Every one, whether we want to admit it or not, has traditions to which we feel loyal. We’ve all thought it, even if we haven’t said it: “We’ve never done it that way before.” That applies to everything from contemporary worship songs to the way we hunt for a parking spot at our regular grocery store. Tradition, maybe read “habit,” drives much of what we do.
The more I study church history, the more I see the strong hand of tradition at work. In so many areas, tradition influences what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. We’ve been conditioned like Pavlov’s pooch to do things the way we do them or to think the way we think by our traditions. That isn’t, in and of itself, a bad thing. But we need to make sure it’s not a sublimal thing, an undiagnosed force that shapes our understanding of right and wrong.
Traditions have great value. They inform our culture (family, church, or business). They provide roots. The problem is that far too many people have supplanted truth with tradition.
When asked why they do something, the answer is often influenced by tradition, even if the word isn’t incorporated into the response. Ask a Baptist why they don’t read prayers in worship and you’re more likely to hear that it’s because they’re not Catholic (in this case, the tradition is anti-tradition). Ask a Catholic why they burn incense and they’ll likely call upon tradition to help their cause, be it their local habits or the work of
No matter the topic, the tradition may be good or it may be bad. However, the appeal to tradition has become the tradition of choice.
When we quit asking if something is right or wrong, whether it’s biblical or unbiblical, and start asking who or what tradition supports our beliefs, we’ve missed the point. I don’t care if John Calvin, Charles Spurgeon or John Wesley said it. I don’t care if Augustine or Billy Graham believed it. In the end, that doesn’t matter.
Tradition, no matter how venerable, doesn’t prove truth. Tradition can only explain what was once thought or is still thought to be truth. That’s insufficient in matters of eternal consequence. Remember, and as a church historian this pains me to admit, just because we did something doesn’t mean we did it right. Thus, we cannot and should not appeal to tradition as the final arbiter of truth. In matters of faith, the Word of God as it is written, not as it has been variously interpreted, must have the final word.
Appealing to tradition to approve our traditions is a tradition that we need to break.
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About Peter Beck
Peter serves as assistant professor of religion at Charleston Southern University where he teaches church history and theology. While serving as senior pastor in Louisville, Ky., he completed his PhD in historic theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His dissertation, The Voice of Faith: Jonathan Edwards's Theology of Prayer, is soon to be published. He, his wife Melanie, and their two kids, Alex (12) and Karis (7), live near Charleston, SC. Peter's goal for his teaching and writing ministries is "love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Tim 1:5).
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