“Tradition!” Tevye, the milkman sings at the beginning of Fiddler on the Roof. It’s a great beginning, as Tevye walks us through his village and points out how things are done and why. Well, not why. Tevye mostly doesn’t know why they do things the way they do. It’s just what they have always done.
Despite the song, it’s not tradition of which Tevye sings. Not really. Tradition is more than custom, more than the way we have always done things. Tradition requires a rationale, a level of commitment. Tradition says this we must do because this is who we are. Fiddler in the end is a thoroughly modern musical. It’s not about tradition; it’s about facing and, eventually, embracing change. It’s about the new, not the old.
What we moderns call “tradition” is often mere nostalgia—a sentimental attachment to things we remember from the past: Christmas memories, family vacations, a dish we associate with our grandparents—that sort of thing. But tradition—at least tradition in the theological sense—is made of stronger stuff. David Bentley Hart, in a fine recent book, defines theological tradition as “the dynamic and progressive disclosure of an ever wider and deeper and more inexhaustible reservoir of truth . . .” (Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief. Baker Academic, 2022).1 Tradition in this sense is not just the way we have always done things or what we have always thought; tradition is stamped with the authority of the Spirit of God. Tradition is both new and old.
Hart, himself Orthodox, has in mind the broad stream of Christian tradition spanning East and West. For the narrower slice of Christianity of which I am a part and to which I write, tradition has proved a difficult concept. If the heart of your theology is the post-Reformation slogan sola scriptura, roughly, “all we need is the Bible,” not much room is left for “a progressive disclosure of an every wider and deeper and more inexhaustible reservoir of truth.” It is all supposed to be there at the beginning, waiting to be unpacked.
It’s the common opinion in many post-Reformation churches, therefore, especially churches of the American evangelical sort, that tradition consists mostly of missteps—a progressive falling away from what the Bible teaches. But, read faithfully, the Bible discloses everything that needs disclosing. All theological truth is biblical truth. Thus, for my denomination, the Covenant for Officebearers, a document everyone who holds church office is required to sign, declares confidently that the Reformed confessions do “fully agree with the Word of God.”
The story of the Reformation as told in such churches, including the churches I grew up in, claims that Luther, Calvin, and others simply recalled the church to the Bible. But in fact, that’s not what happened. The Reformation was two things: retrieval, yes, but also reformulation. Any reform movement must do both.
The retrieval of the Bible in Reformation times was driven by new ways to read history. Thus, the efforts of Erasmus of Rotterdam and others to establish the original text of the New Testament were as important as the reformulation of the New Testament gospel by, say, Martin Luther. And, to the same point, John Calvin, the renaissance scholar of antiquity and of ancient languages, is as important as John Calvin, the dyspeptic pastor of Geneva. The study of the past, supported by new printing technology, presented the Bible in a new way—the Bible as the object of historical research, able to be read by anyone who had the right tools. The Bible became public in a way it had been before.
Out of this, although neither Luther nor Calvin could have fully anticipated it, came modern biblical studies which attempts to read the Bible as one would any other ancient text. But that would emerge later. Initially, the Reformers read from the Bible a gospel that required no popes, no Latin liturgy, no priestly transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. The notion was born that anyone could read the Bible. It was in that sense the democratization of theology.
But how, in the 16th century, to present this newly discovered gospel? For that, the Reformers availed themselves of ways of thinking that were of their own time. My favorite example of this sort of reformulation is the way that original sin and much else was handled in Reformed theology. They—Reformed theologians—seized on an idea borrowed from the political thought of their own time: representation. The human race is like a republic, they said. Our original federal head was Adam. (Eve’s role in this remained murky.) When Adam sinned, he did so as our representative head. His sin was our sin.
This thought led in time to the idea of multiple “covenants,” covenants between members of the Trinity, between God and humanity, and so forth. Never mind that this use of “covenant” is not what the Bible means by “covenant” in either testament or that when Paul speaks of “the power of sin entering the world through one person” (Romans 5:12), this is not at all what he had in mind. It was a way to communicate the gospel in terms that could be easily grasped in the 17th century and beyond.
All of which brings us back to the idea of tradition. Tradition requires both: retrieval and reformulation. Hart, in his book on tradition, says that a convenient way to think of the broad Christian tradition is as a “narrative of the generation of (to use the technical conciliar term) confessional ‘symbols” of the faith.’” Symbols in this sense are the confessions (our word in Reformed circles) that are promulgated by Councils. As Hart mentions, the etymology of the word is indicative of its meaning in church tradition (Tradition, 92). A “symbol” is something that has been “thrown together,” Each symbol is a new attempt to formulate the faith—or part of the faith—in terms that speak to the controversies that led up to the council. They are both retrieval and reformulation, reaching back for the history of Christian teaching in order to recover what has been lost and finding new ways to formulate that teaching for a new age.
But here the Reformers question becomes important: in looking back at Christian tradition, how do we decide what belongs to the Jesus faith and what doesn’t? How do we know when tradition has been led by the Spirit, as in the promise of Jesus (John 16:13), and when the tradition has been swayed from the truth. This question has a new relevance in our time, when we are sorting through what constitutes the faith and what defiles it.
Hart looks at two earlier attempts to answer these sorts of questions with regard to the broad Christian tradition: John Henry Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) and Maurice Blondel’s HIstory and Dogma (1904). Each, in Hart’s review, is an estimable attempt, but each fails according to Hart because they only look backwards. They, Newman and Blondel, are looking for the thread, the continuity, that holds the tradition together. Newman finds it in a continuity of ideas—principles—and Blondel finds it in the continuity of the church, but neither, again in Hart’s estimation, quite succeeds. In the end, either strategy could serve to justify anything at all. They come to something like “we believe it because we believe it.”
Hart attempts to get around this difficulty by pointing to the future. Symbols of the faith must not only provide a way to understand and appropriate the past but to open the future in ways that earlier formulations had not.
The example Hart uses is the Nicene agreement, formulated in the Nicene creed, the product of the Councils of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381). The creed has become fundamental to the Christian understanding of the Trinity. Hart observes that earlier formulations had as much or even more claim on the earlier history of Christian thought. Arius, Hart says, was as orthodox or more orthodox than Athanasius. History is written by the winners. But the Nicene formulation of the Trinity did something that the others did not: it opened the faith in ways that were new and unanticipated. Nicea led to new ways to see and understand God and humanity. The faith is different because of Nicea.
My own way to understand what Hart is getting at comes from the world of science. An important measure of scientific theories is not only how well they account for the evidence accumulated to date, but how the theory opens up new avenues for research. A good theory leads to unanticipated insights. The application of this way of thinking to theology is not exact, of course, but it fits better than one might think. Good theology not only makes sense of the past but opens the gospel in new ways.
This was in fact what happened in the 16th century. The Bible was “discovered” in new ways. With those discoveries came new ways to think about the faith itself. And those insights led to new symbols—our Reformed confessions. But, as Hart also points out, every formulation contains the seeds of its own dissolution. Eventually, a theology that worked at the time no longer works as well. It becomes not living tradition but traditionalism. Instead of bringing new insights, it becomes a way to police a stagnant orthodoxy.
We have reached such a point in American Christianity. We can see this as a time of promise or a time of fear. I choose the side of promise, as do many of you. Moden biblical studies have offered us new ways to read the Bible. Cultural shifts have led us to broaden the idea of justice to include people who are different from us. New forms of communication have brought the world to our door. Those of us who are followers of Jesus see in all of this the patient call of God. God is calling us now as always to fully realize what we were created to be, to embrace the rule (kingdom) of God.
There are those who would use the faith to shut the door to others. This has never been the way of the gospel. It cannot be the way of the gospel now. We are at an inflection point, a point at which we will be led into new ways to articulate the faith, and doing so we will discover afresh the power of the tradition. The old will become new, and we will see it as if for the first time.
It’s to that that I will turn in my next post. What might this look like? What inklings can we have of what is coming?