Can we have a Tradition-Free Christianity?

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.
Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my essay in From Fear to Faith, I whimsically start at the beginning, with Jesus. I also mention our denial of the validity of Tradition, supposing there was a direct link, unchanged, between us and the Apostles. We sat, in our building, listening to a pastor, while reading the King James version, and believed Tradition did not touch or shape us. This served many reasons, not the least of which to force us to accept the pastor as the only legitimate, and thus unquestionable, authority.

Can we have a truly tradition-free Christianity? The word Christianity is itself a tradition, and one from outside the Church (Acts 11.26; note, it is a passive form of the verb). There is another tradition, The Church. While we see this somewhat develop in Matthew and then Acts — the idea of a singular Church a part from Judaism is something not likely foreseen in the New Testament. I can say that because even into the 4th century, Jews and Christians still celebrated together.

But, let’s start with the Tradition most of us hold in our hands every Sunday morning — The Bible. The Scriptures mentioned in the New Testament were holy writings and not a set canon. As I have argued before, there was some development of a set of writings by the time of 2nd Peter (mid-1st century), but this is Tradition. There is nothing in Scripture laying out what books are to be included and what books are to be excluded. The Canon of Scripture is a Tradition with many streams. For instance, Catholics have their books, the Orthodox a few more, and the Copts and Armenians lots more. If we move past Canonical books, we then need to examine the Canonical Text. Are we Western? Do we use the Byzantine? Or, are we like others and desire a critical text free of obviously unoriginal entires (such as the last twelves verses in Mark)? Our traditions of books and texts are Tradition, whether we like it or not. I prefer a critical text for study; however, for Tradition’s sake, I prefer my canonical texts to include the last twelve verses or Mark as well as John 8.

What about our doctrines? Do they not come from Scripture? Doctrines do have a genesis in Scripture, or rather, they must, but there are rarely any doctrines enshrined in the Holy Writ. The Trinity is a development, as are atonement theories. Can we really name one doctrine that is not developed by Tradition? Even Young Earth Creationism is a doctrine contrived by twisting Scripture until it screams. As a former modalist, we may even allow that modalism is itself a contrived doctrine, devoid of Trinitarian sensibilities and requiring the Father to have died on the Cross. Further, while there are verses proof-texted to mean Jesus is the Father, there are verses where Jesus is subordinate to the Father. The development of the Trinity saved Christianity from descending into the realms of a mere philosophy. These are Traditions.

Our leadership is generally a tradition. The role of the pastor in most Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches is not Scriptural. The one time we see one man sitting above all others is in 3 John, to which the Elder responds rather critically. In Scripture, we do not have a strong governance, but we do see one begin to develop with Deutero-Paul (Ephesians). When Ignatius begins to write, followed by Cyprian, the structure of the Church had become more rigid. Although based in Scripture, there was barely anything to give the Bishops the power they had. And of course, there is the whole Petrine Primacy issue. But, these are traditions. In the Reformation, when the leadership was restructured, they believed they were reaching back to hollowed antiquity to follow a better tradition. Now, we simply follow the tradition handed down to us because we think it is Scriptural. Rather, it is Tradition, just ours and not theirs (i.e., Catholic).

My point is this: There is no such thing as a tradition-free Christianity. Oddly enough, I began to discover this when I started to study the Trinity. I felt my modalism pushed out by the likes of Tertullian and Athenagoras. When I began to read Irenaeus, I was pushed to the wall of accepting Apostolic Succession. By the time I got to the Fourth Century, I was hopelessly holding on to a feeble attempt at denying what would soon become a reality — if we deny ourselves the experience of Christian Tradition, we will ourselves become our own tradition. And this is important. Because if we are ourselves our own tradition, then it is not the needed democracy, but rather a dictatorship — a monarchy stripped of purpose and beauty with only violent power remaining. Rather, I prefer the Tradition of Chesterton,

“Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead….Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.” (Orthodoxy)

During my transition from the cult of fundamentalism to Mainline Christianity, the reliance on Tradition provided me with a certain comfort level that I could use to explore different facets of Christianity. No longer was Christianity limited to one, pardon the pun, monolithic model but now included mystics, doubters, skeptics, conservatives, liberals, and all sorts of jackets in the sacred closet. It wasn’t that I could pick and choose, but now I could participate in the voting process. Once I realized the beauty, depth, and warmth of a Christianity because of Tradition, I could continue with my belief in God.

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4 Replies to “Can we have a Tradition-Free Christianity?”

  1. Yes! How strange that the “no creed but the Bible” crowd do not recognize that that itself is not a creed and a tradition; the historical and doctrinal amnesia of most Christians is appalling. Good stuff.

  2. Tradition free Christianity is impossible for the same reason the Luther failed to REFORM (as in REFORMation) the Catholic Church in his day. In a word, the answer is POLITICS. Once politics becomes involved reform becomes impossible. Due to the patriarchal tradition that is systemic within the Judeo-Christian tradition, male egos puts politics on steroids. This is much the same problem that is playing out in Washington today.
    Furthermore, given the triangle of violence that exists between the three principal monotheistic religions these days, it is quite possible that monotheism may be seen as too dangerous to attract anyone other than the fanatical fringe of humanity. If this happens, monotheism may join other failed religious schemes in history’s trash can.

  3. From one former modalist to another, I’m with you. When someone in my mainline church says, “We just need to get back to scripture,” or “Scripture is clear about . . .,” I smile, wanly, I imagine, and think, “Well, bless your heart.”

    It was wading through the Scripture we have on my journey from modalism to trinitarianism that showed me just how much we do to make the text say what we want it to say. And that’s just with the English version (KJV to my modalist friends) of whatever we’re using, not to mention looking at things in their original languages.

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