Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The use and abuse of traditon

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.


Jon said...

So how do the RC and the Reformed differ? I mean practically rather than theoretically?

This is my big problem. In praxis I can see a lot of similarities - other than the RC admit they have traditions...

Exiled Preacher said...

There are huge differences. We don't pray to Mary or do penance. We regard the mass as a blasphemous travesty of the Lord's Supper etc. None of those RC traditions are found in Scripture, therefore we reject them.

You'll have to be more specific at about these similarities. If you mean things like marriage and abortion, then what's the problem? We do share doctrines in common with Rome - the Trinity and the Person of Christ. Some ethical teachings are common too. But here are differences even here. On Biblical grounds, we don't regard marriage as a sacrament or forbid the use of contraception.

If you said to an RC, "You must stop doing that, it ain't Biblical!" They would say, "Yes, but revelation didn't end with the Bible, we have Church traditions too."

If you said the same to a Calvinists, (I hope) he would say, "Oh really, let's search the Scriptures on this."

Could you be more specific so I can see what you're getting at?

Jonathan Hunt said...

And, for anyone interested, Robert Oliver is addressing a Day Conference at Eastcombe Baptist Church, near Stroud, this Sat 31st March with three talks on 'The Doctrines of Grace', looking at what we should proclaim, what we should avoid, and the mission we are to fulfill. Meetings start at 10.30am.

Here endeth the broadcast on behalf of the PArticular Baptists of the Shire of Gloucester!

Jon said...

I think I'm looking more at the theology of tradition as a whole. For example - we disagree on particulars and I'm all in favour of what you say - but I think the problem is is that that these days (although the Calvinist might say "ok lets go to the Bible here") the Calvinist/Reformed whatever comes to the Bible with so many presuppositions (Reformed Calvinist) that they are no longer being faithful to the Scripture but faithful to Reformed exegesis.

I merely seek to raise this as a possibility not to say lets get rid of our Reformed heritage, but to seek to highlight the similarities between the Reformed and the RC approach to doctrine IN THE PRESENT CLIMATE. Am I misrepresenting the Reformed Church? I hope not.

As I read him (and I have actually - I hope I'm not construed as someone who doesn't have a clue!) Calvin seeks to remove all the unneccesary baggage from his exegesis and come to the text afresh. Let's not forget that his exegetical methods comes primarily from the Fathers (esp. Augustine)and so he is not coming to the text with preconceived notions of what the text says. However, he IS concerned with what the text says and seeks to use all the available tools to determine that much.

These days, a Reformed pastor comes across a problem and digs out his Reformed commentary on the text and low and behold comes up with a Reformed reading of the text. Is that exegesis? I understand time constraints etc. but we end up living in a hermetically-sealed doctrinal climate which effectively becomes tradition. We say Scripture is above tradition but do we always live this way?

I hope I'm not seen as a hobby-horsist? I just think we need to be inward-looking here. I speak for myself more than anyone.

Jon said...

I didn't want to appear arrogant when I said that I had read Calvin - I merely wanted to encourage you all to interact with Calvin so that you can appreciate the huge work he undertakes - the Institutes is written as a handbook to his Biblical Commentaries and yet too often we ignore the great weight of his exegetical enterprise. Calvin is well and truly Biblically motivated, and yet he does not come to the text with the presuppositional work of the Institutes - the Institutes is written in the light of his Biblical commentaries. I'm trying to argue (badly it seems) that we reverse his process and put our own "Institutes" before our exegetical works...

Exiled Preacher said...


Getting late. Need sleep. Calvin good. Me read him too.

John said...

IMHO, the best essay on how RCs and the Reformed differ on tradition is a classic from 1962: Heiko A. Oberman, 'Quo Vadis, Petre? Tradition from Irenaeus to Humani Generis' reprinted in The Dawn of the Reformation

Oberman teases out the differences in the handling of tradition very competently and ends by asking what would happen if an 'evangelical' pope was to abolish the traditions of the magisterium ex cathedra

Exiled Preacher said...


So you are claiming that there are hermeneutical similarities, that RC have the Magisterium and the Reformed have their exegetical traditions.

We can fall into the trap of just regurgitating the "standard Reformed line" on a text, without doing proper exegesis. But things are more complex than that aren't they? Read Lloyd-Jones on Romans. He disagrees with the exegesis of Calvin, Hodge etc. His exegesis is often fresh and creative - witness his exposition of Romans 7!

The Reformed commentaries don't always agree on every detail of the text. The preacher has to make exegetical decisions to the best of his ability. It's not like the RC Magisterium that says, "This text means so and so and you'd better believe it."

The Reformed exegetical tradition is based on sound principles.

> Grammatico-historical exegesis.
> Taking Scripture as a covenant document.
> Interpreting Scripture by Scripture.
> The rule of faith.
> Understanding the OT in the light of the NT.
> A literary approach to texts that takes the different genres seriously.
> The witness of the Spirit.

I agree that we should not impose our ready-made Reformed system on the Bible. We must allow the text to reform and reshape our theology. That is why I believe that Systematic Theology should arise from exegesis and Biblical Theology.

But exegesis without any presuppositions is impossible.

Jon said...

qJohn: Thanks for reminding me of that paper. I read it a couple of years ago but I'll try and get hold of it again and reread it.

Guy: I know you can't read without presuppositions but the kind of presuppositions we can't read without are (for me) - I'm a white, hetrosexual Western male etc. The fact that we are Reformed shouldn't necessarily feature in this presupposition.

I'm making a claim about the current climate. I'm sure that in the past things were different but these days there is a reliance on the past for as you call it "hermeneutical" influence rather than relying more heavily on those pointers you helpfully mentioned.

Exiled Preacher said...


I think that past creeds and confessions should be factored into our exegesis of Scripture. If my exposition of the Bible denies the doctrine of the Trinity, or the deity and humanity of Christ, is it valid? Knowledge of the history of interpretation is a safeguard against heretical exegesis.

We cannot pretend that we are the first people to come to the Scriptures. We can benefit from the insights of past Biblical scholars and theologians. Our exegesis should be informed by past interpretation, but not controlled by it.