The Tradition of the Ancient Church

As Europe and England shuttered under the weight of the Reformation and its implications, it struggled to be both faithful and renewed. The near century that passed From Henry VIII through the end of Elizabeth’s reign gave the particular character to what would emerge as the Church England.

One of the key elements that the established Church clung to (compared to the Presbyterians and Congregationalists) was a stringer sense of “catholic” tradition. Not unlike Luther and Calvin, her leaders like Cranmer, John Jewell, and Richard Hooker believed tossing out tradition was unwise.

To the average Evangelical Protestant today, the word tradition is a dirty word suggesting stuffiness, rigidity, irrelevance, and so on. Certainly, the tradition got this reputation from sometimes sinking to such lows. But that does not mean we do not need it.

So why tradition? Why is it useful, and why should we still employ it? First and foremost the Scriptures do not outline everything the Church can or should do. A great deal of tradition was inherited from the earliest Church and has even come down to us today in documentary artifacts. Documents such as The Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles Through the Twelve Apostles, The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, and so on, serve as examples. We can observe in these documents various examples of how the church worshiped, baptized, disciplined, and so on. 

Second, the absence of tradition just requires the recreation of new traditions in its vacuum. Since Scripture does not spell everything out, when we do not rely on what has already come down to us, then we have to create something else—i.e if we do not use an ancient baptismal ceremony or similar, we have to invent one in its place. Hence it was deemed that starting with what went before us was more practical than starting from scratch. Reinventing the wheel is far more likely to lead to impracticality and error. 

Put in the most simple terms, tradition is both the collective interpretation of Scripture and practice of the Church especially on things where the Scriptures are not completely clear. This way, tradition fills in the gaps.

“Catholic Consensus”

For this reason, the Anglican tradition has long put an emphasis on what it calls “the consensus of the first five centuries.” There are a couple of reasons for this: (1) the first five centuries was the period of the ancient counsels and therefore the time in which Creedal orthodoxy was hammered out. It was the age of the emergence of the Nicene-Chalcedonian formula (Nicene Creed). During this period, early theological heavyweights were busily at work like Irenaeus of Lyons, Basil of Caesarea, Athanasius of Alexandria, Greggory of Nyssa, Greggory of Nazianzus, Tertullian, and Cyprian to name a few of the brightest stars.

What these voices gave us was a relative consensus of polity, practice, liturgy, and above all interpretation of the Scriptures. This brings us to the big question: Why do we need tradition?

The simple answer is this: The Church still needs tradition as the fence and safeguard against itself. The foundational truth of the Gospel story is that man fell into sin and is now a sinner. This means that not only is he broken generally, but his mind and intellect are flawed as well. While all Christians may aspire, to be honest, we know we are not always. We still suffer from ego, biases, and agendas. On top of this, our fallen nature just leads us to make mistakes—often big ones. 

However, as the Church marched through the ages strong points of universal agreement emerged leading us to that consensus. Now, we no longer have to debate the deity of Christ and his two natures as fully God and fully man, or Trinity, etc. These things are so universally held by the Church, both ancient and modern, that we can start our reflection there without reinventing the wheel. 

Tradition as Interpretive Grid

Tradition provides an interpretive grid—an overlay through which we can judge our own interpretations. Sometimes tradition gets a bad rap. Yes it is true that it can sometimes be adhered to mindlessly. However I find it somewhat ironic that most tradition that is held to mindlessly is usually not the most ancient Church tradition; it is often the much more recent tradition like the style of worship music, what we wear, and other aesthetics that are really more a matter of preference.

As an interpretive grid and resource, tradition (liturgical and theological) gives us a starting point to work from that is far more efficient. This was extremely important to many key Anglican Divines, like Thomas Cranmer and Richard Hooker who wanted to implement the fundamental principles of the Reformation without tossing out all the good that the Church in England had yet received. This created a rather balanced approach. 

As one example, at the time of the Reformation, and to some degree since, the Church in England had assumed the shape of the historic episcopate very much on the lines of Rome. A critical study of the historic episcopate in the first five centuries provides a much more flexible and adaptable picture. Richard Hooker stands out among Anglican Reformers because he on the one hand did not feel compelled to adhere slavishly to the Roman Model of Bishops. On the other, he still felt at liberty to employ that model, yet somewhat dynamically. In this way, Hooker contended that the office of Bishop and Church polity (government) in general, was there for the benefit of the church. As he put it:

He that affirms speech to be necessary among all men throughout the world, does not thereby import that all men must necessarily speak one kind of language. Even so the necessity of polity and regiment in all Churches may be held, without holding any one certain form to be necessary in them all. (Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book III.2.1.)

If a tradition serves the Church well, it may be maintained. If not, it can be modified, especially if there is no clear prescription one way or another directly from Scripture. All tradition, especially regarding practice falls to the category of “things indifferent”; those things which Scripture does not expressly command.

The Regulative Principle

This leads us to a brief consideration of the regulative principle of worship. This is the idea of a rule governing what is allowable and not allowable in the government and worship of the Church. In Calvin’s Geneva, this was more rigid; there it was closer to the idea of what is not directly prescribed is not used. That is why a lot of statues and art were removed from the Calvinistic Churches. 

In Luther’s reformation, his regulative principle was far broader and closer to “what is not forbidden is allowed” at least as long as it promotes godliness. This second approach is much closer to how we see Scripture and Tradition used in the English Reformation and the following. 

Summary

To summarize tradition serves as a resource sitting under the authority of Scripture. It is second to it, as it was in the ancient Church. However the weakness of Scripture in the Church is never in Scriptures themselves, but in the men interpreting it. That is why the collective consensus of the Church serves a protective sieve for interpreting and applying Scripture and especially also supplementing where it is silent. It serves not only to fill in the gaps but also as a check-and-balance against the brokenness and sinfulness still residing in the heart of every redeemed sinner in Church leadership.

The Caveat—Diversity, and Liberty

One final point that is often overlooked though, is the role of Christian liberty that is testified to in the tradition of the ancient Church. The first five centuries do not present a rigid unbending institutional Church. Quite to the contrary, a close critical examination demonstrates for us a wide birth of diversity in practice and polity.

We do not find one eucharistic liturgy in the ancient church; we find many. Some are long; some are short, and some are in between. Some have Jesus’ words of institution, and some don’t. Far from encountering monolithic block, the Church’s ancient tradition is a testament to both diversity and liberty. As we look at how we worship, govern the church, and share the Gospel, we have liberty too—especially on points where Scripture is not patently clear. And that is more good news in the “Good News.”

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