The Authority of Tradition

Last week, I gave a fairly strong response to Tobin Grant’s blog post concerning the difference between Episcopalians and Anglicans (short summary:  all members of the Episcopal Church are Anglicans, but not all Anglicans are members of the Episcopal Church).  He (incorrectly) claims that Anglicans put a stronger emphasis on “tradition’ than Episcopalians.

It depends what you’re calling “tradition”.  If you call unthinking adherence to “we’ve always done it that way before”, and a commitment to unchanging practice no matter what, then no intelligent Christian communion ought to emphasize “tradition”.  If a church does this, thinking people should head for the hills.  A church that does this deserves to wither and die.

Because, even if we are supposed to be faithful, we are not supposed to be stupid.  And to fail to reflect and act on necessary, life-giving change, is stupid.  The Anglican theological heritage has repeatedly warned against this failure.  As early on as Richard Hooker (d. 1600), there have been caveats against just doing things because that’s how it’s been done and we don’t have to think about it:

They that so earnestly plead for the authority of tradition, as if nothing were more safely conveyed than that which spreadeth itself by report, and descendeth by relation of former generations unto the ages that succeed, are not all of them (surely a miracle it were if they should be) so simple as to persuade themselves; howsoever, if the simple were so persuaded, they could be content perhaps very well to enjoy the benefit, as they account it, of that common error.  What hazard the truth is in when it passeth through the hands of report, how maimed and deformed it becometh, they are not, they cannot possibly be ignorant.  (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, I, xiii, 2)

Simply to do things as they have always been done does not safeguard any kind of religious or spiritual truth; rather, it deforms and endangers that truth.  Tradition has to be something more than just sticking with the same-old stuff from generation to generation.  The damage is really something close to blasphemy:

The enthusiasm of one generation becomes the routine of the next, and by the mere lapse of time men everywhere tend to ‘make the word of God of none effect by their tradition.’ (Charles Gore, Orders and Unity, 1909, p. 157)

But that only happens if “tradition” is used in that popular-but-unreflective sense of doing things the same way forever. This unfortunate understanding of “tradition” is corrosive to the life of the church, and possibly a part of the reason that churches have experienced decline in the western industrialized world over the last few decades.  We are bored with ourselves, and that makes us exceptionally boring to others. By adhering too adamantly to what we have received in the past–even if it is something very good–we fail to see how to build on that for the future.  Our sacred texts, our liturgies, our patterns of church participation–good things, all–may not, without adaptation to new circumstances, be adequate for our present realities. 

Change, for its own sake, however, is not helpful.  One of my favorite pieces by Temple is a short little sermon delivered at the Repton School, entitled “The Sin of Stupidity”, and here he is clear that change needs to be well-thought-through, and not rejected or embraced just because our preferred social, political, or spiritual colleagues promote doing so:

We suffer it is hard to say how much from the combined efforts of the stupid conservative who thinks all change is wrong, and the stupid radical who thinks any change is right.  . . . Can we not detach ourselves from the fooleries of any party and just honestly think? (Studies in the Spirit and Truth of Christianity, p. 157)

Tradition is not about just nice agreement and avoiding conflict (something I’m not fond of). It certainly isn’t about cozy nostalgia.  Indeed, some of the best thinking I’ve seen on the idea of tradition is from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue:

A living tradition then is a historically embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitutes that tradition.  Within a tradition the pursuit of goods extends through generations, sometimes through many generations. . .Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict. (pp. 221-222)

For MacIntyre, an institution (he uses the examples of a farm, hospital, or university, but “church” would not be terribly off-base) not only has traditions, but is itself a tradition.  It is constantly reviewing what is best for the furtherance of its purposes (I suppose churches would use the term “mission”) in light of its history, of course, but also in light of acquired knowledge and insight. I am very glad that the hospital where I had my knee repaired is always looking to further its purpose of providing excellent medical treatment in accordance with current knowledge; I wish religious institutions were better at doing the same.

The triquetra of scripture, tradition, and reason should never trump the  Trinity itself–especially as “tradition” is identified with the Holy Spirit by at least two theologians I can call to mind:

The Church’s Tradition, conceived not just as a material object but as the active presence of revelation in a living subject, by the power of the Holy Spirit, represents what is as yet unfulfilled, in progress, ceaselessly requiring fulfillment, in the Word of God. (Yves Congar, Tradition and Traditions, p.402)

And Oliver O’Donovan referred to tradition as “spontanaeity in slow motion” and a work of the Holy Spirit (Resurrection and Moral Order, p.141).

We too often ignore this dynamic, forward-looking aspect of tradition, which is inseparable from the past:

The problem of all analyses of tradition is indeed that one needs to see the two faces of it at the same time:  the face turned to the past, sometimes called passive tradition, but which one can better designate with terms like reception, assimilation, rereading, recovery, patrimony, fidelity; and the face turned to the future, which is precisely the active transmission. (George H. Tavard, “The Final Report, Witness to Tradition”, One in Christ XXXII, p. 121)

This forward-looking aspect of tradition is the reverse side of the coin, and both are needed. We need always to make  a critical yet appreciative use of what has come to us from the past as we navigate uncertain futures. We do this, individually and collectively by following Temple’s advice to his young men at Repton:

Be honest then in thought and above all in religious thought. Respect what you are told by those who have a right to teach. But never be content to accept anything merely because you are told it. Put it to the proof by thought and action. Test your faith in the crucible of criticism and by the experiment of life. (Ibid, p. 161)


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