Saturday, March 10, 2012

Tradition -- What should we do with it?

On Sunday I'm going to preach a sermon about how we might hear God's voice in and through the Traditions of the Church.  Being a historian, I'm of the mind that history has its value, and that God can speak through the voices of those who have died.  Jaroslav Pelikan's oft quoted statement about tradition being the "living faith of the dead, while traditionalism is the dead faith of the living" has great merit.

I'm part of a "tradition," however, that has expressed discomfort with tradition, especially creeds.  It's not that creeds are deemed evil or irrelevant, but when they become tests of fellowship they cease being useful.
One of our Founders, Alexander Campbell, rejected human traditions as a foundation for doing theology, because he concluded that they were too often the cause of division within Christianity.  Therefore, he taught that Christians should hold as true only those things deduced from Scripture. Writing in his Christian System, he stated:
    We choose to speak of Bible things by Bible words, because we are always suspicious that if the word is not in the Bible, the idea which it represents is not there; and always confident that the things taught by God are better taught in the words and under the names which the Holy Spirit has chosen and appropriated, than in the words which man's wisdom teaches.  [Alexander Campbell, Christian System, (Salem, NH: Ayer, 1988), 125.]
    Campbell goes further to call into question the value of the theological definitions of the councils and the use of non-biblical words such as homoousious.  He suggests that no one had been converted to faith in Christ through the controversies over these doctrines whether that be Nicea or the most recent "Methodistic Conference."

        It is a virtue, then, to forget this scholastic jargon, and even the names of the dogmas which have convulsed Christendom.  It is a concession due to the crisis in which we live, for the sake of peace to adopt the vocabulary of Heave, and to return to the borrowed nomenclature of the schools to its rightful owners--to speculate no more upon the opinions of Saint Austin, Saint Tertullian, Saint Origen--to speak of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit--of the gospel, of faith, of repentance, of baptism, of election, of the death of Christ, of his mediation, of his blood, . . . , in all the phrases found in the Record, without partiality--to learn to love one another  as much when we differ in opinion as when we agree, and to distinguish between the testimony of God, and man's reasoning and philosophy upon it.  [p. 126]
Campbell writes further of what he calls human traditions:
    Let human philosophy and human tradition, as any part of the Christian institution, be thrown overboard into the sea, and then the ship of the church will make a prosperous, safe and happy voyage across the ocean of time, and finally, under the triumphant flag of Immanuel, gain a safe anchorage in the have of the eternal rest.  [p. 127]
 I'm not nearly as jaded as Campbell when it comes to Tradition, but it can become an obstacle.  I'm wondering what you think of his conclusions.  Do you see Tradition as help or a hindrance to hearing the voice of God and of drawing together in Christian community?

And to help your reflections, I offer you this famous song from the Fiddler on the Roof!


David said...

Tradition is an echo. It reminds us that our lives are recorded by the laws of physics, as well as the nature of our own reproduction.

Hey, that's not bad.

Robert Cornwall said...


That's just way too much science!

David said...

Oh, and old books. Is that better? Hey, that's physics and chemistry.

Robert Cornwall said...

Since Keith Watkins was finding the spam proofer unyielding, I share his comments sent to me via email:


I tried three times to decipher the spam-proofing words on the blog and failed. Here's the comment I would have posted:

Bob, the relationship between creed and canon is more complicated than Alexander Campbell and most people who follow in his tradition have realized. I have found Robert Jenson's book "Canon and Creed" to be a very helpful discussion of why the church needs both. One provides detail (much more than we need) and the other provides a guide to the canon's essential elements (but leaves out much that is useful).

By the way, I posted a couple of blogs on the book on 6/27/11 and 7/18/11.


Keith Watkins
"Religious historian...aggressive cyclist"
Check my blog, new postings every week.