In the last article I wrote I mentioned an old Anglican theologian called Richard Hooker. He is often credited (especially in Anglican circles) with the idea that there are three ways we can access God’s self-revelation: Reason, Tradition and Scripture. In recent years, there has been a move to include a fourth way of knowing who God is, through our experience of Him. We need to tread carefully, for while there is an element of truth in all this, there is also a dangerous mistake we could easily make…
The first thing we need to be aware of is that what Hooker actually taught was that when we are reading the Bible we will find it useful and safe to do so in the light of (sanctified) reason and tradition, and I suspect he would have had no problem including ‘experience’. Hooker stood firmly in line with the teaching of the Church of England, that I outlined a couple of weeks ago:
Article 18: ‘…It is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it expound one place of Scripture so that is discordant to another. The Church is the witness and keeper of the Word of God, and must not decree anything contrary to it, nor enforce anything to be believed besides what is taught in the Scriptures…’
Hooker was too good an Anglican to think that either ‘tradition’ or ‘reason’ (or for that matter ‘experience’) should have the same level of authority when it comes to us finding out who God is, and how He wants us to relate to Him and live for Him. Still less that he would have sanctioned the idea that if ‘reason’ or ‘tradition’ (or ‘experience’) contradicted the Bible, they might trump it (read Article 18 again!).
Last week I tried to show why we couldn’t trust ‘reason’ alone to lead us safely to the knowledge of God. We must rather read the Scriptures reasonably (i.e. using our redeemed heads!). This week we’ll think about the role of ‘tradition’. So, what do we mean by ‘Tradition’?
People often think the Reformation was a clash between the Roman Catholic Church who taught that ‘Tradition’ was most important, and the Protestants who were getting back to pure ‘Biblical’ Christianity. But when you read them, you see that the Reformers in fact claimed to stand on Tradition, properly understood. The fact that John Calvin quoted the Early Church Fathers over a thousand times in the Institutes is just one example that gives some credibility to the idea that the Reformers had a better claim to the tradition of the Church than did their opponents! The Reformer’s point was not that all tradition is de facto bad, but that there are good and bad traditions; and also that there are good and bad ways to use tradition.
Good traditions reflect what the Bible has to teach. Listening to a great Bible teacher explain a passage is a fantastic experience. Now, what if that great Bible teacher has been dead for 1700 years, or 500 years, but has been looked to in every generation since then as providing the best interpretation of what the Bible teaches on a certain topic or passage? We are drawing on that tradition of teaching when we read their work cited, or developed, in a contemporary book, or hear their views referred to in a sermon. Tradition can be helpful. But it can also be very unhelpful, e.g. when traditions of teaching or practise have grown up in the Church which have no Biblical warrant – such as the veneration of the saints, or the existence of purgatory.
Which brings us to our second antithesis: there are good and bad ways to use tradition. A particularly bad way to relate to tradition is to see it as binding on us, even when it has no Biblical foundation, or has long since proved useful to the Church’s ministry or mission. By contrast, good ways of using tradition allow us to draw on the rich reserves of thought and worship of faithful saints who have walked the path of Christian discipleship before us. We can be guided by those to whom God has granted much deeper insight than we could ourselves attain. Like I said before, it is like sitting in a really good Bible study with people who have been dead for a while, and benefiting from what they have to say.
When it comes to reading the Bible, we take tradition seriously because at its best, it is the work of the best minds of the Church throughout the ages. Creeds; Confessions; Catechisms; theologians and preachers of past generations, can still serve as reliable guides – sometimes more so than those who are blinded by the same cultural prejudices that hamper us. The grace of God has seen fit to ensure that their legacy remains intact to enrich the Church in later generations. But we only believe tradition when it can be shown to reflect faithfully the teaching of the Bible. Tradition may be a good servant at times, but it is a terrible master.
When it helps us understand the Bible we rejoice in it, but at no point can we imply that ‘tradition’ could replace Scripture, or compensate for it. But enough of the historical Anglican stuff. Next time we’ll start looking at the nature of the Bible itself, and how it relates to the doctrine of the Trinity.