Connecting to Tradition
Throughout the year my family has certain traditions. At Christmas time we sing a couple of Australian Christmas songs, Taryn makes a chocolate self-saucing pudding, and I do everything I can to not have a Christmas tree. During the summer we search for our beach cricket set and then I try to bowl while Taryn smashes balls all over the place. When Calvin was baptized, we had my family's baptism gown that was over 100 years old and the one in which I was baptized as a baby. These traditions have helped to shape more and more of the identity of our family's identity. These will be the traditions that Calvin Jack grows up with and will help ground him in who he is as a Clausing. If we didn't have these traditions to hand off to Calvin and if they weren't handed down to us, Taryn and I would have to constantly spend time trying to define who we are as a family. Every family has traditions that have been handed down. Some of those traditions are good and some are bad. It is the responsibility of the next generation to grasp hold of the traditions and evaluate which ones need to stay and which ones are harmful to the family.
The analogy to the church should be an obvious one. God has brought us into a new family. We are a family with a history. We are a family with traditions. Some of those traditions are good and some are bad. Some need to stay and be strengthened and others need to be reformed or just jettisoned all together. The job of every generation is to grasp hold of the tradition and evaluate. The theologian's task is not to come up with new theology but to make the old new again.
As Christians we have been grafted into a family that spans not only space but time. We are connected to brothers and sister from every corner of the earth and we ought to learn from them. We are also connected to brothers and sisters throughout history and even those not yet born (Bavinck notes that the doctrine of the invisible church is all the elect known only by God). Since we cannot study what the church in the future will believe, we ought to take time to know what the church in history has believed. G.K. Chesterton put it well:
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the arrogant oligarchy who merely happens to be walking around.
The church has historically worked out its theology this way. In 325AD, at the council of Nicaea, Jesus Christ was declared to be the divine Son of God. However, that was not the end of the story. Nicaea told the truth of who Christ is, but they did not tell the whole truth. They left that task to subsequent generations. Thus, in 451AD at Chalcedon we come to understand that Christ was one person with two natures (divine and human). What happens at Chalcedon is that we begin to understand more of the truth of who Christ is, yet there is still more to work out. Chalcedon does not say the final word on everything there is to say about Christ. It is our job to continue the task.
Studying people like Calvin, Knox, Owen, Edwards, and Bavinck is not simply to say exactly what they said. Our task in this generation is not to mimic word for word what these men said, but (to borrow from theologian Kevin Vanhoozer's terminology) to improvise from what has been handed to us. Improvisation requires a certain amount of wisdom to know how to appropriate the past in a way that allows us to say the same thing but differently.
Our ultimate authority is Scripture, and thus, we look to it for our first directions. That is to say, we look to the Bible to know what from our tradition needs to be reformed, what needs to be dropped, and what needs to be kept pure. Then we learn to say the same thing that the church has always said but differently. No one theology is the final word. Yet we must be connected to our past to the saints that have gone before us, so that we know what theological direction our brothers and sisters have given us. A poor understanding of our tradition will only lead to poor biblical and theological reflection.
Church historian, Jaroslav Pelikan, said "Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living... it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name." Just as in a family, if we don't know why we do something, it can become vain repetition. However, when Calvin Jack understands why it was important for us to use a 100 year old baptismal gown for his baptism, all of the sudden that tradition will become alive to him and it will be his to carry on into the future.
As Paul said in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, "Stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us." Let us connect to our tradition and hold fast to it.