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Commentary: The church’s conversation with tradition

Commentary: The church’s conversation with tradition

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Commentary: The church’s conversation with tradition

An e-Review commentary by Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker | Jan. 8, 2010 {1117}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at
From the very beginning, the church has been engaged in a conversation with tradition. Early Christian leaders considered themselves to be bearers of the tradition of the original revelation of God in Jesus Christ. After only a couple of decades following the life of Jesus, the apostle Paul was writing, “I handed on to you … what I in turn had received” (I Corinthians 15: 3).
I wish to make some general observations about this conversation with tradition.
In order for a conversation with tradition to happen, we must first acknowledge that tradition is not a simple concept. Indeed, it is an exceedingly complex subject.
It is complex, partly, because of the way in which tradition is understood in our popular American context. In American speech, “tradition” is generally considered bad. It has the connotation of being backward in one’s thinking and being opposed to any and all change. In other words, the meaning of tradition is summed up by the common expression, “the dead past.”
Obviously, this popular attitude toward tradition is too simplistic to be taken seriously. One of the characters in a novel by William Faulkner said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Faulkner spent his career writing novels that proved how the past is still alive, especially the legacy of racism rooted in the institution of slavery. While Faulkner was primarily interested in how the evil of the past lives on, we could also say that we can explore how the good of the past lives on.
We Americans often fail to understand how tradition can be a living force in the world. It is not “the dead past,” but the past as it lives on in the present.

Photo by Greg Moore.
When we speak of tradition in the church, we rightly qualify it by calling it a “living” tradition. If our tradition is living, then it is not an obstacle to all change, for the tradition develops over time. Jaroslav Pelikan summed up the Christian perspective in his famous quip, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living” (“The Vindication of Tradition,” Yale University Press, 1984, p. 65).
Tradition is also a complex subject because it has been the focus of polemics among Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant theologians for 500 years. Protestants started this fight by accusing the Catholic Church of elevating tradition over Scripture. Then Catholics responded by asserting (at one time) that there are two sources of revelation from God, both Scripture and tradition. Then the Orthodox chimed in with their rejection of the Catholic theory of two sources of truth because they contend that Scripture and tradition cannot be separated, as the Catholics do, but they must be understood as distinct dimensions of the one truth of God.
So then, it is easy to see what a complex, and controversial, subject tradition is. To enter into conversation about it, we have to first be willing to put aside simplistic American attitudes toward it and also be wary of being caught up in the sterile polemics among Protestants, Catholics and the Orthodox over the last 500 years.
I would submit that the place to begin a conversation about tradition is with the work of the Holy Spirit. The classical text is John 16:12-15. Here Jesus is discoursing with his disciples about the coming of the Holy Spirit following his redemptive death, his glorious resurrection from the dead, and his ascension into heaven. Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of the truth,” and he promises that the Spirit “will guide you into all the truth.” He says that the coming of the Spirit is necessary because Jesus cannot teach them now everything they need to know. However, when the Spirit of truth comes, the Spirit will illumine their minds and instruct them in the fullness of the truth.
The reason that tradition has to be understood in connection with the work of the Holy Spirit is because tradition is the product of the illumination of the mind of the church by the Holy Spirit over the centuries in many different cultural contexts.
Vladimir Lossky, the late Russian Orthodox theologian, offers a definition of tradition that should be acceptable to all Christian churches, even as they continue to debate the details (what is authentically a deposit of the illumined mind of the church and what is mere custom or even superstition, etc.). Lossky said, “The pure notion of Tradition … can be defined by saying that it is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, communicating to each member of the body of Christ the faculty of hearing, of receiving, of knowing the Truth in the Light which belongs to it, and not according to the light of human reason,” (“Tradition and Traditions,” Icons by Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, St.Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999, p. 15).

Francis Asbury, Thomas Coke and nearly sixty other preachers gathered at Lovely Lane Chapel in Baltimore, Md., Dec. 24, 1784, to organize Methodism in America. It was also the beginning of Methodist conferencing, and from it the Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the antecedent churches to The United Methodist Church, was organized. Graphic courtesy of the United Methodist Archives and History Center of The United Methodist Church.
The demonstration of the validity of this definition can be seen in the church’s doctrine of the Trinity. From the beginning, the church professed faith in one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. However, it took hundreds of years before the church was able to teach its mature doctrine of the Trinity. The church was provoked in its thinking by the challenges of heretics. There was much ink and blood spilt over centuries before the church was able to establish its doctrine. Yet, in the end, the church declared a doctrine that it recognized as consistent with its original belief and practice. The only acceptable way to understand the development of the doctrine of the Trinity is as the illumination of the mind of the church by the Holy Spirit over several centuries in many different cultural contexts. The doctrine of the Trinity was the outcome of the Spirit leading the church into all the truth, as Jesus had promised.
With this understanding of tradition as the life of the Holy Spirit in the church, we can enter more confidently into the conversation about tradition and with tradition.
One aspect of this conversation is the distinction between traditions and holy Tradition. The ecumenical conversation of the past century has produced a capacity by all Christians to distinguish between traditions and what might be called Tradition with a capital T, or the Great Tradition or Holy Tradition. (A sample of the development of ecumenical thinking in the 20th century is offered by Albert Outler in “Pneumatology as an Ecumenical Frontier” in Volume 7 of The Albert Outler Library, The Ecumenical Theologian, Bristol House, 2001, see p. 280.)  By the Tradition, I mean the apostolic and catholic faith. All churches have their own traditions, but these traditions are not the same thing as the Tradition.
A sampling of tickets to love feasts. Early Methodists held love feasts to share a simple meal, usually including bread, sing hymns and pray, strengthening each other in their faith. The practice has its roots in the Moravian love feasts and the Agape meal of the early church described by Luke in Acts 2:46-47. Larger Methodist societies of the early church held a love feast every quarter. Graphic courtesy of United Methodist Archives and History Center of The United Methodist Church.
For example, we Methodists have our own traditions of class meetings, conferences, love feasts, Covenant Services and hymnody. Our traditions are very different from those of most other churches. But these traditions are not the same as the Tradition, which encompasses the creeds, the sacraments, the Christian liturgical year and the historic doctrines of Christianity. If we are to be a part of ecumenism, then we can affirm our own distinct Methodist traditions, but they must always be consistent with the Christian Tradition, the apostolic and catholic faith, which represents the mainstream of the life of the Holy Spirit in the history of the church.
Another aspect of this conversation is whether or not the Spirit is calling the church into the fullness of the Tradition. John Wesley emphasized the essentials of the Christian faith in contrast to the opinions among Christians, which differ. There are some Methodists who say that we should think of ourselves as “Essentialists.” That is, we should insist on the essentials of the Gospel, and on other matters, we think and let think. Of course, this accent on essentials has its usefulness for fostering unity both within a Christian communion and between Christian communions. Yet, I think this accent on essentials may blind us to the fullness of the Tradition.  Don’t we need more than the essentials? Doesn’t the Holy Spirit also want us to participate in the fullness of the Tradition, which the Spirit has produced?
In their book “Canonical Theism” (Eerdmans, 2008), William Abraham, Jason Vickers and Natalie Van Kirk criticize the extreme iconoclasm of Protestants and call for a recovery of all the canons of the Christian tradition. They say, “the church possesses not just a canon of books in its Bible, but also a canon of doctrines, a canon of saints, a canon of church fathers, a canon of theologians, a canon of liturgy, a canon of bishops, a canon of councils, a canon of ecclesiastical regulations, a canon of icons, and the like.” They contend that these many canons represent the full spectrum of the means of grace by which the Holy Spirit offers his gifts. The question for us is whether there is a fullness in the Tradition that we Protestants have neglected to our spiritual impoverishment and whether we should receive the canons of the Tradition as gifts of the Holy Spirit?
 The biologist Joan Maloof thought there were no old-growth forests left on the Eastern Shore of Maryland until she heard a rumor that a 20-acre remnant still existed. On a spring morning she set out to find it. After driving for more than an hour following detailed directions, she parked her car on an isolated dirt road. As soon as she arrived, “a sweet, rich, earthy smell filled my senses,” she said. She had come to this remnant of a forest to see the big, old trees and discover what plants and animals lived there. She did not expect that the air would be different. Maloof later learned that the air in an old-growth forest is filled with chemical compounds released by the trees and the bacteria and fungi in the soil. These chemicals create a fragrance and even produce healthy effects in our bodies as they enter the bloodstream through the air we breathe. She says the Japanese have a form of therapy that consists of walking in a forest  — shinrin-yoku or “wood-air bathing” (“Teaching the Trees, Lessons from the Forest” by Joan Maloof, University of Georgia Press, 2005, p. 1-3).
Old-growth forest. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Photo #10-1361.
An old-growth forest may be a metaphor for the living Tradition of the Christian faith. The Tradition is an ecology consisting of Scripture, creeds, doctrines, sacraments, sermons, liturgies, rituals, icons, hymns, prayers, prophets, teachers and saints. These elements interact with one another so that we can walk and breathe a different air — the breath of the Holy Spirit.
We have cut down most of our old-growth forests, just as we have cut out much of the Tradition of the Christian faith. We have planted our so-called “managed forests,” just as we have tried to manufacture a rationalistic or reductionist version of the Christian faith. But only life itself can produce an old-growth forest with its healthy properties, just as only the life of the Holy Spirit can produce the fullness and fecundity of the Christian tradition.
Wherever the church’s conversation about and with tradition may lead us, it is not merely a conversation about a concept, which can be debated, but in the end, it is a conversation about the life of the Holy Spirit in the church and how we can participate in it.

This commentary was originally a message given by Whitaker Nov. 19 at Asbury Theological Seminary in Orlando, Fla.
News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.