THE PARADOX OF TRADITION:
The Impossibility of Living Humanly
“Tradition” is one of those great words that was revered for millennia but now holds a place of suspicion in the minds of many. Ironically enough, what has often gotten the Church into trouble is tradition, and at the same time, it has also paradoxically kept her on the rails of fidelity.
Tradition: Help or Hurt?
How can tradition both help us and hurt us? That is a good question and a simple put answer is not helpful. For now, let me at least offer this; it is not tradition that sins, but men and women do. It is not tradition, religion, or even the Holy Scriptures that can aspire to virtue and live justly; only people do. Whether tradition helps or hurts, resides within the hearts and wills of men. It is not any tradition itself, but what we do with it. And that is why it is necessary that our relationship to the Bible, the Church, and her tradition be oriented properly. This leads to the first of three fundamental points: First, tradition is only as good as the humans who use it.
Second, not all tradition is created equal; some are better and more useful than others. The question then is how does one discern that? This comes back to the question of one’s orientation to the Scriptures and the Historic Church.
Thirdly, Every Christian group has tradition and therefore must not only accept that fact but thoughtfully evaluate their traditions in light of some standard. This is inescapable. Everyone has tradition in their lives, patterns, habits, rituals, and ways of doing things from groups, to families, to individuals.
Fourth, A well-stated tradition means we are honest about our understanding and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. This is precisely the intention behind the formation of the historic Anglican 39 Articles of 1571.
The Bible is the word of God, the ultimate authority in matters of doctrine. However, nobody has unmediated access to meaning. All communication, all words must be interpreted. The oversimplified statement “I just believe the Bible” is as unthoughtful as it is naive. It was written over thousands of years by various authors and compiled by editors whose world view and outlook were radically different. Those trained in the translation of ancient manuscripts know very well what a precarious task this is. Interpretation is not always as straightforward as it seems. But we need not despair either. Nevertheless, to have a summary statement of faith like the 39 Articles is a step in honesty and an exercise in integrity.
Getting Honest about Scripture and Tradition
Many Christian groups pride themselves on not having any “tradition” consequently convincing themselves that they “only do what the Bible says.” This reminds me of a conversation with a young man once who contended that his Pentecostal ‘tradition’ did not follow tradition. To this, I responded by asking about the rather standard “tambourine lady” typically in the front rows of “traditional” Pentecostal Churches. His mouth hung open a bit… I followed this by asking about why I could go to one Pentecostal Church and then another, and both tambourine ladies, who had never met, still use voice intonation and behavior patterns when they “prophecy?” His mouth hung open a bit more. “That is tradition!” I answered, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. It creates structure, unity, and order. The structure it provides can be the key to engendering freedom of expression in the Christian life.
The Anglican Tradition
The 39 Articles do more than outline the Anglican tradition. Like other creeds, confessions, and statements of faith, the Articles position one for accountability and evaluation, especially self-evaluation, as well as dialogue. A statement of faith is a statement of where you are, your location in your understanding of Scripture. It stands to reason, that if you don’t know where you are, you cannot get directions to where you are going!
Within the 39 Articles also reside a structure of authority by which the tradition relates itself to God, the Holy Scripture, the historic Church, and even the Church of today. This structure arose from two commitments. (1) the Holy Scripture as the supreme authority in doctrinal matters. This is fundamental to the whole Protestant Reformation, of which the Church in England took part. (2) a commitment to the historic traditions of the Church. Anglicanism never wanted to throw out the baby with the bathwater. That is why she has been called the “middle way” meaning simultaneously evangelical and catholic.
This orientation or posture is incredibly important because it has everything to do with how we live in the world with Christ, with all Christians, and with a lost world who needs the message of the Gospel.
Principles For the Christian Life
This leads us to a unique proposition: The Anglican tradition can be one of the most helpful paths you can embrace for the life and health of your Church, even if you are not an Anglican. That’s right, even if you are not an Anglican, you can adopt a great deal of it in ways that will reorient you in refreshingly healthy ways toward the Bible (Holy Scripture) and the historic Church. However I do not expect you to necessarily take it on my word, but welcome you to walk this path with me and let me show you.
Bishop Todd J. Murphy