Robert W. Oliver
Earlier today I attended a Minister's Fraternal at the Old Baptist Chapel, Bradford on Avon. Robert Oliver spoke to us about The use and abuse of tradition.
He began by reminding us that the Bible itself contains traditions. The Old Testament prophets based their teaching on the traditions of Moses as found in the Pentateuch. A man whose teaching did not match the Mosaic traditions was to be regarded as a false prophet. The apostle Paul urged the Church at Thessalonica to keep the traditions that they had received from him (2 Thess 3:6). The message that Paul preached to the Corinthians was the gospel tradition that they had received from the apostle (1 Cor 15:1ff).
Tradition in this sense is good and Biblical. We must hand down the teaching of the Bible from generation to generation. But there are also unscriptural traditions. Jesus attacked the scribesand Pharisees because they made the word of God of no effect through their traditions (Mk 7:6-13). Paul warned the Clossians to beware of the traditions of men (Col 2:8).
Tradition is abused when traditions contradict or undermine Biblical teaching. The Roman Catholic Church abuses tradition when she makes ancient oral tradition, the teaching of the Fathers and the decrees of the Pope equal to Scripture. Roman doctrines like transubstantiation, the immaculate conception and the infallibility of the Pope are traditional rather than Biblical. Such are "the traditions of men". They are without divine authority.
Does this mean that Evangelicals have no use for tradition? Certainly not. We hold to the inscripturated traditions of the Bible and we recognise that we have a lot to learn from the history of the Church. We are not the first generation of believers to read the Bible. We benefit from learning from the great teachers of the past.
The early Church gave special attention to the question, "Who is Jesus Christ?" After much deliberation and discussion the Nicene creed and definition of Chalcedon were drawn up to set forth the Church's understanding of the Person of Christ. The creeds embody healthy traditions of theological teaching. They set forth an accurate exposition of the Bible's teaching. We do not need to reinvent the Christological wheel in every generation of Church history. As part of the communion of the saints, we may learn from the wisdom of the past.
In the middle ages, theologians like Anselm faced the question, "How does Christ save us?" He developed the view the Christ died to satisfy God's offended honour and justice. More work needed to be done on the atonement, but Anselm can point us in the right direction.
The Reformation gave particular attention to the matter of "How can we be right with God?" The doctrine of justification by faith alone was rediscovered. The Reformers were not right on everything. But we can benefit from their insights into the Biblical doctrine of justification.
Creeds and confessions are helpful because they save us from being individualistic and theologically naive. They must not be placed alongside Scripture, but they are a good guide to accurate Bible teaching. We must not succumb to chronological snobbery that assumes that Evangelicals today do not need to learn from the great teachers of the past. It takes all the saints, including those of the past to enable us to grasp something of the multi-dimensioned love of Christ. In theo-dramatic terms, tradition helps the Church to understand the Biblical script with greater depth and accuracy. It is only as we grasp the script that we can perform it authentically in our day.
The address was followed by a time of discussion where we considered how we may best give our people a right sense of history and tradition. This was a fruitful exchange of views that led to some practical suggestions. We thought about the pros and cons of using Church history to illustrate sermons. Robert Oliver said that he had done some potted church history talks during Sunday evening services. We considered the vale of older commentaries and the writings of past theologians. No one said, "I remember Lloyd-Jones going on about...". But, one frat member confessed that he had come across my blog earlier in the week. Must have done some good.
Robert Oliver was the pastor at The Old Baptist Church. He currently lectures in Church History at the London Theological Seminary and the John Owen Centre. His book on the History of the English Calvinistic Baptists was recently published by the Banner of Truth Trust (review).
The theodramatic bit was my Vanhoozerism, RWO didn't actually say that.