How important is "tradition" in the future church? Whether "for" or "against," you still may not have the right answer. Read on. . . .

Today’s believers find the "experience" of God far more interesting than stale reports from the past. Yet, often, there is something about "real-time" truth that doesn’t feel really true. Sometimes, we wonder if we’re connected to anything reliable.

In other words, can we trust ourselves? After all, "feeling" God has not been fully approved by the "managers of the sacred." Further,

No mind is so good that it does not need another mind to counter and equal it, and to save it from conceit and blindness and bigotry and folly.1

That’s why today’s leap from propositional "truth" to personal "truth" pleads for a return to authentic criterion—lasting legacies—time-proven eternals. So theologians have responded to the crisis with evermore aggressive hammerlocks on logic, philosophy, tradition, and Scripture. Of course, logic and philosophy have lost credibility in the world of the Spirit. So now, only tradition and Scripture remain.

Should we value tradition?

We are, after all, the very history of our experience. Our collective memory continually reproduces itself in real-time. Past tense morphs nonstop into present tense. Indeed, no human experience is dead history—especially a "living truth" handed down to a particular time, place, and people. Remember that even the wildest biblical prophets faithfully obeyed previously certified prophecies.

So each generation seals its own "time capsule."

Yet, Truth is not tradition. Truth is not culture. And Truth is not even "religious," if we mean "socially acceptable ideas about God." For Truth is autonomous to our intentions. It is independent of our traditions and, especially, those misleading events that give rise to our traditions.

Culture, unfortunately, carries the burden of its own agenda. And this agenda is usually determined by the self-assertions of our own faith, the inventions of our own spirits, the compulsions of our own powers, and the goals of our own genius. "Cultural prophets," of course, know this agenda and carefully manipulate its implied opportunities.

Even without manipulating leaders, our collective memories turn easily to nostalgia, sentimentality, and romanticism. In other words, we easily turn our fervent and fanciful stories into a subjective, self-loving, self-indulgence. Such delusions, of course, lead to illusory utopias and "easy" no-risk-answers to life.

How often have "culture climbers" gorged on great art only to make its glory their god? Or, how often have rednecks celebrated "down-home" worship only to make its homespun ways their lord?

Yet, churches of every style and every persuasion still push their traditions. They treat tradition as faith. They credit the power of God to tradition itself. But culture can’t hear as deeply as God speaks. It can’t move as quickly as God moves. And, it can’t repent as rapidly as God demands.

"You are nullifying and making void . . . the Word of God through your tradition."2

Living Epistles?

Is tradition, then, a bad thing? Is it useless?—even hopeless?

No. After all, some historical group must attest to Truth. Some body of believers must hold society accountable. Some community must witness the countercultural. Of course, these communities can’t criticize culture if they have already become culture. So our hope rises in a new understanding of faith communities—a new understanding of the church itself!

And we begin that understanding here:

God speaks to individuals, not institutions. He does not subject His Truth to the pecking orders of mediation and arbitration. He does not filter His Truth through worldly societies or cultures—even "religious" cultures. Instead, Truth enters the world pristine, unmediated. And, as the transforming power of faith is always an individual experience, so is the inspired witness of that experience.

Individuals are the ones who "test and prove all things" and "hold fast" to what is good.3 Individuals are those given "spiritual gifts," including "prophetic insight" and "the ability to discern and distinguish between [the utterances of true] spirits [and false ones]."4 Individuals are the habitations where God takes residence, where He builds His "temple."5

Indeed, each individual is a "living epistle" of Truth.6

That means faith is shared within a community, not simply ordained. That also means the unity of believers forms from a "multitude of counselors,"7 not just a hierarchy. And that means revelation informs religious polity from the bottom up, not just the top down.

Yet, Truth is not the private possession of anyone. Truth births, instead, from relationships—heavenly first, earthly next. Truth, after all, transcends both individual subjectivities and institutional proclivities. It is an anonymous act which, nevertheless, belongs to us all.

This transcendent and transparent sharing is the new church we seek. These are the signs and tests of Truth we need. But, unfortunately, we’re not there yet. So the debate over which comes first—tradition or Scripture?—continues. . . .

© 2010 Thomas Hohstadt


1. Charles Williams, quoted in Mary McDermott Shideler, "Philosophies and Fairy-Tales" http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/apr1973/v30-1-article2.htm

2. Mark 7:13, AMP.

3. I Thessalonians 5:21, AMP.

4. I Corinthians 12:1-10, AMP.

5. I Corinthians 6:19, AMP.

6. II Corinthians 3:1-6.

7. Proverbs 11:14, 15:22; AMP.

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