'Christ, not tradition'?

The great Presbyterian buzz-word of the moment seems to be, ‘Christ, not tradition’, and like all buzz-words it has a modicum of truth.  No church can be content just to let things remain as they are.  At the very least we have to adapt to changing circumstances.  When Gaelic ceases to be the language of a community it must cease to be the language of worship.  When populations move from the countryside and spill into great industrial centres such as Glasgow and Dundee, the church must move with them.  When most church-members have to work nine-to-five, five days a week, Communion Services must be rescheduled accordingly.  And when the printing-press and the computer open up great new possibilities the church has to be quick to take advantage.

Sometimes Scripture itself demands change.  For most of the 20th century, Scottish Presbyterianism had lost sight of the principle of Christian Liberty even though it was a core principle of its Confession of Faith, with the result that many believers found themselves slaves to unbiblical taboos.  It was imperative that we discover once again the principle that God alone is Lord of the conscience and has declared it free from what are merely ‘the doctrines and commandments of men’.  

It was important, too, that the practice of exclusive psalmody be revisited in the light of Scripture.  Glorious – indeed unsurpassable – though the Psalms are, ‘spiritual songs’ can no longer be limited to those of the Old Testament.  We have moved into a new age, and our praise must speak with the utmost clarity of the Incarnation, Calvary and the Work of the Holy Spirit.  

Other challenging issues also need to be addressed.  Does our current attitude to the ministry of women really do justice to the Bible’s emphasis that God created both the male and the female in his own image?  And can we continue to take for granted the age-old dogma that God is incapable of suffering, even though it seems to imply that the cross cost God the Father nothing?

A key New Testament concept

But none of this should obscure the fundamental importance of tradition to the Christian religion.  Tradition means ‘something handed down’, and this can range from folk music to Hogmanay to the protocols for a royal coronation.  But it is also a key New Testament concept.  When St. Paul writes, ‘I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received’ (1 Cor. 15.3) he is deliberately using the technical language of tradition.  The risen Lord has handed down to his apostle the tradition that he died for our sins and that he rose again; and he in his turn is passing it on to the churches.  Similarly, when he lays down the Order for the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11.23-34) he is passing on the tradition that he has received; and when he calls the young Thessalonian believers to stand firm in the faith, his specific appeal is that they hold on to the traditions they have been taught (2 Thess. 2.15)

Truth is, we owe all our knowledge of the person, work and teaching of Christ to a tradition handed down to us (under the guidance of the Holy Spirit) from the Lord and his original apostles.  Tradition has passed down to us the list of canonical scriptures; it has been the custodian of our gospels and epistles, and of the Old Testament; it has cared for the priceless manuscripts which contain the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible.    

And it has handed down to us a centuries-old tradition of biblical interpretation.  This is partly a matter of the great creeds and confessions of the church.  For example, the 4th century Nicene Creed safeguarded for all time the church’s core belief that Christ is very God of very God, warning us never to interpret any biblical passage in a manner inconsistent with the deity of Christ.  A century later, the Formula of Chalcedon (451) laid down the doctrine of the true humanity of Christ, thus giving us another great interpretative guideline: our understanding of Scripture must do full justice to the fact that Christ had a truly human body, a human mind, and human emotions.   A thousand years later, the Reformation bequeathed to us the great Reformed Confessions, not to serve as theological fossils bearing witness to the beliefs of a bygone age, but as vibrant summaries of Christian truth.  If we use them properly, they ensure that we interpret every biblical passage in the light of the teaching of Scripture as a whole.   

But tradition has handed down to us more than the great creeds and confessions.  We are also heirs to the work of a long and distinguished succession of commentators who devoted their lives and their learning to elucidating the message of the Bible.  Today, those in the Reformed tradition draw on the insights of such outstanding commentators as John Calvin, but Calvin himself drew heavily on the scholarship of the thousand years which had preceded  him, and particularly on the commentaries of men like Augustine, Chrysostom and Thomas Aquinas.  Even if we today never read these giants of antiquity, but confine ourselves to such useful series as IVP’s, The Bible Speaks Today, we quickly become aware that every modern commentator draws heavily on the work of those who have gone before.  

None of us has a right to approach the Bible as if we were the first to do so.  Hugely important though it is that ‘we see this in the Bible for ourselves’ (advice once given to the late F. F. Bruce) we need all the help we can get.  A 12-year old in her first Physics class can ill afford to ignore the scientific tradition handed down from Archimedes, Newton and Einstein, and neither can we afford to dispense with the services of the great biblical scholars of the past.   If the Ethiopian Chancellor was humble enough to ask Philip what Isaiah was talking about  (Acts 8.34), we should be humble enough to ask Augustine, Calvin and J. B. Lightfoot the meaning of St. Paul.  The young man who rejects the help of the ancient creeds and the historic scholars of the church is all too likely to repeat the mistakes the church made in her infancy.  None of us should be ashamed to stand on the shoulders of giants.

This is not to say that the tradition is either omniscient or infallible.  Indeed, one of the great benefits of consulting the long succession of commentators is that we quickly become aware of the passages on which the giants of the past have failed to agree: a clear sign that we should proceed with humility and caution.  On the other hand, the tradition, or at least parts of it, has sometimes been wrong.  Here in Scotland, scholars like Samuel Rutherford, James Durham and Alexander Moody-Stuart popularised the idea that the Song of Solomon was an allegory of the love between Christ and his church.  This became a venerated tradition, but in my view it was a wrong one, and this was equally true of what was for long the traditional interpretation of the Pauline phrase, ‘the old man’.  From Fraser of Alness to Robert Haldane and Charles Hodge the view prevailed that in every believer there was both an old man and a new man, the old man being slowly and painfully crucified as the believer grew in grace.  But Paul’s language, and particularly his use of aorist tenses (for example, Romans 6.2, 6.6, 6.8) paints a very different picture, as Professor John Murray pointed out.  Far from being alive and well, the Old Man is dead, having beencrucified with Christ.  The believer is now a New Person, living in union with Christ, and it is precisely as such that he has to fight against the sin that still remains even in the saintliest.    

Such glitches in interpretation are warnings that tradition must always be subject to new light breaking forth from Scripture, and indeed on Scripture.  But it is in connection with preaching that tradition really comes into its own.  St.  Paul spoke of himself as delivering a message he had received, and although we are not apostles that is exactly the position we, too, occupy.  None of us starts from scratch.  We receive the tradition, and we pass it on; and far from there being some tension between Christ and the tradition, Christ is the very tradition that we both receive and deliver.  We receive it, of course, from many sources: our parents, the pulpits of our local churches, our theological colleges, our own reading; and it may often be broadened and stimulated by contact with other denominational traditions.  But however we have received it, we must always check it, and keep on checking it, against apostolic tradition, which alone is normative.  Yet, though what we have received is always our starting-point, the way we deliver it and the points to which we give special emphasis, will vary according to circumstances.  Paul always preached Christ crucified, but his presentation of that message in the Epistle to the Philippians is very different from his presentation in the Epistle to the Galatians.  

The solemn reality is that preachers are always makers of tradition, and none of us should be so naïve as to think either that we have been untouched by tradition or that our own ‘exciting new developments’ will never become traditions in their own right.  To realise how quickly innovations become traditions we have only to remind ourselves how offended many people would now be if their Sunday Morning Service didn’t begin with the words, ‘Welcome to our service this morning’: a Call to Worship unheard of thirty years ago, but now as unchangeable as the law of the Medes and the Persians.

Far from there being a tension between Christ and tradition, it is tradition that delivers Christ: the gospels, the creeds, the great doctors of the church but, above all, her preachers.  The question is, What Christ are we delivering?  It is incumbent on those who are most vocally crying, ‘Christ, not tradition’ to take themselves seriously and make sure that Christ is indeed the staple of their preaching, and that the Christ they preach is the whole Christ.  

That means preaching that begins, not with the assumptions of contemporary society, but with the assumptions of the gospels and the epistles; and preaching that matches the intellectual levels of the New Testament itself.   

It means that we have to wrestle with the mind-blowing Christology of such ‘traditional’ passages as John 1.1, Philippians 2.5 and Hebrews 1.1-3, proclaiming the absolute deity of Christ (with all its practical implications) while at the same time probing the mystery of the incarnation and its stunning reminder of the humanity and compassion of God.

It means immersing ourselves in the ‘traditional’ understanding of the story of Good Friday, when God’s own Son bore in his flesh the condemnation due to our sin and thus laid the foundation for the great liberating doctrine of justification by faith alone.

It means facing the ethical rigours of the teaching of Jesus, not least what at first sight looks like the very un-Protestant demand of Matthew 5.20, ‘Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.’  The antinomian chorus, ‘Christ is all!’ must not close our ears to this categorical declaration that personal righteousness matters.  The external, evasive, casuistical legalism of the Pharisees is not enough.  The Sermon on the Mount is both tradition and Christ, and it binds every member of his kingdom to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile and love his enemies.

And it means preaching the example of Christ, delivering a tradition where Christians are not lords or leaders, but servants, their agenda set not by their own needs and aspirations, but by the needs of others.  The ‘mind’ that was in Christ, prompting him to make himself nothing (Phil. 2.7), is decisive for Christian living.  Without it, our egos will blow our churches apart.

As we have already seen, every innovation quickly becomes a tradition.  ‘Messy Church’ easily becomes as traditional as ‘High Church’, platforms as traditional as pulpits, clerical jeans as traditional as clerical collars, and praise-bands as traditional as precentors.  These amount, we are assured, to ‘exciting new developments’, but they can also involve expense, upheaval and considerable pain.  The real excitement is that God has commissioned us to pass on the tradition about Jesus.  Every pound we spend on buildings, every change we make in our public worship, every new office we create (often without biblical warrant), has to be judged by its bearing on that commission.