Christian Worldview and Literature: Tradition

medieval painting of a cross

Jeremiah 6:16: "This is what the Lord says: 'Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.' But you said: 'We will not walk in it.'"

Colossians 2:8: "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ."

2 Thess 2:13-16: "But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter."

Too often tradition has gotten a bad name. If something isn't new, original, or modern, we think we can't trust it, or worse, we think that what is new and contemporary must always be better. If something is "traditional" it must be outdated; it can't possibly apply to today. Tradition, many seem to believe, is stunted, unacceptable, even dead. 

Of course, tradition can be all of these things. Paul warns against accepting something simply because it has its origins in a received pattern of human thinking. There can be deceptive false traditions that promote attitudes and behaviors which compromise the gospel. However, Paul was not rejecting the very manner and method of tradition itself. Tradition can also be what gives us our moorings, as Jeremiah understood. It can provide us with a sense of direction. It can give shape to our identity and can help us resist contemporary temptations. A tradition doesn't have to be static. The very Greek word, tradatio, suggests an exchange from one person to another, a living process of continuity and change. The ancient paths, the good ways, are not dead ends. Instead, they can impart to us a pattern, and they can adapt to new circumstances. 

In fact, as Christians, we are often part of a tradition whether we are aware of it or not. Anyone who has been a Christian for very long has already adopted and is likely practicing the language and attitudes and doctrines of the church he or she fellowships with. This isn't to say that many of us still don't hold beliefs and act in ways that violate or deny our church traditions. Too often either we simply aren't educated in what we are doing or we are so individualistic that we refuse to enter into the larger life of the community. Tradition is something that you have to work at. A guitar player who wants to play the blues first has to study other great blues musicians. A talented player may expand on that training, making it her own, but she starts within the tradition. In the same way, it is wise for us to submit ourselves to that treasure of the Church which is larger than we are.

How, then, do we distinguish between traditions and practices that are growing and keeping faith with the Spirit of Christ and those that are not? Since the Reformation, there have been five typical answers among Christians, and each of these has a relationship to holy scripture:

  1. Jettison all tradition and return to a pristine original.
  2. Keep only those aspects of tradition that are explicitly found in scripture.
  3. Keep those aspects of tradition that are not explicitly prohibited by scripture.
  4. Hold that tradition itself is inspired to some greater or lesser degree and is, therefore, a reliable source of information and formation.
  5. Hold that tradition is reliable if it is an outgrowth of what is nascently already there in scripture.

Many scholars and church leaders hold that the first is simply impossible, while Protestants have traditionally insisted that the fourth position is only valuable in a limited way; namely, tradition can never be equal to scripture. What the other three positions recognize in their own way is that scripture is both the source and the promise of renewal for our traditions. Charles Péguy, the French poet, called this ressourcement, the renewal of a people that comes by a return to their early sources.

It behooves Christian readers and writers of literature to be aware of the Christian traditions through the centuries. We have a rich history of literature that sounds out every corner of life and culture. Others have paved the path, setting the example. We cannot advance unless we truly understand what has been given us. We cannot hold to a way more purely unless we train in that pattern. It is a shame that so often we don't know the names of those who have gone before us in the ancient path.

Central Insight: Because traditions can be valuable, adaptable practices, Christians should understand the traditions of Christian literature.

Suggestions for Application: Highlight the distinctive contributions of a text associated with Christian tradition.