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Mark Johnston (MDiv Westminster Theological Seminary) is the Minister of Bethel Presbyterian Church (EPCEW) in Cardiff, Wales. He was previously Senior Pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church Bryn Mawr, PA and of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London. He began his ministry as a church planter in Ireland. He serves on the Board of Banner of Truth Trust and has authored several books including three titles in Banner's Let’s Study series, You in Your Small Corner, and Our Creed.

Column: Resident Aliens by Mark Johnston

When Tradition becomes an ‘ism’

August 6, 2015 •

Too often ‘tradition’ has become a red flag word to the ears of evangelical Protestants. Especially when it is used in relation to ‘Scripture’ in the same sentence. The reason for this, of course, is the way in which the Roman Catholic Church throughout its history has subordinated the authority of the latter to the former, thus making the Sacred Magisterium of the church the supreme rule of faith and practice for professing Christians.

It was the key issue behind the debates of the 16th Century Reformation in Europe. Even though the doctrine of justification has subliminally come to be regarded as the central point of controversy, this was only true in the wider context of the polemic surrounding the seat of authority that determined the faith and practice of the church.

The Reformers never denied either the existence or importance of tradition for the church; but they did fight for the vital corrective of restoring Scripture alone to its rightful place in shaping church tradition through the ages. In so doing, they were simply upholding what is embedded in the history of salvation unfolded in the Bible and articulated by the prophets in the Old Testament and both Jesus and the Apostles in the New.

Jesus entered the very same debate with the religious establishment of his day when he challenged the Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees. He repeatedly exposed the fact that these religious leaders had embraced a mere human tradition of ‘rules and regulations taught by men’ in direct opposition to that which God revealed in his word (Mt 15.1-9).

So too with the Apostle Paul: he acknowledged that prior to his conversion he too had been passionately committed to ‘the traditions of [his] fathers’ (Ga 1.14). And far from this being something he was proud of; he saw it as a mark of his spiritual blindness at that time. He too challenges the churches to which he writes when they veer away from being true to Scripture and head instead towards the manmade traditions that undermine the truth and teaching of the Bible (Col 2.8).

However, elsewhere the apostle also sets out a right and proper understanding of tradition and argues for its place in the life of faith. He exhorts the Christians in Thessalonica, ‘Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us’ (2Th 3.6) [NASB98]. He uses the Greek word paradosis, meaning ‘handed down’, referring to the kind of faith and practice that are shaped by God’s revealed word.

So, in that sense, there is indeed a vital place for tradition in Protestant Christianity. That is what the Reformers sought to restore through their teaching and their polemic with Rome. This too is what Reformed churches have done through the ages in their effort to be both Semper Reformans and Semper Reformanda. This has been true not just in how they have shaped their life and worship, but also in the way they have articulated their faith. Although they have historically placed a high premium on being confessional churches, they have never regarded their creeds, confessions and catechisms as being the supreme standard of faith and conduct but, rather, as being subordinate to Scripture. Even the greatest of these statements of belief have been tweaked and revised in light of a clearer understanding of the Bible and the history of interpretation.

So, Protestants should not regard ‘tradition’ as a word that automatically triggers theological alarm bells. We need to appreciate the tradition and heritage of which we are a part. And we also need to reflect deeply on how we not only receive it and faithfully ‘hand it over’ to succeeding generations; but also how we relate it meaningfully and effectively to the world in which we live. Only as we give careful thought to this aspect of our responsibility will we ensure those on the outside looking in will get a clear impression of what Gospel Christianity looks like, as opposed to perceiving it to be something else.

There is one area in particular where well-meaning Christians (and their leaders) have had a commendable desire to defend and uphold ‘the faith once for all entrusted to the saints’ (Jude 3), but manage to do the very opposite to what they intend. It happens when they unwittingly reduce the sacred tradition of the church to mere traditionalism. And when they turn it into an ‘ism’ they have actually cut it loose from the very rule of faith and practice which alone can shape and direct it, as well as give it life.

It happens when their focus shifts from ‘what we believe’ to ‘how we express that belief’. As I have argued in previous posts, whereas the former is non-negotiable in that it expresses what God has revealed once-for-all in his word, the latter is flexible for all kinds of reasons. Language changes, cultures vary and the generation gap is real. So Christians constantly need to work at how best to articulate and apply the unchangeable truths of Scripture in the ever-changing world in which we live.

To try to protect unchangeable truth by turning it into rigid ways of doing things – refusing to acknowledge that the same truths we cherish may be articulated and applied in ways that differ from our own practice – actually distorts that truth. There is no translation of the Bible that is canonical, nor is there one hymn book (or type of hymn book) of which the same can be said. Likewise the liturgy of particular churches, while including and adhering to the essential elements of true worship, will find their expression in different forms and styles in different church contexts.

If we are Reformed, evangelical and Protestant in our faith, we belong to a great tradition that has blessed the church, brought blessing to the world and which dates back to biblical times. But just as in those Bible times there were elements within the church who turned that tradition into traditionalism – sanctifying a version of what they received in a way that went beyond what Scripture itself will allow – so too through the ages, those elements remain in the church. There is an entire generation of Christians that needs to discover tradition is good. Let’s help them make that discovery by helping them see what it really is.

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