Sources For Theology: Tradition

In the realm of theology, there are multiple sources by which we come to our conclusions. Most scholars – if not all – would know the term “the Wesleyan Quadrilateral”. This takes four different categories by which we come to our theological conclusions. In no particular order, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral consists of tradition, experience, Scripture, and reason. If we put too much significance on any one of those four, the whole thing becomes off balance, and most likely will result in heresy. The Roman Catholics place tradition above all, both in what is and isn’t Scripture as well as how to interpret that Scripture. There are others who take Sola Scriptura to such lengths that anything outside of the Bible is shunned, which is ironic considering their teaching is not in the Scripture, yet they expect people to listen to them…

Most likely the one piece that is most scoffed is “tradition”. This sounds too Roman Catholic. Yet, what needs to be understood in regard of tradition is that Scripture is indeed one of the four sources. I would argue it is the most important of the four. If our tradition doesn’t line up with the Scripture, then we reject the tradition. If our experience is contrary to the Bible, then we reject our experience as a valid source. Or, better yet, we probe to understand why it is in error, and we then use it as an example for our theology.

The Greek word that would express the ideas of tradition is παραδοσις. This word is used to express the teachings that we’ve received, and also pass along to the next generation. For example, Acts 6:14 reads, “For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” Here we see the customs of Moses being handed down. In Matthew 15:2, Jesus is asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?” Once again, notice that the elders hand down the tradition, whether verbally or textually. We also find Paul writing in 2 Thessalonians 3:6, “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the traditions you received from us.”

We also know that our roots are from Judaism, and it is worth knowing some of the traditions of the first century Jews (found in the Mishnah). Ultimately, our authority is not in Jewish tradition, but in the apostle’s teaching. With that said, I do believe that Jacob’s well runs deep, and for the lack of drawing from that well, we have misunderstood and misappropriated some gospel truths. Our roots do go down, all the way past Abraham to Adam, and unless our roots go down, our branches do not go out. We need to understand the Hebraic faith, as taught by the apostles, and there is much benefit in learning the Jewish tradition and mindset.

In regard to tradition, whether Jewish or through church history, there are three ways of treating it:

Tradition II: Claim it as authoritative and on par with Scripture.

Tradition I: Claim it to be highly helpful in our interpretation of Scripture, and anything that would not have historical background is to be counted as highly suspect.

Tradition 0: Claim that Scripture is the only thing worthy of our consideration, and that nothing else has anything to say to us.

Tradition II is held by Roman Catholics. It is also very Jewish. The rabbis have commented upon the Scripture, and even the Talmud, and what the rabbis say is authoritative. There are times where their tradition actually goes against what the Scripture itself teaches. We see Jesus dealing with the Pharisees regarding this. In modern times, in the Church, the Roman Catholics very much hold to this view. Actually, when challenged on specific heretical views, such as purgatory, one of the things that they will go to is tradition. When challenged to find it in the Scripture, they will use one of the apocryphal books (typically 1 Maccabees). This would be an unorthodox approach, and indeed should be rejected.

Another unorthodox approach would be Tradition 0. A statement that might be said by one of the people holding to this principle, albeit a rare find, would be, “Tradition is the doctrine of man. Why would I hold to that?” Usually behind this belief is a misunderstanding of what tradition is. This is the opposite extreme of calling tradition authoritative. What is sad is that those who hold to this opinion usually isolate themselves, and in isolation become easy targets for deception, bitterness, hurt, and eventually either heresy or to fall from grace. It is not a light thing to neglect the traditions by which we’ve come. You can disagree with many of the past saints. I do. Tell me one person who doesn’t. But to flat out reject that we should read anything other than the Bible is ignorance. With ignorance often comes arrogance.

The most balanced view of tradition is Tradition I. To open up the discussion a little more, Tradition I is basically asserting that we come to the past writings with healthy skepticism. We know that only the Bible is inspired, and therefore all other sources are not on the same playing field. There are many places where Luther got it wrong. There are many places where Calvin was incorrect. Many times Wesley misinterpreted. Often the greats of Pentecostalism, the founders of the Baptists, the legends of early Christianity, and even the very disciples of the apostles did not interpret the Scripture correctly. It is our job to read their words with care.

Much can be gained by reading their motifs. We should read as a challenge, and not as authority. The challenge is to cause us to expand our thinking. It causes us to reconsider some of the things that we have held dear. I have written many things in the past that are simply not true. I’m sure I will continue in that pattern. The hope is that as I continue to learn, and as I continue to listen to and read other’s opinions, it will cause me to reassess why I believe what I believe, and in that, come closer to the center upon the foundations that the apostle’s have laid. Skepticism is not sin. It isn’t pessimistic either. There is a balance to reading what others have said, gleaning insight and passion for truth, while at the same time testing all things to see if it is indeed truth.

We also must understand that many times in church history, the discussion doesn’t include all aspects of theology. There are many aspects to theology that I think have continually been neglected. For example, I don’t find much meaningful discussion on the subject of Israel. While some overemphasize, others completely abandon any mention. There is very little discussion in a balanced manner. I think the reason for this is that we have much to learn in regards to Israel, and specifically God’s heart toward Israel. While I am not the first to seek understanding of their place, and the conclusions that I’ve come to are not solely mine, even the greatest names in church history seem to stumble over this people.

Thus, I say that in regard to tradition, we consult it when we desire to expand our understanding, when we desire to hear other opinions, and sometimes when we want help sifting out some of the Scriptures regarding certain subjects. However, I don’t advise that we read anyone else’s book on a subject without first coming to our own conclusions, or without knowing and trusting the source that we consult. There are some things reformed theologians say that are absolutely correct. There are other things that make me want to bash my head into a wall. There are some things that Wesleyan theologians say that are correct. There are other things where they completely miss the point. This is true across the board – even when dealing with Catholic or Orthodox theologians.

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