The Nature of Christian Tradition

The United States, if you think about it, has never been much for tradition. This shouldn’t be surprising, with the influence the Enlightenment and other ideologies have had on this country. Our founding fathers, while recognizing their roots, sought to separate ourselves in many ways from our largely British heritage, to be independent. Many different cultures ended up converging on the United States, the so-called melting pot. Some retained their culture for awhile, others lost it due to acculturation. Now, we have what is known as a pop culture, the culture of what is popular, with a number of subcultures within.

The church itself has a number of subcultures. Even the evangelical subculture has its subcultures. Then there are the cultural traditions within certain denominations, which are considered traditional churches. The word ‘tradition’ is problematic. For instance, the word is used 7 times in the New Testament, 6 by Jesus, all in a negative tone.

The word tradition comes from the Latin word traditio which means “to hand down” or “to hand over.” Tradition provides a story, a context, for the next generation. It is a grounding force. In a day when we have thrown out tradition as something antiquated, we are left with the story of the moment. Whether we are more free without tradition is debatable.

Really, it depends what we mean by tradition, and how it influences us. Tradition as history is always important, to know where we come from. Tradition as a system of how we do things can be either good or bad. In a business, for instance, a certain process may be questioned. If we know the reason for that ‘tradition’ we will often come to one of two conclusions: it makes a lot of sense, or it is now pointless. I’ve seen both.

When talking about traditional churches, what, exactly, is a traditional church? Are they really traditional? Perhaps in the sense that they have more of a historical tradition than many other churches and have music or litergy from long ago. There’s something powerful about singing a song that Martin Luther sang, or having communion with St. Augustine. There’s also something strange, to me, when a cultural tradition from a few hundred years ago is seen as somehow more ‘right’ or ‘holy.’ Also, traditional church denominations tend to have a history biased towards their founder and their followers. Yet, there is also something to be said for not forgeting the past, and remembering.

Christianity has a rich, rich tradition of literature, if we’d take the time to look for it, including a fair amount BEFORE the Reformation. It’s scary to think how we neglect it. I’ll be talking about some of that literature in future posts.