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Elephant Room 2, Biblicism, and the Importance of Tradition

If you aren’t at least somewhat familiar with the recent controversy over T. D. Jakes, James MacDonald, Mark Driscoll, and the Elephant Room, you’ve probably been hibernating in a cave somewhere. Others have given helpful responses from various perspectives including ecclesiastical separation, unity, ministry associations, the African American angle, and one from Carson and Keller (about which I’ll comment momentarily), but I’d like to briefly address it from a slightly different perspective: the importance of tradition.

To briefly summarize, T. D. Jakes has been accused of modalism for his alleged rejection of the term “persons” as descriptive of the Trinity in favor of the term “manifestations,” and MacDonald and Driscoll appear to be willing to give him a pass on this. Carson and Keller do a good job of addressing this from a number of important perspectives, including debunking the sufficiency of “manifestations” in describing God, but they also make an important point that I believe needs further emphasis.

In their response, Carson and Keller say this:

Neither the terminology of “manifestations” preferred by Oneness Pentecostals and other modalists nor the terminology of “persons” supported by historic creeds is directly used in Scripture. Where does it come from? It comes from thinkers two or three centuries after the New Testament was written who were doing their best to summarize large tracks of biblical themes and texts in faithful, accurate summaries, even if the terminology was not directly dependent on the terminology of a specific verse or two. History has shown, for the reasons briefly set forth in our first pairing, that the terminology of “manifestations” was soundly trounced and declared heretical: it simply could not be squared with what the Bible says. The “persons” terminology prevailed (along with words like “subsistence”) not because it derived directly from usage in the biblical documents themselves, but because it could be shown that this terminology did a great job of summarizing what the Bible actually says.

This is a very important point that deserves careful consideration. Carson and Keller rightly note that certain ways of articulating orthodox theology (in this case the use of “persons” rather than “manifestations”) comes not directly fromt he text of Scripture itself, but rather from “thinkers two or three centuries after the New Testament was written who were doing their best to summarize large tracks of biblical themes and texts in faithful, accurate summaries,” i.e. what we call “historic church tradition.”

This is important for us to acknowledge. Christian Tradition 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

Yet it appears that this dependence on the church’s tradition is under attack. This is where a shallow view of Sola Scriptura is leading many evangelicals: if the Bible doesn’t explicitly say something, then we are apparently free to go a different direction, even if the testimony of church tradition says otherwise. This is not new, of course, especially from those (like Baptists, for example, of which I am proudly one) of the so-called “free church.” But as Stephen R. Harmon helpfully explains, from the perspective of a common Baptist aversion to tradition, even those of such “free traditions” are dependent on tradition for their 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 self-evident 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

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, 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. This is certainly true 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.4

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).5 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 and worship. 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.6

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 Pastor 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.

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. Williams, 36. []
  5. 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. []
  6. Daniel B. Clendenin, “Orthodoxy on Scripture and Tradition: A Comparison with Reformed and Catholic Perspectives,” Westminster Theological Journal 57, no. 2 (1995): 389. []