Tradition and Theology

Posted: March 4, 2012 in John Wesley
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What is the role of Christian tradition in Christian theology?

The role of the Christian tradition in Christian theology has been one of debate for centuries.  How much influence should this tool be allowed in our quest for understanding God and His character?  And, how might we correctly employ this tool for theology?  The answers to this question greatly vary across the centuries, especially given the tendency for human institutions to be broken and fallen.  Despite this fact, Wesley maintains it is necessary to affirm the Christian tradition’s role in theology while providing it with a means of accountability.

For some, the Christian tradition holds sole authority for interpreting Scripture and experience.  Moreover, many believe that the Church alone speaks as the very mouthpiece of God.  The problem with this mentality is that it led some to believe that the task of theology could be accomplished through the power of the Church alone, sometimes ignoring the Spirit.  Moreover, it often ignored the way in which the world influenced the Church negatively, pulling it away from its foundational principles.  The Church, especially after Constantine, became an extension, in many ways, of the government and culture.  Christianity became a way of affirming cultural values rather than allowing culture to be informed by Scripture.

Unfortunately, that often meant that there was little if any accountability for the Church’s power.  The Crusades are an ugly example where the two mixed horribly and forever marred Christianity in the eyes of many.  This misuse of authority ultimately made people skeptical of the Church and do not willingly submit to the Church.  In theology, tradition cannot be said to be the ultimate authority because it too can ultimately be swayed by ulterior influences.  It must have a counter-balance for its interactions with the world.  Scripture provides the measure by which the Church is guided.

However, to totally ignore tradition would be a sad loss for Christianity.  It would seriously limit our understanding of Christianity, as well as, the consequences when our preaching does not match our living.  Karl Barth believed that the Christian tradition was a conversation between students, each successive generation learning from the previous generations.  I believe this is a good way to look at the Christian tradition.  It maintains that we are all learning together and that we are dependent upon one another as well.  Therefore, in each generation of the past we can learn from both their successes and their failures.

Christian tradition can also be used in conjunction with experience as Wesley saw it.  It allows us to see the collective experience of Christianity and employ it as a tool for assessing whether or not we have been true to Christianity.  Furthermore, it is important that Christian tradition is not limited merely to historical events and thinking.  Rather, Christian tradition also has a future aspect to it.  It is passed to each successive generation.  The Christian tradition is the unbroken succession of giving away the Gospel all the way from the apostles to present day believers.  Hopefully, we continue to pass on a faithful rendering of what it means to live as a Christian in our world.

One example of tradition’s invaluable influence can be found in the doctrine of the Trinity, which is not explicitly outlined within Scripture.  However, after much deliberation and debate on the exact relationship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the leaders of the Church formulated that they were three-in-one.  This doctrine sought to make sense of what Scripture was saying, even though it was not explicit in Scripture.  Initially, this was just a simple formula for talking about God.  In generations since, it was built upon to explain it more accurately.  There have been other doctrines set out by tradition that worked to provide a framework by which we might comprehend Scripture accurately and faithfully.  As Barth asserts, tradition captures the voice of fellow students and teachers by which we can seriously think through issues.  We continue that tradition to not only know but understand.

John Henry Newman believed that Church doctrine, as an idea, would ultimately develop as we searched and learned more.  It is open to revision and improvement.  This is especially true if we believe that God is continually revealing Himself, not that His revelation changes, but He guides us into all Truth.  Tradition is therefore the process of theology growing and building upon that which was laid before.  Theology, therefore, has a responsibility to listen and interact with tradition.  Tradition does not have the last Word in the conversation, but it is an invaluable voice in the discussion.

Creeds, many of which are a valuable part of Christianity today, preserve earlier generations’ assessment of the foundational beliefs of Christianity.  These have helped guide future generations on correct, essential doctrine.  That is not to say that they are above Scripture, but succinctly sets forth what Scripture affirms as necessary doctrine.  Christian tradition, like the creeds, can serve as a way of grounding our faith back to the essential elements of the faith.

Where the Christian tradition becomes problematic is where it oversteps its role, assuming an authority equal to Scripture and experience.  The result too often is a power that has no balance or accountability.  When it is allowed that type of power, as is the case with most human institutions, it becomes tyrannical and legalistic.  Furthermore, reason is not allowed a very prominent role in discovering Truth.  Rather, Truth becomes affirmed by tradition and is not open for interpretation or revision.  A close-minded dogmatism then is used to control people rather than free them.  Logic serves as a corrective device for such narrowness.

For this reason, it is necessary that the Christian tradition be looked at and studied carefully.  The Christian tradition is subject to the authority of Scripture and experience.  Does it hold before these two authorities as genuine?  Next, does it maintain under scrutiny of logic and reason?  If it does not, it must be called into question as to the validity of its assertions.  That does not mean that the Christian tradition does not still have something to offer even when it is found wanting.  Instead, we can use that as an opportunity to learn from the mistakes and sins of others.

As such, I believe the Christian tradition holds a great deal for us in theology.  It allows us to study history and learn from true followers of Christ and we can also learn from failure to live Christ-like and not make the same mistakes.  I believe this shows the dependency that tradition has upon experience, Scripture, and reason.  Tradition is simply a tool.  It is not the ending point.





  1. T. E. Hanna says:

    The quadrilateral. Good stuff. 🙂

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