others in reflecting the fixed norm of Kingdom culture (how things will be when Jesus is King). That is why it is dangerous to reason from culture back to the Scriptures. Instead we should endeavor to build the best biblical model for worship and music that we can and then go to the culture in which we find ourselves and look to stimulate progress toward that model.4

Although there may be some differences among Christians of different ethnic backgrounds, a Christian imagination informed by biblical truth will always tend to produce similar cultural ways of expressing that truth. As Bryan Chapell explains, “where the truths of the gospel are maintained there remain commonalities of worship structure that transcend culture.” Thus, when it comes to worship forms, “there are common liturgical structures that transcend individual context and traditions.”5

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 Tim 3:15), and it is our responsibility to pass those values and ideas to future generations (Acts 20:27). The way in which we accomplish this goal is by cultivating Christian tradition. Again, this is fairly obvious with regard to doctrine. With the difficult doctrines that are not necessarily systematically explained in Scripture, we do not attempt to “reinvent the wheel” in our explanation of those doctrines to each new generation or ethnic group. Nor do we try to “repackage” those doctrines using contemporary idioms or categories developed in pop culture. We have always and will likely always explain the Trinity in terms of God being one in essence and three in persons. We have always and will likely 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.

And the same is true for our Christian worship. Those who want to preserve God’s truth will build upon the tradition of the historic Church; they will learn the essence of that tradition and then seek to preserve and continue to cultivate that tradition. Williams explains how the tradition of the Church has cultivated biblical worship forms:

In the final analysis . . . Tradition denotes the acceptance and the handing over of God’s Word, Jesus Christ (tradere Christum), and how this took concrete forms in the apostles’ preaching (kerygma), in the Christ-centered reading of the Old Testament, in the celebration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and in the doxological, doctrinal, hymnological and credal forms by which the declaration of the mystery of God Incarnate was revealed for our salvation. In both act and substance, the Tradition represents a living history which, throughout the earliest centuries, was constituted by the church and also constituted what was the true church.6

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 (Phil 3:17), so we are to imitate the traditions and practices of those who have come before us. Even the observance of the Lord’s Supper is based not only upon direct revelation given to Paul, but also apostolic tradition (1 Cor 11:2-34).7 The biblical command to honor parents and elders is more than simply an attitude, but a direction and disposition. This principle is even implied 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.

I am not arguing for a view of tradition that places its authority on the same level of Scripture, but rather a perspective that sees Christian tradition as the most faithful propagation of biblical truth rightly imagined. This was exactly the position of the Reformers. They did not reject tradition outright, but rather put it in its proper place. Daniel B. Clendenin explains:

It is clear that [the Reformers] even saw themselves as restoring the church to fidelity to the patristic consensus [i.e. tradition]. A reading of Calvin’s Institutes, for example, shows his indebtedness to the church fathers. Neither were they unaware of the dangers of individualistic and private interpretation of Scripture, and of the importance of the church context for the life of faith. What they objected to was the church’s elevation of tradition to the status of Scripture, and its arrogation to place itself above the Scriptures as its mediator.8

Nor am I arguing that these traditions, customs, and forms will never change. One of the valid responses to tradition 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 we must never do if we intend to preserve the truth is completely reject the tradition we have been given in favor of other non-Christian traditions. We must 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. We must never favor novelty for novelty’s sake; we must not reject our tradition merely because it is tradition.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Daniel H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999), 9. []
  2. S. R. Harmon, “The Authority of the Community (of All the Saints): Toward a Postmodern Baptist Hermeneutic of Tradition,” Review and expositor. 100, (2003): 591-592. []
  3. Ibid., 591. []
  4. Scruton, 287. []
  5. Chapell, 18. []
  6. Williams, 36. []
  7. For a helpful exploration into the traditional basis for the observance of the Lord’s Supper, see Donald Farner, “The Lord’s Supper until He Comes,” Grace Theological Journal 6, no. 2 (1985): 399-401. []
  8. Daniel B. Clendenin, “Orthodoxy on Scripture and Tradition: A Comparison with Reformed and Catholic Perspectives,” Westminster Theological Journal 57, no. 2 (1995): 389. []