No, I’m not trying out for Fiddler on the Roof. I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the concept of Tradition (and tradition) in church theology. Yeah, I know, I tend to think about some obscure things. First, a little background:
Tradition, with a capital “T”, is also known in the Eastern Orthodox churches as Holy Tradition. OrthodoxWiki.com defines Holy Tradition as “the deposit of faith given by Jesus Christ to the Apostles and passed on in the Church from one generation to the next without addition, alteration or subtraction.” Holy Tradition is not given equal status with Scripture, however it is seen as authoritative as far as the interpretation of Scripture goes. It does not change or grow with understanding or time. While in the Roman Catholic Church the Pope can “amend” church doctrines, there is no one in the Orthodox Church with that authority. Again, Tradition doesn’t change, it just is.
This, of course, is debated by all other churches. The RCC has, as I have pointed out, a different approach to church authority, giving preference to the Pope. This is really what the Reformation was all about. One of the main doctrines emphasized by Luther and the other reformers is sola Scriptura, or “Scripture alone” as the church’s source of authority.
Protestants: Sola Scriptura
While by and large the protestant churches all affirm this, there are many different approaches, which in part explains why there are so many different churches and traditions (with a small “t”). One problem is that many evangelical churches have no respect whatsoever for the earlier church teachings, instead preferring their own unique twists of interpretation. Personally, I find this quite dangerous, allowing for much bizarre error to creep in, and allowing for bizarre creeps to mislead many people.
What I find really interesting, however, is that so many churches say “sola Scriptura” but in practice have their own form of tradition that controls them as much as the Eastern Orthodox is guided by their Tradition.
I’ll pick on the Lutherans because I was one, and still hold to a lot of Lutheran approaches to things. Luther, of course, rejected the Pope’s authority in favor of Scripture alone. However, over the years, the Lutherans developed a number of documents that defined the “Lutheran” faith, including the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles, Luthers’ Catechism and the Formula of Concord. These are all published in one rather large volume known as The Book of Concord. Some Lutherans, especially in the Missouri Synod, will quote this as much if not more than the Bible itself. It is interesting to me that the church that first developed Sola Scriptura holds so strongly to a 2nd book.
For Calvinists, there is also a slough of documents that guide their interpretation of Scripture. There is the Westminster Confession, Calvin’s Institutes, the TULIP, and so on. Calvinists, even more so than Lutherans, will default to Calvinist Tradition rather than go back to Scripture.
All the rest
To look at the rest would take far too much time; nearly everyone has some kind of tradition guiding them, even if it is to be “blown to and fro by every wind of doctrine.” Some, of course, are less dogmatic than others. The ELCA (Lutheran) and the Episcopal Church have all but left the faith, setting aside even Scripture as authoritative. Then you have those who follow whatever “prophetic word” floats by. Fundamentalists are dognatic, but in violation of the clear meaning of Scripture as well as any other source of authority or interpretation.
There are many in the “emerging” movements which have chosen to be “blown to and fro” with concepts such as “open-source theology” or even becoming somewht “interfaith.”
My own thoughts
My personal belief is that Scripture – while being open to each individually – is not necessarily open to all individual interpretation. I think it is important to look to the Church Fathers (2nd-4th Centuries) for guidance, as well as look at the wise men through the ages. However, I am not convinced that the early Church Fathers had everything perfect. I think Luther recovered some major truths, but not all. (I can’t say the same for Calvin, however.)
For example, there are some people with new thoughts about Biblical interpretation, such as NT Wright, who are coming under attack by Calvinists, Lutherans, and others as he dares question traditional interpretations of core doctrines such as Justification. Now, I tend to think Luther’s thinking follows Paul as closely as possible; however, Wright has some interesting thoughts. Should he be dismissed simply because he doesn’t follow the TULIP or Concord? Not necessarily. I don’t even mind if he disputes Chrysostom or Polycarp; I don’t think they saw in the mirror any clearer than Paul did.
Bottom line, I think we need to be open-minded, but with a very healthy dose of respect for historical interpretations of the Bible. If your own thoughts don’t fit in any existing tradition, then it’s time to rethink. You may have a valid point, but it’s more probable that you’re simply wrong.