Every time I think about tradition, I cannot help but think of Tevye boldly singing, “Tradition!” in the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Throughout the performance, he is faced with challenges to his traditions as he desperately tries to hold on to them. Slowly, he begins to accept that some of those traditions need to change.
It might seem that, if traditions are flexible in some way, that focusing on tradition would not be a solid source for discerning God’s will. This is quite true if by “tradition” we mean the practices we accept as normal, and meaningful, but when we talk about Tradition in discernment, we are speaking of something much more stable and powerful. Tradition, in our quest, is much more than just, “the way we’ve always done it.” Instead, we are looking at how the Christian Church across history has understood and applied biblical truth to the issues we face.
For our purposes, we are asking how the early church understood the teaching of Jesus and the rest of Scripture, along with how the church maintained its theology and mission across many centuries. In this case, tradition does not refer to personal, familial, or regional practices. Instead, the goal is to connect with the larger Christian Tradition that forms the foundation upon which we build our theology and practice.
Why is Tradition important in discernment? Consider these points:
Closer to the Original is Better
Maybe you played the Telephone Game at some time. The game involves putting people in a circle. The first person says something quietly into the ear of the person next to them, then that person does the same until the comment makes its way around the circle. Typically, the final words are quite different than the words originally spoken.
In a similar way, the closer we can get to the time when Scripture was written and theology formed, the more accurate our understanding of what the original words and ideas meant in the their context. We can have a much greater confidence in the interpretation of the Bible and church theology as we listen to the voices closest to the original.
In order to discern God’s direction, we must consult the voices of the early Christian mothers and fathers, for in them we find a clearer, more accurate understanding.
Consistency is Valuable
While the value of the early voices of the Christian community cannot be stated strongly enough, there is also is also great significance in the way the Church consistently expressed, and practiced, its theology. After we examine the teaching of Scripture and consider the interpretation of the early community of faith, we should also look at how that interpretation was maintained across 2000 of Christian history. When we see biblical teaching reinforced by the early faith community, and consistently maintained in the centuries to follow, we can more clearly discern God’s direction, and have more confidence in the direction we take. As Gordon Fee said, in his book How to Read the Bible for All its Worth, “Unique interpretations are usually wrong.”
Many Issues were Already Addressed
When we investigate the teaching of our Tradition, we often discover that many of the issues we wrestle with were already deeply considered and addressed. Too frequently, modern Christians struggle with discernment on issues that have already been answered. Just as education does not require us to relearn, or prove again, what we already know to be true, so our life of faith does not require us to readdress the foundations of our faith and theology
Can you imagine the frustration you would experience if you had to prove your math tables every time you wanted to pay for something, or make change? It would be exhausting, and unnecessary! We accept that these foundations have already been addressed and have no need to be challenged again and again.
In the same way, the Church has already addressed many aspects of our faith and theology, and we can safely accept that foundation in our spiritual discernment. A good, modern example is how we understand what Christians often refer to as the Old Testament. Frequently, I hear people say that the Hebrew Bible no longer has an influence over our Christian life, or that the God of the Old Testament is not the same as the God of the New Testament. These are bold assumptions and thankfully, they were already addressed.
In the year 144, Marcion of Sinope put forth his theology stating that he believed in Jesus Christ was sent by God as the Messiah, but he rejected the Hebrew Bible, and believed that the God of the Old Testament was a lesser god, and not the God of the New Testament. After much consideration and debate, the sound minds of the early church denounced Marcion’s position as heresy, restating the deep connections between the Christian witness and that of the Hebrew Bible, and reaffirming that the God of the Hebrew Bible was indeed, the same God found in Jesus and in the teaching of the early biblical writers.
When such claims are put forth in our modern day, we can say with confidence, that these issues have already been addressed and there is no need to reinvent the wheel by defending the faith against them once again.
Tradition is not infallible, but when layered upon the truth of Scripture, we have an even stronger foundation from which to discern God’s will. Tomorrow, we will turn our attention to the third layer of this process: our experience. Until then, may the cloud of witnesses that went before us, and surrounds us, help shine light upon your path.