Does Tradition Matter?

John ArmstrongChurch Tradition

The majority of evangelicals, at least in America, would answer the question I pose in my title negatively. When they hear this word they think of traditionalism and of ancient practices that are non-biblical. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons.

I thought about this question yesterday as I conversed with a very good friend who is a devout Roman Catholic. I was sharing how I had recently re-embraced the reading of the Scriptures in large narrative chunks of material at one sitting as a good spiritual practice. (I have tended to read the Scripture by doing technical exegesis as primary and thus became used to studying it as something like a science book at times.) She admitted that she never did read Scripture in this manner, though she attends some Benedictine worship settings where this is practiced by the brothers. She then said, "But by going to daily Mass I hear the Word of God read aloud as it was intended to be used as stated by the writers of the New Testament itself."

After thinking about this answer briefly I said to my sister, "I agree with you. Have you ever been to an evangelical church and noticed how little, if any, of the Scripture is read, especially liturgically?" She said that she had visited a few and was very unimpressed. I had to agree with her totally. I then said, "Do you not think, however, that this is a case where the truth is not an either/or response but rather a both/and?" She agreed. I also reminded her of Father Baima’s remarks at our Forum in September when he said most Catholics did not do daily Bible reading in private because evangelicals do it. Of course. So much of what we do, or do not do, is formed by our reactions to what we think is traditionalism. The reality here is that there is much in holy tradition to support both of these practices. (If anything there is more to support public reading in liturgical settings than private reading. The early Church didn’t even possess a Bible to read so how did they hear the Word of God?)

Here is the point. Tradition without history homogenizes development into a statically defined truth. This is done in many liturgical settings by people who do not embrace a living historical Christian faith where the Holy Spirit is active and working in our time. But history without tradition produces a kind of historicism that relativizes the development of Christian truth and teaching in such a way that real growth and serious aberrations seem entirely arbitrary. (The Spirit does fresh and new things but not arbitrary things.) The pitfalls of both of these extremes must be avoided. My friendship with so many Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, and the literature of the ancient tradition, helps me to navigate between these two extremes, at least more so than I did when all I had was an "evangelical tradition" that I thought was taken right out of the pages of the Bible. This had to be one of the silliest things I ever thought and practiced, which reveals how much I need to learn and practice epistemic humility.