The Blindness of Rejecting Tradition

Notice the use of a creed here?

Much of modernity (think the post-1700’s world) can be explained as a steady, systematic rejection of tradition. Whether this is in the realm of politics, science, religion, or social norms, the last several hundred years have seen the Western world (and those places influenced by the West like Turkey, for instance) steadily retreat from the moors that had held it in bygone eras. Whether this is a positive or negative development is a separate debate; what interests me is the way in which the rejection of tradition has itself become a tradition in the oh-so-un-self-conscious modern world.   Jaroslav Pelikan, the great historian of Christian doctrine at Yale (until his death in 2006), wrote the following reflections about the debate between “Bible” and “tradition” that came to a head during the Reformation:

“But tradition there certainly was, even before and within the Bible and not simply after the Bible: tradition was…the ‘source and environment of Scripture.’ [However,] drawing a sharp distinction between gospel and tradition had been a major plank in the platform of the Protestant Reformers.”

As NT Wright has described elsewhere, the newly invented Reformation divide between Scripture and Tradition is in many ways a false dichotomy.  What were the gospel authors writing out of, if not established (even if early) traditions about Jesus?   Paul uses the language of tradition when he reminds Timothy to keep “what I passed on to you.” (1 Cor. 15:3)  Pelikan argues that studying the historiography of the Reformation leads one to

“…the uncovering of the processes by which the very anti-traditionalism of the Reformation has itself become a tradition.  After four centuries of saying, in the the well known formula of the English divine, William Chillingworth, that ‘the Bible only is the religion of Protestants,’ Protestants have, in this principle, nothing less than a full-blown tradition.” (The Vindication of Tradition, [New Haven: Yale University Press 1984], 9, 11.)

There really is no escaping tradition.  Jeff Stout of Princeton made a similar point in Democracy & Tradition: those who would reject Western-style democracy as antithetical to tradition (particularly, here, Christian tradition) should take note that democracy is itself a tradition and a simplistic rejection for rejection’s sake is ultimately unhelpful.  So too, is the knee-jerk and often over-blown reaction against any kind of tradition.

My own part of the Christian family just argued about the possibility of online communion. As with so many other fronts in the so-called ‘Worship Wars,’ many took sides based solely on a rejection or embracing of tradition itself.  Thus, every attempt to get “beyond” tradition only forms a new one in its place. This is why an increasing number of young adults find ‘contemporary’ worship a vapid experience designed by and for their parents’ generation, and are turning instead to expressions of faith that are more tied to practices and prayers which possess deeper roots.

Simply replicating or rejecting tradition is not the point. The point is healthy development, which neither rejects tradition willy-nilly nor embalms it in order to preserve it.  As Pelikan says elsewhere, “It is healthy development that keeps a tradition both out of the cancer ward and out of the fossil museum.”  (p. 60)


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