Listening to the Past, The Place of Tradition in Theology

The Christian faith did not start with our contemporary generations. God did not take a vacation when John laid down his pen at the end of Revelation. True, God’s biblical revelation ceased and therefore the Bible is not to be added to nor subtracted from. But God continues to work down through the history of the church. He enables leaders to continue to define, refine, and clarify direct and indirect teachings from the written word of the Old and New Testaments.

I try to read church history on a regular basis because I have found that if we take the time to learn about our roots, we spend less time fighting the crisis fires that spring up today. These “fires” include questions such as: Is Jesus God? What’s wrong with open theism, or liberation theology, or the development of the cults? We could even include issues like worship, the sacraments and the global missions movement as further examples. There is too much at stake for us to neglect reading what those who have gone before us have to say. That would be as wrong as to say that God is not working among us today to give us further understanding of his truth. In this book, Homes states he is attempting to show “that theology, at least, by being attentive to its own tradition, can teach by example…”

While the Bible is the inspired Word of God, theology is our attempt to understand that written word’s theology. Theology, therefore, is our attempt to express our understanding of biblical truth plus general revelation. Though there have been common threads that weave the different times in history together like a tapestry, we need to understand why and what went into the expression of that theology by the different church leaders. Holmes makes a clear case that if we are to study theology we have to have some understanding of theology’s tradition.

It sounds very good and pious to say, “I just read the Bible and don’t bother with tradition.” However, you will not understand the Bible apart from its history and tradition. Also, trying to read and study the Bible in a historical vacuum will undoubtedly lead you to some strange conclusions, e.g. the cults.

A statement in the book illustrates the author’s point in a clear way, “Calvin, although committed to the principle of sola scripture, none the less thought it important to stand within tradition of the Church. It is not just that Calvin owes much (indeed, more than is often recognised) to the immediately preceding theological tradition, although he does; the relevant point is that both the Institutes and in other places, he devotes considerable energy demonstrating the positions the Reformers are urging against the Roman Catholic Church are in fact more faithful to the Christian tradition than the Roman alternatives…”

If we could understand the issues over which Calvin and the Anabaptist differed, then we could understand more of 21st Christendom. Holmes points out the big difference between the Anabaptist’s focus on “refounding” the church while Calvin’s emphasis was on “reforming” the church. They also held different views of the Eucharist. While tradition must never be elevated to the place of Scripture as the final rule of faith and practice, the church always “‘Reformed and being reformed’ [is] a slogan that indicates the constant desire of the Reformed Churches to seek further reformation from God.”

I could site many examples from the book of how knowing, studying, and appreciating tradition, in its proper place, is a key to the church’s understanding of itself and its role today. There is a chapter entitled “Calvin Against the Calvinists” that is worth the price of the book. Holmes develops the idea and gives examples of how the followers of Calvin “hardened and systematized his theology.” That is one of the reasons I believe it is important for us to read and study John Calvin today. He predated what we call modernism, with its enlightenment and Scottish Realism schools of thought, which attempted to make Calvinism appear to be something different than Calvin. Hence, Calvin often said and practiced that where Scripture stops, we stop. Therefore, everything may not be carried to its logical conclusion, as many of his successors attempted to do with their theology.

You will also enjoy the chapter, “Strange Voices: Edwards on the Will.” Holmes points out that we can do theology today with the attitude, “I will read those like Calvin and Edward and appreciate them in their context and time, but they do not speak to me today.” Or, we can read and learn how they developed their theology and be helped with our tasks today, not by simply restating what they said, but by using their teachings to clarify our theology.

I would say that Holmes’ basic thesis is that we need to listen to the past. When we study theology we always ask, what is the basis of authority? Holmes reminds us that four things are usually used to answer that question, and in this order: The Scriptures as our authority, tradition, reason and experience. But Holmes says that we are better off to maintain in doing theology, we need to hear the teaching of Scripture as our basis authority but “we could not hear the teaching of Scripture aright without listening to the tradition, but this does not of itself ascribe any authority to the voices of tradition, it just insists that they are necessary guides to enable us to hear the words that are authoritative in the Scriptures.” In all of this, we must be sensitive to and submissive to the Holy Spirit guiding and opening our understanding to God’s Word today.

As people of the Word, Christians have a great legacy and we must have much respect for the past. This book reminds us of that importance. Knowing, reading, and carefully studying the masters who have gone before us are necessary if we are to understand our situation today. There is no doubt that theology “is an irreducibly communal task.” Both pastors and teachers would benefit from this book.

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Charles Dunahoo pastored churches in Georgia and Alabama before being called to his present position as Coordinator for the PCA of Christian Education and Publications (CEP).

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